Ranks of bald young men in shorts and sweaty green tee-shirts come hustling
up the pavement Recruit Depot San Diego, chuffing past gaggles of sun-glassed
tourists. We haven’t seen our son Tommy since he left for San Diego over three
months ago, a half-year after his high school graduation. The six platoons of
Bravo Company, each four across and twenty long, are this week’s graduates from
Marine boot camp, and Tommy is somewhere in that purposive mass.
The recruit families–well over 1,500 spectators–cluster behind yellow ropes
and signs listing, “Plt 1022… Plt 1023…” Tommy is in Platoon 1027, and being
short, we arrive early to get close. And with characteristic intent, the Corps
has thought this out: When the boys chug into sight, the files are ordered by
height. Five hundred recruits run up, drill instructors peal, “Halt! …Left face!
…Parade rest!” Feet stomp shoulder-wide, arms snap behind backs, and the crowd
bubbles with squeals, sighs and cries of “There he is!” Sure enough, our own
shining-faced boy stands there, right in front of us. We choke, dazed, as we
watch Tommy, ten feet away, eyes watering, blinking and gulping. Then,
“Attention! Right face!” and off they run.
Tommy has Canadian parents and has lived here since toddlerhood, but he was
born in Los Angeles and has always thought of himself as American. A quick
study, he sailed through high school unchallenged, and graduated restless and
impatient, seeing his cause–call it Western Civilization, Civic Virtue, Moral
Discipline–but lacking handles on it. So this is his answer, not for life,
maybe, but for the next five years. He picked the Marines for their traditions
and tough boot camp. He earned his coveted “Eagle, Globe and Anchor” pin a week
earlier, for surviving a 54-hour field exercise called the Crucible.
Tomorrow–Friday, April 11, serendipitously his 19th birthday–he
officially graduates as a Marine, then gets ten days leave home.
At first, the two-day graduation ceremony seems badly managed. Breakfast at
the base restaurant starts at 7:00 a.m., so it’s a long wait until the 10:30
“motivational run,” where we first see get to see “our recruit.” So the families
all flock to the Marine Corps Store, checking out Marine-logoed coffee mugs,
bumper stickers and tee-shirts. Many already wear “My son is a Marine.” Or “my
grandson” or “my nephew.” Today, the sales racks overflow into the courtyard,
and it takes 20 minutes to inch up to the cash register. “Do you do this every
week?” I ask a sales clerk, and she laughs, “I hate Thursdays.”
At 10am, the families are entertained by some stand-up sergeants,
joking about young men and dirty laundry. “I know we don’t like rules,” they
tell visitors. “But we need rules, and the first rule is, Stay off the grass.”
At 10:30, we watch from behind the yellow ropes as the boys start their run. We
gasp back tears; we recover. At 11, we’re entertained by more camouflaged
emcees in the big theatre courtyard. Then, as they finish their run, the
platoons again form up in front of us, again at a distance, again unhugged.
Again they run off, this time to the showers. Again we recover. The families
amble into the cool, dark theatre for a talk from the base commander on the
Marines’ “core values,” Honor, Courage, Commitment. She warns that the Number
One killer of young Marines is traffic accidents, so keep our recruits safe
while they’re home on leave. Then, lunch and–ahem–more shopping.
At 1 p.m., after six hours on base, the families again gather by platoons,
now at the parade square (“parade deck”) grandstand. Our boys march out in
uniformed ranks, and the company commander, his loudspeaker echoing off adobe
barracks, grants them five hours liberty with their families–on base. The ranks
and files dissolve into crowds of boys, and finally we get to hug our recruits.
By now, everyone has thoroughly decompressed. No tears, no shouting, no
hysteria, we greet long-lost ewe lambs with quiet squeezes. And I begin to
appreciate how well the Corps has thought this all out.
That Thursday, we have Tom for five hours. He babbles continuously, reliving
the past three months. It was hard, harder than he imagined, harder than he
could have imagined, especially those terrifying first four weeks. The drill
instructors could not hit them (except with the tips of their fingers). But for
16 hours a day, seven days a week (minus three hours on Sunday) these
frighteningly muscular sergeants exercised, drilled and confused them, punished
imaginary infractions, demanded ludicrous drills, humiliated and disoriented
them. And now Tom exudes a dramatic new maturity and quiet confidence. At the
Friday graduation, in one of three of his dress uniforms, he’s happier than
we’ve ever known him.
The whole boot camp graduation seems commercialized, even “reality”
televised. But Tom’s drill instructors remember the Bad Old Days: their
media-squandered sacrifice in Vietnam, Kubrick‘s Full Metal Jacket,
well-publicized training fatalities… The Seventies were hell for the “Semper
Fi.” How to make honour again honourable? Spirited youth are always out there,
looking for a challenge, but how do you reclaim respect for warriors in a
commercial society? First, by enlisting their families, by translating the
training of young Spartans into the vocabulary of self-development seminars. And
second, by celebrating the challenge, by setting the bar high, just shy of
physical injury, and keeping it high.
It works. Tom’s platoon is mostly middle-class. Though the audience only
dimly understands, the boys came for “Honor, Courage, Commitment.” During the
lulls in their shouting–and Tom’s platoon had one sergeant assigned entirely to
shouting–the drill instructors offered lessons like, “Honor means doing the
right thing when no-one’s watching,” and “Commitment means keeping your
promises.” Now these once terrifying sergeants offer their congratulations, and
Tom respects them. Their job was to get him through, and they did their job.
That weekend, before we fly home with Tom, we drive from San Diego up to the
eastern Los Angeles basin, where he was born, and there we see clear evidence of
the revival of martial virtue in the United States. Almost every town has
banners hanging from their street lights, celebrating by name their local men
and women in the military. The one exception is the college town of Claremont,
Tom’s birthplace and an anomaly in middle-class California suburbia. Yet even
there, the anti-war banners on lawns plead, “Support our troops–bring them
home.” Support our troops. That’s a change.
This commitment to martial virtue is reawakening not only in the United
States, but in Canada and Australia. Yet the US alone shows other indicators
of the War on Self-Indulgence. Only the Americans have a visceral resistance to
“victimless” crimes like recreational drug use and prostitution. Only the United
States (and Poland) have real public debates about abortion. Most crucial, the
wealthy nations are suffering a “demographic winter,” the aging and collapse of
their infertile populations, so that over the next century, they will be joining
the Romany and Mayans in the museum of remnant tribes. Among the wealthy
peoples, only America’s conservative “red states” are having babies, embracing
the sacrifices of family, at rates sufficient to sustain the next generation of
Americans. At one point during the graduation, the command, “Let us pray,” rings
out, and 480 white-capped heads bow with a snap, chins to
chest, in a drill (Tom later told us) that took a full half-day’s practice. The
civilians do likewise.
Yes, the boot camp graduation ceremony is commercialized and media-vulgar. It
is also dignified, solemn and reverent. This paradox reflected a deep-seated
ambiguity at the heart of America itself. Is the United States merely a
commercial oligarchy? Is “the business of American” merely business, and the
loyalty of its gap-toothed consumers bribed with trinkets? Or is the United
States truly a republic, a res publica or “public thing,” where
citizenship and civic virtue are the truely animating ideals? American students
refused to fight in Vietnam, cynically convinced of the first. Almost
one-in-five adult white males died in the Civil War,
implacably convinced of the second. “A nation with the soul of a church,”
Chesterton called the Americans. In the midst of the current economic mischief,
it is worth pondering that they still enjoy the world’s second-oldest living
constitution–the only older regime being the Papacy. Semper Fi.
Before we left the San Diego recruit depot, Tom had to buy new pants; we had
brought him his favourite jeans, but Marines don’t dress like that, and neither
anymore does he. Later in Claremont, while we sit nostalgically in an outdoor
restaurant, a breeze blows some scrap paper onto the ground, and this once
indolent teenager notices, stoops and picks it up. The next day, he flies home
with us for ten days leave, and during his leave, he never utters one word of
complaint about anything. What wonders are wrought by three months of
discipline, fear and exhaustion–nurture we could never provide at home.
Joe Woodard is a writer and teacher in Calgary, Canada.