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When I Want Your Opinion…

May 9, 2011

Picture the interior of a long, corrugated-steel Quonset hut nearly half a century old. It’s perfectly maintained, from the shining, freshly waxed and buffed concrete floor to the spotless nooks and crannies. You enter from one end through the recently sanded and meticulously painted plywood door in a thin, flimsy WWII plywood partition wall.

As I closed the door behind me and walked toward the far end, about 50 feet away, I could see a young Marine Captain looking up from some papers with a carefully neutral expression. His space was mostly barren, except for rows of neat, shining, file and plan cabinets that lined both sides of the long room, making it seem even further from the door to the desk.

No visitor could help but notice what was behind and above him, centered on the otherwise blank end-wall: a large, brightly lit poster. On it, glaring out at you, was the snarling face of a huge, enraged Mountain Gorilla, slavering fangs bared. One massive arm reached toward you with sharp-nailed fingers extended, as if to clutch your throat in a powerful death grip. Big, white, block letters crossed over the behemoth’s powerful chest, setting just the right tone for your impending conversation:

When I want your opinion, I’ll beat it out of you.

This was military theater at its best, and the precise image of a tough Marine Officer that should be created there at San Diego’s Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Especially during a war.

Navy Civil Engineer Corps Collar Device

The Captain’s name was Mike. And back then, I was a young Navy Lieutenant. Part of my job was to ensure that the Depot’s construction projects got done right. Mike was my customer, and the guy the General would convert to smoldering ash first – just before me – if they did not go right.

As with everything at the Depot, Mike’s poster and that room were part of a very tough task: turning young Americans, people from the most profligately individualistic culture the world has ever seen, into effective members of the finest fighting force it has ever had.

Much of the basic maintenance at the Depot was done by feckless recruits as part of their 16 week transformation into potentially self-respecting men. And the poster helped to instill the desired viewpoint from which any recruit who had business in Mike’s office should view him.

In later training of course, Marines learn how to give orders as well as take them, and, crucially, to use every bit of initiative they have to complete a mission. But that was for later. At the Depot, they learned how to take orders. Or they washed out.

As usual during our talks, Mike offered the obligatory (for Navy and Marine types) cup of smooth, black coffee – not the ghastly razor-blade-and-turpentine fluid that Starbucks has pranked the world with, but good black coffee – and we went over the dozen or so projects. All was well. Anything Mike touched was always squared away and running right. And I did my best to meet his high personal standard. Still do.

After the time with Mike, I drove over to my next appointment, one with my old Skipper on the Ranger, now a Rear Admiral in charge of the Anti-Submarine Warfare School. And I thought once more how satisfying it was to be part of something worthwhile and larger than yourself. Then I flicked on the radio.

It was more war news, another story about Hanoi Jane. Seems like she was calling Mike and me ‘Baby Killers’ yet again.

In later years, I always thought it odd: somehow she never saw the irony in that epithet when she became one of the Poster Girls for unfettered abortion. Idiots are like that, I guess. And Hollywood idiots more than most.

Note: thanks to historian Gwynne Dyer for his turn of phrase about what Marine training is designed to do. And does.

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