Every few minutes, an agonized moan rose above the constant rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire punctuated with bomb explosions. It was a sunny winter afternoon, but a ring of trees provided shade and cooled the air. Cammie-clad, helmetted men dragged themselves across a dirt field, on one arm each. They carried rifles in their other arms and packs on their backs, as they pushed heavy ammunition cans or water canteens, under simulated fire. Whenever they reached one of several barbed-wire fences, one man would hold up the wiring with his rifle while another slid under on his back.
They were recruits nearing the end of Marine Corps boot camp’s Phase Three, which emphasizes teamwork. They were undergoing “the Crucible”, a sort of “final exam” in the form of a 54-hour combat simulation exercise. The sound effects were the first 10 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” blasting at a deafening level over a loudspeaker on a continuous loop.
The Crucible begins with Reveille at 0200, followed by a six-mile hike. The recruits perform 26 exercises to test teamwork and problem-solving through simulations of situations including hand-to-hand combat, re-supply, and casualty evacuation. They average four hours of sleep per night and consume only three meals-ready-to-eat during the entire two and one-quarter days.
Here the recruits live out their training. With basic how-tos ingrained, they can concentrate on making crucial decisions—confident that they know what to do under which circumstances. Or at least they should. When a recruit tossed ammunition cans instead of rolling them, a drill instructor responded quickly, bending down to yell over the soundtrack at the man on his back. He had committed a serious error; a carelessly hurled 50-pound ammo can could knock out a platoon mate.
In the Crucible, boot camp’s rationale for close-order drills, for the rigid and uniform standards for seemingly small things like making beds, for the relentless sanding down of the patina of individuality, burn through. Without working as a team, in complete and predictable concert, service members won’t get out of combat alive. Or dead, for that matter. A few recruits drag “casualties”—actually dummies—through the field. It’s part of the trust between Marines—that one’s platoon mates will not abandon him, no matter what.
My visit to Parris Island last month strenghthened my regard for the U.S. Marine Corps.
It remains strong–despite the efforts of my junior Senator.
Jim Webb was a Marine. So was his aide, Phillip Thompson, who tried to bring a gun into the Russell Senate Building on Monday. Sen. Webb has responded to the incident with evasive statements that leave more questions than answers, even refusing to confirm or deny Mr. Thompson’s claim that the gun belongs to the Senator, who asked the aide to carry it, and let his fellow Marine spend his 45th birthday in D.C. jail. What is he hiding? Why is he hanging his aide, a fellow Marine, out to dry?