AT EXACTLY FIVE O’CLOCK each morning, candidates roaming the squad bay on the night’s rotating guard threw the switch on the fluorescent lights. It was like shooting the day from a cannon. The instructors burst out of the office at the head of the long room. We had five seconds to launch from our racks, slide into our black rubber flip-flops (referred to as “shower shoes” in the Marines), and assume the position of attention with our toes along a black line that ran the length of the squad bay. No head starts. No wearing shower shoes in the rack. Don’t yawn, don’t wince, and don’t be late.
Olds was always the loudest. “I’m looking for morning wood. I want to find the candidate who was thinking dirty thoughts about me in his sleep.” He prowled up and down the line, bent at the waist to stare at our crotches. The other two instructors were Staff Sergeant Carpenter and Staff Sergeant Butler. They were the ultimate masked men. In ten weeks, we never learned a thing about them. They dominated our every waking hour, but the interaction was almost purely animal.
A favorite morning ritual of theirs was getting dressed by the numbers. With the candidates toeing the line, we began a screamed, scrambled version of Simon Says. “Put your left sock on now.” We had three seconds to take the shower shoe off and slip on a black boot sock.
“Too slow! Take it off!” Olds howled in cadence, as if to a drumbeat.
We returned to the starting position, holding a sock loosely in each hand. In the corner of my eye, I noticed Candidate Dunkin next to me. I had been cursing the alphabetical arrangement of the racks, since Dunkin had become a lightning rod for hate and discontent. He was overweight and undermotivated. While the rest of the platoon played along with the sergeant instructor, Dunkin was slowly getting dressed on his own. Olds noticed, too.
“We have an individual.” Olds spat the word like it was a synonym for child molester. “Candidate Dunkin, what are you doing?” The drumbeat again.
Dunkin didn’t answer. He removed his socks and returned to the starting position, staring blankly at the wall across the squad bay. Olds levitated two inches in front of his nose, hissing in a whisper only those of us closest to him could hear.
“I got you pegged, boy. But you’re gonna suffer before I send you home.” Dunkin blinked, and Olds inhaled before bellowing at the platoon. “Right sock!” This time, he didn’t even wait to see how quickly we moved. “Too slow!”
After ten repetitions with the socks, we ended up with our boots on our hands, clomping around the squad bay on hands and knees, “marching” to cadence. Olds explained that orders slowly executed meant advantages lost. My OCS fear had subsided, to be replaced by frustration. I didn’t understand the point of the games. It seemed like fraternity hazing, and I expected more from the Marine Corps. I crawled in a circle with my boots on my hands and fantasized about quitting, about going home and spending the rest of the summer as a lifeguard. This wasn’t the warrior rite of passage I was looking for.
When Olds declared the games over, we got dressed and piled outside to form up on the physical training (PT) field.
The centerpiece of the PT field was a red wooden platform. Atop it, silhouetted against the rising sun, stood a British Royal Marine color sergeant. He was on exchange from the U.K. and clearly enjoyed beating platoons of aspiring American officers into shape. “Ah, good morning, candidates. Your steady diet of Big Macs and Jerry Springer has surely prepared you for this morning’s activities. Remember, nothing proves your effort to me like projectile vomiting.”
I already had a history of Corps-induced vomiting. A few weeks after Tom Ricks’s talk, I had walked into the Marine recruiting office in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Above the government-issue metal desk were posters with slogans such as “Superior thinking has always overcome superior force” and “We’re looking for a few good men.” I liked it. The crisp sergeant behind the desk looked me up and down and laughed. Sure, he said, he’d sign me up right now, and I’d be on a bus to Parris Island by the end of the week. But since I was a college student, he thought I’d prefer an officer program, and his office only handled enlisted Marines. I confessed that I barely knew the difference. He handed me a business card and wished me well. Sitting in the car, I looked at the card. Captain Steven Ettien, Officer Selection Office, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Three weeks later, I made the trip to Portsmouth. The office was hidden in a nondescript professional center. An efficient receptionist greeted me and sat me on a couch. The waiting room was neutral, softly lit, almost corporate — not what I expected. I stood when the door to the inner office opened. Captain Ettien was trim and fit, looking in his dress blues like every recruiting poster Marine in my mind.
“So you think you have what it takes to be an officer in my Corps.” It was a statement, almost an accusation, not a question.
My first hurdle would be passing the Marines’ physical fitness test. Three hundred was a perfect score, and officer candidates were expected to score better than 275. There were three events: pull-ups, crunches, and a three-mile run. A score of 300 required doing twenty dead-hang pull-ups without dropping off the bar, followed by one hundred crunches in under two minutes, and then completing the run in under eighteen minutes. Like a triathlon, none of the individual events is especially difficult, but in combination they test overall fitness. I had played football and lacrosse in high school and was a strong bicycle racer at Dartmouth, so I left Portsmouth that afternoon intent on conquering the fitness test.
Captain Ettien greeted me on my next visit by asking in what order I’d been training for the three events. Grateful that he was taking my preferences into account, I told him I relied on pull-ups, crunches, run.
“Great.” He grinned. “Then we’ll start you with the run, followed by crunches, and then pull-ups.” It was my introduction to the Marine Corps way.
I must have blanched, because he added that he’d come on the run to motivate me. Two minutes later, I sprinted out of the parking lot with Captain Ettien behind me at the wheel of a government van, honking the horn and shouting to pick up the pace. I ran three miles in 17:30. Moving over to the grass, I lay on my back with the captain on my feet. At his whistle, I started crunching. Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred. Ten seconds to spare. Another perfect score. I was rolling. We moved over to the pull-up bar. Every breath formed a cloud of condensation. My body was sore from the run and the crunches, but my arms felt good. Jumping up to the bar, I started curling my chin over the metal pole as Captain Ettien counted aloud.
“Thirteen, fourteen, fourteen, fourteen.” What am I doing wrong? “Stop kipping — fourteen, fourteen.” What the hell is kipping?
By now, I’d done twenty pull-ups but his count stuck at fourteen. My arms shook, and despite the cold, sweat dripped into my eyes. I dropped off the bar, buckled at the knees, and poured my breakfast into the grass. When the heaves stopped, I asked, “What’s kipping, and why did you stop counting at fourteen?”
“Swinging your body back and forth. You have to move up and down in a straight line. I’m tempted to give you one for effort because of the puke.” Ettien paused and looked at his clipboard. “Two-seventy — not bad. Just keep working on it and you’ll qualify for OCS.”
By the time I stood in front of the color sergeant that morning, I was a machine. I could run three miles in sixteen minutes and do twenty-five dead-hang pull-ups. Unfortunately, OCS rarely tested what we’d already trained for.
“This morning you will do the log run. Give me a squad to demonstrate.”
Twelve candidates jumped up and jogged to the front of the group. In unison, they snapped to parade rest.
“Pick up the log.”
The candidates hoisted a full-size telephone pole onto their shoulders. It was twenty feet long and weighed six hundred pounds. The pole reeked of creosote and rubbed off brown on their hands and shoulders.
“Now run,” the color sergeant ordered.
They trotted in a circle around the field.
“See, it’s simple. Even you wankers should be able to figure this one out. Each squad grab a log. Catch me.” He took off down the trail.
We strategized. “Tallest to shortest — otherwise the short guys won’t be bearing any of the weight. Tall guys in front will keep the pace high.” Dave and I were the tallest guys in our squad, so he stood at the front of the pole, with me a foot behind.
A dozen squads of a dozen men each struggled off down the trail, looking like millipedes beneath their logs. Legs moved quickly, but progress was slow. We slopped over muddy roots and banged between trunks. Once or twice, the log threatened to roll off our shoulders and crush our feet. I wrapped one arm up over the log and used the other to wipe sweat from my eyes.
Ahead of us, the color sergeant bounced along in his running shoes and white tank top, bemoaning the future of the Marine Corps. “Your Corps has been around for two hundred twenty-three years, right? Not a bad run. A respectable try, really. The Army will pick up your slack.” He reached a fork in the trail and turned left.
“He’s headed toward the ford. I wonder how we’re gonna do that.” The voice came from behind me, where candidates were struggling with the weight and the slippery footing.
The ford was a deep pool of stagnant water sitting in the middle of the trail. Stopping at the water’s edge, the instructor picked up a rock the size of a bowling ball. He waited for the squads to pant into position all around him before heaving it into the ford. When it splashed into the water and sank out of sight, four little heads popped up.
“You’re doing a good job, so I’m showing you where the snakes are. Go get wet.”
We joined the snakes in the ford, splashing out to the deep water and swimming next to the log like tugboats pushing a barge. Our boots filled with water and threatened to drag us to the bottom. I had grown up on Chesapeake Bay, a strong swimmer, but being trapped underwater was my private terror. A short candidate at the back of the log was yelling encouragement when his hand slipped off the muddy pole and the words turned to gurgles as his head went under. I hardly heard him because I was focused on keeping my own hands on the log and my own head above water.
“Let’s go, fellas. Just a little farther. Good job.” Ahead of me, Dave was pushing the log and looking back at the rest of the squad. He was soaked, red-faced, and squinting to see. I could tell he was in pain, but he was turning his energy and attention outward, pulling the rest of the squad behind him.
An hour after we’d started, Dave led us back onto the sunny field where we had begun. He was singing cadence, and we echoed with all the breath we had left. “Born in the woods. Raised by a bear.” Dave jogged easily under the log. “Double set of dog teeth. Triple coat of hair.” The pain started to subside for me, too. “Two magazines and my M-16. I’m lean and mean.” By suffering together, we could spread the hardship around until it almost disappeared. “I’m a U.S. Marine.”
Olds was waiting to march us back to the squad bay. “Cut that trash out. You ain’t Marines.” I thought I saw a glimmer of satisfaction beneath his dismissal. “PT showers. You have four minutes. We’re already late for chow.” It wasn’t even seven A.M.
PT showers were one of OCS’s many small indignities. They were cold, soapless soaks with forty of your closest friends. The staff turned on all the nozzles in our communal bathroom while the platoon stripped. Then we walked in single file, “nuts to butts,” past the spraying shower-heads. It was enough water to turn dusty limbs muddy, but never enough to get clean. We toweled off, dressed, and marched across the parade deck, still breathing hard from the log run.
The platoon marched in three columns of about a dozen candidates each. In addition to marching everywhere we went, we usually spent an hour or two each evening on the parade deck. Olds called it “driving the bus.” We would march from one end to the other, about-face, march back, and repeat. We carried M-16s on our right shoulders, gripping the buttstock with a hand extended parallel to the deck. In the beginning, Sergeant Olds had called our cadence, but he slowly shifted the responsibility to us. It wasn’t words so much as a haunting wail, rising and falling like a plaintive southern spiritual. But the wail had a beat, and our heels struck the pavement in unison. Halfway across the parade deck on our way to the chow hall, Olds pulled me from the formation to take over calling the cadence.
I screwed it up from the first note. My lefts were rights, my rights were lefts, and the tempo surged and sagged. The platoon worked not to expose me, but it was too confusing. They collapsed into a pitter-patter of mismatched heels, like a group of tourists out for a morning stroll. Olds lit into me.
“Daggone it, candidate. You know what happens to lieutenants who can’t even march a platoon?”
I croaked, “No, Sergeant Instructor Sergeant Olds.”
“They get their Marines killed in combat.” This fate, at OCS, was promised not only to candidates who couldn’t march but also to those who failed to blacken their boots, polish their brass belt buckles, or put on their socks quickly enough. “You want to get your Marines killed?”
“No, Sergeant Olds.” I realized my mistake the second it left my lips.
Olds shrieked, “What did you call me? You think we’re drinking buddies? You want to date my sister?”
“No, Sergeant Instructor Sergeant Olds,” I yelled as loudly as I could.
“Candidate, I think you’re a soft one.” Olds dropped his voice to a low snarl and put his face inches from mine. “And I run the soft ones out before they can get Marines killed. You just remember that.”
Olds rattled me. I slunk back into the platoon, where my buddies whispered encouragement, saying everyone got his day in the sun. But I was nervous. I wanted to be there, and I tried hard. For the first time in my life, desire and effort wouldn’t be enough. I was learning that in the Marines, the only easy day was yesterday. Success the day before meant nothing, and tomorrow might never happen. I woke up each morning at Quantico wondering whether I’d still be there that night.
The candidate chow hall was in a low-slung building on the banks of the Potomac River, across a set of railroad tracks from our squad bay and the parade deck. We crossed the tracks on a footbridge, winding up and down the ramps twice for each meal, three times a day. Three hundred seventy-eight crossings during the course of the summer. OCS didn’t allow candidates to wear wristwatches, and wall clocks were intentionally few. We measured time from meal to meal.
I shuffled through the food line holding my tray in front of me and parallel to the ground, elbows bent ninety degrees, thumbs and forefingers touching in small circles. Sergeant Olds demanded this posture because it mimicked the way we held our rifles at shoulder arms while marching. Those with the best muscle memory, he said, will graduate. Those without can join the Army. A gauntlet of screaming instructors lined the path from the chow line to the tables. After my ass-chewing on the parade deck, I was desperate to avoid being singled out. I ducked my head and plunged through, not wanting to waste my precious meal time at the position of attention listening to a spittle-laced lecture on the virtues of endurance or loyalty. The harassment, I suspected, wasn’t random. The staff pulled candidates they thought needed punishment or a challenge. Apparently, I’d had my dose for the morning because I slipped among the tables untouched.
I sat at a Formica table with my back straight and my heels together at a perfect forty-five-degree angle. The genteel posture was a façade. There were no manners here, no conversations with tablemates. I shoveled food into my mouth, dripping flecks of syrup and gravy down my camouflage blouse. My mission for the next three or four minutes was to consume enough calories for my body to recover from the log run and make it through the morning.
Classes filled most of each day between morning PT and evening drill practice on the parade deck. We marched to the classrooms, usually Quonset huts or converted aircraft hangars, and filed silently down the rows of tables. We couldn’t sit until Olds gave the command. When the whole platoon stood at attention by its chairs, Olds would roar, “Ready. Seats!”
“Kill!” we shouted in response. It was an early step toward acclimating us to violence. We had one second to drop into our chairs, or else we’d stand and do it again. Each candidate carried a binder filled with loose-leaf paper and outlines of the classes. The instructors were mostly officers, captains and first lieutenants, and they stuck to the Marine Corps’s formulaic teaching method. We memorized the names and dates of famous battles and the exploits of renowned Marines. We learned the fourteen leadership traits, the eight principles of camouflage, and the six battlefield disciplines.
The curriculum seemed ridiculous at first. My liberal arts education had valued discussion, debate, and nuanced interpretations of complex ideas. But in combat, we were told, there’s rarely time for discussion and debate. Complex ideas must be made simple, or they’ll remain ideas and never be put into action. The leadership traits were bearing, courage, decisiveness, dependability, endurance, enthusiasm, initiative, integrity, judgment, justice, knowledge, loyalty, tact, and unselfishness. We drilled them, and every other list, over and over again. I memorized them in the classroom, in line at the chow hall, and in my rack at night. The purpose, we were promised, was to make them instinctive. They would become innate to our decision-making process and infuse everything we did without even a conscious thought.
One of the captains stood at the front of the classroom and read a quote from T. E. Lawrence, leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I. “Nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool and that is the test of generals. It can only be ensured by instinct, sharpened by thought practicing the stroke so often that at the crisis it is as natural as a reflex.” He said we would be taught one tenth at OCS and another five or six tenths at The Basic School (TBS). If we were lucky, we’d pick up an additional one or two tenths in our first platoons. The final tenth could be learned only in combat. That tenth, for us, seemed impossibly remote.
During the first three weeks, I slept in five different racks, since we continually shifted to fill the gaps left by dropped candidates. Their transgressions varied. Two fell out of three runs in a row. “Not physically qualified.” Another couldn’t grasp the concepts in our written work. “Academic failure.” They were kicked out, taunted by the staff as they emptied their footlockers, and then ridiculed after they had gone. The fourth, though, was treated more solemnly.
Candidate Dunkin had been struggling since the first week when Olds had singled him out as an individual. The accusation proved true. I was learning that the staff valued enthusiasm and loyalty above all else. They wanted candidates with heart who could work as a team. A struggling candidate could redeem himself by trying harder, wringing performance from effort. Dunkin chose a different course.
Dietary supplements were strictly forbidden. We drank water, not Gatorade, and ate chow hall food, not laboratory-engineered performance bars. Every candidate was warned that being caught with a supplement of any kind would be an honor violation, meaning instant dismissal from the course.
As we toed the line one evening, ready for taps, the staff announced a footlocker inspection. Hidden in Dunkin’s shoeshine kit was a bottle of ephedrine. He stood there, blubbering, as Staff Sergeant Carpenter calmly told him to pack his bag and go stand in the hallway. No screaming or theatrics, just a stern dismissal, a clear statement that he was not Marine officer material. The platoon stood at attention, watching in silence as he packed. No one said a word as he shouldered his seabag and walked between the rows of racks.
Dunkin had broken the cardinal rule — the bond of trust between leaders and led. The leadership traits were more than a list to memorize for a test. Dependability. Integrity. Judgment. That evening, I understood for the first time the relationship between the sergeant instructors and the officer candidates: learn to obey before you command. For ten weeks, the staff owned us. They could yell and scream, make us put on and take off our socks fifteen times each morning, and harass us from reveille to taps. But after commissioning, the authority would shift. The candidates would become lieutenants, then captains and colonels. They would be the commanders leading enlisted Marines in battle. The staff had a very real, vested interest in killing bad candidates before bad officers killed Marines.