Frontlines

Dressed to kill and scared to death

Ken Becker September 10 1979
Frontlines

Dressed to kill and scared to death

Ken Becker September 10 1979

Dressed to kill and scared to death

Ken Becker

"Hey you, roach, get the hell over here,” Corporal Jeff Crane shouted across the runway at his platoon leader, a stocky teen-ager. The kid ran over to Crane, his baggy camouflage fatigues flapping in his wake. He snapped to attention, stamping his oversized combat boots. “SIR, YES, SIR,” the kid screamed, though he was only a few feet from Crane.

“Now what the hell did I want from you?” Crane said, more to himself than to the petrified private. The kid stood frozen, his chest swelled, holding his breath. His eyes never strayed from his superior’s face. “I don’t know what the hell I wanted from you,” Crane decided. “Get the hell back over there.” “SIR, YES, SIR,” the kid screamed before breaking into a trot and returning to his platoon.

Crane shook his head. “What the hell do you do with dummies like these? Some of them are so dumb that the only way to get their attention is to beat hell out of them.” Crane smirked. “But we don’t do that here,” he said, mimicking a lisp. “It’s not allowed. You get in trouble for that.” He toyed with his M-16 automatic rifle and stared at the 70-odd men in his pla-

toon. He looked disgusted. “Jesus,” he said.

The men of the 3024th Platoon, 3rd Battalion, United States Marine Corps, were preparing for war that afternoon, earlier this summer. It was shortly after 3 p.m. when Crane had them stand at attention on the deserted runway awaiting further instructions. They all wore fatigues and carried full packs along with their M16s. The faces were smeared with green camouflage makeup. The temperature was just under 38°C. At dusk the war would begin.

Crane was joined on the runway by Staff Sergeants John Monday and Clyde Gibson. They marched their troops over to a stand of pines and had them begin digging foxholes. Suddenly a young private came flying out of one of the holes and ran frantically around its perimeter. He was babbling incoherently in a high-pitched voice. Gibson walked over to the foxhole and looked inside. “Sheet,” he drawled. He took the private’s shovel, swung it like a hammer and drove it into the hole. He jumped down and came back up with half a snake in each hand. “Damn city kids,” he said.

He stared at the kid who had jumped out of the hole. “Get over here,” he ordered. The kid ran to his sergeant. “SIR, YES, SIR,” the kid screamed, shuffling his feet to some semblance of attention. “Get

the hell out of my sight,” the sergeant ordered. “SIR, YES, SIR,” the kid screamed. He ran back to his hole and resumed his digging.

The 3024th Platoon typifies most platoons in today’s marine corps, in the postVietnam era, in the current all-volunteer armed forces of the United States. It is about three-quarters white and one-quarter black. Most of the whites are from small towns, rural areas, or industrial cities with high unemployment. Most of the blacks are from the urban north, city kids who got tired of standing on corners faced with a choice between crime and the candy man. Some turned to the marine corps because of its macho myth or its promise of exotic stations; some signed up to* learn a trade or start a career; some simply found their way to a recruiter’s office on a day they had nothing better to do—and the next thing they knew they had enlisted.

They show up at Parris Island, South Carolina, or at San Diego, California, the two recruit training depots—or “boot camps”—with little or no idea of what awaits them. They have seen Jack Webb as the hard-boiled-drill-instructor-witha-heart-of-mush in the movie The D.I., and expect a tough but ultimately rewarding experience.

Some don’t even make it out of the reception barracks into a platoon. “We’ve had guys come waltzing in here with marijuana and other drugs,” said the reception barracks sergeant at Parris Island. “We’ve had bank robbers who hoped to hide out here. We’ve even had a couple of homosexuals. They all get a ticket home.” Last year, 12.9 per cent didn’t make it through the torturous 11 weeks of basic training. They were bounced out. They couldn’t cut it.

The recruits are assigned to the reception barracks for up to a week. They are stripped of their clothes, their hair and their individuality. They are berated into total subservience, on the theory that a good soldier obeys on reflex. One day, he’s told, it may save his life. When a superior shouts, the good soldier jumps. Every first word is “sir”;every last word is “sir.”He is taught to scream his responses: “SIR, YES, SIR”: “SIR, NO, SIR.” Screaming is a reflex. It requires no thinking. He is taught tunnel vision, to look only at his superior, lest he miss a command or the nuance of a command. “Eyeballing,” as the Dis call it, is out. If a naked lady wanders into the recruit’s peripheral vision, his eyeballs better not wander along with her. The recruit sees only marines, hears only marines, speaks only to marines. Until they make it through basic training, recruits are merely recruits. Dis are marines.

On July 1,1979, General Robert H. Barrow assumed command of the U.S. Marine Corps. That same week, it was revealed that more than 100 recruits at the San Diego training depot were dragged out of their bunks in the middle of the night and systematically beaten by three Dis. Barrow said publicly: ‘The news hit me like a hot poker in the heart.” Ever since the fatal beating of a mentally retarded recruit, Lynn McClure, at San Diego in 1975, the marine corps has publicly condemned excesses at Parris Island and San Diego. It says it has placed more officer supervision over Dis, altered the concept of the DI as feudal lord over recruit-serfs. It says that during the first quarter of this year (before the recruits’ beating, which is still under investigation) 18 cases of physical abuse and seven cases of verbal abuse resulted in disciplinary action against DIS; while during the same period in 1976 there were 59 cases of physical and 14 cases of verbal abuse.

“Our motto is ‘firmness, fairness and dignity’,” says Major Paul Chapman of marine headquarters at the Pentagon. “Society has changed and we have changed with it. Particularly General Barrow, who served as commandant at Parris Island for 32 months[to July, 1975], is sensitive to these kinds of things.”

At about the same time the recruits were being beaten in San Diego, the 3024th Platoon was digging in for war on

Parris Island. It wasn’t a real war, of course. There wasn’t any live ammunition in the M-16s. It was what the marine corps calls a “mini-war,” an all-night exercise. There would be plenty of noisetapes blaring machine-gun fire and grenade and rocket explosions—and prisoners would be taken. All of which would make some of the recruits feel like John Wayne and others like wetting their fatigues.

But for all that, the “mini-war” just didn’t seem to make the blood rush for the seasoned Dis. Many instructors had served in Vietnam, the real thing. They were trained soldiers training others to fight, without a war in sight. Though there was some talk that day of the growing revolution in Nicaragua, there was little hope that these men would see action there. The U.S. didn’t do those things anymore, not since Vietnam. Gone were the days when the marines were flung into places like the Dominican Republic, not to mention the halls of Montezuma or the shores of Tripoli.

But the recruiters keep recruiting and Parris Island keeps turning out battleready recruits; 19,848 in 1977, 26,158 last year. They arrive scared kids and 11 weeks later they’re supposed to be ready for action, just like the recruits of 1917 and 1941.

“It’s no secret that there are a lot of men here who would like nothing better than the real thing,” said one marine observer of the phoney war. “That’s what they’re trained for. That’s the whole purpose of this place. Without even the slightest prospect of war, this place is obsolete. And every year it’s getting tougher and tougher to take things like this seriously.”

In another corner of the 8,000-acre island, not far from the statue of the staged flag-raising at Iwo Jima, adjacent to the notorious obstacle course that the PR-conscious corps calls a“confidence course, ” is a group of first-week recruits learning to drill. Across the road is a platoon of “boots” doing disciplinary exercises that the PR-conscious corps calls “incentive physical training.” The DI had a face that looked like he had recently gone the distance with Muhammad Ali — twisted putty nose, cauliflower ears, puffy cheeks. He shouted his commands through a pronounced lisp.

“There’s only one plath,” he shouted.

“SIR, YES, SIR,” the boots screamed back.

“Firtht plath,” the DI lisped.

“SIR, YES, SIR,” they chimed. All but one kid. He just smiled. He never parted his lips, and he never stopped smiling. He never took his eyes off the DI. He seemed to know that he had found his niche in life-^that during the next 10 weeks he would be trained to kill. <£>