The Army Will Make a Man Out of You

women marching and holding posters

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 6, "Waging Peace." Find more from that issue here.

Basic training links sexuality with dominance, aggression and violence. It also teaches that a man's very survival depends upon maintaining these attitudes and behaviors. By associating qualities that are stereotypically considered common to women and homosexual men with all that is undesirable and unacceptable in the male recruit, hatred of women and gays is perpetuated in the military and society at large.


There are parallels between the oppression of women and men according to sex roles. The media/cultural hype is similar: women love being sex objects and men love getting their heads beaten, whether on a football field or a battlefield. The appeal to virtue is similar: women sacrifice themselves to serving their family, while men sacrifice themselves to the armed services. The cover-up is similar: until recently, no one heard about rape or battered women, and no one ever talked about men who came back from war sound in body but emotionally disabled. And who ever talks about the physically disabled?

For the last several years, women have been recruited to the military in unprecedented numbers. While women have the right and the capability to be soldiers, for women to be trained as these men have been would not be a step towards anyone's liberation.

We have to redefine the word "service" so that it is neither forced nor armed. Rather than women being trained to kill, let men learn to nurture life.


Robert McLain, Marine:

Talk to anybody who was going through Marine Corps boot camp . . . the dehumanizing process is just hard to describe. I wish somebody had a record of suicides that go on at these places . . . [and] the beatings that go on daily. Boys are turned not into men, but beasts — beasts that will fight and destroy at a moment's notice, without any regard to what they are fighting or why they are fighting, but just fight. I have seen men fight each other over a drink of water when there was plenty for both of them.


Victor DeMattei, Army Paratrooper:

Basic training encourages woman-hating (as does the whole military experience), but the way it does it is more complex than women sometimes suppose. The purpose of basic training is to dehumanize a male to the point where he will kill on command and obey his superiors automatically. To do that he has to be divorced from his natural instincts which are essentially non-violent. I have never met anyone (unless he was poisoned by some body's propaganda) who had a burning urge to go out and kill a total stranger.

So how does the army get you to do this? First you are harassed and brutalized to the point of utter exhaustion. Your individuality is taken away, i.e., same haircuts, same uniforms, only marching in formation. Everyone is punished for one man's "failure," etc. You never have enough sleep or enough to eat. All the time the drill instructors are hammering via songs and snide remarks that your girl is off with "Jody." Jody is the mythical male civilian or 4F who is absconding with "your" girl, who by implication is naturally just waiting to leave with Jody.

After three weeks of this, you're ready to kill anybody. Keep in mind there is no contact with the outside world. The only reality you see is what the drill instructors let you see. I used to lie on my bunk at night and say my name to myself to make sure I existed.


Wayne Eisenhart, Marine:

One of the most destructive facets of bootcamp is the systematic attack on the recruits' sexuality. While in basic training, one is continually addressed as faggot or girl. These labels are usually screamed into the face from a distance of two or three inches by the drill instructor, a most awesome, intimidating figure. During such verbal assaults one is required, under threat of physical violence, to remain utterly passive. A firm degree of psychological control is achieved by compelling men to accept such labels. More importantly, this process is used as a means to threaten the individual's sexual identity. The goals of training are always just out of reach. We would be ordered to run five miles when no one was in shape for more than two or were ordered to do 100 push-ups when they and we both knew we could only do 50. In this manner, one can be made to appear weak or ineffective at any time. At this point, the drill instructor usually screams something in your face like "You can't hack it, you goddamned faggot." . . .

In [marine] boot camp, there was a Private Green who had a good deal of difficulty with the rigorous physical regime. He was slender and light-complexioned. Private Green was a bright, well-intentioned young man who had volunteered and yet lacked the composite aggressive tendencies thought to comprise manhood. Although not effeminate by civilian standards, he was considered so in boot camp. He was continually harassed and called girl and faggot. We began to accept the stereotyping of him as effeminate, passive and homosexual.

While in the midst of a particularly grueling run, Private Green began to drop out. The entire platoon was ordered to run circles around him each time he fell out. Two men ran from the formation to attempt to carry him along. His eyes were glazed and there was a white foam all around his mouth. He was beyond exhaustion. He fell again as the entire formation of 80 men continued to run circles around him. Four men ran from the formation and kicked and beat him in an attempt to make him run. He stumbled forward and fell. Again he was pummeled. Finally four men literally carried him on their shoulders as we ran to the base area where we expected to rest. We were then told: "No goddamned bunch of little girl faggots who can't run seven miles as a unit are going to rest."

We were ordered to do strenuous calisthenics. Private Green, the weak, effeminate individual who had caused the additional exercises, was made to lead us without participating. He counted cadence while we sweated. Tension crackled in the air, curses were hurled and threats made. As we were made to exercise for a full hour, men became so exhausted their stomachs cramped and they vomited.

Private Green was made to laugh at us as he counted cadence. The DI looked at Private Green and said, "You're a weak, no-good-for-nothing queer." Then turning to the glowering platoon he said, "As long as there are faggots in this outfit who can't hack it, you're all going to suffer." As he turned to go into the duty hut he sneered, "Unless you women get with the program, straighten out the queers and grow some balls of your own, you best give your soul to God, cause your ass is mine and so is your mother's on visiting day." With a roar, 60 to 70 enraged men engulfed Private Green, knocking him to the ground, kicking and beating him. He was picked up and passed over the heads of the roaring, densely packed mob. His eyes were wide with terror, the mob beyond reason. Green was tossed and beaten in the air for about five minutes and was then literally hurled onto a concrete wash rack. He sprawled there dazed and bleeding.


Steve Hassna, Army Drill Sergeant:

A lot of times I'd wake up in the middle of the night and throw [my wife] out of bed and throw her behind the bunker. And start screaming. She was scared of me. She finally left me. Because I would get to the point where I was so pissed off, I'd tell her, "Don't do it again; don't push me." I didn't want to hurt nobody, but I'd get to the point where I can't relate to people no more and so I just snapped.


"The Army Will Make a Man out of You" first appeared in WIN magazine in March, 1980. This version was excerpted from a revision which will appear in a forthcoming book, Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, and is reprinted with the permission of New Society Publishers.



Wayne Eisenhart, "You Can't Hack It Little Girl: A Discussion of the Covert Psychological Agenda of Modern Combat Training," Journal of Social Issues 31:4, 1975.

Wayne Eisenhart, "Flower of the Dragon: An Example of Applied Humanistic Psychology," Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 17:1, 1977.

Robert J. Lifton, Home From the War: Vietnam Veterans, Neither Victims Nor Executioners (New York: Simon &Schuster, 1973).

Clark Smith, editor, "The Short-Timers: Soldiering in Vietnam," unpublished manuscript.

Letters to Helen Michalowski