Few, proud, remarkable

Posted: Apr 26, 2004 12:00 AM

   PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. -- A morning here is punctuated by shouts and yells. Standing at an area reserved for martial-arts training sometime around 7 a.m. -- practically afternoon by Parris Island standards -- I can hear platoons in the distance well before I can see them. There are the distinct, barking voices of drill instructors, inevitably followed by the staccato collective answers of their platoons of recruits.

    When the platoons come into view, the recruits are jogging in loose formation, constantly prodded and harried by drill instructors wearing yellow T-shirts, running up and down among them, picking out recruits for shouted instructions, correction or what seems to be pure harassment. The instructors appear eternally pissed, bending at the waist to lean in close to the recruits' faces to give them the full blast of their yells.

    U.S. national security depends on what happens on this sand-flea-infested island in the middle of a swamp. It is here that kids are forged into the Marines so feared by the enemy that they have variously been dubbed "the devils dogs" (by the Germans in World War II) and "the angels of death" (by the Iraqis in the first Gulf War), and who knows what epithet by the thugs they now confront in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq.

    Even for a civilian who sympathizes with the culture of the military, it can be painful to watch. In one exercise, a recruit is beaten silly in a bout with another recruit with "pugil" sticks -- large, padded sticks meant to resemble bayonets. As he wobbles away, the drill instructor spits invective at him: "You're disgusting, Duncan. You hear me? You're disgusting." Not "Nice try." Not "Better luck next time."

    The instructors are convinced that the harder they are on the recruits, the better they will eventually be as Marines, and that there can be no higher honor than membership in this fierce fighting brethren. The recruits are learning an unquestioning submission to authority and unit discipline. They always refer to themselves in the third person because "I" is no longer part of their vocabulary. The Marines realize in a way that the rest of our culture doesn't that the path to true self-esteem -- to self-confidence and competence -- runs through the obliteration of selfishness.

    When they see their sons and daughters upon their graduation, parents say that they are changed and better people, instilled with values and discipline that they didn't pick up in 18 years, but have now learned in 13 weeks. One officer tells recruits convinced that their instructor hates them, "If that's so, how come you see him more than his children see him?" Perhaps the only closer bond recruits will make other than with their instructor is with their rifle -- "every Marine is a rifleman" is Marine Corps writ.

    Those rifles are often wielded in close urban combat, as in Iraq. The recruits who will eventually go there are heartbreakingly young. Drill instructors talk of working the "baby fat" off them. It gives a terrible reality to the lists of dead in the newspapers, many of them 21 years old or younger. Every day here, the flag is lowered just before sunset to the doleful sound of "Taps," an occasion to remember the sacrifice of so many throughout the years and the sacrifice that will be made by some of the recruits here now.

    Without this training, few would be willing to risk making that sacrifice, or know how to avoid making it by killing the enemy first. One recruit gets pulled aside to talk to a reporter late in his training. His face is smeared with camouflage paint, and he stands straight with his heels together, never cracking a smile. He is from New Jersey and explains, "Sept. 11 made this recruit angry." Twelve weeks ago, he was an ordinary kid, hanging around friends leading aimless lives. Not anymore: "This recruit will be proud to serve his country. This recruit will die for his country."