It’s an engaging narrative, but it isn’t one of Ricks’ best.
I adore Tom Ricks’ two books on the Iraq War, Fiasco and The Gamble, but this is one of his earlier ones. It’s the story of a Marine recruit company going through basic training from start to finish, examining their different backgrounds, experiences in boot camp, the Corps itself, and the future of the American armed forces.
Those portions that focus on the training of “3086” are well written and fascinating, providing a glimpse at diverse cross-section of American youth and the culture and training of some of America’s most famous warriors. That stuff is good.
The rest is mediocre for a number of reasons. Ricks seems to have a hard-on for the Marine Corps, to the detriment of the other military branches, especially the Army, which comes in for some almost bitter-sounding criticism. Ricks has a habit, in the course of the narrative, to blast the Army for its preferred teaching methods, its record and the like, while brushing over deficiencies in the Marines. One segment, where Ricks seems to almost mock a female Army recruit who cries after injuring her knee on an exercise, seems hypocritical, as he notes that nearly all male Marine recruits shed tears during their training, due to emotional, rather then physical, distress.
In that respect, Ricks is framing a debate between the “tough love” approach of the Marine Corps and the more nuanced training provided by the Army. Ricks is clearly in favor of the former, but I would disagree. In my view, the Marine Corp comes off as antiquated and dinosaurish in the text, with the Army being more in touch with the modern America. Moreover, the Army gets similar results in performance from its recruits, but Ricks glosses over this.
Another segment stays in my memory, when one of the Drill Instructors (DI’s, a purposeful mixture of “heavy hats” and understanding soldiers) continually focuses on one recruit for punishment, beration and mockery. After a while, the rest of the platoon chooses to join the recruit in his punishment push-ups. The DI approves of this behavior, believing that he has created a team spirit.
But, one of the more leaderlike recruits says privately that the action was a direct result of the DI’s maliciousness, and they were just sick of him picking on one person.
That is, they didn’t actually care who the victim was, especially. They just wanted to send the DI a message. A sort of team spirit has been created, but it is not what the DI’s think it is. It is built of a resentment towards leadership, rather than connection with a fellow recruit. One might argue that there is little difference, but I think that such a training tactic may breed bitterness towards command and a disrespect of officers/NCOs from the ranks.
Ricks also criticises the Army for its promotion practices, even though the star of Making the Corps, a Marine Sargeant named Casey, gets screwed over by his branch of the military despite his obvious competence.
Ricks also spends a great deal of time writing on the culture and ethos of the Corps – the worlds “honor” and “loyalty” are used over and over – but then goes into detail on the behavior of a surprisingly large number of the featured recruits after their graduation, from bouts of AWOL activity, crime, prison stretches and drug use. Ricks hammers home that godlike quality of the Corps a lot, but it does not match with the very human behavior of the Marines’ membership. Some of them anyway.
The book has also dated quite badly, but that is hardly the author’s fault. It was published in 1997, when the American military was caught in an apparent transition from a Cold War force to peacekeeping specialists. Ricks writes about the Marines (and the Armies) struggle to define themselves in a modern, peaceful America, with many of the books characters believing they would soon be forced to soon fight some form of war on American soil, the dis-connect between military and civilian being obvious.
9/11, of course, interrupted that thinking. The Marine Corps of this book is one that was becoming an expert at fighting wars like Haiti, learning from Somalia. Things changed, so its debatable how important that part of Ricks’ analysis still is.
Overall, not one of his best.