Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Enlisted justice: You know, no one talks about it, but this is the real military. And the important thing is, it always will be.

Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on June 9, 2016.

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.



Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on June 9, 2016.

By Peter Lucier
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

I lost rank while I was in the Marine Corps. I stood tall in front of the man. Captain’s Mast. Office Hours. NJP. Ninja punched (slang for non-judicial punishment, an administrative measure for dealing with minor offenses to avoid court-martial proceedings), in the stomach, in my pride, on my collar, in my wallet.

I was standing the fence-line mission at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, a historic mission still conducted by Marines, although rather perfunctorily. Cameras, ground sensors, and technology far beyond the understanding of a dumb, boot, security force Marine, kept a watchful eye on the shore-side perimeter and direct water front approaches to GTMO. Physical security also existed at echelons above our small company. There were rumors that fighters and bombers were on standby to blow the whole place up if it was ever taken, within ninety minutes. Who knows if that’s true, Marines love to gossip. But we stood the watch, reporting small vehicle traffic, handling the occasional Cuban fence jumper or deserter, or repatriating Cubans the Coasties picked up off the Florida coast, at our regular meeting with the Cuban Frontier Brigade, our opposite force.

I was on the overnight watch. Long hours, in a tower, by myself. I’d have the occasional visit from the corporal of the guard, riding around in a HMMWV, or the sergeant of the guard or watch commander in a Dodge pickup. My usual play was to sneak a can of dip or a pack of smokes somewhere inconspicuous on the HMMWV that would take us out to the line. Often the team would go in on some Monsters or Red Bulls as well. As we weren’t allowed to visit the PX during our week on post, we’d pay the supernumeraries, also known as “super-nuts” or “whiskey-nuts” to make a run for us. Whiskey came from our call signs, which were whiskeys one through eight. Whiskey stood for “w”, which stood for “windward” — the side of the base we guarded. When we didn’t go in on energy drink runs, I’d slip some caffeine pills into my socks above my boot bands.

PX runs weren’t the only thing off limits during post week. No caffeine, save for coffee, that would be brought out nice and cold, two or three hours after you asked for it. Unauthorized, personal chow was also verboten. Meals would be brought out by the corporal of the guard, who would relieve you while you ate, then take the trash and any remaining food with him when he left. Writing paper was not allowed. Marines might doodle. The only paper authorized was the green post notebook. And finally, no nicotine while on post. No cigarettes, no dip, for eight hours.

To ensure compliance, we conducted a vigorous guard mount an hour and a half before post. During guard mount, SAPI plates were removed from our flak jackets, contents of our individual first aid kits emptied and displayed, our assault packs unpacked, and even the individual rounds of our magazines stripped and placed into a bullet board. Our gear was not the only thing inspected. We would get patted down for any contraband as well. That’s why the caffeine pills in the sock.

My playing fast and loose with the rules could of course only last so long, and I got busted. It was a can of white sugar-free Rockstar, and a pouch of Levi Garret that got me, tucked into some of the extra canvas that covered the back of the HMMWV. I didn’t even get busted for the good stuff, but some off-brand garbage. It was hard to come by good tobacco in GTMO. The dip was like sawdust, and still sold out in the first week of a shipment, leaving only dregs, like Red Seal Fine Cut Natural. The cigarettes were no better. The Marlboro Lights were dry and as tasteless as dirty dishwater.

For these, my crimes, I was reduced in rank, from Lance Corporal to Private First Class. I received two months half pay, 45 days of restriction, and 45 days of extra punitive duty. We got NJP’ed in bunches on GTMO. I got received mine the same day as my post team’s driver, who had driven a HMMWV into concertina wire, and another Marine who had been caught sleeping on post.

I got what I deserved. Broke UCMJ Article 92 — failure to obey an order or regulation. I got maxed out because the company commander was a major, a field grade officer, and empowered to strip me of my rank. If he had been a captain, I’d have only gotten 14/14, kept my rank, and a half month’s pay.

If you get a DUI in the Marine Corps, your fate can be equally fickle. I was later in a unit that had a no double jeopardy policy for DUI’s a Marine got while out in town. A DUI in Oceanside would cost you ten grand in attorney’s fees, but your military career could continue untarnished. A DUI inside the gate would see you in front of the Battalion Commander, and you’d get the same punishment I got, 45/45, reduction in rank, etc.

Talk back to an NCO, you might be up cleaning your room until 0300, or stuck with a book report, or whatever under the table punishment the NCO felt like dreaming up. If he’s newly promoted, and shaky though, you might just find yourself getting a public NJP in a theater your company requested specifically for the occasion. This happened while I was in Bahrain. You might also just get the snot beat out of you, although in my own experience, this isn’t nearly as common anymore.

Discipline in the military is a game. It’s cat and mouse. You never know when you’ll get caught doing something you shouldn’t, you are never quite sure if what you are doing is the right thing at all, and should you be caught, you can’t ever be sure what the consequences will be. And thank god. It keeps you sharp. Keeps you on your toes. A sergeant of mine told me Marines are dog-eat-dog, we’ll throw each other under the bus for the most minor of uniform infractions. That attention to detail becomes a desirable skill when your butthole is puckered up something awful scanning and searching for a bomb buried in the road. But the playfulness of it all helps too. The whole thing, the uniforms, the pomp and circumstance, even the firefights, it’s all one big joke. What can you do but laugh? The absurdity and capriciousness of enlisted life prepares you in every way for the chance and seeming senselessness of combat. Our brand of justice is the mirror of the only justice you’ll find in combat. Fickle fate, not officers nor politicians, is the only one who judges us dumb apes out there on the tip of the spear.

Sailors aren’t allowed to drink in Japan anymore, after a series of high profile incidents, including several tragic and despicable acts by American military personnel. And as much as I condemn the acts of a few, I can’t help but laugh at the rest of those poor bastards, who now can’t even slam their allotted six pack to try and drown out the voice of a SNCO or chief petty officer, which echoes in your head long after close of business. What a bunch of suckers. It rains on the just and unjust alike. Today is their day, just like any day on patrol might be your day. That’s enlisted justice.

Peter Lucier, who went up and down in the U.S. Marine Corps, is now a Marine veteran and a good student at Montana State University. He is the co-holder of the Marine chair in the Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted. His views are his own. 

Photo credit: Kurt Kaestner Collection/U.S. Marine Corps Archives and Special Collections/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

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