Monday, August 18, 2003


Reprinted from
From the Shores of Parris Island
Phil Brennan
Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2003 Sixty years ago today, Nov. 5, 1943, I went over to New York with my 14-year-old brother. I was 17 years old and about to embark on that sea of uncertainty known as adulthood, which lapped the shores of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, S.C., my destination that day.

We stood around having an awkward conversation of the kind one has with his kid brother when neither of you knows what to say, as the time for saying goodbye approached. When it came, we shook hands and Jim turned and headed for home.

As he slowly faded from sight down Lexington Avenue, what was happening suddenly rolled over me like an onrushing Sherman tank and I thought, "What in God's name have I done?"

Then I boarded the bus that would take me and a few dozen other Marine Corps recruits to the train station where the journey south – and the end of my sheltered youth – would begin.

Sometimes I try to reflect on the meaning of it all. Why did I cut the closest – and most comfortable – of family ties on what was essentially a spur-of-the-moment impulse? What did I learn as a result of that impulse? How much of what happened during the next three years helped shape the man I am today? And a lot of the answers still largely elude me.

It's easy to say that I came into the Corps as a kid and emerged as a man, but that begs the question: What kind of a man? Moreover, what kind of experiences went into the making of the man?

Boot camp was cruel. I was ill prepared for it. I had lived what was very much a sheltered, almost pampered existence surrounded by people who thought as I did, and had been raised as I had been and in the same environment. I can't say it was a closed society, but it came damned close to it.

We lived in Brooklyn in the fall, winter and spring months, went to the same parochial grammar schools and the same Jesuit prep schools, and spent magical glorious summers on that part of Long Island that was, in those days, largely a summer resort.

It was a tight, Victorian, Irish Catholic, upper middle class society rooted in the certitudes of Western Christian civilization best exemplified by the Roman Catholic Church and the United States of America.

In other words, the world of my childhood and teen years lacked – and I hate to use this hateful Marxist word – diversity. Sure, there were friends, classmates, acquaintances who didn't share our advantages – but in the main, they shared our beliefs and our attitudes.

On Parris Island I found myself in a very different world, surrounded by people whose backgrounds were as alien to mine as mine was to theirs, and making the transition was anything but easy.

The people around me spoke one language and I spoke another. It was a melting pot and the process of being melted down to become one part of a homogeneous whole was anything but pleasant. And I had the bruises to prove it.

In the end, however, that homogeneous whole, thanks to the geniuses who designed the system of making Marines at Parris Island, was the United States Marine Corps, and whatever else we had been before joining the Corps we were now what we would be for the rest of our lives: members of a storied elite – United States Marines.

I think that recognition, that somehow I had become a member of a famously elite organization, more than anything else, helped shape me into the man I eventually became. But I was still very much the product of my upbringing – what I was had simply been poured into the Marine Corps mold, strengthened, disciplined and made purposeful.

A lot of what I learned in my years in the Corps was good, and a lot of what I learned was not so good.

What was good was the complete acceptance of the fact that I had obligations to my God, to my country, to my fellow Marines and to the people around me, that simply needed to be fulfilled at all costs. If I had a job to do, it had to be done. No shirking. No excuses. Just do it, or die trying.

That stays with you for the rest of your life. Try to evade it and you'll hear the harsh voice of a phantom top sergeant – one of your guardian angels – shouting the Corps' patented obscenities at you.

What was also good, was the recognition that it didn't matter what your opponents did to you or said about you. What mattered was how you stood up to them without flinching or backing down. When you knew that you were acting in good conscience and good faith, nothing else mattered, even if it created the most serious consequences for you. It's called sticking to your guns.

What was not so good were the lessons I learned that taught you how to get around certain tasks and obligations by being fast on your feet.

I recall being sent down to the docks in San Pedro to help load the ship we would be boarding for our excursion into the Pacific war zone. There was a lot of heavy lifting to be done, and this 130-pound, skin-and-bones Marine was not at all enthralled with the idea of doing it.

So I found a clipboard and toted it around, making imaginary entries on a sheet of paper and (fortunately for my physical well-being) nobody questioned me. Everybody thought I was doing an assigned task.

In the latter part of my time in the Corps I got around a lot of things I should have done by using similar tactics. I had learned how to turn the system – the one described as having been designed by geniuses for execution by idiots – against itself.

There was a lot of smug satisfaction in getting away with it, but I finally understood that the real victim of my contempt for the rules and regulations and those who established them was my self-respect. I was, in short, acting like a liberal. I now realize the truth of what somebody once said: "Character is what you do when nobody is looking."

The older I get – and I've managed to get pretty damned old – the more I recognize the traits instilled in me by the Corps. And I see them in a lot of the mail about my columns I get from fellow Marines, past and present.

We seem to think a lot alike on most of the issues of the day. We are, for the most part, strongly conservative, both politically and in our personal lives, proudly patriotic and exuberantly proud of our Marine Corps heritage.

That can't be a coincidence. What we have become began on that first day on Parris Island, and I thank God I was there to begin the process.

Semper Fi.

* *

Phil Brennan is a veteran journalist who writes for He is editor & publisher of Wednesday on the Web (>) and was Washington columnist for National Review magazine in the 1960s. He also served as a staff aide for the House Republican Policy Committee and helped handle the Washington public relations operation for the Alaska Statehood Committee which won statehood for Alaska. He is also a trustee of the Lincoln Heritage Institute and a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.

He can be reached at

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