I stood with my mouth open as I watched the first ten minutes of the movie Full Metal Jacket:


The movie is set in the Vietnam war era and new recruits are being physically and verbally assaulted by their drill instructor. And I do not mean any run of the mill insults like "you're an asshole", but things involving the recruits' parents, their genetic and physical endowment, and so on. Even in cultures that are not as strictly honor oriented as the Albanians or the Chechens, this is basically an invitation to physical combat.

I know that this movie is fiction, but theoretically, if such an event would occur, what legal defenses did the recruits have? Since they were only "in training" and (possibly) not part of the military, would it be legal for them to use physical self-defense?


1 Answer 1


s893 Cruelty and maltreatment

The recruits and the sergeant are members of the military and subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. s893 says:

Any person subject to this chapter who is guilty of cruelty toward, or oppression or maltreatment of, any person subject to his orders shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

The recruit could bring a complaint to their CO who would investigate and, if it had merit, convene a court martial. However, apart from the physical assault, it’s unlikely that the conduct portrayed would meet the threshold of “cruelty toward, or oppression or maltreatment of” by the standards of the time and possibly not even by today’s standards. The abuse has a training purposes the sergeant is being deliberately and extremely provocative to to determine who has self-control under such provocation and who doesn’t, who has self-discipline and who doesn’t and who needs more and less training in that area.

Of course, the training methods of the US Marines at the time were positively humane compared to those of Soviet Albania and the USSR (Chechnya) and even of the French Foreign Legion.

Under no1 circumstances would a recruit be legally entitled to assault the sergeant

s891 is quite clear:

Any warrant officer or enlisted member who—

(1) strikes or assaults a warrant officer, noncommissioned officer, or petty officer, while that officer is in the execution of his office;

(2) willfully disobeys the lawful order of a warrant officer, noncommissioned officer, or petty officer; or

(3) treats with contempt or is disrespectful in language or deportment toward a warrant officer, noncommissioned officer, or petty officer, while that officer is in the execution of his office;

shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

1 Self-defence from imminent risk of death and training excepted.

  • Thank you for your comprehensive answer. Just a small detail. Did you mean s889 with respect to assault of a superior commissioned officer? Dec 28, 2019 at 22:05
  • 1
    @Martin The drill instructor is a noncommissioned officer, not a commissioned officer.
    – cpast
    Dec 28, 2019 at 22:08
  • There is also Section 913 which prohibits "provoking speeches or gestures". However, as with Section 893, it seems very unlikely that it would have been enforced under these circumstances. Dec 28, 2019 at 22:58
  • Forcing Private Pile to place his neck into the sergeant's hand to be choked seems like it might count as maltreatment on top of assault. I'm not well-versed with how the UCMJ is applied in practice though. Dec 28, 2019 at 23:05

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