Buzz is not enough for Marine boys
There were two programmes about tight-knit communities on television last week,
(Channel 4, Monday, 9pm) about the military and (BBC Two, Tuesday, 8pm) about bees, and they proved that both rely on the same principle: the sacrifice of young males. In the case of the bees, the males are allowed to die for the greater good; in the case of the army, they are expected to die for pretty much the same reason.
Royal Marines Commando School followed one particular group of recruits in their first weeks and, as always with programmes about the army, it was inspiring, depressing and dodgy. Inspiring because the Marines appears to offer an improved way of life for many young men; depressing because the improved way of life comes with a terrible risk; and dodgy because all the elements that are supposed to make the army the most masculine job in the world also seem to make it least masculine too.
When young men join the Marines, for example, they are told how to shower properly but this doesn’t involve pamphlets or handouts; it involves, as the documentary showed, another man stripping off and showering in front of them.
Even more strangely, the commanding officer also lines the men up in front of their beds, orders them to take their clothes off and tells them that the best way to sleep is naked. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND, YOU ‘ORRIBLE BUNCH? NAKED!” he says. But no matter how loud he shouts, nothing can hide the ludicrous homoeroticism of a process that is supposed to be anything but.
The bedtime routine was the most bizarre ritual, but the other was the way in which the process of training that is supposed to turn boys into men actually turns men into boys by treating them as infants who must be ordered about, shouted at and, when all else fails, hit to make them do as they are told. They were told how to iron, clean, fold and brush because these are apparently the foundations of learning how to kill.
Before all that, they were required to swear allegiance to the Queen, but just seconds before the oath, were also told that this was the last opportunity to back out. At which point, one recruit put up his hand and said he’d made a mistake – an impressive act of will considering it can take more courage to say you don’t want to join the army than it does to say you do.
After that recruit had been sent home, the rest of them could get on with declaring their dying allegiance to Elizabeth II, which threw up yet another similarity with bees, who also happen to spend their lives in subservience to a Queen.
As it happens, there is a bees’ nest in my garden, so after the programme was finished I went out and watched them come and go. They work hard, going from nest to flower and back, but watching a bees’ nest in summer is a pretty melancholic affair. We know what comes next. We know that these barely-born males won’t even see out the year.