The Widening Gap Between Military and Society

U.S. military personnel of all ranks are feeling increasingly alienated from their own country, and are becoming both more conservative and more politically active than ever before. Do they see America clearly?

After following a platoon of Marine recruits through eleven weeks of boot-camp training on Parris Island in the spring of 1995, I was stunned to see, when they went home for postgraduation leave, how alienated they felt from their old lives. At various times each of these new Marines seemed to experience a moment of private loathing for public America. They were repulsed by the physical unfitness of civilians, by the uncouth behavior they witnessed, and by what they saw as pervasive selfishness and consumerism. Many found themselves avoiding old friends, and some experienced difficulty even in communicating with their families.

One typical member of Platoon 3086, Craig Hoover, reported that the Amtrak ride home to Kensington, Maryland, was "horrible." The train was "filled with smoke," he said. "People were drinking and their kids were running around aimlessly. You felt like smacking around some people." (An article I published in The Wall Street Journal in July, 1995, mentioned many of the recruits quoted here.) Hoover also found the train ride a sad contrast to the relative racial harmony of Parris Island. "It felt kind of segregated by race and class—a poor white car, a poor black car, a middle-class white car, a middle-class black car." Even McDonald's—which had become a fantasy-like symbol to the recruits as they ate military rations, particularly during a week of training in the woods-proved to be a letdown. "You look around and notice that a lot of the civilians are overweight, and a little sloppy," Hoover said.

Jonathan Prish, a former white supremacist, went with old friends to a bar in Mobile, Alabama. "We played pool and drank," he reported, in a typical comment. "It seemed like everyone there was losers. All they want to do is get smashed. They're self-destructive. They're not trying. They're just goofing around."

In the wealthy Washington suburb of Potomac, Maryland, Eric Didier felt the same way. "There are some friends I've stayed away from," he said. "They're not going anywhere, and I don't want to be around them. We don't have any common ground." Though they are in their early twenties, he said, "they're not doing anything, living at home, not working, not studying."

In Pittsburgh, Patrick Bayton went to a Saturday-night party where he saw two old friends as "losers." "Everything feels different," he said. "I can't stand half my friends no more." Frank DeMarco attended a street fair in Bayonne, New Jersey. "It was crowded. Trash everywhere. People were drinking, getting into fights. People with obnoxious attitudes, no politeness whatsoever." But, he said, "I didn't let it get to me. I just said, 'This is the way civilian life is: nasty.'"

Yet the member of Platoon 3086 perhaps most at odds with his former environment was Daniel Keane, whose background was probably the most privileged. The son of a Merrill Lynch & Co. executive, Keane seemed almost in pain when I interviewed him in the living room of his parents' house, in Summit, New Jersey. When he first got home from Parris Island, he said about being with his family, "I didn't know how to act. They said, 'What do you want to do?' I'd say, 'I don't know.' I didn't know how to carry on a conversation."

He found his old peer group even more difficult. "All my friends are home from college now, drinking, acting stupid and loud," the eighteen-year-old Marine said. He was particularly disappointed when two old friends refused to postpone smoking marijuana for a few minutes, until he was away from them. "They were getting ready to smoke their weed. I said, 'Could you just hang on for a minute? Can't you wait till you get to the party instead of smoking in the car?' They said, 'Then we'd have to give it out.'" So, he recalled, they lit up in front of their Marine friend. "I was pretty disappointed in them doing that. It made me want to be at SOI [the Marines' School of Infantry]."

Like many other members of 3086, Keane felt as if he had joined a cult or religion. "People don't understand," he told me, "and I'm not going to waste my breath trying to explain when the only thing that really impresses them is how much beer you can chug down in thirty seconds."

THE GAP

I think the Marines of Platoon 3086 were experiencing in a very personal way the widening gap between today's military and civilian America. To be sure, their reaction was exaggerated by the boot-camp experience, during which the Marine Corps especially among the services tries to sever a recruit's ties to his or her previous life. But because of the nature of American society today, the re-entry shock upon leaving recruit training appears to be greater now than it was in the past. Asked to explain this difference, retired Marine Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor said, "When I got out of boot camp, in 1946, society was different. It was more disciplined, and most Americans trusted the government. Most males had some military experience. It was an entirely different society—one that thought more about its responsibilities than its rights."

Similarly, Sergeant Major James Moore, now retired but at that time the senior sergeant on Parris Island, commented, "It is difficult to go back into a society of 'What's in it for me?' when a Marine has been taught the opposite for so long. When I look at society today, I see a group of young people without direction because of the lack of teaching of moral values at home and in school. We see that when we get them in recruit training. The recruits are smarter today—they run rings around what we were able to do, on average. Their problems are moral problems: lying, cheating, and stealing, and the very fact of being committed. We find that to get young people to dedicate themselves to a cause is difficult sometimes."

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