From Moral Individuals to Obedient Recruits … if They Survive

"When the prisoners first arrived at the camp, widely-published photographs showed them blindfolded, chained, and manacled…."
BBC News

"From the time they are driven onto the base, recruits are told to keep their heads down and eyes closed. The less they know about the base’s layout, the less likely they are to try to escape."
The Virginian-Pilot

Beneath the photo of two Marines screaming insanely into a young recruit’s face, the Virginian-Pilot asks, "What would make someone sign up for this?" The question implies that there must be a very good reason for anybody to volunteer for this abusive nonsense, especially since more than 350 Marines have been killed since March 2003.

But the article, in a departure from the usual military-worshipping tone of that newspaper, provides a surprisingly honest answer:

"They were moved to enlist, they say, by a combination of factors. As freshmen and sophomores in high school, some watched their country endure the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and wanted to do something in response. Others are interested in money for college. Most say they sought discipline and a chance to do meaningful work."

Others are interested in money for college? How many others? Answer: A lot.

In psychological research, it is well known that a bias known as "self report" causes interviews such as this one to produce misleading results. That is, we will give whatever explanation makes us look good, receive rewards, or avoid punishment. This doesn’t mean that our answers are untrue, it just means that we keep to ourselves those motivations that might not place us, our family, or our comrades in the most favorable light.

The fact that any of the Marines interviewed by that reporter admitted their real motivation for joining this violent organization – to fund college and for other financial, work-related, or pragmatic reasons – suggests that many more would have given this answer if only it sounded a bit more "patriotic." Saying they joined because they wanted to "do something" after 9/11 sounds vague and rather absurd, considering their age (many were high school freshmen or sophomores three years ago), but a lot more socially acceptable.

But by this point, for those particular young people, it doesn’t matter why they joined up – it’s too late to change their minds. No matter how young or troubled and no matter how dishonestly they were recruited, they are now the property of the U.S. government. In the only form of enslavement that’s legal in the U.S., the military now owns them – body, mind, and soul. And once they’re in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever the next war may be, they can be held against their will for as long as their leaders wish.

So much for all the Bush administration’s chatter about faith, morality, and family values: It wants to take your children from you, change their moral values, and transform them into playing pieces for its global game of Risk.

Luring Our Children Into the Military Cult

I know kids who deeply regret signing up for the military, now that Mission Accomplished is killing more and more young people every day. Several admit now that they enlisted simply because their families had no money for college.

One quiet, polite boy from a poor neighborhood used to tell my daughter that he’d signed up because he needed "discipline." But over time, he started telling the truth: He didn’t know how to get a job, and nobody in his family knew how to help him. His father left a long time ago, and his mother is out of the picture. He’s grown up with his grandparents, one of whom died this year, sending him into a tailspin of confusion and loneliness.

As he saw it at the tender age of 17, his future was either McDonald’s or the military. The "discipline" he thought he needed was really direction and hope. But in our conservatively compassionate world, the only people who sought him out at his high school were the military recruiters. Like all his friends, this child wasn’t left behind when the men in uniform came to call.

I was sitting in a high school office a couple of years ago when a recruiter approached another inner-city boy clothed in ill-fitting jeans and a stained shirt. "Hey, if you sign up today, you’ll get a $5,000 bonus, right away! Wouldn’t you like $5,000? You know, girls like guys who have a car. You could get a really cool used car with $5,000! I’ll be back after school: meet me here and we’ll take care of the paperwork, okay?"

A Southern kid says that he enlisted because he didn’t think he was "college material" – but now sees friends going to college who made far worse grades than he did last year, when they were high school seniors. "Now I think I could have gone to college! But now I’m trapped." A poor boy who’s about to be shipped off to an Iraq "hotspot," his voice is subdued, hopeless, resigned.

But for all these teens who aren’t even old enough to buy liquor, the decision to sign up is considered irrevocable. If they grow up a bit and realize that they signed a piece of paper before they learned how to do their own laundry, they are given no opportunity to say, "I made a mistake; this isn’t for me." If they try to do so, they’ll be hunted down like dogs, held up in the media as cowards or "deserters," or court-martialed and imprisoned by that same military that lured them in with promises of fast cars and pretty girlfriends.

Military ads appeal to confused kids who are looking for quick money, a way out of dead-end jobs, or a sense of purpose. Many, in their poorly funded schools and impoverished neighborhoods, have never felt important or worthy of respect. This is the lure of the military: Sign yourself over to us, accept whatever we dish out in perfect submission, and we’ll give you a prepackaged future (if you survive) and a uniform that other people will respect.

Forget Faith-Based Values: From Human Being to Recruit

Trouble is, the kind of "respect" that the young woman in the photo is learning and has been promised from others, if she survives the boot camp hazing, is nothing more than fear. This fear instills the longing to one day be able to do to others as others are now doing to us. And so it goes with every young man and woman who enters that cult-like world of radical authoritarianism and leader worship. Even the strongest person may be unable to resist brainwashing under these inescapable conditions:

"It is a fallacy that intellectual awareness of what is happening can always prevent a man from being indoctrinated. Once he becomes exhausted and suggestible, or the brain enters the ‘paradoxical’ or ‘ultra-paradoxical’ phases, insight can be disturbed; even the knowledge of what to expect may be of little help in warding off breakdown. And afterwards, he will rationalize the newly implanted beliefs and offer his friends sincere and absurd explanations of why his attitude has changed so suddenly."
William Sargent, MD, Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brainwashing

From an individual, a human being with thoughts and feelings of her own, the young woman in the photo is being transformed into a "recruit," a being who can be counted on to obey orders no matter how heinous they may be. A "recruit" in today’s military must relinquish his or her soul to the Corps, or the Army, or the Air Force, and stop thinking for him- or herself. By annihilating the self, boot camp erases the morals and values learned at one’s mother’s knee and in church for the morality of political and military leaders, however virtuous or sinful. As the article continues,

"’You have taken a first step to become a member of the world’s finest fighting force, the U.S. Marines,’ he shouts. He instructs them on military laws they must now obey – such as disrespect through words, gestures or facial expressions not being tolerated. ‘You will now become a team. You will train as a team. The word ‘I’ will no longer exist in your vocabulary. You will now refer to yourselves as "this recruit…"’

"The recruits make mandatory calls home, following a script posted above the phones. It’s a one-way conversation: ‘This is recruit (state your name). I have arrived safely at Parris Island. Do not send any food or bulky items. I will contact you within 3-5 days via postcard with my address. Bye.’"

Take another look at that photo of garden-variety degradation dressed up as "elite" Marine training, then look at this photo. One is wearing orange, the other is wearing camouflage, but both are undergoing an initiation, a hazing, a brainwashing.

While the purpose of the initiations are different – one is to accept one’s new status as an obedient, submissive "enemy combatant," and one is to become an obedient, submissive recruit – the process of breaking down the self and purging one’s sense of decency, morality, and self-respect is the same. Just because the Golden Rule is ignored doesn’t mean that it’s obsolete: The urge to do to others as others have done to them becomes ingrained in both. Whether prisoner or guard, enemy or soldier, when we abuse people, we shouldn’t be surprised when they return the favor.