What ‘Squid Game’ teaches us about life in the military
Mind games, crappy food, matching uniforms, and signing a contract without realizing what you're agreeing to. Sound familiar?
The recent debut of Netflix’s “Squid Game” immediately shattered records with more than 100 million viewers. Day after day, oh, who are we kidding — hour after hour — viewers binged what has quickly become one of the biggest “wtf” shows in recent years.
The show’s premise, in which hundreds of cash-strapped “contestants” sign up to play kid games to win a massive cash prize, comes with a catch. A big bloody, brutal, murderous catch: Losers in the game don’t just get eliminated from a round. They are literally eliminated, often with a gunshot. Moreover, the players quickly learn what people will do to get what they want, the hard and vicious way.
This might seem strange, but as I watched the show I couldn’t help but see some parallels between “Squid Game” and military life. And other military service members on social media seem to agree.
Sure, service members may play stupid games and are prone to horrible lapses in judgment from time to time, but nobody is spilling blood over a game of Spades. But how the players came to join the “Squid Game” and interacted in the game has surprising parallels to military life.
The stages of joining the military are one such example, along with Squid Game’s similarity to deceptively long months at Marine boot camp. Whether it be that first encounter with the recruiter saying how much better life will be after signing the contract, running out of breath while running for your life, or enduring weird mind games, it brought me back.
So let’s go over some of the similarities, shall we? Also, this article will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the show, best get to it!
It all starts with a recruiter
In the first episode, the show’s protagonist Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) is approached by the Salesman (Gong Yoo) while waiting for the subway. The quasi-recruiter asks if Gi-hun wants to play a game of ddakji, a South Korean game in which one player tries to flip an origami square with their own. Gi-hun eventually agrees after the Salesman opens a briefcase filled with cash and promises to pay him 100,000 South Korean Won if he wins (about $84). Gi-hun, who is flat broke and in deep debt, agrees.
The trick is that if Gi-hun loses, he would have to pay the Salesman 100,00 won. But the Salesman gave Gi-hun another option: the Salesman gets to slap him in the face.
After far too many ddakji slaps, Gi-hun, slightly battered and a little bloody, finally wins. It’s at that moment that the Salesman gives him the recruiting pitch: There’s a place where he can play more games and win even more money.
Barring the physical violence, it’s somewhat similar to a military recruiter approaching someone at the mall, or train station, and talking about how the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, or Coast Guard will change their life amid all the benefits they’ll get if they join, like seeing the world. They may even mention a bonus if a recruit signs up for a specific job or ships off immediately. But if they’re still on the fence about joining, they may be invited to the recruiter’s office to talk more about this amazing opportunity — they’ve got energy drinks and a pull-up bar! — or to a PT session with other recruits to get a feel and an idea of what that branch does physically.
Gi-hun, however, doesn’t have much time to think about his options since he’s told that spots are limited. After all, injecting some artificial stress into the decision-making process does wonders for military recruits on the fence: there are only a few spots left for that military occupation you really want. And don’t forget about those bills that need to be paid, or that credit card and college tuition debt hanging over your heads. Did we mention that they’ll get paid?
You signed the contract
Gi-hun didn’t realize this in Squid Game, but he signed his physical rights away earlier in the episode before he got ddakji slapped.
Gi-hun and the other 400-plus players signed another contract after arriving at what’s basically a desert-island version of a military entrance processing station. One of the clauses states: “Player is not allowed to voluntarily quit the games.”
They tell recruits how to dress, when to sleep, eat, bathe, how to talk. They probably know their background and they may have had to sign a waiver. Take a photo, but don’t even dare smile!
Similarly, enlistees who end up hating the military can’t just quit the service or the unit. They may get transferred, but Uncle Sam owns them, just like the Front Man and his people owned Gi-hun and the rest of the players. In the words of every disgruntled senior leader in the Marine Corps, especially during PT in sing-song cadence: “This is what you asked for.”
Why we… survive
Gi-hun and the rest of the players know what’s at stake after arriving. Millions in cash. And they came because they were hoping to solve their problems at home. In Gi-hun’s case, he’s millions in debt to the bank and loan sharks due to his gambling. Moreover, his daughter and ex-wife are moving to the U.S. due to her stepdad’s job, and his daughter can’t stay unless he’s financially stable and able to pay child support.
For Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Hoyeon), she needed the money to bring her mother into South Korea from North Korea and her little brother, who’s in a foster home.
Depending on the situation, whether it be escaping a negative environment or patriotism, everyone has a reason why they join. Some do it for adventure, to find a family, for security, or a purpose. And if there’s an added incentive, like a bonus, it makes signing on the dotted line even more tempting. Life will be better after we join and get what we joined for, or so we tell ourselves.
Squid Game is more like “mindfuck game”
After arriving at boot camp or basic training, it’s everything the recruiter may or may not have said, like the yelling in your face and the required high volume of screaming back, not singing back.
Fortunately for me, my recruiter and another woman Marine told me what I was in for and what I had to do. Still, I don’t think I was fully prepared for what was in store. And unfortunately for some recruits and trainees, the culture shock is more than they bargained for.
You can’t manipulate the system or the game, I remember one service member telling me If you try, you won’t make it very far.
People may join the military with some idea of what it’s like, but that’s not the same as actually experiencing it. Once a person is in, the bonus or promise to see the world may not look so hot anymore. These games — sometimes called “fuck fuck” games — whether duck-walking across the squad bay, doing endless close-order drill, or taking the long route to training, or to sleep like they did in “Squid Game,” seem to serve one purpose: To confuse the everloving hell out of a “nasty civilian.”
Didn’t reach the door by the time the countdown was finished? Fine. Now the recruits have less than a heartbeat to go back where they started.
One would think after a month in boot camp, recruits know what to expect. Nope. Laughing? Get on the quarter deck. Want to keep talking? Pick up the rifle and hold it in the air. Think the bed is nicely made and neat, the way the drill instructor wants it? Wrong. Do it again.
It doesn’t end with training, though. When one person screws up, sometimes everyone in the unit is made to pay the price.
It takes teamwork to survive
The military tears individuality down and rebuilds people to not only become a war-fighting machine but to be a team player, especially in life-or-death situations. Survival depends on Marines, sailors, airmen, and soldiers to work together when shit goes down. Recruits and service members have to look for the person in front, right, left, and back of them.
Things won’t get done if nobody works as a team in the military. Moreover, people won’t survive if there is no trust in their battle buddies. We start seeing this teamwork in the very first episode of Squid Game. Gi-hun was frozen and on the ground after players started being eliminated during “Red Light, Green Light.” Another player, Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-Joon), reminds Gi-hun that he has to get up and get over the line before the timer is up. Otherwise, he will still be eliminated.
Later, we see Ali Abdul (Anupam Tripathi) catch Gi-hun by his jacket after falling, keeping him from hitting the ground. This allowed Gi-hun to catch his balance and cross the line.
People can’t make it to the end, be it boot camp, enlistment, or the Squid Game without help. That is, as long as the people don’t use manipulation or take advantage.
The even darker side of Squid Game and military culture
Throughout the Squid Game, as more are eliminated, it increasingly becomes everyone for themselves. They take each other out, but only a handful like Gi-hun, look out for other players like Sae-byeok and player 001, Oh Il-nam (Oh Yeong-su), the oldest player.
But the marble game, episode 7 of the series, was the one that cut the deepest and one of the worst mind games. The players choose their partners based on strength, only to find out the game during that round would pit them against each other.
Many players learned the hard way that not everyone looks out for them. For many in the military, it’s similar. If a service member reports an assault or if their mental health is wavering, some may wonder, will leadership look out for them, or hold it against them?
A case in point happened over the summer at Fort Hood, when Sgt. 1st Class Cory Wrieden, who is currently serving with the 1st Cavalry Division, posted two videos on TikTok in which he made allegations of broken leadership that he’d observed over the last year.
Those allegations included retaliation against Wrieden for visiting behavioral health services and allowing a warrant officer to remain in their formation virtually unpunished after Wrieden informed leaders that the warrant officer told another soldier to kill himself.
“I go to behavioral health one time and now I’ve gotta be babysat,” Wrieden said in the video. “And you wonder why soldiers don’t seek help.”
Women are weak trope, but don’t count them out
There was one part about Squid Games that really irked me: When it came to working as a team, whether as two or eight, the men were quick to dismiss the female players. For women service members, we’re all too familiar with this rejection and common misogynist tropes: “Women shouldn’t join the military,” and “Women are weak” are two examples among many.
Before President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law on June 12, 1948, women throughout history found ways to join the military. While some women attended camps to help with the chores and maintain morale amid the Revolutionary War, Margaret Cochran Corbin dressed up like a man and joined her husband on the frontlines at the Battle of Fort Washington against the British. She was wounded in battle and was the first woman to receive a military pension, despite it being half of what male soldiers received.
Then there’s women like Harriet Tubman, who was the first woman to lead a military expedition and was a spy for the Union during the Civil War. Unfortunately, she only received $200 for her service.
Before former Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women serving in combat, women were leading in combat. In 2005, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester led a counterattack against insurgents who had ambushed her convoy while deployed to Iraq. She became the first of two women to earn a Silver Star since World War II.
In 2017, 18 women graduated from the Army’s enlisted infantry training. In 2018, Marine First Lt. Marina Hierl became the first woman to graduate from the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course and the first woman to lead an infantry platoon.
Despite the badassery women have displayed throughout history, they’re still subjected to some of the same misogynistic tropes.
Reenlist or get lost
As opposed to the military, Squid Game players were able to leave after playing “Red Light, Green Light.” That’s because someone read the contract before signing and mentioned they could leave if the majority voted for it.
However, after the surviving players left, they returned because the realities outside of the games were also unpleasant for the majority of them. They’re still broke, in debt, and struggling. They were still in hell.
So they returned. This time, they knew ahead of time that life or death was in store. And if they made it all the way, they knew they’d be set for life. That is, if they don’t gamble it all the way or purchase a car with a 35% interest rate.
It’s also something many think about as they near the end of their active duty contract. Should I stay or should I go? What happens if I get out? If both are hells, which is the lesser of the two evils?
Some veterans say they left the military because it got “stupid,” while others, may cite the abuse of family care plans. Others decided to use their VA benefits for school or training for new careers.
It didn’t financially cost the Front Man if a player was eliminated early on in the games. It also benefited the players. However, it is costly for the military if people leave before they finish their contract.
Of course, many stay in for 20 years, and retire in their late 30s or early 40s. I once had a gunnery sergeant come in for a new CAC, and he muttered under his breath, “Nine more years, nine more years.” He was staying in for 20, the retirement pay for life. And as they move up the ranks, the retirement pay increases. Add in the service-connected disability, and people may be set for life there if the VA declares it’s permanent.
However one’s time ended, it definitely left an impact in life.
Sara Samora served four years in the Marine Corps as an ID verifier and administrator which trained her for the job she wanted: journalist. Currently, she’s a general assignment reporter at the Houston Business Journal, and serves on the advisory board of Military Veterans in Journalism, and the board of Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals. She also still loves Game of Thrones despite that awful ending.
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