In Defense of Military Hazing

12 mins read

First and foremost I feel it is the responsible thing for me to clarify what may seem to some to be a click-bait title. In order for me to do that, though, it is necessary to make the distinction between the picture many have of hazing and what I’m actually talking about. The version I will be using for the purposes of this post is that which is defined by the US military, specifically the Air Force. This entire topic came to the forefront of my mind yesterday when a friend of mine, Jarred Taylor, wrote about this for Havoc Journal. In the post, he argues that hazing made him a better person, and he described basically his initial experiences upon arrival at the 14th ASOS. I shared the post and it prompted some good questions, so the intent of this post is to clarify a few things initiated by the original article.

So what is hazing? According to Wikipedia:

Hazing is the practice of rituals and other activities involving harassment, abuse or humiliation used as a way of initiating a person into a group. Hazing is seen in many different types of social groups, including gangs, sports teams, schools, military units, and fraternities and sororities.

This, for all intents and purposes, I consider to be the classic definition. It evokes pictures of people pledging for fraternities and sororities, freshmen initiation to sports teams, etc. But there are scores of stories of what should be harmless fun going wrong. Take, for instance, this example, where some boys held another down and shoved a broomstick up his ass. Or this one, where pledges were forced to swim in pools of urine, fecal matter, semen, and other things. Other examples include the many instances where people have died from being forced to consume excessive amounts of alcohol. People being assholes for no other purpose than their own personal pleasure, disguised as team-building or whatthefuckever.

Let me be clear in saying that this brand of hazing is real, pervasive, and completely unacceptable. This is not the hazing I will be defending.

The hazing I am here to defend involves the use of high-intensity physical exercise as a training tool, punishment, or rite of passage among elite military units. Given the nature of these units, it is imperative that each member maintain a high level of physical fitness, proficiency in a number of technical skills, and the ability to perform under extremely stressful situations. There is simply no way to prepare for these things without considerable adversity. Perhaps the most important aspect of these training regimens lies in the fact that each unit needs to vet each member to ensure they are capable of doing the job. It isn’t just a matter of doing the task at hand, it’s a matter of keeping the rest of the unit’s safety in mind. If any one person is not prepared, it puts the others in danger. They could literally die if you fuck up. These guys have no time to babysit your ass if you can’t do your job adequately.

So you get smoked. A lot. Smoke sessions are a staple of elite military units. These are intense workouts designed to test your limits, both physical and mental. They test your resolve. Above all else they are a test of will. When your mind is telling you to stop, to give up, to rest, you come to find that your body is able to press on. You discover that you are capable of more than you thought. You are able to endure beyond anything you’ve experienced prior. You learn something valuable about yourself, without question.

These lessons in sweat and tears are never forgotten. When you are put to the test in real life, your mind knows that you can handle it. It is no different than the way fighters train harder in the gym so that when they step into that cage or that ring or onto that wrestling mat, they know they can make it to the end. That they can persevere, even in the face of self-doubt.

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” – Muhammad Ali

The men who put their new guys through these smoke sessions have experienced the realities of what they are preparing for. They know what is at stake and they know what is actually expected. And admittedly, there is a certain sense of enjoyment in it, because you know what these new guys are going through. You had to prove yourself, too. But underneath it all is the sense of duty to these men, to make sure you are giving them all the tools they need to succeed. You want them to be the best they can be.

If you want a good example of the type of training I’m talking about, check out this video.

This isn’t just limited to military training. Physical punishment is used by coaches to teach lessons to their athletes. One of my favorite scenes of this is in the movie Miracle. The coach, played by Kurt Russell, makes the team do sprints until they’re exhausted.

These are lessons the participants will never forget.

So why do I call this type of thing hazing? The reason is simple: the military considers it hazing, because it falls under their definition of it. The Air Force specifically forbids the use of physical punishment, but people do it anydamnway. In Airman Leadership School we discussed this and I was told it was because the Air Force prefers to issue paperwork, and if you are using physical training as a tool to reinforce some behavior or skill, there is no paper trail. They want their goddamn paper trail, because they love to kick people out. They seem to have a lower tolerance for small infractions than the other branches do. I can’t tell you how many times I saw the Army pop a bunch of Soldiers for shit like cocaine, which they simply demoted and got punished with docked pay and/or shitty work detail. Compare that with the Air Force zero-tolerance policy. Granted, that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing — separate people for illicit drug use — but it extends beyond the obvious to other shit that shouldn’t have been a big deal. Anyway, back to the hazing.

From AFI 1-1:

2.2.8.
Airmen do not tolerate bullying, hazing, or any instance where an Airman inflicts any form of physical or psychological abuse that degrades, insults, dehumanizes, or injures another Airman (unless it is part of an approved formal training program). It is the obligation of each Airman in the chain of command to prevent such conduct.

Upon reading this one would not think this type of training applies. But as you can see, the verbiage of 2.2.8 allows for subjectivity, and they argue that physical punishment is degrading or could be considered physical and psychological abuse. I’m not above reasoning that, yes, in extreme cases this definitely applies. But in true Air Force fashion they prefer to avoid all instances of it because they want to avoid negative publicity (a reasonable request), even at the expense of any value that might inherently be contained in said activity (not reasonable). This also, paradoxically, results in perpetuating a weaker image that any member of another branch can attest to. The Air Force does not espouse a warrior culture.

While my personal experience of this amounts to anecdotal evidence, I am not alone here. Here is a whole thread on Reddit discussing this topic. I would like to call attention to one specific post:

Hey man, I was in the training environment for 4 1/2 years, a MX career field. Under no circumstances were we allowed to ever doll out that type of punishment. Trust me, everyone would prefer it, but it’s a no no. Only certain career fields are and it’s those that have all the training associated with it.

It is a common thread, and while there is always the possibility of abuses of power or using it as a means of degradation, in most cases it is simply a matter of training and instilling a sense of esprit de corps. If a new guy can hack it, he earns a place in the group. He has shown he has what it takes to carry the guidon. There’s a reason they say “it builds character.” Whenever these men and women encounter adversity in their lives, they know that their limits are not what the mind might try to tell them. And that is something you cannot replace with Powerpoint slides and Commander’s Call pep talks.

*Note – the image above is from a PT session at the TACP schoolhouse (taken from afsoc.af.mil). How humiliating, right? I guarantee, though, that everyone who participated that day had a shit-load of fun, despite the level of physical suckage that no doubt ensued.

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