How and why military basic training brainwashes recruits


Note 1: The following essay is based on my experiences going through the United States Air Force’s enlisted troops’ basic training program in the year 2000, which might have changed slightly since then but probably not by much. The details here will also differ slightly from other branch’s basic training programs, but from all the conversations I’ve had with people who went through those I can say that they’re much worse.

Note 2: I try to keep my essays short, but this one is pretty long, and it takes a few detours in order to cover every aspect of the sweeping nature of the topic. However, if you don’t have the time or interest to read the entire thing I made a relatively short comic strip that summarizes it:

Basic Training Explained

You can also watch this short video on cults and think about how many aspects are directly incorporated into the military way of life:

Mind Control Cults

The premise of my argument is that the United States military’s rules, customs, “courtesies,” and overall culture did not evolve organically. They were consciously and systematically designed using modern psychological research on mind control and are based on professional knowledge of how cults indoctrinate and control their followers’ minds. I can’t prove this argument by sourcing internal documents or training manuals, but if you compare how the United States military operates to how cults operate you’ll see that the similarities aren’t vague or coincidental; the United States military is the perfection of the cult model. If you want to start a cult you’ll have the best chance of success by copying the United States military’s rules, customs, courtesies and overall culture as closely as possible.

It all starts with the recruiting process. All cults use deceptive recruiting methods. When they approach you on the street or draw you into their recruiting stations they promise you everything glorious in life and death you could ever want while dodging and skimming over the negative aspects of what your life will be like in their organization. They never explain in detail all the rules you’ll be subjected to or how they’ll manipulate you into basing your identity on your role in their organization. The United States military is no different. If you go into any recruiter station they’ll promise you money, benefits, travel and glory, but they’ll never mention the U.C.M.J, and if you point out any negative aspects of the military they’ll make any excuse they can think of to dismiss your concern or glaze over it.

You’ll never get a military recruiter to admit that the United States military is a cult, because they probably don’t realize it is. Cults don’t advertise themselves as cults. They don’t tell their recruits they’re joining a cult. They indoctrinate their recruits to believe that they’re joining the most noble organization in the world. Then they send their brainwashed followers out to recruit more recruits. So even if all the original, malicious leaders at the top of the cult’s pyramid shaped authority structure die and there’s no one left alive who knows that the organization was systematically designed around manipulation techniques, the cult will still continue to function. Its brainwashed followers will run on autopilot brainwashing new recruits like a virus. There may still be leaders at the top level of the United States military who understand that their rules, customs, courtesies and overall culture are precisely cultish, but there doesn’t need to be. It is a cult, and it will continue to operate on autopilot in the absence of wilful manipulation.

As a result military recruiters willingly volunteer to act like used car salesmen and wrangle poor people into joining by promising them that all their dreams will come true if they just sign a legally binding contract (something every other cult must wish they could do). What those recruiters won’t tell you is that they have a quota that they have to meet, and they get rewards for exceeding it, which is another reason the cult is able to continue to run on auto pilot. Its recruiters must bring in new recruits whether they want to or not, because if they don’t they’ll get in trouble, but if they do they’ll be rewarded with treasures of this world regardless of whether or not they’re true believers.

Once the military convinces the recruit to sign all their civil liberties away the recruit is taken to a hotel where they’ll be watched and kept from running away the day before they begin their indoctrination process. The recruits will be told that on the next day they’ll be taken to a training facility where they’ll learn how to be an adult and an efficient worker. But in reality they won’t learn anything about being an adult, and they’ll learn very little about their job, because that’s not the point of basic training. The point of basic training is to break down the recruits’ sense of identity and indoctrinate them to base their identity on their membership within the cult.

If the United States military has done its job right then any prior service or active duty military member reading this will be screaming, “That’s not what basic training is about! It prepares you to follow orders because when the shit hits the fan on the battle field you have to act without thinking in order to keep yourself and your fellow soldiers alive!”

That’s what the military tells its recruits to believe, and that argument sounds good on paper, but if you scratch the surface you’ll find flaws in that argument. Firstly, the majority of the humans who go through the military’s indoctrination process will never see the battle field. Millions of them will never even leave the continental United States. But they go through the same indoctrination process because the purpose of basic training isn’t to prepare you for the battlefield. Its purpose is to ensure that every recruit will always blindly serve the interests of their leaders, and the leadership hierarchy stacks up like this: Enlisted troops take orders from officers. Officers take orders from politicians, and politicians take orders from the individuals and special interest groups who fund their campaigns, give them bribes and employ them after they leave public service. Thus, military members are unwitting mercenaries for (and blind supporters of) the ultra-rich. The United States military serves the interests of the wealthy. Every major military campaign the United States military has been involved in has made the rich richer and the poor poorer. And the gears of war and profit will keep turning as long as nobody in the military ever dissents or asks questions. That’s why it’s imperative that every recruit be systematically brainwashed to associate their identity primarily with their membership in the military.

The process of reprogramming civilians begins the second they step off the bus and set foot on their basic training base. The moment they leave the bus they’re descended upon by multiple drill sergeants or training instructors. Different branches call their basic instructors by different names. Each branch also has different names for their ranks, career fields and facilities. The reason for this is because it causes members of each branch to base their identity on their respective branch. This makes it less likely for military personnel to form a coup against their corrupt political leaders.

Differentiating the branches from each other serves another purpose as well. It’s standard procedure for cults to indoctrinate their members to believe that anyone who isn’t a member of the cult is inferior. Every military member is taught that civilians are untried, unproven and take their livelihood for granted while the glorious military sacrifices everything and is better than everyone else (regardless of the fact that many military members will spend their career sitting at a desk stateside for 20 years living rent-free, receiving free  medical care and driving a Ford Mustang that they paid for with their reenlistment bonus). Pitting military members against civilians is a powerful mind control technique that the military reuses by pitting military members against each other.

Airmen (aka “Zoomies”) are taught they’re smarter than Marines (aka “Jar Heads”). Marines are taught they’re tougher than soldiers (aka “Grunts”). And everyone thinks the Navy is gay. Pitting each branch against each other doesn’t cause them to go to war with each other though. It causes each branch to be even more loyal to its own chain of command, and since the entire military falls under the command of the Department of Defence, whoever controls the D.O.D benefits from this manufactured infighting.

But I digress. When recruits get off the bus their first day of basic training they’re immediately set upon by a flock of “training instructors” who throw hell at them. The instructors yell at them, insult them, tear them down, threaten them and tell them they don’t deserve to be there. The purpose of this initial assault is to shock and awe the new recruits. It makes them doubt themselves as well as accept the authority of anyone wearing the cult’s symbols of rank on their shoulders. All of this primes them to be receptive to the message they’ll be inundated with over the next few weeks.

Every year billions of people around the world enter employment in jobs that are just as dangerous if not more dangerous than what the average American military recruit signs up for, but they aren’t subjected to the mental abuse American troops are subjected to on their first day, yet they still follow orders and go above and beyond the call of duty often putting themselves at unnecessary personal risk. You don’t need to assault a human’s mind to convince them to do what’s necessary. But you do need to assault their mind if you want to reprogram their identity.

The next form of mental assault that the American government submits its military recruits to is less obvious but just as important to the indoctrination process. The recruits are filed into dormitories or barracks where they’ll live in communal spaces with up to 60 other people. They’ll have absolutely no privacy or control over their environment. Everything they own will be identical to everyone else there. Everyone will dress the same and looks the same. Everyone will sleep in identical beds and keep what few possessions they’re allowed to have in identical lockers.  They’ll even have to shower naked in communal showers with dozens of other recruits. All of these factors dehumanize the new recruits and help break down their sense of identity and self-worth.

The lack of privacy breaks down the recruit’s defences. You can’t hold up your guard when you’re naked in a shower with 15 other people and sleeping in a room with 30 other people. Under those circumstances you’re like a vulnerable child who has no home, no identity, no safe haven, no escape, no choices and no power over your own destiny. You’re nobody. And the only source of validation you can possibly experience comes from the cult, which makes the cult your mother, your father, your boss and your god.

If this doesn’t seem sinister yet, consider that the new recruits will be held captive within the confines of their dormitory. A sentinel will stand guard at the entrance preventing anyone from leaving, and if an escapee can manage to get out of the building they’ll still be trapped on base behind tall fences lined with razor wire as well as gate guards armed with semi-automatic assault rifles. The military holds a gun to its recruits’ heads and forces them to endure the indoctrination process, which is so mentally brutal that many recruits will attempt suicide.

The military goes through such dire lengths to keep its recruits locked away from the outside world because it’s much harder to break down and reprogram someone’s identity when they don’t have access to their old support structures or the freedom to live life by their own accord. So you have to isolate them from everything they’ve ever known and inundate them completely with the rules, customs and culture of cult. When the cult is all they know… then the cult is all they know. Once the recruits spend a few weeks eating, sleeping and breathing nothing but the cult’s way of life they’ll accept that that’s how life is. And why wouldn’t they? The reality of their day to day life is whatever the cult makes it. So they go about their day to day life experiencing reality according to how the cult defines it, and in no time at all they take the cult’s way of life for granted.

Isolating new recruits from the outside world also insulates them from dissent and freedom of thought. If the recruits go out on the town every night or even worse, go home, they might tell someone about all the new things they’ve been learning. Then someone with a free mind might point out crazy they sound and convince them to leave the cult.

Another reason cult members are forced to live in communal quarters is because humans take cues from other people’s behaviour and mimic it. You’d have a very hard time taking a lone individual to an empty camp and convincing them to change their behaviour. However, if you take 60 people and force them to all behave the same way they’ll assume that since everyone else is going along with it then it must be okay. Plus, once you break the minds of the weakest members they’ll take it upon themselves to enforce the rules of the group.

With the stage set the instructors can begin actively reprogramming the minds of their recruits. The daily indoctrination process begins as soon as the recruits wake up each morning. Loud speakers in the ceilings of the dormitories blast a trumpet tune called reveille often times accompanied by training instructors banging trash can lids and shouting at the recruits telling them to get up and quit being lazy. The recruits will have a few minutes to get dressed, make up their bed and line up in formation outside.

The brain-rattling trumpet, combined with the frantic morning chores and the instructor’s insults throws the recruits off centre from the moment they wake ensuring that they won’t have the mental focus to resist the indoctrination process. The chores and routines also ensures that the recruits are following orders from the moment they wake up even if the instructor isn’t even present to tell them to get dressed, make up their beds and file outside for formation. Thus the military controls every aspect of their lives and leaves no room for individual freedom of thought or action. The more the recruits accept that as the norm the less likely they are to question it and the more likely they are to embrace it.

There are very specific rules for falling into formation. Following those rules first thing in the morning continues to reinforce blind obedience to the group without questioning the purpose of orders. Standing in the group formation where everyone looks and acts identically also helps minimize the individuality of the group members. In case the recruits don’t pick up on this idea on their own the training instructors will tell them bluntly that they’re no longer an individual. They’re a member of the group, and their own identity and desires are worth less than the identity and desires of the group. Training instructors will tell the recruits to be proud of this fact and to look down on civilians who value their individuality and selfishly desire to fulfil their own destiny.

Any active duty or prior service members reading this will likely be screaming, “But you should value being a member of the group! That creates a stronger team and keeps the group together when the shit hits the fan! Anyway, we’re proud to put our own egos aside to help protect the freedom of civilians!”

Those criticisms aren’t wrong, but there’s more going on than just that. First, there’s the fact that the military isn’t upfront about the invasive methods of mind control it submits its troops to, and that’s unethical. Also, reprogramming recruits sense of identity eliminates their freedom to determine their own destiny. It makes mental slaves out of recruits who are so zealous that they’ll defend their own manipulation. This reprogramming controls all aspects of the brainwashed victim’s life, not just how they perform their job. Plus, reprogramming individuals essentially kills the person they once were and creates a new person. Once the old person is dead they can never come back to life as the person they once were. Doing that to another human being is no small matter, and no human has the authority and right to kidnap another person’s soul. Finally, it’s worth noting that everyone in the world will participate as a functional member of a team on an almost daily basis without being brainwashed. Sports teams are high functioning teams that coordinate plays selflessly without going through a brutal indoctrination process. Even civilian contractors in the military play by the rules and make sacrifices in war zones without going through basic training.

Once the recruits are lined up in their morning formation they sing their branch’s official song and chant an oath of allegiance to the military and the United States. This is cut and dry, unambiguous brainwashing 101.

After having sworn their daily oath of allegiance the troops eat breakfast, and even then they don’t get a moment to themselves. They have to file through the cafeteria silently standing heel to toe, staring straight ahead while instructors hover over them to punish anyone who breaks these arbitrary rules. When the recruits finally get their food they’ll be given as little time as possible to eat to ensure they can’t relax and mentally collect themselves.

After the meal they’ll take part in physical exercises and marching drills. They’ll perform their exercises and marching drills as a group, everyone acting in unison further conditioning them to base their identity on the group. Every member of the group will be punished whenever any individual fails to follow the arbitrary rules perfectly. This encourages the recruits to police each other. The more the recruits enforce the military’s rules on each other the more they take the military’s rules and authority for granted.

The military doesn’t leave this powerful mind control technique to chance. The instructors will assign recruits as element leaders. The element leaders will receive an arbitrary symbol of authority (a colored rope that attaches to the lapel of their uniform), and they’ll be tasked with policing their group. When the military leadership bestows authority on individuals it teaches every member of the group that the military has the authority to bestow authority on individuals and raise their value as a human being. Once the recruits take this for granted they will always respect higher ranking military members as if God Himself touched their leaders with His grace. Finally, it dangles a carrot in front of the recruits. They’re taught in basic training that their life is worthless outside of the military hierarchy and that elevation within the cult is the true path to elevation as a person. The use of “ropes” or element leaders sets this precedent from day one.

This is also why recruits are called “trainees” instead of Airmen, soldiers, seamen or Marines. They have to prove themselves worthy first before being granted a title in the illustrious group. Every cult in the world does this. The military just hides this brainwashing technique in plain sight.

At some point during the day, between eating, exercising and marching the recruits will be taken to classrooms where they’ll receive hundreds of hours of lectures on military history, rules and customs. The point of teaching military history is to train the recruits to accept the military’s history as their own history. Once they come to base their identity on hundreds of years of history they’ve just learned they’ll always view themselves as a member of that distinct group.

If any troop ever complains about life in the military they’ll be told, “You knew what you were getting into before you signed up.” But the hundreds of hours of class time they’ll spend in basic training betray this lie. You won’t learn all the details of what you signed up for until you take these classes.

Those classes teach all the unique symbols, language, rules, customs and beliefs that make up the overall military culture. On the surface most of them are innocuous, but it’s standard operating procedure for cults to manufacture their own internal culture based on shared symbols, terminology, rules and customs, because you need to give the recruits a culture to latch onto and derive their new identity from. The whole point of giving recruits a new culture and a new identity is to tie it all into the group’s pyramid shaped leadership hierarchy. All the other details are red herrings, but once you accept them you’ll accept your place in the leadership hierarchy that comes along with it. From then on you’ll always respect and obey any human being who wears the arbitrary symbols that represent authority within the cult.

After class (and maybe a few more marching drills) the recruits are filed back into their dormitories where they’ll spend the rest of their night cleaning their rooms, organizing their lockers, folding their cloths and arranging their belongings to precise requirements. The purpose of these chores is to simply get the recruits used to obeying arbitrary rules. If you can get them to perform mundane tasks without question you can get them to perform any task without question.

It also gives the instructors more reasons to berate the recruits and tear down their sense of self-worth (and just as importantly) to reward the recruits for demonstrating obedience. In a stressful, totalitarian environment a simple bar of candy or a phone call home is worth a million dollars. Recruits will love their captors when given these small token rewards.

Throughout the whole indoctrination process the instructors will find any reason in the world to make the recruits doubt their worth as a person and as a member of the group. As they tear down the recruits they’ll slowly build them back up with praise and rewards. Then, just as the recruits are beginning to feel good about themselves the instructor will find any excuse to tear them back down again. If the recruits are doing everything right the instructor will simply lie and tell them they’re all failing at their duties. This emotional roller coaster keeps the recruits doubting their worth, makes them yearn to win the approval of their captors and makes them feel more proud when they receive any sign of affection or validation. It’s a way to systematically induce Stockholm Syndrome.

By the end of basic training the effects of the reprogramming techniques will have taken root in the trainee’s minds. They’ll sing their branch song with pride, gush when they see an officer and perform every task asked of them with gusto. In the end they’ll take part in a lavish ceremony where they’ll receive the mark of the in-group and will be congratulated on their elevation to true worth as a member of the group cementing the effects of the indoctrination process.

After reading all this you may still hold firm that military basic training teaches discipline and trains recruits to act without hesitation as a member of a goal-oriented team. As true as that may be, and as useful as that may be, it’s still not the whole truth. The fact of the matter remains that the training methods used in basic training are the exact same methods used by cults, and they have the exact same results. They rob recruits of their identity and replace it with a willing mental slave drunk on loyalty to the in-group. The training methods used on military recruits are considered unethical and even illegal to do anyone else, and they’re so invasive and brutal that they cause the recruits extreme mental anguish in the process to the point that many even attempt to commit suicide.

I have never seen evidence to support the claim that is absolutely necessary to submit human beings to this form of unethical treatment in order to create a smoothly functioning organization. Even if it were, we still have to ask ourselves if the cost is worth it, especially since it contradicts the entire reason the military supposedly exists: to protect the freedom and dignity of the citizens of the United States.

If you liked or hated this blog you’ll probably feel the same way about these:

The War Debt
American soldiers aren’t heroes, they’re victims
You can support the ucmj or the troops but not both
Parallels between the stanford prison experiment and student leaders in military tech school
Objectively quantifying the heroism of the troops
8 reasons not to join the united states military
An overdue critique of the military caste system
Lessons civilians can learn from the military
The military is a cult
State of the Troops Address on the 10th Anniversary of September 11th
An open letter to the U.S. military

9 comments

  1. I haven’t had the time to read all your stuff so I’m not sure where you are coming from. Since every organization could be looked on as a cult, where does the premise start? Is there a natural characteristic in man that makes him/her seek out to be a part of something greater than his own individualism? If so the cult would be just a natural progression in the evolution of man. Or is this characteristic a flaw that an entity has learned to use to manipulate man. If this is the case then who or what is this entity and to what purpose or end are we headed for?

    1. “Finally, it’s worth noting that everyone in the world will participate as a functional member of a team on an almost daily basis without being brainwashed. Sports teams are high functioning teams that coordinate plays selflessly without going through a brutal indoctrination process. Even civilian contractors in the military play by the rules and make sacrifices in war zones without going through basic training.”

  2. Amen man. Right on target. I spent 6 years of my life in the Army. First as an 11B and then a 19D. Anyways, I want to thank you for writing. I really enjoy reading your work. Please keep writing.

  3. Finally someone expresses the exact same sentiment I have been sharing with people for the last 10 years. I also went through USAF basic training. I joined in 2001 shortly before 9-11 and experienced 9-11 in basic and I will say everything you said is spot on! I’ve even done research on conversational hypnosis, NLP and other forms of covert influence and found there are tactics of these also being used in basic. It goes deep bro and entirely surprises me that NO ONE, virtually NO ONE is talking about it. Especially those who went through it. But then it hits me, of course they don’t talk about it, they were thoroughly brainwashed. Up to this point I was wondering why I was the only post military person talking about this.

    Would love to talk more with you. I’ve been ruminating in starting an online blog to address these issues as well as expose brainwash in many different institutions, and eventually would love to start a Non Profit org. I have lots of ideas and think someone with insight like yours would really be a great partner on the team. Let’s chat more. Best!

    1. Oh also, myself and a veteran of the Marine Core wrote a song called “Brainwatch” which describes our experiences with brainwash in America. My verse (the second one) specifically deals with my experience in USAF boot camp. I cover some of the EXACT same points you did in this blog post. Let’s build man. We are stronger in the sum of our parts! https://soundcloud.com/ugly-company/brainwatch

  4. Very interesting viewpoint. I spent eleven years active duty Air Force and never felt I belonged. To this day, twenty-two years since moving from active duty to reservist status, I still have mixed emotions on the entire experience. Most of it is a blur with keys events more in focus.

    I appreciate your candor, courage and detail. I sat down this morning to write a fictional novel using my late-teen experiences of graduating from high school and entering the Air Force as background. To this day, this its painful to recall what happened to me… Again, I never belonged. Thank you for helping me to understand that it’s not just me.

  5. What is the authors name. I am posting this on academia and I want to reference you. I have known about this but never put it into words.

    When I was going through the indoctrination processes I always kept something personal to myself to look different than everyone else. It was something as simple as a different pair of black gloves that I had my own to blend in at the same time but still have some what of my identity. As for the mental abuse I tried my best by putting myself in a happy mental state. This is spot on and needs further research. Millions of people are being indoctrinated for the benefit of something we are not even aware of who is behind it all.

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