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
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
is the usual term for a military
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
recruits wore leggings
". These days, there are
self-proclaimed "boot camps" for teaching everything from
, but these rarely hold a candle to the
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.
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
), 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
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
, able to withstand tedium
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.