IT WAS an arresting, farcical notion: If your tore a man's eyes out of his head in a manner that didn't rip all the cords apart, you could lay the eyeballs on the ground, facing the sorry devil (the noncommissioned officer didn't say "bastard," because no one swears in the line of duty at Parris Island anymore), and he could look at himself and see how silly he looked! If you tore the cords, you could put salt on the eyeballs, and . . . . The recruits, mostly from the Iron Triangle of New York-Newark-Philadelphia, roared and whooped and applauded. The comic inventiveness of the Marine NCO remains nonpareil.

The Marines have always been distinguished from the other services in an ambiguous way. On the one hand, they seem the best disciplined, best drilled and most thoroughly trained, and generlly the most fit. (At 185,200 they are also, by far, the smallest of the armed forces.) On the other hand, the Marines have long bred, delighted in and cherished all manner of idiosyncrasy, militaristic fetishism and patois. They are generic and raffishly specific -- at once Roundheads and Cavaliers. Their uniforms, easily the best fitted of any of the services, are "sharp," correct as to prescribed color and the placement of insignia, but cunningly tailored, and worn with a certain glossy panache. The Marines have always looked good, limber and spare, and studiously off-hand about their creases and gig-lines and shoes. Their advertising ("The few, the proud, the Marines") is irresistably alluring. Surely a graduation from Parris Island must be the highest attestation to fitness for the soldier's art.

So it would seem; but only, it appears, in the imagination of male Americans over 35. This is no judgment of the corps' fitness to fight, but rather reflects younger men's present unsusceptibility to the time-honored blandishments of service in an elite army. The corps still attracts the few, but (even at a starting pay of $448 a month and, often, guaranteed geographical assignments after boot camp) increasingly few.

With demographic data promising worse recruiting difficulties in the next few years, the Marine Corps has at last realized it is dealing in a sellers's market. This, together with the fallout from a pair of ugly training incidents four years ago, has had profound effects on boot camp. What if you had a boot camp and nobody came?

The Marine recruit depot at Parris Island, S.c., is today a vast, efficient, somewhat bland military novitiate. It trains 25,000 recruits, 90 percent of them male, each year. Its drill instructors, or DIs, are as reliably interchangeable as members of an Indianapolis pit crew; its superiors a perfect cast of homines novi , unanimous in their abomination of the old ways of making a man -- that is, a Marine -- out of Junior. So complete has been the psychological transformation of boot camp that visitors are constantly reassured that the exercise does remain relentlessly tough; that "only the methods have changed, not the product"; and that, besides, "Society's sendin' us a different kind of kid from what it used to." That society continues to function chiefly as a source of Marine recuits is part of the old DI arrogance yet intact.

The product still looks good, and, in many ways, still is good. He may have come from the Have-It-Your-Way generation, but toward the end of training he has crossed a certain line. To watch a recruit platoon in its ninth or tenth week of training, marching in perfect cadence out on the enormous black-topped "grinder," all the men in superb physical condition, all responding in easy precision to the hieratic glottal swank of the DI's commands -- to watch this is, surely, to see the material of which excellent fighting infantry is made.

Few Americans are stirred anymore by the sight of "excellent fighting infantry," but at Parris Island the iconography of Marine tradition is tended and palpable. If the visitor to Fort Dix is reminded of Willie and Joe, of miserable Ivy Leaguers, bored, cynical and drafted, the visitor to Parris Island notes that the ties between history and tradition, training and combat, are firm and taut.

Parris Island is still evocative. The soil is sandy and thin, a pearly gray, and there are many palmettos -- the South Pacific war was the Marines' most famous, and best. One remembers Randolph Scott, Sgt. Stryker; Brian Donleavy and Wake Island; Col. Dave Shoup on scorched, deadly Tarawa; "Battle Cry," the Makin Raid, Pelileu; the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. Less well commemorated are Vietnam and Korea, wars in which the Marines' amphibious mission was only rarely deployed. But statuary, museums, force-fed chunks of Marine Corps history, the beribboned tunics of the veteran Marines all reinforce the message: The Marines are an elite, invincible, "pure" soldiery, this country's last, and these things derive entirely from the traditional character of boot camp.

The character of boot camp at Parris Island (the Marines first established their recruit depot here in 1911) for many years was dominated by NCOs assigned to train recruit platoons of 60 to 80 men: drill intructors. These Marines -- profane,mean, autonomous, wickedly competent -- worked a string of 120-hour weeks, terrifed and trained their "people," purveyed the most consistently original and fluent invective in any army, swilled cheap beer and smoked Camels all night, but appeared every morning at zero-four-three-zero in an immaculate sumptuary miracle of faded starched khaki. They woke up their men by running a Coke bottle around the inside of a garbage can, screamed at them, called them "maggot," "lady" and much worse: they ran their men around all day and often left them in the front-leaning rest position; and they beat them occasionally and humiliated them frequently. But those they trained successfully, those who graduated, wallowed in pride and in the conviction that they could do what armies are supposed to do in war: win. All this, in the phrase of a forgotten theologian: a vision to dizzy and appall.

Today the DI is a finely tooled, somewhat oversupervised, thin young man. That he should be thin seems strange, because DIs, like umpires, used to be thick and heavy. But now they are thin, because long-distance running is the new physical religion of boot camp, and the DIs and company officiers lead the runs -- regular six-and-a-half-minute miles being clicked off, too, all the boots wearing a regulation kind of track suit, but displaying a colorful range of running shoes of their choice. Four- and five-mile runs at this pace are a part of the daily routine in the last three or four weeks of the 10-week training program. There are still obstacle courses, heavy doses of chin-ups and bent-knee sit-ups -- even, during week seven, several hours of rappelling. But running is now at the core of "PT," and so the DIs are thinner, younger -- athletic and gung-ho in a modern way.

Everywhere there are first lieutenants. In an ordinary recruit training company with eight platoons (grouped by fours into intermediate units called "series"), there are six officiers: a captain and five first lieutenants. They're there to keep a supervisory eye on the DIs, but they resemble, in their daily peregrinations, nothing so much as clones of Prince Philip, all walking with their hands behind their backs, staring, not often smiling , terse and grim, assuring that the kinds of incidents that necessitated their assignment to recruit training do not recur.

The authority of the DI used to be supreme. There may have been commissioned officers at Parris Island in the 1950s and '60s and down to 1976, but recruits rarely saw them. The DI did what he damn well pleased with the time that his men were not sitting in bleachers hearing lectures on interior guard, first aid, Marine Corps history, etc. There was a lot of that time. Now there is much less. The course then lasted 13 weeks, after which the graduated platoons were bused to Camp Geiger, an austere section of Camp Lejeune, N.C., for four more weeks of infantry combat training. Now the program comprises 63 training days. After graduation (average dropout rate for males, 1979, 12 percent) the Marines go on leave. Only infantry "grunts" go on to advanced infantry training. As for time not actually spent in training, there is less of that, too -- including an hour-long period immediately before taps in which drill instructors are not allowed to interrupt the recruits' leisure. There is an officer present in each barracks to assure that the restriction is enforced. He remains until an hour after taps (21:05 hours).

There is an apothegm, attributed to one of Queen Victoria's generals, that change should be accepted only when it can no longer be resisted. Changes in the organization and control of recruit training did not occur as a result of Vietnam, but were prompted by two incidents in the winter of 1975-76, and were instituted to assure the prevention of such incidents in the future. In the first, a recruit at the San Diego Depot, where all male enlistees from west of the Mississippi drill, was savagely mauled in a pugil stick exercise -- the pugil stick being a padded bayonet surrogate. Three months later the boy died. In January, 1976, a drill instructor shot a Parris Island recruit in the hand. During this period some 150 of approximately 600 drill instructors at both depots were accused of abusing their charges; 118 were temporarily relieved from duty, 38 permanently. The publicity, from the Marines' point of view, was withering, because both episodes stirred memories of the notorious Ribbon Creek forced march at Parris Island in 1956, during which six young Marines were drowned in a tidal swamp on a night punishment hike. The Marine Corps stood implicity accused of being unable to discipline and control its own drill sergeants.

Reform has come with a vengeance, the most prominent effect being a reduction of the authority and autonomy of the DIs -- through efforts to change their attitudes and qualifications for the job, and by restrictions on certain traditional forms of physical training and other punishment. No longer do recruits duck-walk in unending circles, foot-lockers on their shoulders; no longer do DIs take a thick pinch of abdominal flesh between their fingers and squeeze while bracing their Smokey the Bear hatbrims against the bridge of the trainee's nose; no longer do recruits try to locate firing pins, buried in the sand, with their noses, or dry-shave under buckets.

"In fact [according to "Standard Operating Procedure for Male Recruit Training, Parris Island, 1977"], the relationship between the drill instructor and his recruits should partake of the nature of the relationship between father and son . . . . The offenses which are most likely to impair accomplishment of the mission are those of malteatment, assault upon and oppression of and cruelty toward recruits, and abusive, vile, or degrading language."

Each recruit is ordered , the day he begins "forming," i.e., when he joins the other 80 members of his platoon, to report breaches of discipline to one of the series officers. For his part, each officer is required to interview each recruit, privately, sometime during the first month of training. (Any recruit "allegator" can cause a reportedly offending drill instructor to be temporarily suspended from taining duties only on grounds of reasonable cause.) As if this were not enough, four senior NCOs, all former drill instructors, patrol the three recruit-training battalion areas, watching the DIs with their men. They are required to make spot corrections and to report all offenses against regulations to headquarters. The DIs call them "depot spies."

Perhaps none of these reforms bears directly on how well the young Marines learn the technical and tactical rudiments of their profession. Indeed it is possible the recruits are learning more , and learning it better -- learning the traditional staples of their work (such things as interior guard, military hygiene, first aid, hand-to-hand combat, how to fire the .45, throw a grenade, make a bivouac, etc.) Marine training gets the recruits into better shape now, by far, than it used to. But the long-distance runner loses his vaunted aerobic fitness about as fast as a concert pianist loses the fluent dexterity that helps make a performance a triumph: in a week.

Qualification with the M16 rifle, at the end of the fifth week of training, remains sacramental, and preparation for this test remains painstaking and tedious. Indeed this weapon is anthropomorphized, as its heftier predecessors were, in "My Rifle, the Creed of a United States Marine":

My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus I will learn it as a brother . . . . I will keep my rifle clean and ready even as I am clean and ready. Before God I swear this creed.

The daily training routine is long, demanding, hectic and tiring; no longer is it also stressful and frightening and exhausting. The course concludes with a graduation parade before a colonel, and it is logical to assume that the strains of John Philip Sousa's "Semper Fidelis" induce the same fiery pride in the new Marines as they did in 1942. ("When you do an 'eyes left,' lemme hear them eyeballs click.")

Few conclusions can be reached. The generals and colonels at Parris Island are exuberantly confident about their program. They stress its tougher physical requirements, its rationality, its concerted effort to induce discipline as a "way of life" -- something, almost, of an Eastern philosophical replacement for the terrified or surly compliance with orders that once, they seem to admit, characterized the private's way of rendering his service to the military. No longer does the willful or malicious caprice of an angry DI determine what a recruit, or a platoon of recruits, will do for punishment. The senior DI now takes an oath, on meeting his new recruits for the first time, before them and his officers: "I will treat you just as I do my fellow Marines, with firmness, fairness, dignity, and compassion." Former Marines will probably be appalled; the good DIs always behaved with such qualities anyway and scarely needed to make public avowals of their intentions.

Only in combat can the efficacy of a military training program possibly be proved, but even then the connection between recruit training and disciplined enterprise can be inferred only tenously. Boot camp cannot instill valor. It can at best habituate a young Marine to a certain kind of stress (that which approximates the erratic, capricious, wildly oscillating stresses of combat); but it is just this kind of stress that, paradoxically, the dogged rationalization of all aspects of boot camp at Parris Island, imposed by the reforms, has removed from training.