Joining the Marines to avoid the war-1966 (22)
Should I cut off my big toe?
After deciding to quit college after three years, I knew I had to deal with the issue of being drafted into the army and shipped off to Vietnam to fight with "Charlie," as they called the North Vietnamese soldiers. There was no way that was going to happen. I carefully considered all the other options I could think of:
Fleeing to Canada and living there indefinitely
Cutting off my big toe
Pretending to be gay
Seeing if I could qualify for being a conscientious objector, which I doubted I could do successfully
Joining the military reserves and counting on the idea that they would not be called up for the war
Marine Corps, here I come
After carefully weighing the projected risks, costs, and benefits of each option, I decided on the last one. I would join the military reserves, of which there were five options, like the Navy, the Army, and the Marine Corps. Assuming the reserves were not activated during my six-year stint, it would mean six months of training and active duty and then five and a half years of being a “weekend warrior,” one weekend per month plus two weeks in the summertime. Assuming the reserves that I joined were not activated, I would be able to stay out of the war. Given that the total time commitment was about 380 days was the same for all five military reserve options, I decided on the “Marine Corps,” since they were “the best.”
By the way, it turned out my prediction was correct. The reserves were not activated...except for three days in March of 1970 to deliver mail because of a national postal workers' strike. We reservists mostly sat around for those three days. I remember delivering mail for only two hours, right before the strike ended.
Learning how to kill others in eight weeks
I think it must have been late spring when my military training started. Boot camp for the Marine Corps was on Parris Island, South Carolina. We few reservists were trained alongside those who had signed up for the full three years and were going to be sent straight to Vietnam after boot camp. The Marine Corps owned the island and they made sure it was hard to impossible to go AWOL while they instilled in you obedience to your drill sergeants and to the Corps. Normally boot camp was twelve weeks. But, because of the pressures of the Vietnam War, they were “training” you to be ready for Vietnam and to kill others in just eight weeks. Part of the psychological training given to us by our drill sergeants was they would shout loudly with resolve about how we were going to kill those contemptuous gooks. Dehumanizing the enemy was essential.
So amazing to me that the other men had not explored their options
At 22, I was next to the oldest of the 70+ privates in the platoon. Almost all the young men in my platoon were seventeen to eighteen years old and had enlisted for the full three years of active duty. Most of these had enrolled in the Marine Corps to avoid being drafted into the army. When some of them found out that I was in the reserves and would not be sent to Vietnam, they were kicking themselves because they hadn’t known about that option.
I never got punched in the stomach
Marine Corps boot camp was more interesting than I expected. I was a bit shocked to discover that the drill sergeants would frequently punch a recruit in the stomach if his response to their orders didn’t quickly meet their requirements. I learned fast and I never got punched.
One part of the discipline was especially easy for me. Every response to a drill sergeant had to be “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” None of the other privates had the habit to speak to others this way. But I was still saying “yes, sir” and “no, sir” to any other male person that I talked with, as my mother had taught me from an early age. This was so automatic for me, not only for the two sergeants in charge of our platoon, but even for all the other privates. I never faced any risk that I would forget and get punched in the stomach for it, as several of the others did when they forgot.
You must attend church services on Sunday or....
One rule on Parris Island was that you had to attend church services on Sunday morning, except if… Even though I considered myself to be an atheist, at least in terms of believing in Zeus, the Christian God, Yahweh, Allah, Vajrapani, or Shiva, perhaps I was closer to being an agnostic. Regardless, I didn’t mind attending Christian services. But after two Sundays of rather boring services, I decided to try out the exception that was available: If you didn’t want to attend services, then you could go to see the Officer of the Day and explain to him why you didn’t want to go to services. I told my drill sergeant that I wanted to do that. He didn’t like it, but he had to follow the rules too.
The Officer of the Day tried to convert me
When I spoke to the Officer of the Day and he learned I was an atheist, he tried to convert me to Christianity by telling me about a miracle when he was saved from a crashing plane by God.
"If you don't get your moral beliefs from the Bible, where do they come from?"
When he noticed I wasn’t about to be converted to Christianity, he told me to write a six-page essay about my moral beliefs. That was a fun assignment. Bottom line, with several examples, I explained that my morality was guided by trying to make sure that everything I did was selfish. I handed in the assignment and returned to my platoon, thinking that was the end of it.
The battalion commander wanted to talk with me
Five days later on the hot tarmac, the assistant drill sergeant was marching the platoon back and forth, this way and that way. The drill sergeant tapped me on the shoulder and pulled me out of ranks, ordering me to follow him. I could tell he was not happy.
"Why would you be loyal to the Marine Corps?"
It turned out that my essay had gotten up to the battalion commander and he wanted to talk with me. When we entered the battalion commander's office, he immediately put us at ease. He had just one question for me. “If you don’t believe in the Bible which tells you that you must defend your country, then why would your fellow Marines be able to count on your loyalty?” He was probably referring to the quote in the Bible where Jesus says, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.”
I'm loyal because you've got a gun in my back
I replied, “Oh, that’s easy to answer. I will do what I’m told to do because if I don’t, you will put me in the brig (a military jail).” He really couldn’t argue with my answer because, for the most part, that was the same motivation for about half of all the soldiers there on Parris Island who had been forced into the military by the draft. He accepted my answer as quite adequate. He then went on to chat with me and shared that he thought selfishness could be a good thing also. My drill sergeant and I were cordially dismissed.
Maybe because the battalion commander was so friendly, my drill sergeant started to like me
Before this incident, my drill sergeant didn’t like me. He knew he had my body, but he didn’t have my mind. Afterward, however, he became friendly with me and even joked around with me. Two Sundays later, he came to me and said, “Minkler (that was my family name then), you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. But I hate the guts of the man who is the Officer of the Day for today. Would you be willing to go see him instead of going to church services? You would blow his mind.” I said, “Sure, that will be fun.”
My drill sergeant asked, "Will you write about me?"
Near the end of the eight weeks of boot camp our platoon was on an all-day march. The drill sergeant was walking up and down the line, talking with the various recruits. He started talking with me and asked, “Minkler, what are you going to do with your life?” I replied that I was going to be a philosopher and writer. He queried, “Are you going to write about me?” When I said, “no,” he asked, “why not?” I said, “Because you’re not important enough.” That really cracked him up. Note: actually, by sharing this with you, I have ended up writing about him, although I can't tell you his name because I don't remember it. He's probably dead now.
My father couldn't believe I got away with doing what I did
After I finished my six months of active duty (the other four months were spent at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina), I was visiting with my family. When I told my mother and father about these boot camp adventures, my father, who’d been in the Navy in WWII, could not believe that they didn’t kill me or at least lock me in the brig. My father was always a bit on the paranoid side.