A reality television show by Fox. Think Survivor in a boot camp setting with real(tm) Army Drill Sergeant yelling at you 24/7. It's another example of "Who Wants to be a Voyeur?"-ism at it's finest. Here's a synopsis of the show by Fox:

BOOT CAMP invites 16 contestants to surrender every aspect of their civilian lives in order to participate in a game of elimination set against the backdrop of a military-style training program. Real Drill Instructors set the pace 24 hours a day, putting the recruits through the ringer of obstacle courses and other specialized training activities meant to build confidence and force them to face their fears. During each of the 8 episodes, the contestants will take part in a mission that tests their training and ultimately reveals the weak links in the Squad. As each episode closes, the contestants face an important evaluation by their peers. The results of this evaluation determine who goes, and who stays until the final episode, where the two remaining contestants compete for a $500,000 cash prize!
It was the firm opinion of every recruit that boot camp was sheer meanness, calculated sadism, fiendish delight of witless morons in making other people suffer.

It was not. It was too scheduled, too intellectual, too efficiently and impersonally organized to be cruelty for the sick purpose of cruelty; it was planned like surgery for purposes as unimpassioned as those of a surgeon.

from Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

Boot camp is the usual term for a military basic training course, designed to turn an ordinary civilian into a soldier (and, no less importantly, weed out those who cannot become soldiers). The term seems to originate from the Spanish-America War, when recruits wore leggings called "boots". These days, there are self-proclaimed "boot camps" for teaching everything from programming to poetry, but these rarely hold a candle to the Real Thing...

The following is largely based on my personal experience in the Finnish army. As Finland has conscription, meaning that every able-bodied male (excluding conscientious objectors) is put through boot camp whether they want to or not, the system is designed a little differently from boot camps with the luxury of dealing with motivated volunteers, but I suspect the similarities still dwarf the differences. In the US, boot camp is formally known as Basic Combat Training.

The Purpose of Boot Camp

The first and foremost reason for boot camp is to teach recruits to obey. No fully sane individual will willingly risk painful death in combat, so boot camp must condition them to fulfill all given orders promptly and without questioning.

The secondary reason for boot camp is to build up the endurance and strength (with an emphasis on the first quality) of its recruits. Even when not getting shot at, warfare involves enduring a vast array of minor and major discomforts, and soldiers have to be taught to endure pain and bottle up their emotions.

Actual combat skills are a distinct third on the list of priorities, and usually the soldier's actual job is only taught to them after they have satisfactorily completed boot camp. In the Finnish Defence Forces, everybody goes through the same basic training in boot camp, after which each soldier "hopefully knows which end of the gun shoots and how to pull the trigger", to quote the commander of my unit.

The Methods of Boot Camp

So how does boot camp go about all this? First and foremost, the answer is strict discipline. Absolutely everything, from the moment you wake up to the way you lace your shoes, is minutely regulated. As a new recruit, you are the lowest form of subhuman scum on the base; the first things taught to newbies are the correct methods of saluting and addressing your superiors. The tiniest transgressions, from leaving creases on your bedsheet to moving your pupils while standing at attention, will result in a chewing-out from the nearest sergeant. More major violations, like returning from leave one minute late or (gasp) complaining about an order from a superior, will leave you subject to the full force of military law. Very often, collective punishment is employed, eg. making the entire company stand at attention if one of its members speaks while in formation. After a bit of this, recruits can be whipped into shape simply by fear; instructors darkly hint at cancelled vacations and extra cleaning, and suddenly everybody perks up.

Many of boot camp practices are expressly designed at weakening the recruits' resistance to their reprogramming. One primary method of achieving this is depersonalization: all in the Army are turned into cogs in a gigantic machine. Hair is shorn, all ornaments are stripped away, clothing is military-issue and standardized. Recruits are assigned one bunk in a room of twelve and allotted one tiny box for personal belongings in their locker. Each recruit stands in formation, just one point on a grid, and is filed away in squads, platoons, companies and battalions. First names are never used, and even last names are avoided; the common form of address by an instructor in Finland is Alokas Te, "Recruit You". In short, the recruit is made to feel totally insignificant and powerless to rebel.

Sleep deprivation is a near-universal tactic, since it makes recruits disoriented and docile; in the Finnish Defense Forces, recruits have a theoretical 7 hours of rest per day, but this is subject to wide array of fire drills, sentry duty, night exercises and so on, none of which will ever push back the 5:15 reveille by even a minute. During the first few weeks, the remaining 17 hours in the day are filled with non-stop activity, and any gaps are patched by standing in formation, waiting.

Isolation and the resulting sexual frustration are also used to hammer home the message. Even during their woefully limited free time (in Finland, 3 hours between 1800 and 2100, only after the first few weeks and barring anything else in the way and assuming satisfactory completion of everything else), recruits are generally not permitted to leave the base and experience the wonders of the civilian world. TV, smoking, alcohol and of course drugs are either carefully controlled (yet another privilege to be taken away!) or outright banned. Women (for in nearly all countries with the possible exception of Israel, the military remains heavily male-dominated world) are in woefully short supply, not that there is ever enough privacy in barracks life to even masturbate. Then again, according to persistent rumors all army chow is spiked with saltpeter to curb hormonal urges.

This frustration is thus channeled into physical exercise. In Finland the first two weeks of boot camp are physically easy (while they sort out the wheat from the chaff and try to figure out which people would literally drop dead after a 50-kilometer forced march), but then the regimen begins: jogging, running, marching, gymnastics and combat exercises. The last of these -- dubbed TST in official army language and tetsaaminen in common parlance -- involves running through swamps and forests with the misnamed "combat belt" (a mutant oversized and overweighted fanny pack crammed with everything from ammo clips to gas masks) strapped on, diving head first into the nearest bush whenever the call or signal of "AIR ATTACK!" sounds. The adrenalin kicks in after about 5 minutes; the bruises take a while longer to heal.

The reader may have noticed that I have concentrated on forms of punishment, and this is because the military still relies very heavily on negative reinforcement: if you screw up, your few remaining privileges are taken away. You are not rewarded for fulfilling your orders perfectly, because it is what you are required to do; only in very special cases (mostly sports achievements, excellent marksmanship and the like) are individual recruits commended.

The Short-Term Results of Boot Camp

After days or weeks of this, many recruits -- some 15% in Finland, up to 80% in elite units elsewhere -- decide that they can't hack it (or get injured while trying) and drop out. The barrier to dropping out is of course lower in countries where joining up is voluntary; in Finland, military service lasts only 6 months while civilian service is 13 months (and a black mark on your resume), so many grit their teeth and bear it.

But for the rest, a paradoxical (and to me very surprising) emotion pops up: pride, for being able to take this shit and keep on fighting while others fall. I remember the first time my unit got leave and were allowed to leave the base -- and there I was, in the middle of the Helsinki I knew so well, but now dressed in my dapper M-91 camos, combat boots and a jaunty green beret (shared by all Finnish infantrymen, mind you, but still imbued with the halo of its U.S. counterpart). People looked at me with varying degrees of respect and fear, and no passing drunkard failed to say something. I held my spine stiffly erect and walked forward with a steely gaze fixed on the horizon, the marching songs I loathed just a few hours ago now running through my head and pacing my walk. And I felt good.

The one primary difference between boot camp and prison is that unlike prison, the Army actively encourages the formation of team spirit. During boot camp, the instructors quite consciously assume the psychological role of "enemy" and the squad thus instinctively bands together for protection, helping each other out and covering each others' asses in times of need.

The Long-Term Results of Boot-Camp

Most recruits, if they stick around for a while, find that boot camp does instill those qualities that it's supposed to: they become docile and obedient, able to withstand tedium and pain, physically more fit... and they may even learn which end of the gun shoots bullets. In countries with voluntary service, boot camp usually lasts long enough that those who are left all actively want to become soldiers.

Alas, in countries with conscription the story isn't quite that rosy: many recruits see through the charade and refuse to be converted. Most of these follow their orders grudgingly when they have to, but become adept at lying and cheating their way out of distasteful or unpleasant assignments. A few actively set out to sabotage the system, not so much through active open resistance (the military has ways to deal with this) but by disobeying and wrecking as much as possible while staying within the letter of the law.

Personally, I fall between the two extremes: while I regard military service as a waste of half a year, I've found the psychological conditioning interesting (and scary) to observe, and the physical training to be useful and, occasionally, even fun. Still, I'll be moving to a computing research job after the two-month boot camp is over, and this is fine with me -- I'm positive that my remaining motivation would drop to zero if I had to continue to put up with this shit for a day over those two months.

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