Marine Officer Training
A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo, 1977
Basic School was a school in fact as well as in name, a halfway house between the campus and the real Marine Corps. Its purpose was to turn us into professional officers. Because of the Corps doctrine that every marine is a rifleman, the course emphasized infantry fundamentals—weapons-training and small-unit tactics. It was dry, technical stuff, taught in the how-to-do-it fashion of a trade school: how to take a hill by frontal assault or envelopment; how to defend it once you have taken it, how to deliver searching and traversing fire with an M-60 machine gun.
For me, the classroom work was mind-numbing. I wanted the romance of war, bayonet charges, and desperate battles against impossible odds. I wanted the sort of thing I had seen in Guadalcanal Diary and Retreat, Hell! and a score of other movies. Instead of the romance, I got the methodology of war, Clausewitz and his nine principles, lines and arrows on a map, abstract jargon, and a number of bewildering acronyms and abbreviations. To be in battle was to be "in a combat situation"; a helicopter assault was a "vertical envelopment"; an M-14 rifle a "hand-held, gas-operated, magazine-fed, semiautomatic shoulder weapon." I had read somewhere that Stendhal learned his simple, lucid style by studying Napoleon's battle orders. Literature should be grateful that Stendhal didn't live in the present; the battle orders we studied were written in language that made the Rosetta Stone look like a Dick-and-Jane reader.
"Enemy sit. Aggressor forces in div strength holding MLR Hill 820 complex gc AT 940713-951716 w/fwd elements est. bn strength junction at gc AT 948715 (See Annex A, COMPHIBPAC intell. summary period ending 25 June) … Mission: BLT 1/7 seize, hold and defend obj. A gc 948715 … Execution: BLT 1/7 land LZ X-RAY AT 946710 at H-Hour 310600 … A co. GSF estab. LZ security LZ X-RAY H minus 10 … B co. advance a~is BLUl~ H plus S estab. blocking pos. vic gs AT 948710 … A, C, D cos. maneuver element commence advance axis BROWN H plus 10 … Bn tacnet freq 52.9 … shackle code HAZTRCEGBD … div. tacair dir. air spt callsign PLAYBOY … Mark friendly pos w/air panels or green smoke. Mark tgt. w/WP."
I was not the only one to find this eye-glazing. During one particularly dull lecture, a classmate named Butterfield leaned over to me. "You know," he whispered, "the trouble with war is that there isn't any back-ground music."
Our Hollywood fantasies were given some outlet in the field exercises that took up about half the training schedule. These were supposed to simulate battlefield conditions, teach us to apply classroom lessons, and develop "the spirit of aggressiveness." The Corps prized elan in its troops. The offensive was the only tactic worthy of the name. We were taught the rudiments of defensive warfare, while retrograde movements were hardly mentioned, and only then in tones of contempt. The Army retreated, the Marines did not, although they had —at Chosin Reservoir in Korea. The essence of the offensive was the frontal assault: "Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle." This was the supreme moment of infantry combat; no tricky flanking or encircling movements, just a line of determined men firing short bursts from the hip as they advanced on the en-emy at a stately walk.
It was easy to do in the bloodless make-believe of field problems, in which every operation went according to plan and the only danger was the remote one of falling and breaking an ankle. We took these stage — managed exercises seriously, thinking they resembled actual combat. We couldn't know then that they bore about as much similarity to the real thing as shadow-boxing does to street-fighting. Diligently we composed our five-paragraph attack orders. We huddled in pine — scented thickets, soberly playing the roles assigned to us — student platoon leader, student squad leader — and with our maps spread flat, planned the destruction of our fictitious enemy, the aggressor forces. We fought them throughout the spring and summer, enveloped them, went at them with squad rushes, and made frontal assaults against the sun-browned hills they defended, yelling battle cries as we charged through storms of blank cartridge fire.