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In Your Face: the Making of a Marine

How boot camp recalibrates civilian norms into warrior code

Making the Corps

By Thomas E. Ricks

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320 pp., $24

Thomas Ricks may not be a marine. But readers wouldn't know that from his account of boot camp at Parris Island. "Making the Corps" is as gung-ho yet sensitive a treatment of the Marines as any Devildog could hope for.

And yet, Ricks goes well beyond mere description. He raises critical questions about the delicate balance between two increasingly different worlds: that occupied by civilians and that of the military.

Ricks, who is The Wall Street Journal's Pentagon correspondent, sets out to trace the progress of a single platoon - 3086 - as 36 young men are drilled, harangued, challenged, and socialized into the corps. Not only are we with them as they learn to shoot and operate in the woods, but we also go home with them when they finally graduate at the end of 10 tough, demanding weeks.

It is through their eyes that Ricks has us see just how sloppy and undisciplined they then consider most of their civilian peers, and how uncertain they are that they still share many of the broader society's values.

In addition to shedding pounds during boot camp, the young recruits Ricks follows shed most of their former habits and virtually all their previous attitudes. Boot camp doesn't just mature them. It completely recalibrates them. Self-centeredness is disallowed. For instance, recruits in 3086 are forbidden from starting sentences with the first-person singular, "I."

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Ricks explains how the me-centered identity of the recruits has to be rearranged. He brilliantly parses a short speech given by one of 3086's drill instructors (or DIs). "Before we leave my island, we will be thinking and breathing exactly alike." Classic DI prose, it is hugely possessive, it speaks to the group, and it is confidently cast in the future imperative. "Nobody's an individual, understand? That is, anybody who somehow remains an individual is by definition a nobody: not a marine."

Ricks understands too, though, that the 'we' is unbelievably exclusive. In fact, Ricks is so good at analyzing the tribal rituals embedded in the long rite of passage that is boot camp that I have to wonder whether some of it hasn't worked its magic on him. Are the Marines really so special as he would have us believe? This is hardly a trivial question, since with only slightly less regularity than the arrival of new recruits to Parris Island, congressmen and military strategists question whether we need the Marine Corps at all.

Indeed, "Making the Corps" could just as easily have been entitled, "Keeping the Corps." According to Ricks, the corps has been the force that has fought most of the America's small wars, and small wars are all we currently seem likely to fight.

The author makes a compelling (if not 100 percent convincing) case that the Marines can do this better than any other service. And though readers whose loyalties lie elsewhere might question his fierce attachment to the corps, no reader will come away from this book without a deep appreciation for how loyalty to the corps is built.

Ricks does a superb job in this sense. I could quibble with some of his analysis. For instance, he substitutes "right-wing" for "conservative" a bit too freely when he discusses the Republicanization and politicization of the officer corps. And he might draw too many of his conclusions from the conversion experiences of young recruits who, like all recent converts, tend to be extreme in their views. Also, he focuses far more on those marines enamored of life with the corps than those who leave embittered. But when it comes to describing what boot camp and a hitch can do for today's youths, he hits all sorts of nails on the head.

Indeed, the only real disappointment is that Ricks devotes just a single paragraph to the obvious lesson he's learned: that the US might do well to adopt National Service. With compulsory national service, the gulf would have to narrow between young Americans, like the members of Platoon 3086, who have a sense of mutual responsibility and obligation drilled into them, and the legions of youths they leave behind in employment-poor inner cities, impoverished rural towns, and indifferent suburbs.

At the same time, running everyone through boot camp and forcing young people to join this service economy before settling for minimum-wage fast-food jobs would guarantee that eventually all Americans possess some first-hand knowledge of the military.

The military-civilian divide that Ricks and others fear is deepening might thereby be resutured. And the ghosts of elite military units that regard themselves as superior to everyone, and not just other military units - lurking just beneath the surface of this fine book - would be laid to rest.

* Anna Simons, an assistant professor of anthropology at UCLA, is the author of "The Company They Keep: Inside the US Army Special Forces" (The Free Press).

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