Politics & Media
May 21, 2013, 06:57AM

Three Things You'd Never Expect When Joining the Marine Corps

You took the digi-green camo pill, now it's time to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

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The United States Marine Corps is a completely separate culture. It bears little resemblance to the country you know. Imagine if instead of getting rescued at the end, all the boys from Lord of the Flies stayed on the island, grew into adults, and somehow cobbled together a functional society; with Simon, Ralph and Piggy having been early on hollowed out to make jousting canoes.

Here are three of the stranger manifestations of Marine Corps culture, the kind that make you—when you first encounter them—stop in your tracks, tilt your head a little to the right, and frown at the oddly pleasurable sensation of your synapses disconnecting en masse.

1: Theft is your fault

The first time you run into this one is usually in boot camp. Gear gets stolen in boot camp like handkerchiefs in Dickens’ London. So there you are, a new recruit, raw, pale, and recently shorn, looking around like a preschool classroom's rabbit wondering where the next stabby poking will come from, when you realize your canteen cup has gone missing. You scan your fellow recruits. Was it that guy, the stutterer from Fresno that looks contagious? Or maybe Mr. Bad Cleft Pallet Repair? There's no shortage of shady characters.

No matter, you know what to do. With all due reverence, you approach the drill instructor who is standing motionless in the middle of the squad bay exhaling brimstone. Sure, he's a trained sadist carved from ossified hatred, but he's in charge. With a single barked command he can, in seconds, have everybody's gear laid out on the floor, arranged alphabetically or by degree of shininess or relative sentimental attachment, and your canteen cup on a silver platter on an ivory pedestal, spot-lit in the middle of the room.

Imagine your surprise, then, when instead of relishing the opportunity to righteously castigate a sneaky, buddy-fucking thief, he runs you over with his car. Congratulations! You've just encountered one of the most counter-intuitive aspects of Marine Corps culture: theft is your fault. No matter where, no matter when, you're to blame. You took the digi-green camo pill, now it's time to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Why it makes sense (sort of): Well, a lot of this comes from the fact that most of your gear isn't yours. All the stuff you carry in combat is on loan from Mother Corps: you sign it out, turn it back in when you're done, and just like your girlfriend it's been on a lot of guys before. Haw! Realism! And when you lend something to someone, you expect to get it back. That's understandable. But there's also a deeper, subtler cultural aspect at work here. In civilian life, people honor honesty, sincerity, and personal property. Even if you think you're an edgy, brooding outsider and morality and property are just the chains that fetter the ubermensch; sorry, pal. It's Western culture and you're steeped in it.

The Marine Corps, on the other hand, values only winning. In most circumstances this doesn't cause any misalignment, because Western culture values winning, too. But the Marine Corps values only winning, and in the case of theft it's the thief that wins, as long as they get away with it. Sneaky and underhanded? Yes. Selfish and rude? Certainly. But those are good things, if they lead to winning. And you, having been bested by the clever thief, are the one who deserves punishment.

2: Ugly is Beautiful

There's a lot of art in the Marine Corps. I guess that shouldn't have surprised me, but it's just not something you associate with the military. Yet there it was: every building had a mural somewhere, every hallway had some stenciled prose, every unit had some cunning little emblem or insignia.

The thing is, it was just all so ugly. Snarling bulldogs with disfiguring underbites, scowling white skulls with bloody fangs, crossed sabers dripping gore, and everything done in broad, black outlines, primary colors, and blocky figures like the burlier pieces of Soviet propaganda art. And it wasn't due to a lack of talent: some of the artists were obviously talented. Then I started remembering other, seemingly unrelated events, like how all the pretty kids in boot camp wound up with their faces in the dirt so often. Or how every Marine I knew was crazy about The Boondock Saints. Or how everybody sneered at me when I used adjectives. The conclusion was inescapable: Marines just like ugly shit.

Why it makes sense (sort of): It's a warrior culture. You're not going to find a lot of flowers and butterflies, and the art is going to be emphatic, overt and masculine. No self-respecting Marine is going to put up a poster of The Kiss when he can put up a poster of Kiss. But that's just taste, and doesn't account for the pervasive ugliness. It is possible, for instance, to create an emphatic, overt image of gore and violence that is also beautiful to look at. I can think of Goya's Saturn Devours his Children and Picasso's Guernica right off the top of my head.

There's a deeper, subtler cultural aspect at work here. There is, in fact, a general mistrust of beautiful things, and that makes perfect sense when you think about what Marines do. Beautiful things tend to be delicate and fragile. They tend to be wonderfully complex, or elegantly simple, and in either case a little damage will ruin its effect. Just look at Justin Bieber: you telling me those perfect cheekbones wouldn't crumble to a fine powder if you hit him with a claw hammer? And then what would he do? He wouldn't be able to eat right. His combat effectiveness would be ruined.

3: The Dining In

I've had some truly surreal moments in the Marine Corps. My favorite was in boot camp. Imagine a long room full of men standing at attention in two rows, completely still, wearing nothing but their government-issued white Fruit-of-the-Looms. A drill instructor prowls the aisle in between. It is evening. Suddenly, out of nowhere, one of the men screams at the empty space in front of him, "Drill Instructor! This recruit requests to be sprayed in the eyes with Listerine!”

Yes. That happened. And when it did, although I showed no outward sign, I felt the warm rush of true, transcendental surrealism. But even that doesn't hold a candle to the lunar pageant of the weird that is the Marine Corps "dining in."

In my time in the Corps I saw only two of these, one as a guard for a Staff Non-Commissioned Officer event (we were tasked with guarding the participants against themselves) and another as one of the revelers. And both were getting flock-raped by 400 premature-ejaculating sugar gliders, in that afterwards you can’t decide just how disturbed you should be.

Basically, what goes on is that a whole company of Marines gets gussied up in their best "all done killin' for now" uniforms, meets up for cocktails, and then sits down for an elegant meal.

Then suddenly a Victorian parliamentary meeting breaks out. Robert's Rules of Order are in effect. Toasts are proposed. Fines are levied. A dude in a chef costume appears from a side door carrying a roast to be sampled by the President, seated on a dais. It’s found to be tasty and fit for human consumption (actual words). Meanwhile, pranksters have been at work. Compromising pictures appear in coat pockets. Fake piercings are discovered. Dildos have been taped beneath chairs. As these unsettling developments are brought before the assemblage (anachronistic language is used, such as "Mr. President! A heinous transgression is underway!" just so everything is as bizarre as possible), the President doles out punitive quaffs of grog. Then a special lamp is lit, and everybody smokes cigars, and nobody can go to the bathroom.

The evening finishes on a somber note. Glasses are filled with dessert wine, and everyone toasts to the Marines that have died in each of our country's wars, one toast per war. Now don't get me wrong, it's important to honor the fallen. But please remember these three points: 1: dessert wine is hard to take in large quantity. 2: at this point, you're already greasy drunk. 3: our country has been in a lot of wars.

Now stumble home and sleep it off. Tomorrow is a brand new day.

Why it makes sense (sort of): The Marine Corps is to the United States what mitochondria are to your cells. It exists inside the host entity, and serves it, but retains its own code and traces its origins into the misty past. Traditions like the dining in come from long ago, before there was a United States to defend, when people talked funny and did weird shit to entertain themselves between battles. They've been handed down, largely unchanged, for generations. The whole military, and the Navy in particular (of which the Marine Corps is a part) is rife with these things. They're like little sociological time capsules. And they're really interesting, if a bit weird.

—More Brian Henley at Smashwords and NewGoldTooth.com.  

  • This sounds criminal. Help is on the way. A few thousand combat veterans of the Marines are still alive. We could get congress to look into this for you. The President of the United States should be petitioned and required to bestow upon you, highest honors, along with some sort of disability pension. You have been grievously wounded and are probably no longer fit for service to your country in time of war. This was caused by a canteen cup and drinking with those damn Marines. Hang tough, brother. We got your back.

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  • While this post shows that the author has a decent command of the English language and can string two words together somewhat intelligibly (which is an accomplishment in itself for a Marine, if you follow his line of thinking), it's laughable. I have to wonder if he even served, but it's evident that if he did, he never 'got it'. I usually sign off with "Semper Fi" when corresponding with fellow Marines, but I'm not so sure the sentiment wouldn't be lost on the author.

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  • I enjoyed the article and didn't have the sense that the author was doing anything other than making observations. To the posters above, what did you two find so offensive. #1 has been going on since Sparta. #2 The "why is makes sense" part I may not agree with but is certainly not offensive. #3 Is just an example of the weird shit that is considered tradition.

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  • I never used the word offensive.

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  • Didn't say you did. However your pointing out that you are withholding the courtesy of Semper Fi while questioning the veracity of the author's statements, suggest that you were offended.

  • "To the posters above, what did you two find so offensive. "

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  • Never mind. Don't have time to teach you reading comprehension.

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  • Hi. This is Brian. I wrote the article. I can understand why some readers might think I was calling Marines stupid. It is one of the most prevalent stereotypes about Marines, and as such is almost certain to appear in a comedy article about them. I am not, however, a hack. Neither do I believe Marines are stupid. They are, in fact, a cross-section of America, meaning there are some really dumb ones, a lot of average ones, and some really smart ones.

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  • This isn't the first time I've been accused of not "getting it". Several of my fellow Marines have thought I wasn't sufficiently indoctrinated. I argue that they're the ones who don't get it. The Corps does not demand blind obedience. That's the sort of thing that gets you a My Lai. I think the Corps wants loyalty and fidelity, yes, but also a skeptical and independent perspective. Problems arise when individuals are more loyal to their commanders and their comrades than the principles they are supposed to uphold.

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  • It's a good article, don't worry if a random True Believer gets his/her nose out of joint.

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  • I agree with C.T. May. The lack of fabrication allows the reader to see the reality behind it--a seemingly harsh, but also true reality.

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