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The Few and the Proud: Marine Corps Drill Instructors in Their Own Words by Larry Smith. W.W. Norton, 2006, $26.95, 325 pages.


The Few and the Proud examines how Marines are made and the drill instructors mandated to make them. From callow civilian to disciplined Marine, the transformation is conducted under the demanding guidance of the drill instructor -- the emblematic DI at the heart of the Corps.


"Veterans tell what it takes to train Marines for Iraq today." -- Publishers Weekly

"A superb job of describing how the Corps creates a brand of warrior whose very mention puts the fear of God into their enemies...first-hand accounts from Marine drill sergeants, whose tales include everything from training recruits to the hell of combat." -- Military Book Club


Larry Smith, editor with Parade Magazine and the New York Times, is also the author of Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words.


The Few and the Proud made an impressive appearance at #31 on the extended New York Times bestseller list, and I meant to congratulate the touring author personally. But I left town before Larry Smith's appearance in La Jolla at D. G. Wills Books on Memorial Day Weekend, along with 2 of the 28 legendary Marines he profiles: "Iron Mike" Mervosh and Bill Paxton. Two nights earlier he had been at Barnes & Noble, with Sergeants Christine Henning and Rudy Rodriguez. I caught up with Larry many days later, at home in Connecticut. "Larry, Camp Pendleton is the base of the first Marine Division and plays a large role in your oral history of the Marine Corps' drill instructors. Pendleton's 125,000 acres were originally bought for $4 million -- quite a bargain -- and dedicated by FDR. But another president's footsteps are preserved there: Jack Kennedy's."

Larry says, "After JFK visited there in 1963, his footprints were cast in bronze, right where he'd stood outside Receiving, and some unsung genius got the idea of painting footprints next to them to show new recruits where to stand. However, Marines on both coasts lay claim to them. One side says Parris Island originated the idea, the other says San Diego. No one seems to know when they appeared exactly, or who came up with it. I talked to former drill sergeant Chuck Taliano at the museum on Parris Island and with Parker Jackson at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Museum in San Diego. The only consensus is that the paint was undoubtedly scrounged from road maintenance and is yellow by sheer coincidence. Anyway, the footprints became an icon. They've got doormats with yellow footprints, shirts, pins..." Larry laughs. "I've even got a tie with footprints all over it."

"So," I interrupt, "the operating principle for the DI is that, if you're going to break under stress, it should be in boot camp rather than in combat. You quote a drill instructor saying, 'The more we sweat in peacetime, the less we bleed in war.' The drill instructors of old were totally dedicated, working 100-hour weeks, 4 a.m. to midnight, forging future jarheads. The training was so fierce that civilian workers were forbidden to leave keys in the ignition lest a recruit jump in and bolt. And local police actually received a bounty on runaways: 50 dollars for every trainee brought back. How many weeks was boot camp? How rugged was rugged?"

"Boot camp varied over the years," says Larry. "At one point, during Vietnam, it got down to 8 weeks. Drill instructors were overextended and there really was not enough time. Today, it's 12 weeks, plus a week for 'forming,' which is going through Receiving, getting your head shaved, being inoculated, tested, and getting processed. It's tough. It's not uncommon for a kid to lose 40 pounds in 12 weeks. I talked to Jim Wheeler, a Marine in the 1950s, and he said he gained 30 pounds in 12 weeks. It's all the DIs. The drill instructors just explode at the recruits with energy and conviction, telling them what to do and about teamwork. They're introduced to hard work immediately, and they begin to acquire motivation. The recruits want to succeed; they want their drill instructor to approve of who they are and what they're doing. Motivation leads to self-discipline and that enables them to fit into the team."

"Ironically, for all of the emphasis on unit and team, they wind up creating these rugged individualists."

Larry agrees: "Yes, that's an interesting sideline to the whole thing. The primary function of a Marine is to locate, close with, and kill the enemy. That's their first job: becoming a trained killer. And the corollary is that they've gotta know how to stay alive. They have to learn instant obedience to orders. Yet, at the same time, they need to think for themselves. Every Marine is trained to take the job of the one immediately in front of him. This has been a key to the Marine's success in horrible places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa."

"It's interesting to me," I say, "that in teaching obedience, they also seem to instill in the Marines a shield against intimidation. It's even depicted in some films like Full Metal Jacket where you can sense the Marines are not at all daunted by their officers. But recruit training was very rough and tough, at times even dangerous."

"Yeah." Larry is momentarily thoughtful. "I've heard from Marines at all levels of harshness in training, although it's never been legal. The most notorious incident, of course, is the drowning of six recruits in Ribbon Creek on Parris Island, April 8, 1956."

"Which almost wiped out the Marines altogether," I remind him.

"It almost wrecked the Marine Corps, yes."

"But the Corps was saved by two Jewish lawyers from New York."

Larry laughs. "Yes, and that's a great story. The two Jewish lawyers from New York saved the drill instructor, and they were smart because they didn't attack the Marine Corps. They just said this was an unfortunate accident. This sort of training had gone on all the time, and it wasn't this guy's fault. It worked. Back then, DIs were court martialed all the time for maltreatment. They'd be docked pay and they'd go to the brig. Obviously, the Corps didn't publicize this, but it's happened all through the years. There are instructors who use control, and there are DIs...like R. L. Ermey, who was in Full Metal Jacket, who was a real Marine drill instructor himself. He said they were working with recruits non-stop and there were no officers supervising. They'd be finishing up with one platoon and they'd have to pick up a new one. They just didn't have time to work with these raw recruits. So, he said they'd read a kid the riot act and then -- whack -- give him a backhand to the solar plexus, which wasn't much, but even that wasn't legal."

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