The Marine way of wisdom

Map of DeKalb County
Map of DeKalb County, in east metro Atlanta.

My old school system (DeKalb County, Ga.) is planning to start a public military academy headed by a Marine commandant.

This is the first such school in Georgia, but not in the country. The concept is likely to catch on, given that education secretary nominee Arne Duncan presided over the creation of six of these schools in Chicago.

The DeKalb schools superintendent denies that this will be a training ground for directing children to the military. Yet the Marine Corps will help pay for the school, including a portion of teacher salaries, and the principal will divide authority with a Marine commandant. Other details about the school’s “military-style regimen” remain sketchy.

I’m reminded of Marine author E.B. Sledge’s description of Marine training and its function. I don’t doubt that military training has changed a great deal since 1943, when Sledge arrived at Camp Pendleton. There is less tolerance for cruelty and degradation of recruits. But the function of basic training remains the same: to prepare recruits to endure and survive modern combat. And in Sledge’s assessment, the “seemingly cruel and senseless harassment” of Marine training was essential to its effectiveness at preparing men to enter “the meat grinder.”

Boot camp taught me that I was expected to excel, or try to, even under stress. My drill instructor … was a strict disciplinarian, a total realist about our future, and an absolute perfectionist dedicated to excellence. To him … I attribute my ability to have withstood the stress of [combat on] Peleliu. [E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 157]

This future, about which the drill instructor was so realistic, was one in which most of the men who entered the meat grinder would leave, as Sledge puts it, “shocked, bleeding, or stiff.”

In popular belief, military academies have a storied ability to “straighten out” young men who are difficult to manage. “Boot camp” rehabilitation for young offenders has been popular in the South, even after being shown to be bad at rehabilitating.

Sledge’s insight may help explain why this is so. Boot camp was designed to prepare young men to face an insane level of senseless violence. A boot-camp approach to general education is a way of giving up on certain young people — a half-conscious admission that we have nothing better to offer them than a life of random blows that make no sense.

It’s to be hoped that DeKalb County’s Marine school has something more to offer. All that’s been indicated so far, though, is that the academic curriculum will emphasize math and science. The school will be a “magnet school” for students from throughout the district.

Could the Marine school actually be a good idea? Maybe so, for some students. Our society is not competent at giving young people a compelling reason for living. We know that suicide is endemic among teens in the U.S., and our experts respond by prescribing pills.

So where the choice is one between training to kill and killing oneself, the Marine school may at least claim to be the lesser of two evils.

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