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Four Days With the Marines

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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.

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.  

The main function of the workshop is to impress upon the teachers what life is like for a Marine so that when recruiters come back to their high schools to recruit more students, they will have a first hand experience and will be more likely to speak positively about the Marines and think about them when giving advice to high school students.  That is the purpose of the workshop, but to me it felt like a timeshare presentation that went on for three days, where we are constantly being sold the product of the Marines.

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.   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.  The point of  workshop is to get participants to think more like the Marines do which means don't ask questions, follow orders, get along, do as the group does, and keep your personal feelings to yourself on any subject, but always be professional and put on a good face.  That seems to be the front end of military culture, the face that is portrayed to the public.

In private some Marines would open up and tell me about their experience, but almost none would express any thoughtful ideas about what they have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Perhaps they just don't feel it or aren't aware of the perceptions of the outside world that I have been hearing for the past six years from ordinary Americans, Iraqis and Afghans that the war is wrong.  That it was the wrong intention.  They didn't express any thoughts on whether we had violated international law by invading two sovereign nations.  

I have seen America's public image go down the tubes, but really times couldn't be better for the military.  They are currently receiving over $700 billion dollars a year in taxpayer funding.  In a time of hard economic choices one of the questions I asked was did they feel like it was necessary to spend so much money on the military when students around the country are facing tuition increases of as much as two hundred percent and public school mandates go without funding.  I asked this in front of both the military and educators gathered at a question and answer session and was told once again that my question was not relevant.

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 US 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 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.

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 there 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 DC, 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.

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I was the Green Party candidate for US Senate from Tennessee in 2008 and 2006. I ran for office primarily as a peace activist to work to end the war in Iraq. I am currently involved in activist projects based out of Tennessee.

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These "military" people have no real mis... by Roger Thomas on Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009 at 7:54:59 AM
     As much as I respect and ... by mikel paul on Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009 at 12:28:21 PM
I do not know why i read stuff like this and get i... by patricia hernandez on Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009 at 6:18:23 PM
 "..just remember if not for our militar... by William Whitten on Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009 at 6:51:28 AM
I am a liberal, a progressive and a 20 year vetera... by Richard Randall on Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009 at 10:28:15 PM
Randal,I find it curious that as an officer of you... by William Whitten on Friday, Feb 27, 2009 at 6:30:14 PM
I would become angry with pacifists, because I lac... by Elizabeth Molchany on Thursday, Feb 26, 2009 at 3:26:55 AM
Thank you for writing this article. It is not eas... by Elizabeth Molchany on Thursday, Feb 26, 2009 at 3:31:46 AM th... by William Whitten on Saturday, Feb 28, 2009 at 12:01:51 AM