At Parris Island, Basic Training Pulls Lessons From Marines’ Real-World Lapses


Drill Instructor Staff Sgt. Thomas Herrera led recruits in a guided discussion about Marine "core values" at Parris Island, S.C.Stephen Morton for The New York TimesStaff Sgt. Thomas Herrera led recruits in a discussion about Marine “core values” at Parris Island, S.C.

PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. — The Marine Corps recruits sat cross-legged on the spotless floor of their barracks here, the blankets on their bunks pulled as tight as drumheads. Perched before them, catlike atop a pair of footlockers, Staff Sgt. Levar Woods launched into the day’s lesson.

Instructions on cleaning their rifles? Nope. A dressing-down for not marching in formation? Try again. Sergeant Woods, trading his drill instructor’s bark for a preacher’s purr, was here to talk about values; or, as he put it, “doing the right thing when no one is looking.”

His case in point: the Marine sniper team captured on video urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans. Sergeant Woods, 35, didn’t mention the team specifically, but everyone knew what he meant when he brought up “the desecration of dead bodies.”

“What we try to abide by as United States Marines is that we are above that,” he told the recruits. “Try to be an ambassador out there, not a jackass.”

Ranging across the globe and across history, from the Tet Offensive in Vietnam to Sangin in southern Afghanistan, he arrived at the nut of his sermon: Don’t stand by when other Marines are doing something wrong, whether it be urinating on a body or driving while drunk or hiding during battle.

“I can take orders or I can give orders, but what’s the hardest thing?” he asked. “Telling your peers they are wrong.”

In recent months, breakdowns in military discipline have been much in the news for American forces in Afghanistan, ranging at one end of the spectrum from inflammatory photos of American troops desecrating bodies – whether by urinating on them or by posing with body parts — to the massacre of 17 civilians by, military investigators say, an Army soldier in southern Afghanistan.

With each headline has come harsh questions about whether sergeants and junior officers are doing enough to control their young troops in combat zones, and whether the armed forces are doing all they can to teach new recruits about right from wrong.

In an interview, General James F. Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, said that after news of the urination video broke in January, he ordered a review of ethics training throughout the corps, from boot camp to midcareer courses for officers. He came away convinced that “the fundamental foundation is laid and it’s refreshed throughout a Marine’s career,” General Amos said.

But the trick, he said, is to ensure that three or four or five years after Marines leave basic training – and after they have been through one or two or even three combat tours — they are still thinking about those lessons, and pressing their fellow Marines to think about them too. That was clearly the message Sergeant Woods was trying to convey.

“You’ve got to be refreshed by more than just going to a school,” General Amos said. “Honest-to-goodness good leaders are always talking about some aspect of ethical leadership, ethical decision making. Making tough decisions under very difficult circumstances, even when you don’t want to make that decision.”

But sooner or later, he added, “Somebody will squeak out and make a bad decision.”
Recruits measure an arms-length distance in formation while working on marching drills at the Recruit Training Depot at Parris Island, S.C.Stephen Morton for The New York TimesRecruits measure an arm’s-length distance in formation while working on marching drills at the Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C.

At Parris Island, the corps’ East Coast training depot, ethics training comes in both formal and informal lessons woven into the basic-training regimen of road marches, obstacle courses, swimming lessons, pugil-stick fighting and marksmanship. The Marines call the more informal chats “footlocker talks,” and the folksier they are the better, with drill instructors — many with combat experience — talking about personal experiences.

The Marine Corps has had ethics training for years, built around core values: honor, courage and commitment. But the corps has ramped it up in recent years, sprinkling in lessons about things like sexual assault. It all begins almost as soon as recruits are brought across the snake- and alligator-infested waters that surround this base and are introduced to a drill instructor who screams at them to “get off my bus!”

“The whole idea,” General Amos said of the Marine Corps’ version of basic training, “is to remove their old entity.”

“We’re going to make them a new person,” he said. “What you did in the past, who your parents are, whether you’re poor, rich, whether you came from a big family or a dysfunctional family, we are now your family. And we’re going to take every ounce of identity away from you, so that you begin to work as a team. Everybody begins to pull together as a team. That’s the whole purpose of 13 weeks here.”

Over those weeks, the 18,000 recruits who make it through basic training – about 2,500 of them women – will struggle through runs wearing packs and boots, through biceps-burning obstacle courses that include shimmying across cables high above muddy ponds, and through specialized martial arts training in which they are likely to get punched or thrown once or twice.

The culmination is a 54-hour event known as “the Crucible,” in which recruits are dispatched into the woods with only four packaged meals and required, on a total of eight hours of sleep, to complete a series of team tasks. Some involve pure brawn, others engineering ingenuity, and a few are trick questions with deceptively simple answers that test decision making when the recruits are bone-tired.

At the end of the event, drill instructors give the finishers (some don’t make it) a pin bearing the Marine Corps’ insignia, the globe and anchor, and call them, for the first time, “Marine.”

To some critics, the corps’ ritualistic sense of brotherhood and sisterhood is a bit much, breeding, they say, a sense of elitism and perhaps even alienation from the rest of society. Some feel it is what makes many Marines – not all, certainly – politically conservative.

But to Marine Corps traditionalists, it is what makes them unique, and that is precisely how they want it.

“Hey, we’re different,” General Amos said he tells Marines. “We live by an ethical code. We are called to a higher calling. And, by golly, I expect you to live by that higher calling, and live by that high set of standards. That’s what we do.”

“But I’ve got 202,000 Marines,” he added. “And every now and then, something happens. And it’s regretful. But the institution will make great efforts to make the corrections.”