Marine Corps Morality
by Clark Stooksbury
September 3, 2002

One good way to set the hearts of neo-conservatives fluttering is to gush over the military, especially the Marine Corps. Since most of this hawkish crowd received their only military training while watching Full Metal Jacket and engaging in, to borrow Bill Kauffmanís felicitous phrase, "grad-school nights of pizza, beer and Risk;" the real world of the armed services is obscure to them. Occasionally, however, they manage to dredge up someone with a bit of first hand experience. National Review Online just published a brief report from Marine Corps officer candidate, Gabriel Ledeen. Ledeenís just completed six weeks of Marine officer training may be scant, but they make him a veritable Storminí Norman Schwarzkopf when compared to National Reviewís conservitwerps like Rich Lowry and Jonah Goldberg.

Values Matter Most

Ledeen credits Marine training with instilling "selflessness, determination, courage, loyalty, dedication, and integrity," and illustrates his point with several examples from his unit. I have some idea of where Ledeen is coming from, because I served in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1985 to 1991 with brief active service during the Gulf War; rising to the rank of Sergeant. I had plenty of opportunity to observe the values that the military instills. I particularly identified with the officer candidate Ledeen refers to as "I." "Candidate Iís problem was that the four weeks of training had wreaked havoc on his feet, leaving them blistered and bloody just before the final round of evaluations. Each day brought on new blisters, until they covered his toes, heels, and even formed a large fluid-filled patch on the bottoms of his feet. Candidate I had a choice: He could request to report to sick call to treat his feet and miss the four evaluations in the next three days (effectively eliminating his chances of passing the first phase of training), or he could keep quiet and push on for two more weeks." Candidate I endured the pain, of course, and completed his training with his peers. I had a similar experience while in boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. Mine involved a leg injury that caused me to endure great pain for the final three weeks of training. Both candidate I and myself internalized values that gave us the strength to endure pain and privation in order to achieve goals larger than ourselves. Stripped of lofty language, what the Marine Corps instills is a combination of discipline, fear of failure, loyalty to the organization and suppression of individuality in young men seeking a sense of belonging and a chance to test their manhood.

There Are No Liars Here

The values that Ledeen talks about form an important part of the Corpsí image. I talked to an Army recruiter before settling on the Marines. He stressed the economic benefits that would come with military service. The first Marine recruiter that I encountered talked about values. He acted as if the sole issue was whether I was worthy of his Marine Corps. He told me that there were no liars or thieves in the Marine Corps. He was lying, of course, a fact I discovered when another recruiter invited me to shade the truth on some of my paperwork about the amount of pot that I had previously smoked. One of the first things that I noticed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where I went for training after boot camp, was the pervasive petty theft. The powers that be dealt with it by punishing people who failed to keep their valuables locked away from temptation. All of the rooms were equipped with warning signs about the theft problem.

In boot camp, we were required to take a test on the history and traditions of the Marine Corps. Avoiding the possibility of failure by some academically challenged recruits, the drill instructors passed out copies of the test and spoon fed us the correct answers to circle on the multiple choice exam, leaving nothing to chance.

Gabriel Ledeen Meet Thomas Ricks

Ledeenís article calls to mind the pro-Marine Corps boomlet created by Thomas E Ricks with his articles in The Wall Street Journal, Parade Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly in the mid 1990s. Ricks is a reporter who followed a platoon through Parris Island several years ago and collected his account in articles in the aforementioned publications and in the book Making the Corps.

Ricks unfortunately failed to bring enough skepticism to bear while observing recruit training. He gave far too much credence to the new Marines who were disgusted with their old friends in the "nasty" civilian world – a natural reaction after three months of indoctrination in a totalitarian environment. Even more absurdly, Ricks quoted several who were appalled by civilian drinking. One complains that all his old friends want do is "get smashed." It should be obvious to any casual observer that getting "smashed" is central to the culture of the Marine Corps. When my reserve unit was on active duty in South Carolina during the Gulf War, my friends and I did little else than drink. After a few weeks, we didnít even bother to go out to bars, we just went back to the barracks and started drinking.

Rickís reviewers often displayed the same credulous tone. In The American Enterprise, an Army combat veteran, who should know better, worried that outside influences not undermine the Marine Corpsí "high moral standards" and fretted over the possibility of the broader American culture dragging the military "slouching towards Gomorrah."

My purpose is not to disparage the Marine Corps, an institution with a proud history and great heroes such as Smedley Butler, Greg "Pappy" Boyington and Lewis "Chesty" Puller. But the notion that this organization, whose purpose is organized mayhem and violence, can be a repository of high-minded virtues, is nonsense.

I wish Gabriel Ledeen well in his future in the Marine Corps. He has a long, difficult road ahead of him that may ultimately include service in the "War on Terror." But he should be forewarned ó if his service leads him to become skeptical about Americaís role as global policeman/nanny (as it did for me) then his friends at National Review Online will denounce him as a sniveling wimp like Colin Powell and those Pentagon weenies who keep throwing cold water on the war plans of Rich Lowry, Jonah Goldberg, Victor Davis Hanson, etc.

Clark Stooksbury served six years in the Marine Corps Reserve and writes for The American Enterprise, Chronicles: A Magazine Of American Culture, and Liberty.

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