Hazing is Simply Intolerable
Army Regulation 600-20, Army Command Policy, states "hazing is fundamentally in opposition to our values and is prohibited." The recent case of Private Danny Chen, who took his own life in Afghanistan this past October after being physically and verbally abused by up to 8 fellow members of his platoon (a platoon he had been part of for less than 70 days), has brought to the forefront the issue of hazing in the US Army. In April Marine Lance Corporal Harry Lew committed suicide after a night of hazing by the hand of his fellow Marines, an incident resulting in a trial by court-martial of three Marines who physically abused and harassed him before he shot himself. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a statement on 23 December 2011 on his Facebook page stating "hazing is simply intolerable." Indeed, hazing is intolerable and is an egregious act that violates every thread of value and decency we hold as valuable as an institution and profession. Hazing and interpersonal abuse significantly increases the risk of suicide in those who have an acute feeling of burdensomeness and inability to assimilate or belong. Hazing is blatantly toxic and erodes the trust and confidence required of comrades in arms whose reliance upon each other ultimately contributes to their survival in the most austere conditions. Lastly, blaming the victim of such a crime is morally corrupt and discounts the horrible act of abuse imposed upon those who are not in the position to defend themselves.
Hazing is an inexcusable act counter to the values we hold dear as an Army. Our values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage are the hallmarks of our institution. Conduct in direct violation with one or more of these values consume the moral bedrock of the organization. The concept of serving our country in the service of others is juxtaposed to the idea that harming one of our own somehow makes them better members of our team. Leadership through deceit and coercion is as equally corrosive as the physical and psychological abuse of our own. We lose our moral legitimacy passively condoning these actions in failing to address them. Further, our inability to adhere to the values we profess to make our institution great destroy our heritage, traditions, and principles. Of paramount importance is the understanding that the violation of reasonable expectations of professional conduct and common decency contributes to the degradation of our institution.
Our rising suicide rate in the active, guard, and reserve force resultant of the increasing stresses of military life emphasize the significance of cultivating environments that do not further contribute to the preventable loss of life by our Soldiers' own hands. Dr. Thomas Joiner's interpersonal theory of suicidal behavior indicates three prerequisites of suicidal behavior; a thwarted sense of belongingness, an increased sense of burdensomeness, and an acquired capability or means of killing. Hazing and other abuses deteriorate one's sense of self-worth and increase the feeling of burden and worthlessness. Hazing accelerates all three of these prerequisites, particularly in a military culture where lethal means and capability is a mechanism available to all Soldiers assigned a weapon. Why any leader would knowingly engage in behaviors that would possibly add to our suicide issues is beyond comprehension.
The targeting, ostracizing, bullying, and humiliation of another person for the purposes of "building camaraderie" or "exercising discipline" is the weakest form of leadership and the most obvious example of toxicity. That PVT Chen's platoon leader has been charged with dereliction of duty related to the hazing and suicide of PVT Chen is even more disconcerting. Leaders are responsible for the training, morale, welfare, and discipline of their Soldiers. When the actions of subordinates prevent a leader's ability to monitor and contribute to any of these four aspects the fabric of trust within the team and small unit disintegrate. Leaders are supposed to know their subordinates, their families, their motivations, strengths, and weaknesses in order to facilitate their improvement and contributions towards mission accomplishment, not exploit those weaknesses or shortcomings for personal amusement or sadistic examples. Leaders who cannot provide for the common good or who fail to recognize the worth of each of their subordinates do not deserve to lead.
Blaming victims of hazing is as reprehensible as blaming victims of rape, murder, or domestic abuse. Hazing is an abuse of power and control manifested in the commission of a violent or coercive act of domineering others in an oppressive or vicious manner. Private Chen didn't need to "toughen up" or "require better coping skills" as many internet commenters have suggested under news articles and blogs related to the case. He was an American Soldier who enlisted as an infantryman during a time of war to serve the United States, a country that gave this child of hardworking Chinese immigrants a New York education and opportunity to live the American Dream. He was a Soldier who served less than a year from enlistment to the time of his death who was forced to his breaking point by a group of fellow Soldiers who, instead of mentoring him, training him, and ensuring his development as a professional Soldier in the 70 days he was with them, decided to bully him, beat him, and harass him to a point where he believed his only logical escape was killing himself with his own weapon in a guard tower. This Soldier deserved better, and his chain of command failed him.
Recent events in both the US Army and United States Marine Corps have brought the practice of hazing resulting in the violent death of the victim, by whatever means, to the front pages of the national news. In the cases of both US Army Private Danny Chen and Marine Corps Lance Corporal Harry Lew hazing has been determined to be instrumental in the causation of their suspected suicides that criminal charges have been preferred on members in their chain of command. Hazing violates the principles and ethics of our military. It openly contributes to a rising suicide rate within our armed forces, particularly the US Army. It is a tool of abuse utilized by the ethically bankrupt and morally flexible to compensate for their inability to truly lead. Further, it is not the fault of the victims but, rather, the conduct of the aggressors that such behaviors continue. Our Soldiers have enough to worry about in combat while fighting violent and ruthless enemies who use deceit, tyranny, fear, and coercion to accomplish their ends. They should not have to worry about those same tools of oppression being used by those serving to their left and right.
Ryan T. Kranc is a major in the U.S. Army and squadron operations officer in 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Irwin, CA. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.