Why Are Military Boot Camps So Intense?

Marine recruit Brie Watson responds to a command during hand-to-hand combat training in boot camp February 27, 2013 at MCRD Parris Island, S.C.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Jon Davis, Marine sergeant, Iraq vet, weapons instructor:

You have to train 18-year-olds to run to the sound of gunfire and perform under fire and the threat of death.

This act defies all logic, goes against all human instinct, and takes one of the most intensive acts of psychological reprogramming to overcome.

A few assumptions with the question, however, have to be put down along with a few myths about bootcamp and the experience.

  1. It is not about the skills you acquire. The shooting is an important part. Learning to march is somewhat important, though you aren’t sure why. The swimming … well that is just awful. And if we think about it, we haven’t fought in a non-desert in how long? The training is not about the skills. The tactics used in training are too extreme to train skills. In all honesty, most recruits are too stressed to actually learn. A much better environment would be a college or a school house. As I said though, boot camp is not about school.
  2. Recruits do not go through hell together. After bootcamp, they will leave one another other and go to different training, and then on to other training for their actual military occupational specialty. Then three months to a year later after all their actual skills training is done, they will join their real unit. This is the unit they will be a part of when they go on deployments and who they will go through war with. You will likely see only a few of the guys you went to boot camp with a few more times in your life when you see one another at the PX on Mainside. You won’t go through “hell” together.
  3. Drill Instructors/Drill Sergeants don’t physically touch recruits. They don’t hit or physically assault recruits, ever. They come close, but they never physically hurt or even touch recruits. Another thing that is important is that everything they do is for a purpose, a rehearsed, manufactured, and engineered purpose.
  4. It is about something else entirely.

Before I continue, I will take the moment to say that my experiences are that of the United States Marine Corps. Generally, no one argues that Marines’ boot camp is, by far, the hardest of U.S. military indoctrinatory exercises and is famous/infamous for its training tactics, so from that experience, I will share what I know.

As for why bootcamp training tactics are so important, you need to imagine what is expected of someone who goes there. In modern warfare, you have people too young to think about fighting the wars that we go through year after year. This has been the practice for centuries. The need for warriors and the nature for who has to fight hasn’t evolved much and likely won’t change in any near future. Drones, stealth, atomic warfare, and high-tech weaponry won’t change this. There will always be the need for young men and women who are willing and able to run to the sound of imminent danger and many, to their death. Nations need this. You need this. It is a horrible thing, but the sanctity and security of every nation on Earth requires young men and women capable of doing this.

To do this, however, we need a form of psychological training that is able to forge individuals who can do this. That is why boot camp has evolved to become such a potent tool in today’s military machine.

The most important single thing to know about boot camp is that it is 100 percent designed to reprogram children and civilians into warriors. It places within them a sense that they are expected to do important things, far more important things than could be expected from other 18-year-olds. This is all happening during one of the most intensely stressful periods of your life, when you are kept isolated from contact from your family and friends and taught that everything you were before entering the Marines was weak and lacking any real value until you too are a Marine. Cults are made this way too. I’m just saying. But in all seriousness, the psychological transformation of boot camp is a very intense and intentional effort by the Marine Corps to make warriors able to fight and kill out of kids who have just barely left high school. From the point that you graduate boot camp, you will be different and have parts of the Marine Corps culture as part of your psyche.

Some of the ways that this is done is through a series of extremely well planned and timed events that, by themselves, are meaningless, but when strategically combined together will change a person.

1) Receiving

Receiving is a period before training. You arrive at boot camp, but for the first week or so, you don’t actually train. You are just doing paperwork to get into the federal documentation system. You will receive all your gear and start your initial process into “getting ready” for bootcamp. But it’s the way you do it that is important. The entire time you are yelled at, screamed at, hurried, and stressed. But there is more.

From the first moment you arrive, you are now neck-deep in terror. This is a video showing exactly what it is like for every recruit before they even get off the bus at the recruit depot. Before you watch, I want to make a few points.

  1. Everything the drill instructor does has purpose; everything. It may seem funny to you, but it is all crucial and instructional in some way.
  2. They are being yelled at before they ever set foot off the bus. You can hear this if you begin listening immediately.
  3. Within 5 minutes, 200+ individuals with no group training at all have been trained by drill instructions on how to: listen and learn while at bootcamp, respond to instruction, stand in formation, and move as a unit. They have also all been read their rights and responsibilities as recruits and in single file moved to a different area. You will not appreciate the magnitude of this.
  4. Every word the drill instructor is saying is memorized.
  5. No recruit will be physically touched by a drill instructor. In fact, they won’t be touched by one, ever. Surprised?
  6. This is a ceremony that has taken place every week for every new group of recuits for decades. It is very well-rehearsed and very well-engineered. As I said before, everything a drill instructor does has purpose.

As I said, this is just the first five minutes. There are three more months of this.

Later that night, a recruit will do something else that is transformative in a rather impactful way.

Why is the haircut so important? It is part of the erosion of individuality. What? Yes, the erosion of individuality. Why should a warrior lose his individuality? It is what makes him special and unique. It is what makes him valuable. Well, that’s the problem. Individuality makes them special and unique. It makes them feel that they might be above someone or something else. They are better than the orders they might receive. They are too good for something. Not at boot camp. From Day 1, everyone is the same. In fact, during my time, being called “an individual” was an insult as it meant that you were a person who couldn’t put the needs of the unit first. Yes, individuality is repressed as they will spend the next three months dressed the same, act the same, and look the same.

Now we move on to something else very important and why I say that it is “psychological” retraining. You go through the next few days running from place to place, doing this, that, this, that and you won’t even realize … you haven’t slept in three days. Yeah, you will go about three days without sleep upon arrival. The whole time you are completely exhausted while running on adrenaline and hearing over and over, that you are inferior. Inferior to real Marines, which you aren’t yet. You aren’t thinking about it, but it is sinking in. You are completely tired and these things build up. Without realizing it, you start to believe that that which is being told to you is true, that there is a weakness in you and that you are less than perfect. In your current state, you believe them and that you must change to be good enough. But there is something important you as the reader need to know.

To be a Marine and to go to war, it is true.

There are many habits that kids and civilians have that have to be unlearned. Like we said, they have to run into battle and that sense of self-preservation is damaging to the mission. At this point, we are still less than one week into bootcamp. The recruits are about to experience Training Day One, known as Black Friday. After receiving and from this point and over the next three months, the recruits will face exercising in endurance, arts of war, and learn to act and think as a unit. These are some of the more important things that are trained.

2) The Arts of War: Marine recruits go through several different training cycles and will learn skills in Martial Arts, Small Unit Tactics, Hand-to-Hand Combat, Emergency First-Aid, and marksmanship. They will also receive nutritional training, maintenance of gear, and physical training. While I said that bootcamp is not really about the skills, they are important and a necessary part of the training evolution. The uses of them in warfare are obvious and necessary for survival for some of the future warriors.

All Marines will by the end of boot camp receive the first belt in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP). This is a special form of combat martial arts designed by the Marine Corps.

During the second phase of recruit training, more than two full weeks are dedicated to marksmanship. It is so important that the drill instructors actually lighten-up to allow the recruits to focus. Marines are fanatical about markmanship and that starts at bootcamp.

Physical training takes many forms, but generally centers on building instant obedience to orders over actual exercise. Most of the time, it centers on listen and do what you are told, get through the exercise, and get out of the situation before you are yelled at. This is really as much as a I want to get into the skills. Information on them is much more available on the internet and not pertinent to the question being asked.

3) Act and Think as Unit These are some of the most overlooked aspects of the boot camp process. This is refined groupthink where an entire unit of 80 men or women are able to act in perfect unison. They know the movements by heart and are always performed the same way and at the same speed. This is Drill. It is the reason for term “Drill Sergeant” and is both a time honored tradition and a valuable learning aide that’s reasoning has been all but forgotten.

Modern Drill was a tool first recorded being utilized by the Greeks to maneuver large armies in necessarily tight formations to fight in close quarters. It was necessary as far back as our Civil War. It still has relevance today in that it trains Marines to focus on the instructions of their leader and to gain unison in their actions. It teaches the importance of individual action in teamwork and is instrumental in training instant obedience to orders. This is a platoon of female recruits a few weeks from the end of their training. They learned the maneuvers well, but still have a few more training sessions before they are perfected.

Below is a platoon in what is called Final Drill. This is a performance review of their abilities to carry out drill as a unit. It is one of the most important training events as a platoon. Some things to note:

  1. Once again, these are 18 year old men fresh out of high school. There are 80 of them and they have learned to carry out actions involving several steps and intricate footwork… in perfect unison.
  2. Both the recruits and the drill instructor are being evaluated by the Marines carrying clipboards.

4) Endurance training Among the many training elements that recruits must endure, the largest obstacle they all must face is one of immense magnitude and endurance. It is aptly named “The Crucible.” This is the final of several training hikes, and it is a three-day march totaling about 60 miles with little sleep, little food, and numerous stops to do obstacle course workouts, carrying a huge amount of extra gear and equipment and a climactic day-long final march up a mountain, called “The Reaper” and 10 miles downhill before returning to their barracks. By this time, the recruits are all physically in shape enough for the exercise, but the mental aspect is what is being pushed here. The entire ordeal is also made all the worse by carrying massive packs with all the recruit’s gear and supplies, along with body armor. In total, the recruit will be carrying about 70 extra pounds with him on this journey. It will not be difficult, but when they reach the top of the mountain, they will have completed the most important major obstacle and last rite of passage to becoming a Marine.

By enduring long hikes like this, recruits are trained to overcome obstacles like pain or fatigue if given proper motivation. I, for one, learned that, even under these conditions, you can still run carrying all this equipment for more than a few hundred yards with a cramp in your leg. The pain doesn’t actually stop your body from working, you just keep running and somehow the pain will go away just as fast as if you stopped and cried about it. This mental training is necessary as it will give them the strength to survive much harder and longer training once they reach the fleet, and missions that will test them physically and mentally.

5) Isolation from the Outside What you may not know is that in some branches of the military, the Marines for example, communication lines are completely severed from friends and family during boot camp. There is no Internet, no phone, no distractions. The only thing you really get is handwritten letters once a week during your only “me time” for four hours on Sunday morning once a week. Does it seem cruel? Well, I had just been married one week before boot camp, so I think I am best to answer this. There are no distractions. All the aspects I told you about are never interrupted by distractions from the outside world. It helps to engross new recruits in the mentality that they are being absorbed into, but for a few months, it completely shuts them out from their friends, families, and the outside world. For a few months, the Marine Corps is your entire world.

6) The Yelling I am pretty sure this is what brought on the question in the first place. In the Marines, boot camp instructors are actually trained on how to manipulate their voices so that they can yell for extremely long periods of time without damaging their vocal cords. This is known as the “Frog Voice,” and it is as real as the weapons we use. The fact is that once you enter the military, people are literally screaming at you all the time and you adapt. Eventually, you will be a leader and screaming will be part of your job too. This video actually shows a great deal of things that are important. It is a video of a charity golf tournament where some Marines were invited to give a show for some of the competitors. Listen at the very beginning and you can hear a Marine using a strange voice to speak to the victim/participant. This is Frog Voice. You will also see what is known as the “Omnidirectional Ass Chewing” in which multiple D.I. will be screaming at you in unison as you attempt to make sense of the universe around you.

“Why do all these things?” you ask. Because it is the easiest way to get a human being who is unaccustomed to performance under stress to take action while being placed under an extreme and sudden stress environment (combat). It trains them to block out the noise and the fear and the stress and just do what they need to do. We can’t actually shoot at the kids you know. (Oh God, that actually does make sense.) So the Omnidirectional Ass Chewing is one of the most important parts of onboarding that most militaries go through, and the yelling really never stops after that. What is extremely important to know is that just as quickly as these men started yelling, they can turn it off just as quickly. It is mostly an act by these drill instructors to instill aggression and help military people cope with combat stress without actually experiencing combat. These men aren’t bullies. What you just saw was extremely important training, mental training. No one in the comments section will ever dissuade me from this position; it is one of the most important things a Marine Corps Drill Instructor can do for a young recruit.


The logic is there. It is terrifyingly present in every subtle action of the Drill Instructors. As I said before, everything they do is for a reason. Boot camp, and particularly that of the Marines, is made to psychologically change a child into someone capable of performing under combat situations. In most cases, it is intended to take from them the aspects of their civilian lives that will make life harder for them in the military, and sometimes get them killed, no longer part of the calculation. The yelling, the sleep deprivation, and being cut off from friends and family are part of the process of becoming a warrior. It is also part of becoming a cult. And that is what it is. Normal people can’t do the things warriors are asked to do. They can’t imagine it and shouldn’t be forced to. But there are those that do. For these people though, there must be a transition from “civilian” to “warrior.” Boot camp is the means of that evolution, and every part of it is necessary.

Thanks for reading and Semper Fidelis.

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