The Social Side of Warrior Training
A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo, 1977
Not all the training dealt in lethal practicalities. In those pre-Vietnam days, the course proceeded leisurely, with plenty of time devoted to the ceremonial side of military life. We learned to put on reviews, the proper way to flourish a sword, how to behave at social functions; in brief, all that spit-and-polish nonsense which is totally divorced from the messy realities of twentieth-century warfare.
In spite of its uselessness, I cannot say that I found it unattractive. The romantic in me responded to the pageantry of a parade, to the tribal ritualism of ceremonies that marked anniversaries or comradeships formed long ago on distant battlefields. In the summer it was Mess Night, which had obscure and ancient origins in the British Army. To the roll of a solitary drum, officers in dress whites filed into the mess. Lit only by candles, it looked as dim and secretive as the dining hall in a monastery. Silver trophies from our ancestors, the Royal Marines, and other English regiments gleamed in a corner case. To THE U.S. MARINE CORPS, read the inscription on one, FROM THE 1ST BATTALION, ROYAL WELCH FUSILEERS. PEKING 1900. Toasts were made, and wineglasses raised, lowered, raised again, like chalices at some strange Mass.
In the winter it was the Marine Corps birthday ball, which commemorated the Corps' nativity in a Philadelphia tavern on November 10, 1775. The observance of this rite was the cause of my first offense against the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I went AWOL from the Quantico Naval Hospital, where I was recovering from mononucleosis, to attend the celebration. I thought it would be a night of beer-swilling camaraderie, something like the gatherings of Beowulf's warriors in the mead hall, and I was determined not to spend it in the aseptic confines of the isolation ward.
Earlier that day, two classmates had smuggled my dress blues and a bottle of Jack Daniel's into my room. After eight o'clock bedcheck, I made a dummy out of my baggy pajamas. stuffed it under the covers, put on my blues, wrapped the whisky in a paper bag, and walked freely past the guards. A short taxi ride through the town of Quantico—a few bars, half a dozen laundromats, and twice that many uniform shops fronting the brown Potomac—brought me to Little Hall, where the party was being held.
I walked inside and into the nineteenth century. Junior officers wore white gloves and Prussian-blue, Prussian-collared tunics. Majors and colonels whom I was accustomed to seeing in functional khakis strutted around in waist-length dinner jackets with shoulder boards that advertised their rank in gold and red. A couple of generals swooped toward the bar, capes billowing behind them. Off to one side. Like a row of cardinals perched on a branch, scarlet-clad bandsmen sat stiffly on a row of folding chairs. Through all this military plumage, wives and girl friends glided with a rustle of expensive gowns. "Good evenin', majuh," one of these creatures said in her honey soft, flirtatious-but- chaste, Tidewater-aristocracy accent. "It's sooo nahce to see you again, suh. It cuhtainly is a luhvly pahty…" A full-dress ball. I could not make up my mind what it looked like—a scene from The Student Prince, a costume party, or the senior prom at a military academy.
I felt disappointment. The atmosphere was more one of a debutante cotillion than of Beowulf's mead hall. And perhaps because there was so much brass around, including the Marine Corps commandant, General Wallace Greene, everyone behaved. The band stuck to a vapid repertoire of Broadway musical scores, and General Greene made a slightly slurred speech which drew some polite applause.
Inconsequential though the ball was, that night in November 1964 holds a special significance for me. I see the hall, crowded with officers in baroque uniforms, filled with fashionably dressed women. Some are dancing; some are filing past a buffet, spearing hors d'oeuvres with toothpicks; some, holding drinks, are engaged in light conversation; all are without forebodings of what awaits them: fear, disfigurement, sudden death, the pain of long separation, widowhood. And I feel that I am looking at a period piece, a tableau of that innocent time before Vietnam.