Join the Failure Club

A story for those who are afraid of failure.

Can you take a guess what the hardest part of U.S. Marine Corps boot camp was?

Here’s some hints of what it was not:

  • Grueling physical training
  • Mind-numbing cleaning, cleaning, cleaning
  • Psychological abuse from Drill Instructors designed to break us down
  • Two weeks of subsistence-level rations in the cold mountains of California sleeping in a shelter half on the hard ground, with one hot meal a day.

Nope. The hardest thing was the dancing.

OK, they didn’t actually call it “dancing”. They called it “close-order drill”, but the easiest way to explain that is to show you an old Busby Berkeley movie, where they show you the dancers from above, making pretty patterns as they all moved and stepped in perfect synchronization to a rhythm.

We spent – from day one of the three-month training – a portion of every day out on the “parade deck”, learning to move together, to space ourselves, to listen to the cadences and orders like “Lay-ufffffffff…FESS! Hoar-derrrrrrrr…HARMS!” and translate them into “Left face. Order arms,” and then execute the moves precisely in line with everyone else.

Well, as we tried to execute them precisely. Having taught a dance class or two since then, my admiration for my Drill Instructors has only increased. They started with about a hundred young men, some of whom barely remembered right from left, and were supposed to get them all to walk together in specifically-measured steps at an exact pace. More than that, there was going to be a kind of final exam (read “performance”) of each platoon where not only basics like turning left and right were done, but also more complex moves. Can you imagine trying to get four columns of twenty-five men each to smoothly and evenly merge into a single line of one hundred without missing a step or changing the beat?

Lessons in Responsibility and Blame

In order to help the poor D.I.’s there was a squad leader for each group of twenty-five recruits. There was a lot of motivation and desire for the position, because if you graduated boot camp with a squad leader position you were often given a promotion, a meritorious mast, or something similar. In a group of men already trying to become what they were told were an elite group, it was a way to be even eliter. The squad leaders would march at the head of each column of recruits, and they were chosen because they were supposed to excel at both close-order drill and also at motivating the other recruits to get it right.

Of course, more often than not the other recruits wouldn’t get it right. Sometimes that was because the squad leaders gave them the wrong signals, or started off on the wrong foot, or went too fast or two slow – but more often it was the poor schmucks on down the line who were mis-stepping or mis-turning or just not paying attention (close order drill is different than dancing in one crucial way: it is boring).

Whatever the reason for the error, it didn’t matter. It was always the Squad Leader’s fault. Sometimes the Drill Instructors would let a mistake or two go by before they let the hammer fall, but more often than not they would simply say “You’re FIRED.” And the Squad Leader would move to the back of the line, humiliated and a failure, and the Drill Instructors would look over the line (yes, with that hopeless disdain that is shown in so many movies) and say something like “Ok, Miller, we’re down to the bottom of the barrel, might as well put you up front. You probably can’t BLEEP it up any worse than the last BLEEP”.

That’s right. We reached a point where it was my turn. And I had an advantage: I was a dancer already.

My Moment in the Sun

I actually did pretty well at first. The marching was no problem. Of course, the squad leaders are squad leaders all the time, not only on the parade ground. So if a recruit in my squad didn’t have his rack (bed) squared away (neatly made up) that was my fault. If someone hadn’t shaved adequately, that was on me. If my squad wasn’t the fastest, the best, the most motivated, then that was my fault. Just like the other squad leaders had it be their fault if their recruits weren’t the best.

Ah, the psychological manipulation that turned us against each other, while at the same time instilling a loyalty to our own squads. It was absolutely masterful, as you would expect from an organization that had been doing it for a couple of centuries and then some. Basically, I wasn’t just going through boot camp myself; I was going through boot camp for a score of other young men as well.

It was a lot for a nineteen year old to handle. By the third day, after I had “motivated” my squad out of the head (bathroom) in the morning, I took a moment to rest my head on my arms against the mirror.

What the BLEEP are you doing, Miller?” came Drill Instructor Sergeant Stinson’s voice. He saw me there. He looked angry. “You are a BLEEPing squad leader, Miller. Do not ever show weakness.” That gem of toxic masculinity shared, he left, and I followed, with a sinking feeling that my days at the front of the line were numbered.

Sure enough, out on the parade ground, we were working on a particular maneuver – that one that I mentioned earlier, where four columns merged into one line. We were fourth squad, so we had the furthest to move over to join the single column – and the angle had to be precise to make that happen.

I was the one who had to take the exact right step at exactly the right angle at exactly the right time, judging it all from my peripheral vision after the other three squads had executed the turn.

I failed it the first time.

I failed it the second time. Sergeant Stinson glared.

I failed it the third time. ”Miller, you’re fired!

The Failure Club

I got a smug look from the next recruit called to replace me as I passed him on the way to the back of the line. I had done more than fail my squad, than fail as a marine. I had joined in the first place because I was trying to secure a job to allow me to marry and raise a family with my girlfriend and our newborn baby, Ashlei. By losing my status as squad leader, I had cost us the chance at the promotion. I had literally failed to provide for my future family.

I felt the weight of my failure and tried not to let it show in tears as I took my place at the back of Fourth Squad. I listened for the orders to form up and try the move again: “Ten – HUT! FOUR-errrrrrrrd…HARCH!

Automatically my body took the proper posture, my right heel moving forward in precise motion. It was really easy to do from back there, because I literally had a couple dozen other people in front of me to adjust my path to. After the pressure of leading, being at the back was so much simpler it practically made me giddy.

That’s when I noticed something else: I wasn’t the only giddy one. Next to me was the previous Third Squad leader, who’d been fired yesterday. Next to him was the recruit who’d been fired because one of his squad hadn’t made the run. In front of him was another squad leader who’d been fired last week…I slowly realized: the back of the formation was full of people who, like me, had failed.

And we were having a grand old time. Nothing as blatant as laughing, but we gave snarky twitches of lips and significant glances as we watched the other recruits struggle through the drills. We were most amused, of course, by the squad leaders, knowing exactly how much pressure they were under, and how little it really meant to any of us any more.

Failing as a squad leader turned out to be one of the most gloriously connective moments of my life. Because it showed me: I wasn’t the only one.

When you fail – and you likely will, because reading blogs like this means that you’re the kind of person who tends to try new stuff that stretches your capabilities – it’s ok to feel the loss of your aspiration. It’s ok to even look at yourself and try to work out how you contributed to the failure.

But it’s not ok to think that you’re alone. Because you’re not, and it’s worth it to join the club and share a grin or two with others who have also dared greatly and emerged from the arena bruised, bowed, maybe even broken – but richer for the experience.

Come on in to the Failure Club. I’ll see you there, and the first round is on me.

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