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Learning the Corps Values

Submitted by: Thomas E.Ricks

On a hot night in 1992, on my first deployment as a Pentagon reporter, I went on patrol in Mogadishu, Somalia, with a squad of Marines led by a 22-year-old corporal. Red and green tracer bullets cut arcs across the dark sky. It was a confusing and difficult time. Yet the corporal led the patrol with a confidence that was contagious.

Ever since that night, I had wanted to see how the Marine Corps turns teenage Americans into self-confident leaders. At a time when the nation seems distrustful of its teenage males-when young black men especially, and wrongly, are figures of fear for many-the military is different. It isn't just that it has done a better job than the larger society in dealing with drug abuse and racial tension-even though that is true. It also seems to be doing a better job of teaching teenagers the right way to live than does, say, the average American high school. And it thrives while drawing most of its personnel from the bottom half of our society, the half that isn't surfing the information superhighway.

I wanted to see how the Marines could turn an undereducated, cynical teenager into that young soldier who, on his second night in Africa, could lead a file of men through the dark and dangerous city. How could a kid we would not trust to run the copier by himself back in my office in Washington become the squad leader addressing questions that could alter national policy: Do I shoot at these threatening mob in a Third World city? Do I fire when a local police officer points his weapon in my direction? If I am performing a limited peacekeeping mission, do I stop a rape when it occurs 50 yards in front of my position?

To find out how the Marines give young Americans the values and self-confidence to make those decisions, I decided to go to Marine boot camp. I went not as a recruit but as an observer. I come from the post-draft generation. I majored in English literature at Yale, and, like everyone with whom I grew up and went to school, I have no military experience. Yet I learned things at Parris Island that fascinated me-and should interest anyone who cares about where our youth are going. In a society that seems to have trouble transmitting healthy values, the Marines stand out as a successful institution that unabashedly teaches those values to the Beavises and Butt-heads of America.

I met Platoon 3086 on a foggy late winter night in 1995 when its bus arrived on Parris Island, S.C. I followed the recruits intermittently for their 11 weeks on the island, then during their first two years in the Marine Corps.

The recruits arrived steeped in the popular American culture of consumerism and individualism. To a surprising degree, before joining the Corps, they had bee living part-time lives-working part-time (and getting lousy grades) and staying dazed on drugs and alcohol part-time. When they arrives at Parris Island, all that was taken away from them. They were stripped of the usual distractions, from television and music to cars and candy. They even lost the right to refer to themselves and "I" or "me." When one confused recruit did so during the first week of boot camp, Sgt. Darren Carry, the platoon's "heavy hat" disciplinarian, stomped his foot on the cement floor and shouted, "You got on the wrong bus, 'cause there ain't no I, me, my's or I's here!"

On Parris Island, for every waking moment during the next 11 weeks, they were immersed in a new, very different world. For the first time in their lives, many encountered absolute standards: Tell the truth. Don't give up. Don't whine. Look out for the group before you look out for yourself. Always do you best-even if you are just mopping the floor, you owe it to yourself and your comrades to strive to be the best mopper at this moment in the Corps. Judge others by their actions, not their words or their race.

The drill instructors weren't interested in excuses. Everyday, they transmitted the lesson taught centuries ago by the ancient Greek philosophers: Don't pursue happiness; pursue excellence. Make a habit of that, and you can have a fulfilling life.

These aren't complex ideas, but to persuade a cynical teenager to follow them, they must be painstakingly pursued everyday-lived as well as preached. I have seen few people work as hard as did Platoon 3086's drill instructors in the first few weeks they led the platoon. Sargent Carey, an intense young reconnaissance specialist from Long Island, routinely put in 17 hours a day, six and a half days a week. His ability to drive himself at full speed all day long awed and inspired his charges. Recruit Paul Bourassa said of his drill instructor: "When you've gone 16 hours and you're wiped out and you see him motoring, you say to yourself, I've got to tap into whatever he has.'"

Sergeant Carey clearly wasn't doing it for the money. He was paid $1775 a month- a figure that worked out to about minimum wage. Of course, the wages were nearly irrelevant. The recruits learned that money isn't the measure of a man, that a person's real wealth is in his character. One of the funnies moments I saw in boot camp came when Sergeant Carey was lecturing the platoon on the importance of knowledge. "Knowledge is what?" he bellowed. "Power, sir," responded the platoon. "Power is what?" he then asked. That puzzled the platoon. Faces scrunched up in thought. Eventually one recruit hazarded a guess: "Money?" Sergeant Carey was dumbfounded to find such a civilian attitude persisting in his platoon. "NO!" he shouted. "Power is VICTORY!" (Then, in a whispered aside, he added, "I swear, I'm dealing with aliens.")

The drill instructors didn't try to make their recruits happy. They tried to push members of the platoon harder than they'd ever been pushed, to make them go beyond their own self-imposed limits. Nearly all the members of the platoon cried at one time or another. Yet by the end of 11 weeks almost all had been transformed by the experience-and were more fulfilled than they had ever been. They had subordinated their needs to those of the group, yet almost all emerged with a stronger sense of self. They unembarrassedly used words like "integrity."

I learned more than I expected. One of my favorite moments came when Sergeant Carey ordered a white supremacist from Alabama to share a tent in the woods with a black gang member from Washington D.C. The drill instructor's message to the recruits was clear: If you two are going to be in the Marine Corps, you are going to have to learn to live with each other. Recruits Jonathan Prish and Earnest Winston Jr. became friends during that bivouac. "We stuck up for each other after that," Prish said.

The recruits generally seemed to find race relations less of an issue at boot camp than in the neighborhoods they'd left behind. If America were more like the Marines, argued Luis Polanco-Medina, a recruit from New Jersey, "there would be less crime, less racial tension among people, because Marine Corps discipline is also about brotherhood."

Two other thing surprised me. I didn't hear a lot of profanity. Once notoriously foul-mouthed, today's drill instructors generally are forbidden to use obscenities. Also, I saw very little brutality. "I expected it to be tougher," said recruit Edward Linsky, in a typical comment as he sat on his footlocker.

Platoon 3086 graduated into the Marine Corps in May 1995 and became part of a family that includes 174,000 active-duty members and 2.1 million veterans (there really is no such thing as an "ex-Marine"). Over the last two years, members of the platoon have experiences some disappointments. But, as Paul Bourassa concluded a year after graduating from boot camp, "It pretty much is a band of brothers."

What I think the Marine Corps represents is a counterculture, but the Marines are rebels with a cause. With their emphasis on honor, courage, and commitment, they odder a powerful alternative to the loneliness and distrust that seems so widespread, especially among our youth.

Any American-young, or old, pro-or anti-military- can learn something from today's Corps. That goes for the corporation as well as the individual. Just listen to Maj. Stephen Davis describe his approach to leadership: "Concentrate on doing a single task as simply as you can, execute it flawlessly, take care of your people and go home." Those steps offer an efficient way to run any organization.

I took away a lot from boot camp myself. I don't talk to my own kids like a drill instructor ( and neither do thoughtful drill instructors). But I was struck by the importance of the example the DIs provided; Kids want values, but they are tightly suspicious of talk without action. So while you need to talk to kids about values, your words will be meaningless unless you live them as well. Also, of all things that can motivate people, the pursuit of excellence is one of the most effective-and one of the least used in our society.

None of this is a revelation. Lots of families live by these standards. But few of our public institutions seem to. "You'd see the drill instructors teach kids who barely made through high school that they weren't stupid, that they could do things if they had the right can-do attitude," summarized Charles Less of Platoon 3086. "It was all the things you should learn growing up but, for some reason, society de-emphasizes."

The white supremacist and the black gang member who were thrown together in boot camp went on to happy careers in the Corps. Earnest Winston Jr., the D.C. gangbanger, became a specialist in the recovery of aircraft making emergency landings and was posted to Japan. "Its beautiful," he told me. "Not a lot people on my block get to go to places like these." His friend Jonathan Prish, the Alabaman, became a guard near the American Embassy in London. Prish had his racist tattoos covered. I've left all that behind," he said. "You go out and see the world, and you see there are cool people in all colors."

Reprinted with permission from Parade © Sunday November 9th 1997. All right reserved.

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