Eat By the Numbers

A friend of mine went through Naval Officer Candidate School a while back, and I recently stumbled upon an old e-mail he’d sent me that included the following:

It has been eight weeks, and my training class is about to become the “senior class on deck,” which means that we are responsible for running the junior classes. It also means that we’re entitled to certain privileges, like being able to talk while at meals (“chow”).

Previously, we had to do something called “eat by the numbers,” which is the standard method of eating for all junior training classes: a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, Class Chief Petty Officer, or Candidate Officer (a member of the senior class on deck) says “one,” and every student snaps their heads to within 4 inches of the plate of food. At “two” they pick up their “War Spoon” (the official name of an OCS soup spoon); “three” and we scoop up as much food as we can. “Four,” the spoon and food go in our mouths. “Five,” we remove the spoon, replace it on the tray, and check that everything is properly “grounded” (touching): the tray is flush with the edge of the table, and the two glasses are grounded in the upper left hand corner of the tray, touching the edge of the tray; the plate is grounded to the bottom center, with the War Spoon grounded to the bottom edge of the tray and grounded tangent to the plate. On “six,” we snap back up to attention, with our feet at a 45-degree angle, heels touching, feet on the port side of the table support (even if that table support is well to the side — which often leads to significant contortion), and with the “thousand-yard stare.” On “seven,” we are allowed to chew, and on “eight,” we are allowed to swallow. The process then repeats.

Suffice it to say, we’re pretty excited about the prospect of using forks.

I wonder how rituals like this get started? Do they help prepare our officers to better lead troops in combat? Why are these sorts of hazing rituals so common in the military and so rare in businesses? Does that mean that the military should do less of this, or businesses should do more? Maybe our family dinners should look more like this? Our faculty lunches?


There's nothing like having a common enemy to bring a group of individuals together. I think the drill instructor (or senior class) take on that role (perhaps unwittingly) to get the random group of new recruits to have something in their lives in common, to focus on working together.


1. I don't think that this would necessarily be defined as hazing, as it is not harassing anymore than drill practice on a parade square is hazing.

2. Its not the ability to "eat by numbers" that creates better officers, its the discipline that it develops to create strong followers. Afterall, you can only be a good leader if you can first be a good follower.

3. The comparison to the business world, or your faculty, only applies if a level of discipline is required such as that in a war environment. Perhaps your classes are rough, but I doubt people die if they don't listen.

"There's a time for questions and there's a time for orders, but there is never a time for questioning orders. And that is why officers are issued handguns."


Any one ritual by itself looks silly (okay, even many together look silly), but obviously the point is to break the individual down and replace him with an integrated team member who not only knows how to follow orders (essential in any military command), but also to act in unison with his comrades. It's amazing how a few months of these exercises can overcome years or decades of civilian living.

Candice H

Such practices simplify everything down to a robotic ritual in order to easily indoctrinate you. Its an easy and methodic routine in a series of such approaches that bring the ego and individualistic attitude that everyone brings to the table (so to speak!)down to size, in order to make everyone modest; equal. When everyone is equal it is very easy to build them back up into a specifically trained individual. Such practice is used in the military as a form of training. You are not an individual in the military, you are one piece of a very large and useful puzzle. One piece out of the picture is means for a breakdown of the central core.

Such practices, as demeaning as they seem (at least to a civilian), is a necessary part of the training process. A military unit relies strongly on the group mentality. It is NOT every man for himself; a successful unit is one that works together and to make that transition from individual civilian to cohesive unit.

It is not as necessary to use such practices unless you are trying to subvert the individual.

If the company is falling behind because each individual is not playing its necessary function, perhaps such indoctrination is necessary. Such a routine becomes necessity the lower you are and as you rise above the ranks, you alter slightly to serve a necessary purpose, the same as in the military. When you pick up rank, you continue such practices but then become part of the training process for those below you. And so on and so forth.



I've never been in the armed forces and I have to say, there are nights when I have a devil of a time finding my spoon at the dinner table.


Many of the above comments have nailed it. Repetitive drill forces everyone to act as a single unit; one person messes up, everyone is punished. It also helps improve unit cohesion, and makes actions reflexive. In the heat of combat you don't have time to open up the field manual and find out how to do a task, much less why. You do you the tasks because you've been conditioned to do the tasks given, even if they seem stupid (like eating in unison).

By the way, many "rituals" aren't even that old. Often they are made up on the fly, often as a "joke" among cadre. My DI had us switch left to right socks in unison at noon everyday for example


I spent 96-01 in the Marines and my take is that it's a straightforward reprogramming ritual. Having the drill instructor command the entire platoon through tasks (like showering or eating) reinforces the practice of instant obedience to orders. Specifically using such mundane but essential tasks helps cement the concept at a very deep level. As you progress through training you eventually regain the privilege of performing those tasks yourself. When mistakes are made (or occasionally for no apparent reason) the privilege is revoked and the whole platoon is forced back to the earlier stage to re-earn the privilege. The general goal seems to be that recruits are conditioned to a level of obedience and unit cohesion that is considered essential for combat situations.

I take issue with a lot of things about our military, but overall I'd say the approach to training is an efficient of way of getting a random group of strangers to act as a unit in a short amount of time.



Well, there are lots of people responding with the same reasoning over and over. So, we know what the accepted answer is.

I think 'hazing' also has something to do with it. Do you think the people coming up with/enforcing the rituals enjoy it? Do they have any evidence that it is helpful, or is it mostly tradition? Doing good things for the wrong reasons often leads to doing wrong things for the wrong reasons.

Then again, I'm just glad that I'm a civilian, and am generally treated in a civil manner.


I would be interested to know how these discipline trainings methods vary across the militaries of various nations. Do western nations all follow the same regimen vs eastern?


Great post - I have always wondered about this but don't have a good answer. One thing I do know: if business people were to sit in on faculty meetings, they would probably wonder why they pay for our advice :-)

Bob W

Regarding the question of whether this is a singularly American experience - no, it's not. Asian martial arts (Japanese karate, at least) has a strong "tear you down/teach you to follow instruction/build you back up" component as well.


Ian, this isn't something that goes on in the military as a way of life. It's something that's specifically going on in Officer Candidate School. In other words, it's for an extremely short period of time, relative to a person's career.

As far as all the comments about following orders immediately and without question: These are officers. They are, in fact, supposed to think. It's not boot camp.

Has anyone found that doing stuff like this makes better officers? I doubt it.


"Such practices, as demeaning as they seem (at least to a civilian), is a necessary part of the training process."

I'm going to echo Rob here and ask: necessary according to whom, based on what data? My suspicion is that these traditions rest more on anecdote and confirmation bias than on any serious and impartial assesment.


...and the facts that in the military, superiors not only get away with it, they also have little individual incentive to stop it. In the private sector, people have the right of exit. They can quit in the spot when an employer becomes demeaning, which acts as a check against mistreatement. Couple that with the fact that employers and managers suffer monetarily when they lose good workers, and we find much less pointless humiliation in private markets. It's too costly.


The officer candidate schools for the military are designed to weed out prospects and not to develop them. The school's cadre have a short time span in which to determine who is suitable to be commissioned. ROTC and the military academies have traditionally provided enough officers such that OCS is seen as extraneous by many.


This sounds like Zen Buddhist meal practice Oryoki. The steps encourage mindfulness during meals, a time when we often eat without thinking. As another commentator said, this has a goal of reducing the ego.

Ferdinand E. Banks

The only trouble with the military is that - with the exception of the marines - it's not tough enough. They are just playing, and eventually that's going to be bad news for everybody.

Ferdinand E. Banks


A couple of comments have asked if there is any evidence to support these kinds of training techniques. In a word, yes. I can't speak for the other services, but the Army has completed an uncountable number of studies and surveys and such to find the best way to create the soldiers it wants. There is the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL), not to mention the various War colleges and centers. The Army also has the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) that studies what and how to teach. Google any of these for more info.

On the civilian side, it has parallels to religious rituals that make little sense except bind the community together in shared experience. Why do some tribes have their young males bungee jump? Why do dervishes whirl?

candice h

TO Dwight: Necessary to those attempting to teach discipline and the importance of the group as a unit. Like I have already stated, it is important to subvert the individualistic behavior and built up the person to work as part of a team. I'm not saying it works whole-heartily, but it seems to work well in the military. I'm basing this on the Marine Corps experience, as many have previously, since theirs is the toughest regime besides, (maybe) the Navy Seals.

“My suspicion is that these traditions rest more on anecdote and confirmation bias than on any serious and impartial assesment.“

I'm sure, knowing the military; some study has taken place. What such results were, I cannot tell, but there must be a reason such behavior continues. Perhaps bias is the reason such techniques are perpetuated, but they do work in some form. Perhaps its not effective in every area, but if it works on its simplest form in regards to eating habits, then perhaps they work from there. Bringing such rituals/techniques into each daily activity makes an efficient being; take away all of the BS of individualistic behavior and this person is one who follows orders (a core of the military) and gets things done.



Rituals like this had meaning when the job of a soldier was to not run when the shooting started and to fire their muskets on command.


I am not a military person. Maybe I am discounting esprit de corps, tradition, etc. But in context of modern warfare and the job of a soldier in the 21st century, this seems awfully silly.