Watching our country tear itself apart over the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions is both sad and painful. Sometimes I wonder if America will ever move past the racial tensions that exist between blacks and whites. But then I’m reminded of my time in the Marine Corps and how we had little, if any, racial tension. Believe it or not, the Marine Corps figured out long ago how to end racial tension in its ranks, and if the civilian world would just use the same formula then things would get better in this country almost immediately.
What is the solution? What does the Marine Corps do that erases the lines between black and white? It’s pretty simple:
Every Marine is treated like shit on an equal basis, starting in boot camp. As soon as a recruit steps off the bus on Parris Island he is told that he is a worthless waste of human sperm until he earns the title of U.S. Marine. He is told this regardless of the color of his skin.
The key to race relations in the Marine Corps lies in the shared sacrifice expected of all Marines. Every Marine, regardless of his skin color, must pass the same moral, mental and physical tests required of every Marine that has gone before him. When he is finally allowed to wear the uniform, he knows that he has earned it fair and square and that it was not given to him to satisfy some quota. Fair, equal treatment is borne of shared sacrifice, and the idea of shared sacrifice is what is missing from the civilian world. Hence the current state of race relations in America.
One of the first examples I saw of how the Marine Corps handles race occurred when I was in boot camp on Parris Island in the summer of 1982. My platoon was mostly white but there were a good number of black recruits as well as a few Latinos. It was when one of our drill instructors noticed a small group of black recruits gravitating towards each other and trying to form a clique that I, along with the rest of the platoon, was given a first-hand lesson in how the Marine Corps handles race relations.
We had three drill instructors, one of which was black. He was the “Kill Hat”, which meant his job was to rip the ass off of any recruit that stepped out of line. He was like a machine and was very good at his job. When he noticed the four black recruits gravitating towards each other and trying to form a black clique he immediately took action. He knew how to fix the situation and put an end to a group of recruits trying to band together simply because they shared the same skin color.
Over the course of the next few weeks our Kill Hat took a particular interest in these four recruits, calling them “his little clique”. The rest of the black recruits in our platoon looked on in horror as these four recruits were punished. Several times a day our Kill Hat would order them to the quarterdeck of the squadbay, or out into the rose garden (the sandpit next to our barracks) where they would do pushups, leg lifts and all other manner of physical exercise until they collapsed in exhaustion. He damn near killed them, to be honest. In short, he was punishing them for trying to segregate themselves from the rest of the platoon. And given the fact that he was black himself, his words and actions carried a great deal of weight in the eyes of those four black recruits. It also made an enormous impression on the rest of us. I knew right then that the Corps was colorblind.
Our Kill Hat would walk down the squadbay and growl, “where’s my little clique? Get on my quarterdeck right fucking now!”
The four black recruits would immediately run to the quarterdeck where they would drop and begin doing pushups while he stood over them explaining, in no uncertain terms, that there were no cliques inside the Marine Corps because the entire Marine Corps as a whole was a clique. He explained that there was no black, white or brown in the Marine Corps and that all Marines were either dark green or light green. He communicated this to the black recruits as they sweated and strained to keep doing pushups. Drill instructors are masters of communication, and our Kill Hat was no exception to the rule.
This went on until our Kill Hat broke the will of one of the black recruits in “his little clique”. That recruit was then thrown out of the Corps and sent home. After that the clique disbanded when the remaining three black recruits finally realized that the color of their skin meant nothing, and would not garner them any special favors, least of all from a drill instructor that was as black as they were.
My bunkie in boot camp was a dark green Marine from Chicago. He and I became good friends even though as recruits we were barely allowed to speak to each other. We got off a whisper every now and then while we were all down on our hands and knees scrubbing the deck of our squadbay but that was about it. His skin color meant nothing to me, nor did mine to him. We knew we were brothers by way of the Corps and that our skin color would not save us if we couldn’t cut it. A little over a year after we graduated from boot camp, my bunkie was killed in Beirut, Lebanon on October 23, 1983.
The Marine Corps teaches that only one color matters – the color of a Marine’s blood. I know that on the day my bunkie died in Beirut, regardless of the color of his skin, his blood was just as red as mine.
Once I got out into the regular Marine Corps and began my service in an artillery battery, I never saw a Marine get promoted because of his skin color, nor did I ever see a Marine get picked for a working party or put on guard duty because of the color of his skin. We were pretty much all treated like shit on an equal basis. And I mean “treated like shit” in a good way. The Marine Corps is a bastion of testosterone and authority, perhaps the only such bastion left in America. A Marine will either do as he is told or his ass will be ground into dog meat. And it will not matter if his ass if black, white or brown. The color of his skin will not save him if he can’t follow orders and carry his share of the load.
When one of us got picked for a work detail we knew it was because we had either screwed up or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, not because we were one color and our platoon sergeant was a another color and had it out for us. In my time as a Marine, I had more black platoon sergeants than I did white ones, and I was treated fairly by them all.
The Marine Corps has a way of breaking down racial and social barriers by using discipline, good old fashioned hard work, and the time-honored notion of “shut your fucking mouth and do as you’re told”. That last part about shutting your fucking mouth and doing as you’re told has turned many an undisciplined teenage punk, black, white or brown, into a hard charging, well-disciplined U.S. Marine.