By Hank Nuwer
from American Legion Magazine, July Issue, Vol. 147, No. 1
HAZING. The word itself gives a commanding
officer the shakes, conjuringup inquiries
from Congress, visits from reporters, long-distance calls from mothers.
Precisely what military hazing is, however, defies definition. One recruit’s hazing is
another’s “shape- up” exercises.Most civiliandefinitions of hazing fail to take account
of its varied meanings in military life. The term “hazing” can be used to describe anything from a
good-natured punch on the stripes when someone is promoted, to Navy chiefs who make a new
chief wear a dress, to boot camp activities when superiors or peers try to transform a balky recruit
into a trustworthy team player. There also are degreesofhazing, and in any of the above examples
one could find people crossing lines that shouldn’t becrossed.
Of course, hazing is not
exclusive to the U.S. military. Hazing is widespread in the Canadian,
and Russian armed forces. In Russia, many first-yearsoldiers die at the hands of their superiors
whom they call “grandfathers.” Others enduresadisticdemands such as licking a toilet bowl clean,
says Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologyprofessor and chairman of the
Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society.
There’s a Difference.
Hazing in the United States goesbeyond the military. High school
upperclassmen, bands, professional athletic teams andadult and collegiate secret-letter societies
haze. Today, mainly because of fraternity hazing deaths,39 states forbid hazing.
Significantly, most experts
distinguish military hazing from fraternity hazing. The purpose and
of military hazing keeping troops alive doesn’t apply to Greeks bearing paddles. Although the
first scandals involving hazing in U.S. service academies began over a century ago, the general
public heard little about hazing in the military branches until 1956.
That year all training procedures
went under a microscope following the drowning deaths of recruits
at Parris Island. Demands that military hazing stop escalated in the late 1960s after one national
magazine exposed unusually vigorous artillery OCS hazingconducted by Vietnam returnees.
Today, stories about hazing in
the military are commonplace. Three Marines were charged with
miscellaneous offenses in 1999 in Okinawa, Japan, afteran initiation allegedly injured the hand of a
Marine. A 1998 scandal occurred at Fort Knox, Ky., aftera Marine’s classmates beat him during a
ritual-like “love session.” Video recordingsof Marinesinvolved in so-called blood pinnings filled the
airwaves a few years ago.
Consequently, dozens of hazers
were disciplined in military justice courts during the 1990s for
miscellaneous offenses. Julian Neiser, a former drillinstructor, worked at Parris Island and saw the
careers of honorable men self-destruct. “I’ve seen guyswho were excellent Marines, combat
veterans, guys who were extremely qualified, do something stupid to a recruit,” says Neiser.
“Before they knew it, their careers were ruined. They were wearing orange jumpsuits and picking
up trash on sides of the roads.”
What’s responsible for today’s hazingfuror? Joe
Jansen, a former Marine
sergeant, points to instantaneous communication on theInternet and on CNN. In particular,
witnesses to hazings use video cameras to capture secretrituals on tape and give or sell them to
media producers who can count on a quick ratings shotin the arm, he says.
The result is public outrage.
“I don’t think society hasa natural aversion to
rites of passage and
ritual,” says Jansen. “But I think society does havean aversion to senseless brutality.”
Ironically, some hazing
activities continue in spite of American press opposition. Richard
New Jersey sociologist who writes about hazing, sayspress scrutiny fails to check all but the most
severe hazing, driving it underground and causing officials to give lip service to eliminating it.
Shared Misery. Experts suspect
it’s not the actual hazingthat super-glues young recruits
but the sharing of experiences that try their souls andgive a feeling of satisfaction if endured. “Going
through shared misery is what bonds people, not hazingper se,” Moskos says. After lights go out
during basic, jokesters usually start a running banter.They good-naturedly make fun of the system
and their drill sergeants who tell them they are tearingthem down to put them back together.
Recruits who were humiliated that day can re-invent their experiences in a humorous light by seeing
how things looked through the eyes of their fellow soldiers. Often they laugh until the tears come,
says Moskos, then hop to their tasks the next morningwith new resolve.
Rite of Passage. Maj. John
Jansen, a Marine stationedin California, says a matter of degree
separates activities that constitute an acceptable military rite of passage and unacceptable behavior
that rightfully gets perpetrators in trouble with theUniform Code of Military Justice.
For Jansen, a non-objectionable
and perhaps necessaryrite of passage would be a symbolic
gesture to acknowledge a troop’s new rank, so longasthat might involve nothing more than a
non-hurtful, symbolic blow. For example: When a lancecorporal becomes a corporal and NCO,
his peers and sometimes superiors will punch him on thered “blood” stripe outside his dress blues
trousers. No nudity is involved nor any suffering morethan momentary stinging pain.
In contrast, Jansen sees no
justification in the Marine paratrooper blood pinnings that have been
shown in gruesome detail on television and Internet newsprograms. In various videotapes that
surfaced between 1991 and 1997, Marines were shown ramming symbolic gold-wing pins into the
chests of those who had fulfilled a 10-jump requirement.“That was so wrong it wasn’t funny,” says
Jansen. “The guys looked like captives, screaming,yellingand gnashing their teeth. This kind of
hazing, no question, is wrong and the Marine Corps doesn’t countenance that kind of behavior.”
Studies Needed. Consider military
rites of passage that cause neither injuries nor lasting pain, and
aren’t taken to dangerous extremes by sadists or negligent individuals. At least one expert thinks
they should be tolerated within reason, seeing valueovera long period of time in the tribal initiations
that signify and shape a child’s entrance into adulthood. “You can’t have a rite of passage without
some hazing,” says Moskos, who vigorously condemnshazingtaken to an extreme. “A zero
tolerance for hazing is counterproductive.”
Studies in sociology and
psychology are still academic infants compared to some other
No reputable scholar has spent time fully studying thepro-and-con effects of rites of passage in a
military setting, although several have written aboutpollywog ceremonies for scholarly journals
interested in folklore.
Studies into behavior during
initiations that have been done are old and in need of reassessment. An
oft-cited 1958 study, financed by the National ScienceFoundation, tried to assess the effect of
severity of initiation on personal preference for a group. The research, performed by Elliot Aronson
and Judson Mills determined that a severe initiationdid make individuals like a group more.
Certainly Tom Hohan, now a New
Orleans businessman, outright rejects that the intense physical
hazing he endured to complete OCS training in the late1960s made him like his artillery outfit more.
“I hated it,” he says.
Nor did he bond with his fellow
recruits, all of whomwere competing with him for officer slots.
“Out of the 74 or 76 who graduated, I’d be surprised if 10 percent would differ from me about
POW Camp. Drafted out of a
Pennsylvania steel mill in1968, Hohan joined 140 other males in
artillery Officer Candidate School at Ft. Sill, Okla.A mere 40 percent graduated, including Hohan,
one of only two non-college men to do so.
Hazing or a combination
of hazing and discipline building claimed the rest, says
since has become a University of South Carolina graduate. “Hazing during OCS was legendary and
the POW camp you had to experience, if caught duringan escape-and-evasion exercise, was pure
Hohan has vivid recollections of
the two years, 10 months and three days he spent in the military.
He recalls saluting a goldfish and waiting for it toswimaround and face him before he was allowed
to shower. Mostly he recalls a torturous prisoner-of-warsimulation that seemed more real to him
than an actual exercise. Hardened veterans back fromVietnam had the OCS candidates lift
telephone poles, endure long periods in stocks and maneuver through mud laced with traces of fecal
All that would make Hohan a firm opponent of hazing right?
“It helped me
survive,” says Hohan, who says the hazinggave him the mental
toughness to survive
in Vietnam and to survive punishing deadlines in therealworld after his mustering out. Neiser, now
working in Pittsburgh and attending law school, agreeswith that assessment. He cautions that
turning out sloppy soldiers who can’t be counted on inwartime is no solution to the hazing problem.
Every day, as Neiser exited
through the rear hatch ofthe school at Parris Island he reread a sign
that bore into his very core. “Let no man’s ghost say,‘If only your training program had done its
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Military Hazing (U.S) Latest Cases
Hazing allegations (1999, but investigated in 2000)
California, two Marines face serious charges in the alleged December
1999 brutal hazing of a recruit. Ten others face lesser
charges for allegedly failing to intervene.
College Station, Texas
Corps of Cadets
1997 case reinstated
law regarding reporting of hazing was upheld. Two cadets charged with
misdemeanor in 1997 will go to trial
Norwich University (Vermont)
Brutal Hazing (Blood Wings ceremony and other actions)
Military School division of Norwich U.
U.S. Navy Atlantic Ordnance Command
Oceana Naval Air Station (Virginia)
Hazing allegations, theft allegations
into alleged theft and corruption turned up possible evidence that
severe hazing initiations were commonplace in this U.S. Navy outfit.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Anthony R. Sandow, 26, a Michigan resident, was
charged (in addition to other serious charges) with hazing, maltreatment of a subordinate, and making false statements. Charges include allegations of hanging a sailor from a tree by his feet and shooting others with bee-bee pellets. A commanding officer said hazing was pervasive in the unit.
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