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Life Arts    H2'ed 2/23/09

Four Days With the Marines

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Reflections on the USMC Educator's Workshop and Marine Culture from the Perspective of a Peace Activist


On Tuesday, January thirteenth 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 which caters to young adults, high school teachers from rural and mid sized school districts in Tennessee and two recruiters for the US 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 new enlistees.  I had been invited along on a USMC Educator's Workshop, which is essentially a marketing strategy designed to encourage high school teachers to develop friendlier relations with Marine recruiters, and to encourage journalists to 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 US 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 US armed forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, to drastically reduce the scope of US 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.  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 US 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 and 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.


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.


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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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