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Tuesday
Oct232007

Institutional Violence

There is, what I would describe as, an institutional violence in the Marine Corps—the cultural institution that is. They’ve got all the laws and ordinances against various forms of assault, same as any civilian district, but in the Corps it’s more window dressing than substance. A Marine should be careful not to depend too heavily on regulations to keep him out of a fight, or to expect justice in the aftermath of one. Because it’s rarely going to happen.

When there is no one else to fight, Marines are notorious for fighting each other. It is, after all, a fighting man’s organization. How heavily could we stifle the instinct in a man to settle his disputes through violence, when in fact that is exactly what he was paid to do? The institutional violence that I’m talking about flows subcutaneously through the bodies of all Marines. It is the underpinnings of their consciousness. It is the buttress of their existence.

Back in ’92 there was a Marine in my platoon named Gerald, who was fat and annoying and never shut up. I was his fire-team leader. To make matters worse, he had a habit of antagonizing everyone he came in contact with.

One night he antagonized the wrong Marine.

We called him “Country” because he was from somewhere out there in the cornfields of America. And the only thing Country really loved to do was to fight. Country never played sports back home, or worked, or studied. He fought. He liked to drive around with his friends from town to town back in the heartland, looking for brawls. That was just his thing.

Now the honest but unspeakable truth is that the quaint little myth of America’s finest—our heroes, our soldiers—does not always fit. They are not all the candy bar-eating, wide-eyed, small town boys, or the idealistic suburban boys, or the street savvy city boys just trying to get a leg up in life.

The cliché of the savage with the heart of gold is not always true, because some of them just ain’t that nice. Some of them are cruel bastards. It’s unpleasant to say or to hear, but it’s a fact. There are times when the polite rhetoric must be set aside for a bit of reality.

(The world is teeming with iniquitous people; it would be unwise to assume, in an impassioned desire to support the troops, that the military is impervious to this element of humanity.)

So Country was one of these remorseless kinds of folks. He didn’t care about fair, or weak, or right. He cared about laying his hands on another man, and hurting him. He liked to hurt people. He liked to destroy things. That’s how he found the Corps, I suppose. Maybe he figured it was a place he could do some real damage. Not every last Marine is the best and the brightest. I’d been out in town with Country on more than a couple of nights in Okinawa that deteriorated into bloody brawls. He truly savored the pain of others.

So when Gerald started in with him one night, everyone saw the outcome before it ever happened, and encouraged it. Just a few words were exchanged before Country shot his arms out like a praying mantis, snatched Gerald’s head, and pulled it into his own, smashing them together. The head butt was among his fondest moves and he used it often.

Gerald may have been unconscious before he hit the ground. But as he fell, Country landed another heavy blow on the side of his head. Gerald’s body fell into a still heap on the floor beneath Country, who could be described as nothing less than pleased with himself.

Several of the Marines rushed Gerald to the hospital, and the doctors said it was a good thing that they did—a few minutes more and he might have been dead.

Beyond the grave realization of how serious things can get—and how quickly—nobody felt a whole lot of sympathy for Gerald. Neither did I. Because he was fat and lazy, and because he was a pest, it somehow occurred to us that he deserved what he got. When Gerald came back to the unit he had two long scars on both sides of his head where the hair would no longer grow. Country had cracked his skull open—literally.

So Country was called off to the First Sergeant’s office to be “chewed out,” but when we gathered around excitedly to ask him what had happened, Country just shrugged with a smile and said, “He closed the door, shook my hand, and said ‘Good job.’”

That’s the institutional violence I’m talking about.

That’s the wink you don’t see in the posters.

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