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In early January, Clarksville Online was invited to participate in this Marine Corps junket. Several of our staff hoped to attend, but had prior commitments, or were otherwise unable to make the trip on such short notice. One of our contributing writers, Nashville’s Chris Lugo, however, was able to attend as a representative of Tennessee Indymedia. Here is his “Reflection on the USMC Educator’s Workshop and Marine Culture from the perspective of a Peace Activist.”
On Tuesday, January 13th at six in the morning I boarded a Delta Airlines jet in Nashville bound for Savannah, Georgia. Accompanying me on the plane were two employers of a local rock station in Nashville that caters to young adults, high school teachers from rural and mid sized school districts in Tennessee, and two recruiters for the U.S. Marines. Our destination was Parris Island, South Carolina, which is the primary training ground for new recruits to the United States Marine Corps.
The Marines, which are a small branch of the US armed forces, receive about six percent of the Department of Defense annual budget and have two training facilities for newly enlistees. I had been invited along a USMC Educator’s Workshop, which is essentially a marketing strategy designed to encouraged high school teachers to develop friendlier relations with Marine recruiters, and to encourage journalists write positive stories about the USMC.
I am a peace activist, and my training and education is in the business of ending war and promoting peace. I am also a politician who has run for office twice as a candidate for U.S. Senate representing the Green Party of Tennessee. If I had been elected to office, one of my first actions as Senator would have been to sponsor legislation to immediately withdraw all U.S. armed forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, to drastically reduce the scope of U.S. military spending and close our military bases overseas, so I didn’t fit easily into any category that the USMC had constructed for the three day program. Still, as a former candidate and in the interest of good will and cooperation, I attended, because I believe that it is important to hear all sides in any conversation — and the USMC clearly has one side and they want to make sure that you understand exactly what that side is.
We flew into Atlanta early that morning with a two-hour layover. I milled around the airport looking for a Starbucks and the smoking lounge. I found a great restaurant serving eggs and grits. I ate while working on my laptop, smoking and drinking coffee. My head was still wrapped up with the most current manifestation of the war on the Palestinian people. I was editing a video I had shot two nights before at the Islamic Center of Nashville in which Yassir Arafat had given a fairly direct presentation on the history of Palestine and the impact of Zionism as a political ideology on that community. It was a forceful presentation that was unapologetically one-sided, documenting the history of abuse of the Palestinian people, the war of 1967, the demolition of houses and entire villages, the rounding up of civilians, the loss of citizenship, identity, imprisonment and the tedium of life under constant occupation. I looked at the clock and realized it was time to get on the transfer to Savannah. The war in Gaza and twelve hundred dead Palestinians continued to occupy my thoughts as I glanced out the window of the airplane and caught a good view of Stone Mountain, Georgia — a granite monolith protruding from the relatively flat plains of Atlanta where a monumental Confederate memorial was originally planned to function as the Mount Rushmore of the South.
In the halls and terminals of the Atlanta airport there had been Marines and soldiers of various types in uniforms walking about everywhere, a clear reminder of current activity within the U.S. armed forces. My initial reaction to men in camouflage and hiking boots walking around an airport is caution and intimidation, especially when confronted by literally hundreds of them, including some on the plane. We landed after a short thirty minute flight from Atlanta to a gray, overcast day with rain speckling the windows. The first thing I noticed about Savannah was that it was green. There were still leaves on some of the trees and Spanish moss. I noticed a few palm trees and was wondering if they were real or the plastic kind you find at used car lots in New Mexico. Arriving at the airport, unsure of what came next, I approached our Marine guide and asked him what was next. He told us they had lunch available; we were waiting for another plane to arrive and then we would all get on the bus to the hotel.
This was my first experience with military time, which I came to know well over the course of the next three days. Military time does not operate on the same scale as civilian time. Military time happens all at once, it is ordered and punctual, yet also seems to be chaotic and undeterminable. Military time, as with military culture, appears to be somewhat pedantic and mindless, but this can be said of any large organization. Being approached by the Marines was definitely a surprise, and I wondered what their motivation was for inviting me to tour their facility. Surely they must have reviewed my campaign website or read some of the articles that I have published, but being a good journalist and good citizen I felt that it was my responsibility to attend this event and see what they have to say.
It was my intention as an observer to try to be objective, in spite of my training as a peace activist. I would say that the Marines really believe in what they say. In the three days of touring their facilities I received endless lectures on how the Marines build character and turn boys into men. They discussed the value of taking someone who might be a troublemaker or not have a sense of direction in life and present them with a sense of direction through their training. I found their training methods to be highly questionable and their sense of character building to be tantamount to brainwashing and indoctrination.
The entire environment on the military base is girded by a constant sense of control, authoritarianism and violence. Let me be as frank as I can here: the purpose of the Marines is to train men to become highly skilled killers. There is no doubt about this. Everything in their training is about working in a group with the purpose of killing when needed. Stripped of ideology, this is the function of the military.
(Video (above) from Across the Universe, which revisits the Vietnam era issue of the military draft)
Whether this is good or bad, I think it is important to evaluate this experience objectively without ideology and without filters. In my touring of the military base I constantly asked questions, and one of the primary questions I asked was whether the Marines who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan were accomplishing their objectives. I asked them what their objectives were and did they believe that they had the support of the American people and their elected representatives. How did they feel about the morality of their actions and did they believe that the people of Iraq and Afghanistan supported their objectives? Most of my questions were concerned with morality, ethics and intention.
What I received as a response over and over again was that my questions were not appropriate.
I was often told that my question was above the pay grade of the officer I was talking to or that this was a decision for the people in Washington DC to make.
All I saw of Savannah was the airport. I browsed the brochures of the travel center looking at the places I could go — Hilton Head, historic downtown Savannah, golf clubs, beachfront condos, fishing excursions and art galleries. The last time I was in Savannah I was out marching in the streets with protesters surrounded by police protesting the meeting of the G8 at Sea Island, Georgia. The landscape looked the same, especially the distinctive Spanish moss that hangs down from the trees everywhere and gives the area a look of antebellum charm even in the airport terminal. While we were waiting for the other plane to arrive I sat down with a couple of teachers from a public school system in Mississippi. They were happy to get a week off with pay and were very proud of the work that the Marines are doing at their schools.
The Educator’s Workshop is really more of a public relations effort than an effort at education. During the course of the week-long event, journalists and teachers travel along with Marine officers on base and off base to learn what life is like for a new recruit to the Marines. We sit with new recruits who are in the midst of their thirteen weeks of training. Those of us who choose to can learn how to fire a military rifle, inspect an F-18 fighter jet, and go through the “yellowfeet” indoctrination process. This includes becoming part of a formation, learning how to march and follow the orders of a drill instructor.
Although I did not choose to actively participate in this element of the process, everyone was assigned a drill instructor. We were broken up geographically into Tennessee and Alabama/Mississippi. Over the course of the week everyone from Tennessee traveled around on the same bus with the same drill instructor who gave us lectures about his pride in the USMC and how it has changed his life and made him a better person. We were given the ‘inside scoop’ on particular aspects of language, speech, dress code, social interaction and hierarchy within USMC culture.
Tennessee has about 100 Marine recruiters scattered across the state. The function of these recruiters is to go to the high schools and foster relationships with students and encourage them to join the Marines by promising them money for college, world travel, service to their country and character building. In Tennessee approximately 850 students are recruited into the Marines this way every year. Since only about ten percent of all these students sign up voluntarily, then it is the job of the Marine recruiters to get the other ninety percent through various forms of persuasion.
The USMC has an active force of just over two hundred thousand. This force is broken up into many functions, but the heart and soul of the Marine force is its Infantry, which accounts for about forty thousand of the total service members. These are the people who fire the guns and are on the front lines of any action. For the most part the Infantry is composed of recruits, although every officer in the Marines is in the Infantry, but their function is more to administer and coordinate the actions of the general forces.
At Parris Island about twenty-thousand recruits are turned out every year. Once a young person has signed a contract with the Marines, they are committed to four years of general service and then four years of reserve duty during which time they may be called back up to service or not. Every week the Marines graduate a new class of recruits, as Parris Island is a continuous training facility. After thirteen weeks of training the new recruits are considered graduates and ready for the next step in their training. Currently about seventy five percent of all new recruits will be shipped off to Iraq or Afghanistan within six months of graduation.
Our last plane of high school teachers arrived at the airport, and we got on a white diesel school bus and headed to our hotel. On the way I chatted with a female Major who reminded me of a character on the television series ’MASH.’ In fact, most of what I saw on Parris Island the next three days reminded me of that television series. It was all there — the tedium of military culture, the unending monotony and illogic of that environment. On base there is a strong emphasis on attention to detail, appearance and function without any obvious purpose. I was also reminded of the way in which the military strips people of individual identity but also of the interesting ways in which identity still manages to surface beyond the carefully constructed facade of group identity. I chatted with the Major about politics. I asked her about voting on the base during the recent elections and if people had put up Obama or McCain yard signs. Obviously ignorant to anything about life on a military base, I was told that political signs were not permitted on the base. In fact, no form of political speech or free speech really exists on Parris Island.
Military life does not appear to resemble civilian life in many aspects, but perhaps most of all in the area of individual freedoms. What the military offers in exchange is group identity. Everything in the military, and especially in the Marines is about group identity. A Marine’s primary objective isn’t patriotism, humanitarian concerns or political ideology. That might be true on some level for officers, but for your average Marine, their primary motivation is to protect the other people in their unit; this is what they fight for and how they have been conditioned by Parris Island.
New recruits spend every waking hour of their training period marching together, firing guns, running obstacle courses, engaging in combat exercises and obeying whatever order is presented to them as a unit. They are yelled at, humiliated, stripped of their identity, demoralized, intimidated and taught to unquestioningly obey orders. The function of this violence and intimidation and loss of individual identity is to suppress any kind of individual instinct for self-reflection and moral judgment in a situation of crisis or conflict.
In order to train a soldier to kill unquestioningly there must be a suppression of the natural instinct to react with caution and compassion toward another human being. The most important aspect of training an individual to kill is not technological but rather psychological and the Marines specialize in exactly this form of psychological conditioning.
As a journalist this is my perspective, but I would not be fair if I did not offer the perspective that is presented by the Marines. The primary message presented at the Educator’s Workshop was that the Marines build character. The Marines believe that what they are offering young recruits is character building and citizenship. The Marines present themselves as model citizens who volunteer at the boy scouts and work as tutors in their community. They are proud of their fellow Marines who have run for public office and are elected to high positions and are key players in all aspects of society. Marines like to use the language of civic function and patriotism in their public relations efforts, and I have no doubt that most of them believe this message.
Human beings tend to believe information that corresponds with their worldview, and they construct language that reinforces that perspective. As a journalist, I am trained to look below the surface and examine the issues that are not questioned. I think that for me the real question is about the role of the military: how do we use it and what do we get in exchange. Therefore, most of the questions I asked the Marines had to do with specific actions, such as the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
At Parris Island this is called the ‘war on terror.’ When I used the word occupation my language was always corrected, and when I asked the Marines about the ethics and morality of current service deployments, I was told that Marines simply follow orders. I tried to explain to them that I understand the U.S. Congress and the President authorized the use of military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. I understand that they are only following orders and they are not the ones who decided to go to war. The reason I asked those questions is because I was curious. I wonder if a specially trained force of mostly young men who spend every waking hour thinking about, preparing for and training for war will not have an instinctive, cathartic, romantic response to the possibility of war, let alone to its realization?
While at Parris Island I heard many stories of glory in Vietnam, of fallen heroes and great battles. The romantic language of war and battle which is the standard fare of military culture was presented as ‘warrior culture.’ New recruits were ’forged’ in the ‘crucible’ and transformed into men, warriors, citizens and servants of their country. This is presented as the mythology of Marine culture. It is one of the many aspects of patriotism that exists both examined and unexamined in civilian life. My questions elicited a fairly common response that the Marines are defending my freedom. I was told that I would not even have the ability to walk around on a military base asking questions unless they were wiling to die for my freedom. It is this very set of assumptions that interests me, because it is my impression that the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not increased my personal freedom or secured it. In fact my own bias is that the military actions in these countries has generally lessened my security.
What I wanted to know, while I was on base, was whether an individual Marine who had served three tours of duty in Iraq ever wondered if they were in violation of international law. I wondered if anyone who had been in the battle of Fallujah imagined how they would feel if someone invaded their country, if perhaps they might not just fight back. I wondered if they ever thought about their use of the word ‘enemy’ and the word ‘insurgent.’ I wondered if the Marine I had just spoken to had perhaps operated one of the prisons where more than forty thousand Iraqi men had been detained, questioned and tortured. I wondered about if they had any idea what they were doing in Iraq, or if they ever wondered about it. I wondered if they felt in any sense responsible for creating the conditions for a bloody civil war in which more than eight hundred thousand people have died. I tried to ask as many people as I could whether or not they think their terms of service helped or hurt the people of Iraq, whether they think life in Iraq will be better in the near future.
My questions, which were never clearly answered by the Marines I talked to, were basically about one idea — whether those who are often times the face of the United States to the rest of the world, have any opinion about what they are doing. This is essentially the contradiction I was there to explore. It is my own curiosity that leads me to another question: what if the members of our armed forces had a choice on where to serve and how to serve? What would this do to the foreign policy objectives of our culture? I wonder about this. It would seem to be a complete breakdown of the authoritarian aspect of military culture to even consider a question like this.
The Marines present themselves as heroes and the mythology of heroism is ingrained into political, economic and social culture in the United States. Heroism in Marine culture means unquestioning obedience to the President and to the people of the United States as represented through their elected leaders and the choices they make. This is the reinforcing social mechanism that pushes collective action on a national level. On the smaller basis of Marine units clearly the mechanism is group psychology and group bonding. The Marines fight for each other more than anything else.
So my question to the Marines is about the issue of collective action and individuality. If it is in the interest of the Marines to serve the collective interests of the United States of America, then what if a Marine was given a choice about how to serve their country, rather than trained to resist asking individual questions. The nature of patriarchal culture and group identity seems to necessitate the repression of the individual moral choice, but it is my contention that this is exactly where the critical element of decision and individual freedom must be investigated. The freedom to train men to kill and then actually to put them to work killing is a decision our society seems to accept as a function of nationalism, but how that function is played out, I think, is largely unexamined.
I wonder how it would be if men were allowed to decide where to serve and how to serve. I wonder if the moral authority and function of war would dramatically change under those circumstances. My own personal belief is that if men and the few women who serve were allowed and even encouraged to not just be soldiers but also to be moral agents and then given that freedom then we would see a dramatic transformation of the function of military culture. This was really my course of investigation and questioning once I arrived at Parris Island and toured. It had not been my course of inquiry before I arrived. I had tried to come with an open mind, but the overtly militaristic and authoritarian nature of life on a Marine base moved me in that direction of thinking, especially after asking a few questions and being told they weren’t relevant.
Educating teachers, coaches, counselors on Marine Corps careers
Most of the people on our workshop training session were teachers. There were a total of ninety-five people traveling with the Marines during our three-day session. This included eighty-eight teachers and seven journalists. The journalists were from Chattanooga, Morristown, Nashville, and Meridian Mississippi. I was told that most of the press had turned down the offer to attend the workshop or not responded. I was also told that the Marines were interested in inviting people who had diverse opinions or information about the Marines, especially journalists, with the intention of educating them about life on a Marine base.
I personally did not have any particular opinion about the Marines, one way or another. To me they are, and still remain, lumped into the general category of military, but over time I did actually remember some generally negative reports about the Marines in the press in recent history. I remembered the situation in Okinawa, Japan which has led to the closing of that military base, in part due to the repeated rapes of Japanese women at the hands of Marines off base which has infuriated that community and turned it against a US military presence there.
The days passed rather uneventfully at the Educator’s Workshop. Every morning we got up at five and had breakfast at the hotel, then the teachers lined up outside in their formations. A Drill Sergeant ordered them to march or do particular activities such as turn left or turn right and then they got on the bus. I personally had no interest in these activities and did not participate in most of it. I had been under the impression that I was there to observe, but for the Marines their workshop is really intended as a kind of “imagine if you were a recruit” experience.
Apparently trying to impress us, one day the drill instructor told us that the Marines are like sheepdogs. He said that the people who are not in the military are the sheep and the enemies of the people are the wolves and the Marines are the sheepdogs that protect the sheep. In another instance we were brought into an airplane hanger and shown the holy grail of the Marines, the airplanes
Entering onto the airbase seems to be the equivalent of going to the Western Wall or entering the Dome on the Rock. Everyone on the bus was beaming with patriotism and clean cut Marines were everywhere to greet us and show us their machinery. We were brought into a lecture room and presented with service members who proudly told us how much money each one of them was receiving for re-enlisting.
I honestly don’t know why the Marines invited me. They didn’t like most of my questions. When I was on the airbase part of Parris Island I asked the Marines if they believed their airplanes were being used responsibly and ethically in Iraq and Afghanistan and did they ever think about what it felt like to be on the other end of one of their machines. I asked them about the ethics of using weapons against people who don’t have a similar technology to defend themselves.
Visit, view, but don’t ask the hard questions…
Apparently I didn’t understand the function of this experience when I agreed to go. I was imagining that they actually wanted me to ask questions and think about what I was seeing, but in reality this was simply a public relations effort on the part of the Marines to get high school teachers, guidance counselors, principals and administrators to let Marine recruiters onto their campus.
If they are already on the campus, then this is simply their way of rewarding the teachers, by giving them a taxpayer funded trip with all expenses paid. As for the other journalists on the delegation, they didn’t ask many questions of substance, at least not at the question and answer sessions I attended. Apparently they got it also.
U.S. Military: A $700 Billion dollar business
The Marines have a complex relationship with the public. On television they are portrayed as America’s finest fighting force. In the Middle East they are seen as an occupying foreign power. In the U.S. South they are seen as a way out of poverty and racism. Family members who have a loved one in the Marines are proud beyond approach, but I have also spoken with women who have told me that the Marines have the worst reputation among the service members for domestic violence and alcohol abuse, during and after their terms of service.
This report is not intended as an indictment of Marine culture. The Marines are clearly what they are, and as long as we continue to give them money they will continue to be what they will be. What interests me as a journalist is not so much their own attitude toward themselves or toward their terms of service, but rather the construction of that identity.
As a former political candidate, clearly I am not a friend of the Marines. I will certainly support the right of veterans to receive the benefits they are entitled to, but beyond that my goals as a political candidate have clearly been in scaling down military funding, closing US bases overseas and reducing the scope of the American military. I do not think we can afford to continue spending so much money on our military culture and I do not think the world can afford our continued expenditures. We have military bases or personnel in over one hundred and twenty nations and the debt we have accumulated as a result of military spending eclipses our GDP and accounts for a significant portion of the national deficit.
We are not in good standing around the world and are clearly seen as one of the major contributors to global instability and insecurity, and it is these very service personnel who we are sending into harms way in countries we shouldn’t be in who are seen as the living, breathing expression of US foreign policy.
Marine culture is wrapped up in mythology, but the reality of life on a military base is mostly boredom and tedium punctuated with exceptional moments of violent expression. The point of boot camp is to wear people out, run them down and break their spirits. This is how ordinary human beings are turned into trained killers. The point of all of this training above all else is to be a skilled killer. Whether it is killing by dropping bombs or shooting machine guns or rocket launchers or killing with your bare hands, the point of the military is to train someone to kill when ordered to do so and at the same time to avoid being killed. This is the entire point of the training. As an outsider, the military to me looks like another cult. There is a clearly defined hierarchy and the individual is instructed and trained to give up all of their freedoms, but most especially their independent judgment in exchange for the group mind.
From their perspective I don’t think that the military generally sees it that way, and I don’t think the Marines I spoke to saw their life that way. They would say that they are doing a job, they are serving their country, they are protecting our freedom and they are making America strong. They view their training camp as character building and feel a special brotherhood having served as Marines. They take pride in maintaining the appearance of professionalism, military courtesy and respect for authority, pride in citizenship and service to country.
They are weak on the issue of integrating women into their culture and terrible in terms of integrating gays and lesbians service into their culture. Every time I asked a question about gay and lesbian issues I always received some variation of the same answer. No one engaged in homophobic dialogue but they did avoid any real consideration of the issue in almost every way. To their credit, the military is good on issues of race, even better than the southern Alabama educators I traveled with, who were hopelessly divided on issues of race and seemingly unable to see the problems that racially segregated school districts creates in terms of quality education.
The military was also good on issues of class. Clearly most people who join the military continue to see the Marines as a good choice for moving out of a working class or lower class background into a middle class and more highly educated level of society. There is no doubt that the military offers this and uses it as a strong selling point when talking to potential new recruits.
“… my questions constantly refuted or gone unanswered…”
After three days of traveling around on buses going from one place to another, having my questions constantly refuted or gone unanswered, waking up at five every day and experiencing the incredibly boring monotony of life on a military base I was ready to go home. The Marines did not like me and the teachers did not like me either. When I arrived I was generally curious and open minded about the experience, but I think I lost interest after about the second day. I was tired of having a Marine shadow me everywhere I went to keep me occupied. I understand that they were actually trying to have someone around to answer my questions, but it was also clear that I was cutting into some of their public relations activities and I hadn’t understood what the purpose was of this workshop and what my role was as a journalist.
I was expecting to be able to freely travel around a military base and observe aspects of Marine culture and ask lots of questions. Instead I was presented with a group of high school teachers who were given quasi-military outfits and taught how to fire guns.
My impression is that the Marines are a cult and their function is to train men to kill. I do agree with them that it is the responsibility of the elected representatives to determine how the military is utilized, but I think it is really a two-way street. As the military culture has grown in terms of funding and institutional support, at a certain point I think it becomes a policy objective in its own right within the halls of power in Washington D.C., regardless of foreign policy objectives.
Ultimately it is our responsibility to decide how to use the resources we have. If we decide that the best option for poor people in the rural South is to send them into the military because we have not adequately funded our school systems, then this will continue to be the result. If we don’t examine where our tax dollars go and the relationships that defense contractors have with our elected representatives, then we will always continue to experience the same process. Our military is always ready to go to war, they are ready to fight and if need be to die for each other. I just wonder if we are ready for that responsibility, ever.
Editor’s Note: If you were interested in this article you will likely be interested in a previous article published on Clarksville Online. ASVAB: Backdoor military recruitment in the guise of “career testing”
TopicsAfghanistan, basic training, drill sergeant, Educator's Workshop, independent media, Iraq, military culture, military recruiters, military recruitment, military service, moral choice, nationalism, news media, Paris Island SC, patriarchal culture, Teachers, Tennessee Indymedia, U.S. Marines, United States of America, USMC
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