Sunday, December 18, 2005

Tribes 3: Franchise Abuse

There are two very interesting posts up at Dan Todman's site regarding the recent Royal Marines "bullying" case which was much in the headlines a couple of weeks ago.

Post 1
Post 2

I was actually going to write something about this earlier, but Dan's posts seemed to me to do the job better than I could hope to so I held back. But I'm bored so here's my penny's worth, in which I'd like to try to make a couple of points regarding the aspects of this sort of thing that struck me first.

When the story first broke we were treated to a veritable tidal wave of officers in the TV news studios, donning furrowed brows and informing us of their shock, dismay and disbelief at what appeared to have happened.

A very specific image entered my head at this point, namely that of Claude Rains going, "I'm shocked - shocked! - to find gambling taking place here!". I imagine I was hardly alone in this.

Perhaps I'm overly nasty and suspicious, but I'd actually be surprised if that sort of thing wasn't happening. Which isn't necessarily to say it's either right or harmless (I'm not judging one way or t'other) but merely to note that it's very much part of the tribal ethos.

Anyone who is a civilian and spends a reasonable amount of time around military people, especially Army and Marine people and especially Army and Marine NCOs who have seen active service, will be aware that there can be a chasm between people who serve and have served and people who have not. The width of this chasm varies. At it's thinnest it will merely take the form of there being certain conversational topics that the civvies will not "get". At its broadest it can take the form of people with extensive regular military service genuinely finding it hard to connect emotionally or socially with people who don't have the same life experiences or - most relevantly - the form of servicemen refusing to treat civilians as equals until the civilians have "earned" their respect.

So on a broad level there is, or at least can be, a form of sociological split between servicemen and civilians. At a more specific level there can be internal tribal splits between, say, regulars and reservists, or Green Jackets and Paras, or Teeth arms and REMFs/PONTIs.

These tribal tensions tend to manifest themselves very strongly in the case of Elite troops vs. non Elite troops. An ethos of specialness is often best nurtured by emphasising the deficiencies, real and imagined, between those of the elite and those not of the elite. Internally within a unit or organisation there will also often be initiation ceremonies to mark the point at which new blood ceases to be part of the "other" and becomes a recognised part of the tribe. In the case of newly minted junior officers this can, at its most tame, take the form of the initiate being induced to drink vast quantities of alcohol at a single sitting. Obviously there are different strokes for different folks but the principle is fairly consistent.

If you want to be a Royal Marine, your instincts can mean the difference between life and death. Look at this photo of a biscuit cracker - what's your immediate reaction? If the answer is "Wank on it", we'd like to hear from you...

The Royal Marines, of course, represent an elite.* By reputation, for the Royal Marines there are two - and only two - types of people in the world:

  1. People who are Commando Trained
  2. Everybody else

There have been a number of stories regarding the Marines giving non-Marines a rough time - including instances in which non-Marine officers on attachment for various purposes found themselves victims of "hi-jinks" ranging from property destruction to physical abuse. This sort of thing - especially if it turns out to be initiation-related - should come as little surprise to anybody and frankly I find it hard to believe that many of the military talking heads were being other than disingenuous on this issue when they expressed slack jawed amazement at it (though, being almost universally officers, their own experiences may have been rather more genteel).

As Dan notes it's hard to tell how long this sort of thing has gone on. Documentation of specific activities of this sort within the armed forces in the pre-1945 period is extremely scanty, if not non-existent. The principles, however, are surely by nature primal and as old as human history itself.

The main difference, one suspects, is simply that the latest generation is decreasingly inclined to accept it. In the past these things were accepted because 1) after humiliation came acceptance, 2) it came as part of a recognised and ongoing cycle - those doing the humiliating today were once themselves the humiliated and today's grovelling victim would in turn take his place in enforcing the rites of passage on those who came after him [all terribly top public school, I dare say] and 3) today's generation are a bunch of soft mummy's boys, innit?

I don't think this is the full story, of course, but I do think it forms a broadly accurate narrative. I don't make any judgement on whether what happened was good or bad, unacceptable, unfortunate or brimming with hearty manliness. I'm not a Royal Marine and I never will be. I know they're very, very, very good at what they do, but ultimately whether what we've seen is an essential part of their ability to keep us all safe in our beds or whether it was a nasty bit of casual, meaningless, institutionalised cruelty conducted for shits and giggles by abusers of authority I don't know.

*By weird coincidence, a couple of weeks before this incident broke I was having a conversation with someone in which one of the topics raised (not by me) was the strange tendency of Marines to get stark bollock naked in public at the drop of a hat.


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