The United States Marine Corps, with its proud tradition of excellence in combat, its hallowed rituals, and its unbending code of honor, is part of the fabric of American myth. Making the Corps visits the front lines of boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. Here, old values are stripped away and new Marine Corps values are forged. Bestselling author Thomas E. Ricks follows these men from their hometowns, through boot camp, and into their first year as Marines. As three fierce drill instructors fight a battle for the hearts and minds of this unforgettable group of young men, a larger picture emerges, brilliantly painted, of the growing gulf that divides the military from the rest of America.
Included in this edition is an all-new afterword from the author that examines the war in Iraq through the lens of the Marines from Platoon 3086, giving readers an on-the-ground view of the conflict from those who know it best.
Related collections and offers
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.44(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Mogadishu, December 1992
This book is mainly about Marine boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, but it has its origins on the other side of the world. For me, the story begins on a dark night in Somalia in December 1992, just a few days after U.S. troops landed.
It was my first deployment as a Pentagon reporter. I flew nonstop from California to Somalia in a huge Air Force cargo plane that refueled twice in midair. I didn't know what I was doing, but I realized soon after I stepped into the humid dawn at the ruined airport that I was in a miserable situation. By the end of my first day in Mogadishu I was worried, scared, tired, and a bit disoriented. I hadn't known enough to pack sunglasses and a hat, but I did bring the most essential tool, a big two-quart canteen, which I soon learned to drain at least three times a day.
It was a confusing and difficult time for the U.S. military: Americans had been brought to this dusty but sweaty equatorial nation to help with the logistics of famine relief, and there now was shooting going on. This was the first U.S. brush with "peacemaking" a new form of post-Cold War, low-intensity chaos that is neither war nor peace, but produces enough exhaustion, anxiety, boredom, and confusion to feel much like combat.
I went out on night patrol in the sand hills just west of Mogadishu with a squad from Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines. The city below was dead silent. There were no electric lights illuminating the night, no cars moving, no dogs barking at the patrol, no chickens clucking. The only sound in the night was the occasional death-rattle cough of sick infants. As we walked in single file, with red and green tracer fire arcing across the black sky over the city, I realized that I had placed my life in the hands of the young corporal leading the patrol, a twenty-two-year-old Marine. In my office back in Washington, we wouldn't let a twenty-two-year-old run the copying machine without adult supervision. Here, after just two days on the ground in Africa, the corporal was leading his squad into unknown territory, with a confidence that was contagious.
The next morning I walked to the Mogadishu airport along a hot road ankle deep in fine dust with another returning patrol from Alpha Company, led by Cpl. Armando Cordova, a preciseseeming man with a small mustache and wire-rimmed glasses. A native of Puerto Rico who was raised in the Bronx, he once left the Marines and then, after ten months back in New York City, reenlisted. "You don't make friends in the world like you do here," he explained, his M-16 slung horizontally across his chest. "We are like family. We eat together, sleep together, patrol together."
The last thing I wrote in my notebook as I flew out of Somalia was that "in an era when many people of their age seem aimless, these Marines know what they are about: taking care of each other." Of course, that ethos isn't always honored. Some Marines rob and beat one another, or lie to Congress, or rape Okinawan girls. But over the last four years in Somalia, in a sniper's nest in Haiti, aboard amphibious assault ships in the Atlantic and the Adriatic, and at Marine installations in the U.S., I consistently have been impressed by the sense of self that young Marines possess.
The U.S. military is extremely good today arguably the best it has ever been, and probably for the first time in its history, the best in the world. It also has addressed in effective ways racial issues and drug abuse, problems that have stymied the rest of American society. At a time when America seems distrustful of its young males, when young black men especially are figures of fear for many Americans, the military is a different world. As the sociologist Charles Moskos has observed, it is routine in the military, unlike in the rest of the nation, to see blacks boss around whites.
But the Marines are distinct even within the separate world of the U.S. military. Theirs is a culture apart. The Air Force has its planes, the Navy its ships, the Army its obsessively written and obeyed "doctrine" that dictates how to act. Culture that is, the values and assumptions that shape its members is all the Marines have. It is what holds them together. They are the smallest of the U.S. military services, and in many ways the most interesting. Theirs is the richest culture: formalistic, insular, elitist, with a deep anchor in their own history and mythology. Much more than the other branches, they place pride and responsibility at the lowest levels of the organization. The Marines have one officer for every 8.8 enlistees. That is a wider ratio than in any other service the Air Force, at the other end of the spectrum, has one officer for every 4.2 enlistees.
Alone among the U.S. military services, the Marines have bestowed their name on their enlisted ranks. The Army has Army officers and soldiers, the Navy has naval officers and sailors, the Air Force has Air Force officers and airmen but the Marines have officers and Marines. "Every Marine a rifleman," states one key Corps motto. It means that the essence of the organization resides with the lowest of the low, the peon in the trenches. That's especially significant because 49 percent of Marines are in the service's three lowest ranks (that is, E-3 and below). That's roughly twice the percentage in the other three services. "The Marine is the Corps and the Corps is the Marine," wrote Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak, father of the current commandant of the Corps.
I like the Marine culture. It intrigues me. In a society that seems to have trouble transmitting values, the Marines stand out as successful and healthy institution that unabashedly teaches values to the Beavises and Buttheads of America. It does an especially good job in dealing with the bottom half of American society, the side that isn't surfing into the twenty-first century on the breaking wave of Microsoft products. The Corps takes kids with weak high school educations and nurtures them so that many can assume positions of honor and respect.
The Marine Corps "works" as a culture, and is adept at addressing its own faults. It strikes me as the most well-adjusted of the U.S. military services today, at ease with its post-Cold War situation. Indeed, it is the only service that isn't on the verge of an identity or cultural crisis, as the Navy steams in the circles of its post-Tailhook malaise, the Army tries to figure out what it is supposed to do for the next fifteen years and gnashes its teeth over gender integration, and the Air Force has quiet nightmares about unmanned aircraft dominating the skies of the twenty-first century. I suspect the Marine Corps also is one of the few parts of the federal government that retains the deep trust of most of the American people.
Because of their culture, the Marines tend to be an enjoyable service for a reporter to cover. Because they are so proud of their story, and because the Marines' existence has always been threatened, they are happy to have a journalist write about them even if in their political conservatism they don't particularly like the media. They are more open than the Army tends to be; the average Marine lance corporal speaks with more self-confidence to a reporter than does the average Army captain. I frequently hear responses from Army officers along the lines of, "I don't want to say anything I shouldn't say." I have never heard anything like that from Marines. They know that if a reporter has been permitted within their lines, they can talk about who they are and what they are doing. (The Army tends to blame Vietnam for its bad relations with the media, but that alibi is losing credibility as the last Vietnam-era veterans retire. But I do think the Army is getting better at dealing with reporters as it realizes that for the first time in its history, it too must begin to justify its existence to the American people, whose economic, cultural, and political elites in the post-Cold War era generally know little and care less about the military.) The average Marine is far livelier to interview than is the average Navy sailor, who tends to be less informed about the mission, and less interested in the world. And the Marine infantryman lacks the know-it-allness I've encountered in many Navy and Air Force pilots, who watch a few minutes of CNN and then hold forth on world politics. A day on the ground somewhere will teach you more than a year of flying over it.
The Marines tend to display a kind of funky joie de vivre, especially in the field. In their own parlance, they know how to "pack their trash," something the Army is learning slowly and painfully as it too becomes "expeditionary" in hellholes like Somalia and Haiti. A naval officer told me once that as disembarkation day approached, he had his sailors hide the galley's little bottles of Louisiana hot sauce to keep the Marines from stealing them when they left the ship. In Somalia, I saw why. After one grueling patrol across the outskirts of Mogadishu, Corporal Cordova's squad pulled out a camping stove and cooked up a mess of what they called "Somali Stew": mix in a big pot one package of ham slice rations, one of chicken stew, one of tuna with noodles, one packet of cheese sauce, several tiny bottles of Tabasco sauce, and liberal shakes of onion and garlic powder. As they cooked, the squad played Little Richard's greatest hits on a Walkman connected to miniature speakers. They knew how to live a sharp contrast to the infantry squad from the Army's 10th Mountain Division that I saw in Haiti sitting bored in a tent, reading dirty magazines, and grousing about its cold rations.
At the same time, I am worried by some aspects of today's Marines, especially their remoteness from American society. This is a matter of degree. There has always been an element of aloofness from society in the Marines' stance, as with any elite military organization. But over the last thirty years, as American culture has grown more fragmented, individualistic, and consumerist, the Marines have become more withdrawn; they feel they simply can't afford to reflect the broader society. Today's Marines give off a strong sense of disdain for the very society they protect. They view it, in much the same way the Japanese do, as decadent.
There is a history to the Corps' alienation. During the 1970s the Marines hit bottom. They were riven by the Vietnam War, in which the Corps suffered more casualties than it did in World War II. Race relations were lousy; in 1970, for example, the Corps logged 1,096 violent racial incidents. Drug abuse was rampant: 37 percent of all Marines in 1980 were estimated to be using illegal drugs at least occasionally. The Marines haven't taken draftees since 1970, but with the end of the draft in 1973, the Corps discovered that many of its "volunteers" in fact had joined to avoid the Army; in the mid-seventies, the quality of volunteers for the Marines plummeted. For a time, fewer than half of Marine recruits were high school graduates. "Many ill-adjusted, antisocial young men ended up in our ranks," then-Brig. Gen. Bernard Trainor observed in the Marine Corps Gazette in 1978.
Then the Marines, along with the rest of the U.S. military, rebounded. Today they are on the road American society didn't travel. Over the last twenty years, the Corps improved the quality of its recruits. It confronted its drug problems in effective ways. While it hasn't done as well as the Army has in finding and promoting black officers, it has defused racial tensions. Among senior sergeants, race simply doesn't appear to be an issue; as career Marines, they have far more in common with one another than they do with members of their races outside the military. And throughout the military, it is clear that a whiff of racism at least of whites toward blacks will end a career.
Over the last twenty years, as they rebounded, the Marines moved from thinking of themselves as a better version of American society to a kind of dissenting critique of it. But theirs isn't an empty alienation. The Marines are rebels with a cause, articulately rejecting the vague nihilism that pervades American popular culture. With their incessant emphasis on honor, courage, and commitment, they offer an alternative to the loneliness and distrust that today seem so widespread, especially among American youth.
But the gap between the military and society can't be attributed entirely to improvements in the military. While American military officers always have tended toward conservatism, over the last twenty years they have become more politically involved, and effectively "Republicanized." But far more than civilian Republicans, they seem to look down on American society in a way that the pre-World War II military didn't. The U.S. military's new contempt for American society is especially troubling because it comes at a time when the end of the Cold War has cut adrift the U.S. military from its traditional roles. With the demise of the Soviet threat, many in the Marines, from commandant to drill instructor, seem to define the enemy as "chaos." That is worrisome because it can blur the line between foreign and domestic missions. Take this view to extremes and some Marines do and you wind up believing that the next war the U.S. military fights could be here at home.
The gap between the military and society is exacerbated by the public's new ignorance of military affairs. For two centuries, the military has played an important role in shaping the United States. We are, in the phrase of one historian, "a country made by war." But today the military's role in the nation (and its uses abroad) is troubled, uncertain, and shifting. For the first time in our history, we are if the Cold War is indeed considered a kind of war maintaining a large military establishment during peacetime. What's more, it is all-volunteer, and has been for two decades. It is no longer broadly representative of society, especially the elites. Even during the Vietnam War, two-thirds of the members of Congress had some military experience. Today about two-thirds have none. A dwindling number of people on the Armed Services Committees are able to reach back to their time as mud soldiers to skeptically quiz the military brass. We are, argues Harvard political scientist Michael Desch, moving toward having a semiautonomous military.
The coming years will be interesting as the U.S. military sorts out its role, at home and abroad, in the post-Cold War world. The best way to see where the U.S. military is going is to look at the Marines today. The Army, Navy, and Air Force are becoming more like the Marines as they become smaller, isolated, and expeditionary. Indeed, I've noticed lately that some of the Army's cutting-edge units, such as its "Southern European Task Force," a paratrooper brigade that was one of the first U.S. units sent to Bosnia, and has been in and out of Africa in recent years, are remaking themselves in the Marines' image. For decades, the U.S. Army sat in Europe waiting to slug it out with the tanks of the Red Army. But these paratroopers are a contingency force able to move in quickly in small numbers, do the job, whether it be evacuating an embassy or protecting Rwandan refugees, and get out just as quickly. That may sound simple, but it is a radical departure from the Army's traditional approach of going in big and heavy and slow, with tanks and hordes of troops and huge logistical bases, as it did even in the Gulf War.
With the end of the Cold War, and the rash of small, messy interventions in Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti, the Marines have moved back to center stage in U.S. military operations. These tend to be conflicts that spotlight the kind of small-unit action in which Marines shine, partly because they are able to reach back to their pre-World War II role as the nation's "small war" force. In these operations, the kid whom we wouldn't trust to run the copier is the squad or platoon leader addressing questions that could alter national policy: Do I shoot at this threatening mob in Mogadishu? Do I fire first when a Haitian police officer levels his automatic weapon in my direction? If I am in a limited peacekeeping role, do I stop a rape when it occurs fifty yards in front of my position? And he is doing it under the glare of real-time global television broadcasts.
Ever since I went on night patrol in Mogadishu, I have wanted to discover how these young Americans acquired that sense of Marine self-confidence that enables them to make those decisions. Ultimately I decided to look at boot camp, where American youths make the transition from civilian society to the military, bridging the growing gap. I wanted to see how an organization could take fifty or so American kids a group steeped in a culture of individualism and consumerism, many of them users of recreational drugs, few of them with much education or hope of prospering in the American economy and turn them into Marines who saw themselves as a band of brothers, overcoming deep differences of race and class. I wanted to see who would "make" it into the Corps, who wouldn't, and why. I also wanted to see how drill instructors would make them into Marines. (Almost all writing about Marine boot camp is in the form of memoirs, meaning that we usually see the place through the eyes of an adolescent.) Finally, I wanted to explore how the Marine Corps rebounded from its post-Vietnam low point and remade itself in the late 1970s and 1980s, and contrast its recovery with the increasing fragmentation of American society.
To do that I had to begin on Parris Island. That is how I came to stand outside the receiving building in the fifty-six degree fog at 1:50 in the morning waiting for a bus from Charleston, South Carolina, to arrive. Aboard were thirty-six young men, the bulk of a new recruit platoon, Platoon 3086.
Copyright © 1997 by Thomas E. Ricks