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June 07, 2009


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"I should mention here from experience that most of the reforms mentioned in the linked article were either rapidly abolished or were never applied to Fort Benning"

LOL! Did I ever tell you that they investigated one of my drills for "trainee abuse" after graduation? Mean bastard, and he was getting a divorce during our cycle....

The U.S. military seems to go through periodic bouts of anti-hazing foolishness: In the late 90's we had another one after some idiot released a video of how they celebrate when Force Recon folks get their gold wings. The end result was that at least in 1998-1999 there was a lot of fear about a crackdown on hazing. It wasn't that bad in 1st Radio Battalion, but my grunt friends were mightily pissed at the various disciplinary measures that were being forbidden.

I kind of wonder if the whole anti-hazing business in the Marine Corps continued once we turned out to be genuinely at war. I should ask my brother about that next time we're talking (of course, he's an air wing supply officer, so he probably doesn't have that much view of what's happening on the ground either).

Having served in a conscript army, I wouldn't regard anti-hazing practices as "foolishness". For an extreme example of what kind of an atmosphere an unchecked hazing may produce, I live next to this country where the armed forces have this wonderful practice known as "Dedovshchina".

Granted, some of the stuff in that New York Times article linked by Noel seemed just a tad far out. No profanity? Huh? Dude, the conscripts themselves swear all the time; verbal venting of emotions is one way to stay sane. Plus, at least up here, it's a precious form of folk art.

Incidentally, has any of you gentlemen ever read Bourke's "The Intimate History of Killing"?


J. J.

Bernard: I believe we had that conversation over far too many beers at a bar on Third Avenue. But we should have it again sometime.

Andrew: The Army reformed BCT and the first part of ITB in 2005. Details here and here. There is some evidence that the reforms included a higher level of seriousness in the training program, reducing (putatively ending) the breach between BCT and ITB.

The reforms make sense to me. I have some mild doubts that having food trays slapped out from in front of you or being required to low-crawl on linoleum at 2am are useful ways or increasing combat effectiveness, particularly in a counterinsurgency environment. Let alone the "towel party."

The restrained psuedo-hazing wasn't tough enough to reach the gang-initiation level of hardship accomplished by (say) OCS or Ranger training or Airborne school, but it seemed too harsh to prevent the more ironically-inclined from becoming dismissive about the entire enterprise.

If you can handle the annoying music, a slightly stronger version of the above view can be found here.

Andrew? You're a Marine. Is the reform really foolishness?

Jussi served in a conscript army. I just read his comment. I believe that the Chilean army was closer to the dedovshchina end of the spectrum than the "occasional towel party" one. Jussi, do you have anything else to add? To Americans, people from countries like Finland or Korea are a bit like having a functioning time machine --- there is no other way to see what might happen from wedding 1948's institutions to 2009's society.

Anyone else? We do have readers from all over the Americas and the world.

Okay, "foolishness" is probably too harsh a word. But the thing that was being reacted to, the practice of driving the backings of one's newly-won jump wings onto someone's chest, was, although painful, something that was pretty much consensual and indeed understood to be part of attaining the elite status of being in Recon.

More importantly, by the late 90's, the kind of truly dangerous hazing that is just terrible was not all that common. The effects that I saw of anti-hazing measures were:

1) The ritual whereby one becomes a Shellback when crossing the equator was heavily bowdlerized.

2) In a lot of units, when someone committed an offense that didn't really merit a counseling statement or non-judicial punishment, there had been a broad latitude for off-the-books discipline. So, for example, if a Lance Corporal had missed morning formation a few times by sleeping in, you would have him spend all day Saturday inventorying every hub battery in the battalion. The oversleeping LCpl had lost a Saturday as a consequence of his screw-up, but there was no actual record of it. This sort of latitude was drastically curtailed by anti-hazing measures with the result that it became more difficult to deal with instances where you didn't want to actually put something permanent in a guy's service record book but had to let someone know that what he had done was not acceptable.

One other addendum: I'm of course talking about folks out in the Fleet, not boot camp, and the example I used was at the mild end of the spectrum.

There's not much to add. When it comes to that New York Times article, some of those same features would be present also in the Finnish Armed Forces today.

I noticed the mention how the physical training drills in the United States Army are now conducted with ordinary gym shorts and sports gear. When I did my service, we wore those in normal physical exercises - such as the morning or evening run - but the actual physical training _drills_, such as skiing contests and things like that, were undertaken in normal military attire.

Forbidding the running in boots completely because of "shin splints" and "discomforts" also seems just a bit odd. When I was in the army, this was also delayed until the first physical examination, probably for those same reasons... but after that, well, we immediately started running everywhere, in boots.

N. B., I had had an endoscopic operation on my right knee due to an accident just a few years before my service. My knee has remained a bit rigid ever since, and for example, the kneeling shooting position was near-impossible and even painful for me. During the physical examination, the medical captain basically just asked me: "Do you think you could keep up in spite of this? Have you had any problems yet?" and I answered "I haven't had any problems, but then again, we haven't done anything really rough yet. But I think I can manage." He nodded, slapped me the A1-papers, told me to come back if there were complications, and I continued my normal basic training in the Armoured Howitzer Battery.

As for profanity, that's commonplace, but I wouldn't say that it rises to the level of actual verbal "abuse". If it does, the person has probably deserved it either by screwing up or just by being a complete dolt. And in a conscript army, which accepts more or less any healthy recruit save for borderline cases, there _are_ some people who can be complete dolts.

On the other hand, the achievement is also positively credited. The profane language can also be used in an approving fashion. In this respect, the army is no different from real life.

One of the new practices that was just taking place when I was doing my service was that during the basic training, the squad leader was quartered together with his subordinates. That is, we shared the same squadroom at the barracks, whereas before, the squad leaders had mostly stayed in their own room. The idea was probably to intensify the contact between the squad leader and the new conscripts, and at least in our case, this worked perfectly - but then again, we had a really astoundingly excellent squad leader.

(N. B., in the Finnish Armed Forces, the squad leaders, who assist in the basic training and take care of the everyday interaction with the new men, are not professional soldiers, but instead older conscripts. They hold the rank of a corporal, with two stripes; the Finnish word for this rank is "alikersantti", literally, "second sergeant". The best ones receive a promotion to full sergeant when they finish their service.)

As for hazing... well, there are two separate phenomena. First, there's the abuse of power where a superior officer or NCO oppresses a subordinate; the Finnish word for this is "simputus". The Finnish Armed Forces have had a zero tolerance on this for quite some time, although cases of this practice still surface every now and then.

Second, there's the hazing between the conscripts themselves, universally known as "pennalism". These days, this is almost always psychological, and although it's not that common as before, crap like this does happen on regular basis.

As you can see, the importance of the gender factor has also become obvious during the last fourteen years.


J. J.

"sort of latitude was drastically curtailed by anti-hazing measures with the result that it became more difficult to deal with instances where you didn't want to actually put something permanent in a guy's service record book"

Good point, Andrew. Formalism/legalism, while perhaps useful in curtailing abuses of a system, also introduce a rigidity that makes day-to-day operations more difficult. This is a commonplace with impacts far afield of our current conversation.

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