Small Wars Journal

Hazing is Simply Intolerable

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 1:44pm

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.



Tue, 01/03/2012 - 6:24pm

In reply to by Eric_Strattoniii

As far as insults go, that is one of the best I've ever heard. I'm proud to be the subject.


Tue, 01/03/2012 - 6:07pm

In reply to by carl

Forgive me Carl, I assumed you were an Officer and thought I could reach you by speaking in your language and terms, I had no idea you spoke straight English.


Tue, 01/03/2012 - 6:03pm

In reply to by Eric_Strattoniii

Eric: You seem like you're having a good time constructing my opinions for me. I haven't the heart to stop you. Please, carry on.


Tue, 01/03/2012 - 4:00pm

In reply to by carl

Carl, if you are going to be self-righteous, why stop at the rape comparison? Go on, shoot for the gold and bring out the Nazi comparison, I am sure we are only a few posts away from that judging by the amount of people who are apparently offended by 'Intheknow's' comment? You may not agree with him but at least his post is more realistic than the cult like mantra I am reading in the article and in the comments section. If I do not hear the Nazi comment I am sure I will at least hear something like, our "dynamic synergy" is stopped by the brutal hazings and unprofessional attitude the prevents us from "utilizing our diverse" and "best trained force in the world" to it's inevitable "unrivaled success" on the battlefield. I am sure there is some Mid-grade to Field Grade Officer or CSM writing just such a thing now ;)


Fri, 12/30/2011 - 6:51pm

In reply to by InTheKnow


Hazing is by definition abusive and for you to defend "good" hazing as opposed to "bad" hazing is akin to saying some rapes are good for the victims, those are ok; but those other rapes that aren't good for the victim, those aren't ok.

I don't like definition of hazing cited either. I prefer this one by Jorg Muth from the book Command Culture. "Hazing in a military academy is any physical, psychological, or mental procedure that humiliates, insults, tortures or injures a cadet and does not serve the direct purpose of modern military training." Change cadet for soldier and academy for unit and you have a pretty fair definition. Good leaders do not humiliate, insult, torture or injure their men, nor do they allow others to do so.

Pushing nails into another person's chest isn't team building. Rigorous training to high standards by good teachers and leaders is team building. Pushing nails into a person's is yielding to the sadistic impulses of young men in groups who lack adult supervision, who lack competent leadership.

Hazing does not determine who is fit to be in a unit, successfully passing good training does. If that training is good it will show who can handle the stresses associated with being in a particular unit, not some bloody minded game dreamed up by boys. It is up to the leaders of the unit to determine who should stay in the unit. It is not up to imaginative sociopath with a strong personality. And if the leaders allow that to happen they are the antithesis of leaders. They are followers.

Both of the incidents mentioned here absolutely, not "quite possibly", "were detrimental to not only good order and discipline- but also the health of individuals in our military." Absolutely sir! They resulted in the deaths of two Americans, one Soldier and one Marine, not at the hands of enemies but at the hands of their "comrades."

You are right. There are some people not cut out for the military and it is the job of the leadership to identify them. They could start with those who feel they will do the leadership one better and haze out those they don't like. The could start with those who practice and condone hazing.

Leaders build the teams and develop the comradeship that keeps them going. For anyone to suggest that boyish sadism does is to repudiate the fundamentals of leadership. The reason that many teams engage in hazing is because many teams are composed of young macho-meatheads who equate brutality with courage and going along with the crowd with loyalty. They need adult supervision, leadership, especially, as Ken said, competent NCO leadership. It is a crying bloody shame so many of them don't have it.


Thu, 12/29/2011 - 9:53pm

Although I in no way wish to condone abusive hazing, or any activities that result in suicide, I also don't think it helps to be pollyanish about something that I submit we have all participated in- and in most cases benefited from.

Reading both the encyclopedia's and AR-600-20's definitions of "hazing" leaves one in a little bit of a gray area. Figuring out what what kind of activity will leave "all participants feeling proud" is asking too much. The definition: "Hazing is defined as any conduct whereby one military member or employee, regardless of Service or rank, unnecessarily causes another military member or employee, regardless of Service or rank, to suffer or be exposed to an activity that is cruel, abusive, oppressive, or harmful" does not even give one the ambiguous assumption of a reasonable person's state of mind and puts the burden on everyone to attempt to figure out what every person might think is harmful or oppressive. I can't imagine that most of those in the military wouldn't be able to give at least one example of an unreasonable person who felt oppressed or harmed at the slightest actions and comments from the majority of those in the military.

From getting wings pushed into one's skin by a punch to the chest, to prop-blasts, to PT until one almost passes out, to mentally challenging ones' skin thickness- hazing, I submit, has and can contribute to healthy team-building. This is key in some small-level units and other sections involved in stressful conditions in order to build cohesiveness and identify those who won't handle stress very well. One sees this in the way new soldiers were treated when they showed up to units in wartime- as portrayed in the series Band of Brothers, to the way thin-skinned individuals are treated in most organizations, to the rites of passage in most military units with any history and tradition. To pretend this does not exist, that every practice is detrimental, or that it is never positive is disingenuous at best- at worst it is just as risk averse as some have hinted is at the root of some of the problem.

I have no doubt that some hazing- quite possibly both of the incidents mentioned here- were detrimental to not only good order and discipline- but also the health of individuals in our military. I also hold, however, that to take the extreme step of labeling all hazing as bad and attempting to avoid oppressing and harming everyone is an exercise in futility. Unfortunately our personnel system does not always get people to the jobs they will survive in. A better effort IMO- but one fraught with personal and professional risk- would be to identify and sanction those types of hazing activities that both contribute to team building and identifying those people who won't do well under situations of stress; while at the same time discouraging those activities that are mainly sadistic in nature and harmful to the organization.

As much as we do either activity- totally discouraging all forms of hazing, or attempting to identify good as opposed to bad- being "positive" to everyone is an impossible task. Let's face it- there are some people who just aren't cut out to be in the military- or in every unit in the military- and if some forms of hazing didn't work in building teams- teams from many different disciplines and professions wouldn't be engaged in it. Hazing- positive hazing- can help identify those individuals who have a greater chance of putting people's lives at risk and result in more soldiers surviving combat IMO. To pretend it would never help and to only focus on the negative examples is to knee-jerk react with a blanket policy that hurts everyone.


Fantastic article; well said. We as leaders need to get back to leadership. There are many "mini revolutions" going on right now in the Army: learning, resiliency, creative thinking, etc. Counseling, mentoring and getting to know our Soldiers and ourselves again needs to be in the forefront of any revolution in our affairs.

The core competency the Army has historically provided the Defense community and the Nation is ethical Leadership. It is high time we solve the current issue and get ahead of future issues.

Again, great insight. Thanks.


Great Article !

Since the early 70s when I joined, hazing was almost encouraged and even the MPs took their turns on basic and AIT trainees.

Having been around military suicides at American Embassies and in a foxhole during the 2nd ID Ingman Range incident in 1981 (Korea), I can only agree with Ken; this goes beyond hazing and is clearly a lack of NCO leadership which led to the Marine suicides in Africa and multiple deaths and injuries at Ingman.

When somebody like Ken says the system is in big trouble, it is in big trouble. And when it is in big trouble, the country is in big trouble.

This article reminds me of something a guy told me several years ago. I worked with him a lot in a civilian setting and he was great, hard working and responsible. But he was young and had the foibles and faults of the young. He was also in the reserves and told me about something he liked when his unit was activated. He said one of the things they would do to build comradery was to select one member of the group and pick on him. He said it was great fun and they all really bonded by doing that (except the one picked on). He didn't see anything at all wrong with that and in fact thought it a positive thing. It was obvious that no one in his unit thought there was something wrong with that or even noticed.

Like Ken said, there is really something wrong. If guy who in a civilian setting is a stand up guy, can be transformed into a thug merely by assuming his place in a military unit, something is horrifyingly wrong.

One additional thing I don't understand. I believe hazing is still the norm at the military academies. If it is allowed to exist in what are purported to be the preferred way to recruit and inculcate military values in officer aspirants, how can anybody take seriously any Army regulation that prohibits it?

Ken White

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 6:13pm

Major Kranc's article is regrettably timely -- and it is important.

In the case of Private Chen, The author rightly express concern that the Platoon Leader has been charged and cites that as a leadership failure of some magnitude. True and I share his concern -- however, I am more concerned that Non Commissioned Officers involved, those who should have been first to notice and halt any peer harassment were allegedly involved in the hazing. Having been around when the US Army integrated African Americans into previously white units, I know the Non Commissioned Offices who had been in World War II generally stomped hard on any attempts at hazing because they knew it could quickly get out of hand and was dangerous. That knowledge has apparently been lost.

Non Commissioned Officers are not saints, nor should they be -- but they generally used to have enough sense to stop behavior that was harmful to the unit or to one of the 10% (those of a different persuasion, capability level, race, creed, color, sexual orientation or whatever...). If they are not doing that today in over 95% of cases -- and it seems they are not -- then they haven't been properly trained. Or they have been misled and believe other things are more important. As Major Kranc wrote, that kind of stupidity is not conducive to camaraderie or discipline; it will destroy those valuable traits.

This is not the first incident in the last few years of Non Commissioned Officer not only failing to lead and prevent but in fact apparently actually participating in unethical, illegal or just plain stupid activities. My instincts tell me this is due to a culture that has placed appearance and conformity ahead of competent tactical and technical performance. Forced conformity always breeds rebellion of sorts and in an excessively conformist environment, it will be hidden to an extent -- it is all the more dangerous for that.

Non Commissioned Officers derive their authority and ability to lead from competence. The competent leader has no problems in getting people to do what is required and desired (even if that particular thing is sort of dumb. OTOH, all the education and anointing, all the laws and regulations, all the badges and gimmicks in the world will not help the incompetent to be an effective Non Commissioned Officer...

If, as I suspect, appearances replace capability as a measure of qualification and studied risk aversion is preferred to tactical proficiency for promotion, the system is in trouble. Big trouble.

This is beyond an issue of mere hazing, it literally goes to the depths of the system. Private Chen and his peers and superiors were not an unfortunate harbinger, Private Lynndie England and her peers and superiors were. It appears little attention was paid...