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Three Drill Sergeants Do Battle With Mulan’s ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’

Like, are they really teaching recruits to be as swift as a coursing river?

While I’m hardly excited to pay $30 for another Disney carbon-copy of an animated classic, I’m fairly certain that when Mulan comes out on Disney+ in September, I’ll be forking over that extra charge within a day or so of the film’s release. After all, that’s what being a dad is all about, especially under quarantine

Until then, the original Mulan will remain in my daughter’s usual Disney rotation, with her watching the movie at least twice a week. And admittedly, Mulan never gets old for me either, as Eddie Murphy is great as Mushu and the song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is undeniably catchy. 

Having now heard that song about 6,000 times however, I can’t help but pick apart what seem to be largely nonsensical lyrics. Like, what the hell does “being as swift as a coursing river” actually mean? And what about having “the force of a great typhoon” or possessing “the strength of a raging fire” or being as “mysterious as the dark side of the moon?” 

Moreover, is it really a drill sergeant’s job to instill all of these values (whatever they might be)? 

And so, as I’m wont to do, I reached out to some real-life drill sergeants to analyze Mulan’s training anthem.

Is It a Drill Sergeant’s Job to ‘Make a Man’ Out of Somebody?

Michael Kolb, former drill sergeant, U.S. Army: The soldiers who come to basic training are from a variety of backgrounds and varying ages. I’ve had privates come to me in their 40s, so they’re an adult, they’ve already lived a life. Others are children who come in at 17 or 18 and have to be taught how to be an adult. But those aren’t the life skills we’re giving them. The drill sergeant’s job is to take these people from disparate backgrounds and teach them the skills they need to become a soldier and an invaluable member of a team. It’s not necessarily to teach them how to be an adult, though I have had to teach somebody how to tie their shoes.

Venson Herron, former drill sergeant, U.S. Army: I don’t think it’s my job to make a man out of somebody. What someone learns at home is going to be what makes a man out of them — or not. I don’t have them long enough to make a man out of them. They do grow up a little bit, but who they will be as a man comes from home.

Steven J. Thompson, former drill sergeant, U.S. Army, author of The Drill Sergeant’s Guide to Parenting: In our co-ed army now, we make soldiers out of them. We do turn children into adults, though. 

On Women in Training

Kolb: When I was a drill sergeant, it was a mixed unit. We had both males and females, and the training was the exact same across the board. The standards were different for physical fitness because we have different physiologies, but the training was the same.

How They’d Reprimand the Assholes Picking on Mulan

Kolb: The idea is that you’re building a team, so you want to build a unit that’s capable of working together. Sometimes, to get soldiers to “buy in” to that idea, peer pressure helps — everything that happens, happens to us. These soldiers are attacking part of their unit when they’re pranking Mulan, so, to deal with that, you’d want to discipline the whole unit. 

Herron: They usually stop once you yell at them and get in their face. If not, we usually give them additional exercises — the more painful, the better.

Are They Teaching Their Recruits to Fish With Their Bare Hands?

Kolb: No. We show them how to use an MRE packet, or a Meal Ready to Eat, but not bare-handed fishing.

On the Lyrics

“We must be swift as a coursing river”

Herron: Swiftness definitely matters, because the speed at which you can move will influence how you perform on the battlefield. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and if somebody is lagging behind because they aren’t fast enough, that person becomes a liability. 

“With all the force of a great typhoon”

Thompson: Force is important, especially force of will.

“With all the strength of a raging fire”

Thompson: Boy, with a fire, you don’t think of it as “strong.” I don’t know. I guess you need a fire in your soul? That’s all I got for that one. 

“Mysterious as the dark side of the moon”

Kolb: You only should be mysterious to the enemy.

Herron: If you’re someone who likes to talk about what you do and can’t stop talking, you can be a risk to your unit’s security. Because if someone is talking about when they’re deploying and where they’re going, the enemy can get that information. So you should be mysterious in that way, but that’s about it.

Thompson: I can’t think of anything related to that at all.

Is Training to Music Realistic?

Kolb: Training to music helps to teach cadence. A lot of newer soldiers don’t have a lot of breath control, so they’re panting and getting out of breath. The purpose of cadence is to get them to have breath control and not hyperventilate.

Thompson: Yeah, we create cadences. I’ve even cadenced them to the SpongeBob SquarePants song. A song has to have the right beat to it and that one fits perfectly. 

Herron: We sing all the time when we run! There are lots of songs, like the songs from Full Metal Jacket and hundreds of others.

We also take pop songs and change the lyrics to fit the military. Like, Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” we’d change the lyrics to “Infantryman, lying in a trench, he’s our country’s first line of defense! He’s got blood on his face, and is no disgrace, as he’s leaving commie bodies all over the place!”

Stuff like that.

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