Marine Corps Drill Instructors are under fire for alleged abuse during recruits’ basic training, but this topic and debate is nothing new. Getting the average man or women ready for the rigors of combat and horrors of war is one of the oldest problems in the world. The first civilizations coordinated at least in part to harness the combat power of their people by forming them into organized armies. The first military philosophers in China often discussed and debated how to win the masses. And I remember the debate about how to treat recruits during my time in the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
The debate often centered on how tough to be. On one side are those that argue that training should be as rigorous and difficult as possible. After all, nothing gone through in boot camp can be as bad as combat, and the recruits need tough training in order to survive. The danger in this comes from possible physical abuse and assault that ends up betraying the fundamental values of the military.
The pendulum has often swung back and forth during America’s history. I went to boot camp and had drill instructors that were basically trained during the Vietnam era. They were kicked, hit, and even had to exchange underwear with each other. One drill instructor in roughly the same period was drunk and ended up killing recruits when he marched them through a swamp. But when I went to boot camp it seemed to swing the other way. My Senior Drill Instructor was worried about using the f word; one was censored for breaking a flashlight off a recruit, and we often had mandated counseling time. Despite how touchy-feely this sounded our generation was the first to fight in the War on Terror.
Twenty years later and the pendulum seems to have swung to the other side as at least eight drill instructors have been punished for physical abuse and hazing. The allegations include a recruit being pushed and chipping a tooth, and another being forced to wear dirty underwear on their head.
The allegations are still being investigated and we should withhold final judgement towards everybody involved until we know as much as possible. But the debate over how to best train recruits without crossing a moral line remains, though I believe it’s possible to find a medium that trains recruits for combat without crossing moral lines into the realm of physical abuse. This debate often becomes more difficult because of generational issues or the “back in my day” syndrome. But we can agree that training without crossing the line remains most important and we should be cautious that the pendulum doesn’t swing too far each way.