I joined the Marine Corps not for the benefits (what benefits?) but because the Marine Corps was “first to fight.”
While I know it’s ancient history to Marines today who weren’t even a glimmer in their old man’s eye at the time and therefore to them, at least, it’s all irrelevant, but I joined the Marine Corps not for the benefits (what benefits?) but because the Marine Corps was “first to fight.”
And for the uniforms. Marine uniforms are clearly the best.
But mostly I became a Marine because the Marine major who influenced me to join copiously used salty language, drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney, and still maxed the USMC physical fitness test or PFT. He was a tough as nails, brutally honest, “Tell it to the Marines” kind of man.
I wanted to be just like him and be a part of the best — the roughest, toughest, hardest group of fighting men in the world. I wanted to “travel to exotic locations, meet interesting people … and kill them” - as the old tongue-in-cheek adage goes for why people join the Marines.
Times change. And violent acts — even presidentially-directed — probably aren’t politically correct reasons, tongue-in-cheek or not, for being a Marine anymore. Neither is drinking like a fish, smoking like a chimney, liberal use of salty language, or even brutal honesty.
Marines have a reputation for being tough as nails both physically and emotionally. Their character is one of being able to take it, “it” being hard physical ordeals in both peacetime and combat, and accepting (and dishing out) the cold, hard truth.
But today even the Marine Corps is facing challenges with remaining the nation’s most physically fit service. The Marine Corps Times reported that the Pentagon’s top health official said that “growing ranks of overweight troops is a worrisome trend.” “Among Marines,” the Times went on, “the (overweight) rate was 2.3 percent, up from 1.7 percent five years prior.” (Andrew Tilghman, Oct. 20, 2016).
Although the increasing obesity rate is problematic, the Marines thankfully remain the most physically fit service partially because it’s the youngest military service but also because the tradition of physical resilience remains in the Marines even in the midst of its obesity problem.
I’ve been in or around the Marines constantly since 1971 — approaching 46 years now — when I first met that influential Marine major. While under pressure today, still the Marines’ penchant for physical toughness has mostly endured that five decades. However, I’m not convinced our capacity to accept brutal honesty — our emotional resiliency — has endured.
The cold, hard truth, it seems, has been redefined as “hazing.” Being “brutal,” even in the honesty category, is too “violent,” too boorish, too manly.
How could we think the wussification of our society wouldn’t creep into even our United States Marines?
Yet being brutally honesty is an effective tool to motivate people who need this hard, men’s football not women’s field hockey, kind of coaching. We need to be told the cold, hard truth, sometimes brutally. We remember and learn from being told the cold, hard truth. But doing so is a tool removed from the Marine leader’s toolbox.
Marines can’t be told they’re “fat bodies” and ordered to “fix your sorry self” anymore. Telling a Marine how FUBAR he is (Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition), well, doing so might land the “coach” in a hazing investigation.
While probably hazing today, I was forcefully advised I was “an abortion” several times as a Marine, mostly but not exclusively when I was younger. I remember few specifics from way back then but am certain I needed — and deserved — the coaching and became a better Marine for it.
But I vividly remember still today one of my last brutally honest experiences from more than 20 years ago. As commanding officer of a special operations capable (SOC) aviation unit deployed aboard ship, I was yelled at by my boss when my unit flubbed a certification exercise early one morning in the East China Sea. While I stood at attention, he poked me in the chest increasingly harder in rhythm with his emphatic assessment of my poor performance, emphasizing each word, “FETZER. YOU. ARE. SO. FOULED. UP!” Admittedly, he was right. As commanding officer, I was responsible for everything my squadron did or failed to do. I was all fouled up. So I fixed my sorry self and we ultimately were certified as SOC.
Back then, hazing was hardly a part of our vernacular. And certainly, Marines of my past were better at brutal honesty, both the taking of it and the dishing of it out.
Marines have a tradition of taking average Americans and making them extraordinary. But cool uniforms alone won’t bring future Marines to the recruiting stations or guarantee success in combat. A reputation for and bona fide toughness, however, will.
Without the ability to provide, accept, and acknowledge brutal honesty, resiliency is hollow. Then extraordinary becomes average, physical toughness won’t mean a hill of beans, and combat effectiveness will suffer.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.