Retired Lt Col & Army Ranger Explains Hazing and Boot Camp


Lines of Departure - Hazing

So the Marine Corps is embroiled in another trainee1 abuse scandal.2 Oh, my; will wonders never cease?3 Yeah, go read those footnotes; I’ll still be here when you’re done.

Back? Good. I am going to shock my faithful reader base a little bit here. First, however, some minor personal history.

I did OSUT, One Station Unit Training,4 in 1974, at Fort Polk, Louisiana. At the time, this was where the Army trained enlisted infantrymen; the move to Fort Benning came later. I have reason to believe that mine was one of the earliest OSUT companies in the Army, possibly even the second one. The drill sergeants seem to have been hand selected because of that. They were, to a man, multi-tour infantry veterans of Vietnam. They were also fierce. Fierce? “Hazing” doesn’t begin to cover it.5 I asked one of the other guys – he’d been a Marine in Vietnam, then got out, then came back but into the Army – how that matched against Marine Boots as he’d undergone it in 1968.

“I can’t tell the fucking difference,” he told me, “except that maybe this is a little worse.”

I already had a nasty streak of martinet in me, at the time, which I recognized and which was one of the reasons I enlisted – to get rid of it before I was actually in charge of anything or anyone, when it might matter. However, given the example from that OSUT company, I didn’t lose that streak of martinet from OSUT, far from it, as I discovered when I went to be a drill corporal (which phenom I explained several months ago6) in a different company.

So I, about aged eighteen, was hazing on steroids, but without any noticeable degree of maturity to go along with it. Bed drills. Grass drills. I recall one time I had the platoon split up, with one squad doing chin-ups on the horizontal ladder, another doing pushups below them, in squares with each others’ feet across their shoulder blades, another squad duck-walking (“quaaackckck”) clockwise around those, and the last squad low crawling counterclockwise on the gravel around the quackers. Rest consisted of switching out. For hours. All of a Sunday night.

And I, arrogant bastard of an overgrown brat that I was, was just ever so pleased with myself when, for example, on a forced march, the other three platoons in the company lost two-thirds of their strength, while my platoon lost nobody. No, even the two Thai kids7 who couldn’t wear boots (they’d never worn western footwear at all until joining the Army) kept up, running barefoot on the hot asphalt. Why did my platoon do so much better? It was because I had them bamboozled in sheer terror.

And you can imagine the arrogant martinet bastard that was me, rubbing the older, more experienced, and, as it turned out, much wiser drill sergeants’ noses in that.

But they had a plan. Towards the end of the cycle, there was a steeplechase, a sort of cross country competition, by squads. Instead of letting me lead one of my own squads, the drills arranged for me to be at a checkpoint where my personal influence was minimal. Instead of making the rest of the company look like crap this time, of sixteen squads, mine placed, if I recall correctly, twelfth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth. Imagine my chagrin.

It wasn’t until several months later, when I’d moved on to my first “permanent” station and unit, the 101st at Fort Campbell, and was crossing the field behind the Eagles’ Roost Recreation Center, on my way to see the medicos at the hospital, that it hit me. And brothers, sisters, I mean it hit me, hard, like a baseball bat or a kick to the testicles. (Maybe closer to the latter since I wanted to throw up.) The sum of that delayed lesson was that it had been my fault, my fault entirely, for that miserable steeplechase failure. I can’t say I had forgotten, just that up to that time I had never learned that the more discipline is imposed, the more self-discipline is decayed. I had imposed discipline in that platoon to a remarkable degree, and had undermined the self-discipline most of the troops had come with. I sincerely hope (and rather expect) they got it back, eventually.

It often seems to shock people when I say that the American military is a very liberal institution. This shock probably comes with the confusion found in childish, liberal minds (Lord, forgive us our redundancies), that liberalism is about Mammy Yokumesque – “good is better than evil because it’s nicer” – feelgoodism. It isn’t. The ultimate liberal/leftist article of faith is probably a childish belief in a form of magic, but the ultimate articulable article of faith is in the malleability / perfectibility of Man via environmental means: Training, education, social engineering, and relentless nagging. It’s that kind of liberalism that permeates the military, without any particular natural emphasis on niceness and goodfeelz (marca registrada). It is that kind of liberalism that lies behind the hazing. Trust me, lefty bubbas, Pol Pot was working on uplifting Man and social engineering in Cambodia.

The problem, though, is that it just doesn’t work, and certainly not reliably or well or in any lasting way. We don’t change any individual in any profound sense by anything we do in training. Compare, if you will, the terrible and frightful Sergeant I. M. A. Motherfucker and the Third Shock Army. Which one are you going to be more afraid of? What’s Sergeant M going to do to you or to anyone that Third Shock couldn’t do more of and worse?

That, along with suppression of self-discipline, are the core problems with unnecessary hazing in military training. I couldn’t possibly care less – nor should anyone care more – about the feelings of those just ever so special snowflakes who lack the fortitude to deal even with such trivial hardships. (This is something which, I am sure, will surprise none of my readers.) Yes, a couple of minutes in the dryer is a trivial hardship. Better the weak should wash out early before we waste money on them and certainly before they have a chance to fail themselves, their comrades, or the country, in combat. Indeed, the main virtue hazing might have is, perhaps, in easing those people who don’t have what it takes out the door, if it’s allowed to. As a practical matter, though, it does nothing of the kind, in part because it is not allowed to. Instead, in the first place it frightens them into staying past when a better approach would have seen the last of them, while, in the second place, it cannot be equal to what they will face in war hence cannot prepare them for what they will face.

There may well often be some sadism associated with hazing; in the main, though, the hazers are trying, honestly trying, to toughen up the boys. Not entirely their fault that it doesn’t work; neither is it entirely their fault that they don’t know any better. And (here’s the shock I promised you) it really needs to stop, right the fuck now. It’s a useless waste of time and effort that gives the delusion of character change, but actually only undermines character.

So what would I recommend to do what hazing is incapable of doing?

The new men (oh, and women, too, I suppose) must be given real hardship: Cold, wet, and serious, aching hunger, all served with bone-wilting fatigue sauce. Pain; they must have real pain, blisters and bruises and burns galore, none inflicted deliberately or arbitrarily and all earned as a result of realistic training. To a degree, overcoming fear is a learning process: “We become brave by doing brave acts” – Aristotle. Hence danger; they must be given danger, so that they can learn to overcome fear. Some of that danger may be more apparent than real, but some of it must be real.

Note, here, that real danger will eventually be paid out in casualties. You cannot change that while making the danger real. You cannot train the men to overcome fear unless the danger is at least sometimes real. That’s life. Learn to live with it. Besides, our democratic people are unlikely to whine more over the occasional wounding or death than they already do about the bruised egos of special snowflakes.

Note, too, that I am not saying harshness doesn’t have a place, but harshness isn’t hazing. Harshness is useful to gaining the new troops’ attention at the very beginning of their training. It is valid as punishment for genuine infractions, even if small ones. It can occasionally be more useful than an encouraging word to a troop trying to muster the courage to do something scary and new.

But that’s about it.

__________

1 “Recruits,” for the Corps.

2 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2016/09/29/they-put-us-through-hell-a-marine-abused-at-boot-camp-explains-why-he-spoke-out/

3 No, this isn’t anything new. From the same source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2016/09/30/the-often-forgotten-boot-camp-scandals-that-dot-marine-corps-history/?tid=a_inl

4 Basic and AIT, Advanced Individual Training, combined. It saved a little money and a little time, and tended to reduce the complexity of initial entry training even as it removed a bit of oversight from the Adjutant Generals Corps, which is always worth doing.

5 To quote 1SG Carl D. Jett, on the subject of a trainee’s death to meningitis, almost certainly exacerbated by a lengthy session of punitive PT the night before: “As y’all probably know by now, Private G______ dahd las’ naht. He tweren’t worth much but we’re kinda sorry for losin’ him anyway.” Yeah, that’s right; my drill sergeants actually did kill people, or one person, anyway.

6 http://www.everyjoe.com/2016/07/11/politics/great-enlisted-men-triumph-of-the-will/#1

7 I had and have no idea how they got in the Army, except that we used to be easier about foreign enlistments.

Photo by Getty Images

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.

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