Anecdotal overview of basic training, the great social leveler of military service.
Medal of Honor–winner Jacobs (If Not Now, When?: Duty and Sacrifice in America's Time of Need, 2008) argues that “[b]asic military training and boot camp are American institutions that have continued to evolve…but the experiences of trainees through the decades seem remarkably similar.” This assertion forms the book’s structural core, as the author ranges widely, interviewing living veterans and researching the recollections of others, tracing the universalities of this harsh and surreal yet essential experience. Of his own training ritual, he writes, “we figured we were unique, and we would invent ways of beating that system…until we realized that we had become part of that system.” Jacobs establishes the systemic, unchanging nature of training by breaking it down into various categories of discussion, including the creative brutalities of drill instructors, dreaded tasks such as guard duty, and longstanding dubious legends such as the use of saltpeter in military rations to reduce sexual desires. While some of the included veterans are well-known figures, like Tom Seaver or Brian Dennehy, most are ordinary soldiers who provide wry assessments of their experiences—e.g., “when I first got to my unit they pretty much told me to forget everything that I’d learned in basic.” Overall, the author provides a clear and sometimes mordantly amusing overview of the training experience, punctuating it with personal accounts from soldiers. However, Jacobs does not provide an interpretation of the changing role of the military in American life, as represented by this enduring yet prosaic ritual.
Will appeal mostly to readers considering a career in the military or veterans wondering if their memories exaggerate the intense eccentricity of the experience.