Strangers in Uniform

The military has never been better at solving society’s problems—or more estranged from mainstream America

| March-April 1997

  • strangers-in-uniform

    Image by Flickr user: DVIDSHUB / Creative Commons

  • strangers-in-uniform

Like much of southeast Washington, D.C., Eighth Street has seen better days. But at the corner of I Street sits one local landmark unscarred by age, crime, poverty, or neglect—a symbol, you might say, of tradition untouched by progress: the U.S. Marine Corps barracks. Amid urban chaos, it is an oasis of order. A guard stands at the gate; inside, crisply uniformed men and women move with purpose. The lush, manicured parade ground, maintained by a horticulturist and a staff of 20, spreads to the foot of the commandant’s residence.

But not only the physical contrast to the surrounding streets is stark: Those who live within the walls of this haven are a breed apart as well. The young enlisted Marines I meet, none older than 24, have poise and self-possession well beyond their years. They carry themselves with pride and speak in modulated tones, their words laced heavily with “ma’ams.” Their answers are thoughtful. They have come, by and large, from the South, and from the working class, the children of seamstresses and social workers, farmers and factory workers. But from the first day of boot camp they abandon their inherited identities to be reborn into the military class.

They signed up for many reasons—patriotism, opportunity, challenge, to test their mettle. Corporal Gabriel Ford, 21, enlisted three years ago after growing up on a West Virginia farm and deciding college wasn’t for him. His parents divorced early, and he wanted to make something of himself before making a commitment like marriage. The Marines promised to make the most of him. “They break you down to ground zero—and then build you up,” he says. “You realize that you can be a leader, that you have all these qualities you never knew you had.”

Chief Warrant Officer Joe Boyer, 40, says he signed up 20 years ago because everyone from his small-town Illinois high school was “going to the farm or going to work at Caterpillar to make bulldozers.” Neither option appealed to him; slaying dragons and seeing the world did. Yet Boyer says civilians have told him he must have gone into the military because he was too stupid to do anything else. This white male Midwesterner looks at me and says, “I am a stereotyped minority.” He's right. Among the well-educated and well-off, the perception persists that the military is the blue-collar option of last resort.

Twenty-five years ago, that notion had some merit. Once the educated began to evade the draft, and then were let off the hook entirely by its abolition, the military became a place for people with few options. Drunkenness, drug use, desertion, illiteracy, and racial tension were rife. Forty percent of Army recruits were high school dropouts.

But beginning in the early 1980s, the armed forces began raising standards and requiring, if not a high school diploma, at least a GED (and only a tiny percentage of recruits have a GED instead of a diploma). Today, the caliber of recruits is the highest in history—more than 90 percent of enlisted men and women are high school graduates—and the services regularly turn away those who don’t meet their standards.

steve eatenson
7/22/2011 11:58:28 AM

I recently spoke to a young man who proudly served as a Marine. He told me about having to kill a number of children coming at him with guns in order to survive. He will never get over this. He told me the Marines taught him to react without thinking when confronted, and react in a way that every bit of force is concentrated on killing the enemy. Then he told me, they teach you all the ways to become an unthinking killing machine and then they bring you back into society without proper preparation and expect you to go along to get along. He told me he has had a couple of run-ins with the law since being back over his inability to curb his conditioned violent reactions. It's easy for mamby pamby enlisted people to sing the praises of the military if they have had cushy jobs not requiring constant kill or be killed exposure. I suspect the young man I speak of would find this article somewhat narrow in it's perspective.

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