Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “the Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!”
However, in recent years, the sexual misadventures of Marines have put the Corps under scrutiny. It also has the highest number of sexual assaults of the armed services, and it was at the center of the infamous Marines United nude photo-sharing scandal that led to a criminal investigation and congressional hearings last year. And a study release in 2015 also found that the Marines and Navy had the highest increase in STIs.
“We’re not trying to blame anyone for this, but the Marine Corps does tend to stand out,” Dr. Sarah Meadows, a senior sociologist at RAND, told The San Diego Union-Tribune in an interview about the study’s results. “Each of the services has their own culture.”
The Marine Corps is arguably the military branch that’s most fiercely protective of its traditions. It was the Marines that went ashore during the Barbary Wars. It was the Marines that raised the American flag over Iwo Jima. It was the Marines that braved waves of Chinese troops during the frigid winter at Chosin Reservoir in Korea. And it’s the Marines that guard America’s embassies abroad and that guard the president of the United States at home.
For many Marines, getting blackout drunk is very much a sacred tradition. According to legend, the Corps began in a bar, specifically the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On November 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress commissioned innkeeper and former Quaker Samuel Nicholas to raise two battalions of Marines in Philadelphia. According to lore, the tavern’s manager Robert Mullan became the "chief Marine recruiter," enticing young men to sign up with strong drinks and promises of adventure.
Why do we fuck and fight and drink the hardest? Because we're the first ones in and the last ones out. When you push a human being that hard, what do you expect?
The RAND study defined binge drinking as consuming five or more drinks for men or four or more for women in one sitting at least once within a month. Upon hearing that criteria, Marine veteran Alex Diaz tells Playboy, “I don't know what to call what we were doing then, because it was on orders of far greater magnitude. Orders of 10. That's the amount of drink[s] you have before going to the club. Please.”
Marines pride themselves on their comradery both on and off the battlefield. “We looked after each other, there's feelings of safety there. And someone’s always in charge. That might lead to reckless behavior if you know you're watched after,” says Diaz. “I was usually the watcher.” He said that when Marines hit the town it can quickly become a competition to see who can drink the most or go home with the most beautiful woman.
Diaz recalled one night when he and several fellow Marines went out to get tattoos. “[It was] about six of us. One of them was dead set to get picked up and taken home[…]The night dragged on and my buddy got picked up by a chick in a two-seater sports car. Something cheap but sporty,” Diaz says. “She wanted to take him home. He said not without all of us. So, six of us crammed into that two-seater to go home with this… god, I don't know how old she was. Four of us rode in the trunk.”
When they arrived at the woman’s house, the six Marines followed her inside and saw a child sitting in the living room watching television. Diaz decided to stay behind in the living room, but the rest followed her outside to a hot tub, stripped off their clothes and joined their host. “I sat with the kid and kept him company. It was kinda like a game show. Everyone vying for attention. Only one got to bed her,” Diaz recalls. “She swung by to pick me up but ... it was just too messed up for me. We took a cab back to base.”
The Marines have long been unapologetic about their penchant for vulgarity, brutality, and a disdain for any cultural sensitivities. Perhaps nothing has shaped the American public’s perception of the Corps more than real-life Marine veteran R. Lee Ermey’s iconic performance as Marine drill instructor Gunny Hartman in the infamous boot camp portions of the film Full Metal Jacket. Ermey, who died in April, improvised many of his lines on the spot, drawing from his actual experiences as a drill instructor.
This shared experience of adversity creates a strong sense of brotherhood, particularly in combat units. Marines have to know the man next to them is going to be willing to kill the enemy and have their back. But today, it’s a very real possibility they may need to depend on the woman next to them, since all combat positions officially opened up to women in 2016.
The Marine Corps fought back harder than any other branch against the Obama Administration’s pushes to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and to open all military occupations to women. The Obama White House rejected a Marine Corps request for a special waiver that would have allowed it to bar women from joining the infantry as it approached its deadline to open up all jobs.
Current Defense Secretary and Marine Corps legend James Mattis (known affectionately as “Chaos” to the Marines who served under him) was at times critical of expanding LGBT and female participation in combat roles while on active duty, arguing that the move had a social rather than military agenda and could undermine military readiness. After retiring from the Marines, he continued to voice similar concerns as a fellow at the Hoover Institute.
Among his concerns, Mattis warned of "Eros" in the trenches if young men and women lived in close quarters, arguing that it was absurd to put "healthy young men and women together and we expect them to act like little saints." But during Mattis’s January 2017 confirmation hearing, female infantry recruits were already arriving at units ready for duty. By that time, Mattis had significantly softened his rhetoric. “I have no plan to oppose women in any aspect of our military,” he told lawmakers, adding that he believed “when people meet the standards that’s the end of discussion.”
Female Marines do indeed have sex lives. But while male Marines are often lauded for their sexual exploits, women are subjected to a vicious set of double standards and shaming.
Female Marines do indeed have sex lives. But Germano argues that while male Marines are often lauded for their sexual exploits, women are subjected to a vicious set of double standards and shaming. Germano was herself accused of slut-shaming and victim-blaming female recruits over remarks to her female Marines to be wary of drinking around male comrades. But Germano told Playboy she was trying to protect them from a destructive binge-drinking culture that she sees as intimately tied to the Marine Corps relatively high rate of sexual assault.
“I used to tell my female recruits that you cannot compete with your male counterparts at the bar. That’s not the right place to compete,” she explains. “Unfortunately, the Marine Corps has failed to make that connection between this binge-drinking culture that’s all about male Marines generally trying to outdo themselves, and then sexual assaults happening.”
Regardless of the political minefields, women are gradually taking on a larger role in the Corps. This month, The New York Times profiled First Lieutenant Marina A. Hierl, the first woman to lead a Marine infantry platoon. The RAND study also noted that the Marines had the highest proportion of lesbians and bisexual women serving of any branch.
At this point, many military leaders seem happy to put anyone who actually wants to be in the military on the front line—because right now most young Americans don’t. A 2015 Harvard Institute of Politics poll of Americans aged 18 to 29 found that 60 percent of respondents supported committing U.S. combat troops to fight Islamic State. But an almost equal number — 62 percent — said they would “definitely not” join the fight personally. An additional 23 percent would “probably not” sign up to serve.
America looks to an increasingly small number of Americans to fight increasingly long, sprawling, drawn out wars overseas. U.S. Marines have been fighting and dying in Iraq and Syria, and continue to deploy to Afghanistan to fight the longest war in American history. And when they’re at home they’re training furiously for the next deployment. The RAND study found that more than half of active-duty service members reported getting less sleep than they need.
When they get off time, they make the most of it. “Why do we fuck and fight and drink the hardest? Because we're the first ones in and the last ones out. We are the best in and out of uniform,” says Diaz. “When you push a human being that hard, what do you expect? You don't get the best without it becoming a bit of the worst.”