Do Americans Keep Faith With Their Marines?

"A civilian had become a different species to us recruits, a ‘nasty filthy’ being who had no concept of hardship and looked only to the next meal and a comfortable bed. Civilians were ‘fat and nasty’ as we began to say, unintentionally mimicking our DIs. Civilians had no idea what it was to suffer hardship like ours or to hold an M16-A2 service rifle and be ready to take someone’s life, a person so far away that you could not even see their face" (p. 84).

Despite a sentimental burst of enthusiasm for it since 9/11, the military experience grows further and further distant from most Americans as the proportion of men who serve or have served continues its long-term decline, and as the liberal establishment continues to keep the exaltation of military life and military heroes out of the schools.

To learn what it is like for a young man to go from civilian to Marine today, and for a father to go from complacent civilian sire to Marine parent, read Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps by Frank Schaeffer and his son, Cpl. John Schaeffer (USMC), who chose to enlist in the Corps rather than go to college immediately after high school.

Schaeffer senior is the son of the late Calvinist theologian Francis Schaeffer, an evangelical Protestant but a man who believed that Christianity needed, in addition to the Holy Scriptures, the elaboration of a coherent philosophical worldview. Schaeffer’s admirers might be surprised at the amount of promiscuity and drug use that went on behind his back at his institute in Switzerland, according to his son.

Frank Schaeffer is now Eastern Orthodox, and the similarity between the selflessness and asceticism of the Christian life and that of the Marine life illuminates this book and gives it a spiritual dimension.

"The ascetic spirit radiating from the DIs [drill instructors] reminded me of the monks I’d met on the Holy Mountain of Athos in Greece. . .," writes Schaeffer senior, who has to endure critical comments from his tony anti-military acquaintances who do not seem to notice that their prosperity, liberty, and very lives depend on young men such as his son. "The monks and DIs seemed to both be searching for the same thing: the will to overcome the flesh for a higher purpose" (p. 222). Despite the Christian background of the book, it unfortunately contains some smutty talk, including some sexual references.

Schaeffer junior describes the changes in the young recruits’ souls as boot camp proceeds on Parris Island. "As training days pass, a recruit’s motivation to perform comes not from a desire to succeed as an individual, but from a desire for the good of the whole platoon, the only people who truly understand him and would die for him at any moment," he says (p. 72).

He describes how much recruits learn in the three months of boot camp, a difference from the standard educational world that is more spiritual than intellectual. "The mixture of fear, chanted ditties, memory keys, tests, shouting answers in unison again and again, and severe punishments for the least failure to get the job done worked," he writes. "I could have finished high school in a year and gotten into any college in America if the teaching methods at either one of the high schools I attended had been as intense and efficient as Marine boot camp" (p. 83).

Schaeffer discusses how Marines feel removed from civilian America, a phenomenon more thoroughly discussed in Thomas E. Ricks’ well-known Making the Corps. Says Schaeffer of the Marine Corps:

"Loyalty and friendship were earned and taught and rested on the respect of a common goal" (p. 97).

"Most of us didn’t know why we’d joined or what we were looking for. Nevertheless those of us who made it into the last weeks of training were all proud of our choice, proud of each other, and anxious to earn the title and graduate. I found that I was no longer only observing my life but that I was a part of something" (p. 145).

Recently, I visited the Marines’ Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) in Indian Head, Md. There painted on ordinary steps inside one of the buildings were the words "Espirit de Corps," "Discipline," "Morale," and "Unity."

Schaeffer found something in the Corps, a spiritual satisfaction, that he did not believe that he would find in college. Speaking of his wife, Schaeffer senior writes, "Whatever John was looking for in the Corps, I found it by falling in love" (p. 17). The two also find a reconciliation with one another as the overemotional, overprotective father recognizes that his son has become a man.

In Making the Corps, Ricks suggests that the Marine Corps’ culture is leaving America behind, that it has become too different. Perhaps it is American culture, in its degeneracy, that is leaving the Marines behind.