My 4 years in the USMC

by Daniel Borgström
This essay was in the October 2005 issue of Z Magazine

The Marine Corps
didn't send me to Vietnam, so I came home in one piece, un-killed and un-maimed. I went on to trek around the world for a few years. Eventually I settled down to participate in the antiwar movement of that era.

But it could have been otherwise. After all, people who volunteer to fight those wars do sometimes get what they ask for. I've come to think a lot about that since this May when I attended a forum where Cindy Sheehan spoke. Cindy Sheehan is the mother of a GI who died in Iraq. “To make sense of his death I have to try to stop the war," she said. Her son, Casey, chose to go to Iraq, presumably believing that he was part of a liberation force, bringing freedom to Arabs and defending our country from terrorists.

That was also the sort of thing I believed 46 years ago when I joined the USMC. Of course we weren't fighting terrorism back then, but I certainly believed that as a GI I'd be defending our country and our freedoms. All that and a lot more. I grew up reading books and stories about World War II: "Last Man off Wake Island," "Guadalcanal Diary," and numerous others. Not that those are bad books, but I really did buy into every military myth on the market.

However, during my four years of active duty relatively few GIs were sent to Vietnam. There were some 3,000 in Vietnam by the end of 1961 and 11,000 a year later. I volunteered to go. So did almost everyone else in my outfit, but in those days war zones were a scarce item, and the supply of volunteers far exceeded the demand. So, I spent four years walking guard posts, shining my shoes for the next inspection, doing mess duty (the thing the army calls "KP"), and stuff like that.

I got my discharge in 1963, and it wasn't until two years later that they began to increase the number of GIs in Vietnam to over a hundred thousand. I feel I made very good use of those two years--I took classes, traveled abroad, spoke with people in other countries, also read books. By then I'd begun to suspect that our government had no right to be in Vietnam; I was no longer so ready to volunteer for such military adventures. I did not return to the Marine Corps.

Having made the wrong decision the first time, it turned out I got a second chance to re-decide the matter, and this time I got it right. But I know it could've been otherwise. There's a "what if" thing that sort of haunts me. Given a somewhat different life-scenario, I might've re-enlisted, gone to Nam and gotten killed there.

What distresses me most, however, is a question that really hit me a couple of months ago when I heard Cindy Sheehan speak out for her KIA son. Had I died in Nam, who would’ve spoken for me?

My mother never encouraged me to join the USMC, but she accepted my wish to do so. On her door window she used to have a sticker reading, "My son is a Marine." Years later, she was tolerant of my antiwar views, but less supportive. She always voted Republican. It bothered me to think that if I had died in Vietnam, she would've continued to vote Republican.

Recently I happened to read a poem by John McCrae. McCrae was a soldier who died in the First World War, shortly after penning a short message which he left to the world. It begins:

"In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row."

I read on, thinking this was a very poignant antiwar poem, until I reached the third stanza, which exhorts other people to:

"Take up our quarrel with the foe"

How could he say such a thing? But the thought crosses my mind that had things gone differently, I could've been such a soldier, dying and leaving poetry urging others to continue the dying. For an awfully bad cause. (From what I can see, nothing good came out of the First World War; millions died, only to set the stage for Mussolini, Hitler and another world war.)

Not everybody gets that second chance. Supposing I hadn't. Who then would've spoken for me? This week I read again of Cindy Sheehan, somewhere out there under the hot Texas sun, camped out on the road to Bush's doorstep, demanding answers.

"I want to ask the president, why did he kill my son?" Cindy Sheehan told reporters. "He said my son died in a noble cause, and I want to ask him what that noble cause is."

More people are heading to Texas to join her in her vigil. They, and others of the antiwar movement, speak for those who don't get that second chance.

My 4 years in the USMC

An acquaintance told me her friend's son is going in the Army, apparently believing the experience will do him some good. I sat down to write him a letter and wound up writing this essay.

I'm 64 now. The month I turned eighteen I joined the US Marine Corps and served four years. Quite simply, I wanted to be a Marine. I grew up in the years after World War II, watching movies and reading stories about it. Guadalcanal Diary was one of the books I read back then; that's the sort of thing I dreamed of doing--fighting my way through some jungle, the way they did on Guadalcanal. (However, that's not the way it turned out; I was never in any war.)

At the time I was pretty gung-ho on-the military, so maybe it was a good thing for me to experience it first hand. If you've seen the movie "Full Metal Jacket," you have some idea of what boot camp is like. When addressing the Drill Instructor we always had to speak in the third person. If you needed to go to the bathroom, the proper dialogue would go like this:

"Sir, Private Smith requests permission to speak to the Drill Instructor." "Speak, Private." "Sir, the Private requests permission to go to the head."

If you slipped up and addressed the Drill Instructor in the second person, he'd stick his face right in your face and snarl, "A ewe is a female sheep! You fuck a ewe. Do you think you're gonna fuck me, Private?"

They made a point of expressing absolute contempt for anybody and anything that wasn't in the Marine Corps. That included civilians and even people in other branches of the Armed Forces. "How many of you have seen a blue gob of shit with a marshmallow on top?" a Drill Instructor asked us one day; it turned out he was referring to sailors. "Swabbie" was another derogatory term for people in the Navy.

The Corps really pushed that macho stuff, and I have to admit that I bought into it, at first anyway. The good part was that the macho stuff was so tastelessly overdone that I eventually began to see through the silliness of that "be a man" crap. I need to thank the Marine Corps for rubbing my nose in it to the point where I got some enlightenment.

Boot camp was rough. No two ways about that. It's the ultimate experience in learning to say "Yes Sir!" and obey orders. "I want blind obedience," our Drill Instructor growled. "Blind obedience!" It was stressful and I suppose it could be considered an accomplishment to survive it without going out of your mind.

But boot camp was only the first sixteen weeks or so, and after that military life was quite different. Once you learn the ropes, which doesn't take too long, military life is pretty routine. They tell you when to get up in the morning, they tell you when to eat, they tell you when to do this, and they tell you when to do that. It doesn't take much brains or initiative or much of anything else. You just do as you're told and you're generally okay.

I liked guns and part of our ongoing training was to fire the M1 rifle and the .45 caliber pistol. But that was only a relatively small part of what we did. On one occasion I got to fire a .50 caliber machine gun, which is really a small cannon. They gave us each a belt of 100 rounds and let us fire away. That was pretty neat, but it was only once in all those four years.

There were also some field exercises, but not a whole lot. I wanted to be in the infantry; that's what I asked for. Instead, they sent me to an electronics school. It was an excellent school, and a lot of guys would've been very glad to get it, but it wasn't what I wanted. I hated working on radios.

For the most part, my four years in the Corps were incredibly boring. That's the way a soldier's life is in peacetime. Shining shoes, polishing the brass pipes under the sink in the head; endless make-work projects. Busy work and more busy work. We hated it and called it "The Harassment." Sometimes I pulled guard duty--walking a post four hours on and eight off; not too exciting, but better at least than to be forever fixing those damn radios.

There were some people who functioned very well just being told what to do all the time and didn't seem to mind the busy work; they were generally the kind who'd "ship over" (Marine Corps jargon meaning 'reenlist') at the end of their four years and make a career of the military. We called them "lifers"--a derogatory term. We considered them lazy, but since they accumulated time in, they'd get promoted to various levels of sergeant, so they were the ones who tyrannized over us and made our lives miserable. Looking back, they weren't all of them bad; they were generally doing what they had to do to please the brass and get through life themselves.

Most of us disliked being told what to do all the time and counted the years, months, weeks and days till we'd get out. Some guys would take up drinking in a serious way; I imagine that's where a lot of people got started on careers in alcoholism. That was especially true overseas, where a lot of guys felt isolated and far from home. I was stationed in Japan for the last half of my enlistment. In my case, I found Japan to be an incredibly interesting place; I took up studying the language, spending nearly all my free time at it. That was one positive experience from those four years.

Nobody had actually encouraged me to join the Marines, but just about everyone said the "discipline" would do me a lot of good. Looking back I have to admit that I was pretty immature and needed to grow up. But was the Marine Corps the best place to do that growing up?

As for the discipline. Family, teachers, neighbors, everybody used to extol the benefits of military discipline. It was supposed to be good for young guys. Well, I think that belief needs to be seriously challenged. We need to start by asking 'What is "discipline?"' In the military it means taking orders and doing as you're told. A sergeant tells you to do something and you do it. If a sergeant doesn't tell you to do it, then why bother? You very quickly learn to do ONLY what you have to do.

Military discipline tends to kill initiative; it's the exact opposite of "self discipline," personal initiative. Doing something because you're being told to do it--that has absolutely nothing to do with self-discipline. Self-discipline is when you live your own life, set your own goals, and carry them to a conclusion.

To prospective recruits they pitched the Marine Corps challenge: "Are you good enough to be a Marine?" That was the caption on a recruiting poster. But this was not the way they presented it to us when our four years were up and they were trying to persuade us to reenlist. I vividly remember my last week in the Marine Corps. They had a whole company of us short timers together, giving us shipping-over lectures every day. They started in for the first two or three days by telling us how good we had it--meals paid for. A bed to sleep in. Medical care. All that good stuff, "the benefits." Most of us didn't buy it, we were just tremendously glad to be getting out. So, after several days of telling us how great we had it, they hit us with the "failure" lecture.

A lifer--a master sergeant--stood in front of us and started out with something like this: "A lot of guys leave the Marine Corps thinking of going to college. And with the best of intentions. But only one in ten ever makes it through." Then he went on to tell us about the unemployment rate. We wouldn't find jobs. I remember that lecture well. I'll never forget that goddamn lifer telling us how we were all going leave the Marine Corps and be a bunch of failures and then eventually come back to the Marine Corps. "You may as well re-up now," was the gist of what he told us.

That was our final lecture. Following that, the same lifer interviewed us one at a time. Naturally we had to get in line for that. I could hear what he was saying to the guys in front of me. He'd start out by asking what they intended to do in civilian life. When they told him, he'd tell them how difficult it would be and how it wouldn't work out. For each one of them he predicted disappointment and failure. And then he'd advise them to stay in the Marine Corps.

I remember the guy just ahead of me saying he was going to be a truck driver. Then the damn lifer laid into him, telling him why he couldn't do it, couldn't make it, and advised him that if he wanted to drive a truck he should reenlist and go to truck driving school in the Marine Corps. Of course the guy didn't buy it, so the lifer really ran him down. It was disgusting to hear. And of course the rest of us in line sat there listening to all that.

My turn. The lifer asked me what my plans were, and I told him of my intentions--to leave the military and complete my education. He predictably responded by telling me that I could stay in the Marine Corps and do that. I said I wanted to get out and do it on my own. The son-of-a-bitch ran me down the same way he’d been running everyone else down. It pissed me off and I told him:

"You may be right. I may indeed be a totally worthless, good-for-nothing failure. But let me go out and make a try at civilian life. If I do fail, as you say I will, then I'll come back here where failures belong."

Daniel Borgström
September 2005

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