The Marine Corps needs rites of passage; it doesn't need hazing. These Marines, members of an aerial delivery unit, grimace in pain as metal jump wings are pounded into their chests during a "blood pinning" ritual. To halt such abuses, we must reexamine the warrior bonding these rituals actually have—and then take responsibility for monitoring them.
Too often we read stories about Marines conducting unauthorized rite-of-passage ceremonies, initiations, and rituals. The Marine Corps suffered mortally in 1956 when a drill instructor took his recruits on a night march through the marshes of Parris Island, South Carolina, and six recruits drowned in the incoming tide. More recently, we have taken several hits on the chin: the 1992 movie "A Few Good Men," the silent drill team initiations highlighted on "Primetime Live," the newspaper articles on abuses at the survival-escape-resistance-evasion school, and the gold wing ceremony highlighted on "Dateline."
Each of these stories received substantial negative press coverage. In today's political climate, the Marine Corps can ill afford more. We must eliminate hazing and accent the positive aspects of rites of passage by making sure each ceremony is sanctioned and supervised.
What Is Hazing?
The only officially sanctioned rites of passage in the U.S. Marine Corps are boot camp and Officer Candidate School. Every Marine endures one of these trials, and the shared experience of adversity creates a common bond between us. This is the nature of a rite of passage—it is an experience that makes a particular group of people different, a communal bond that separates that group from the rank and file. When this passage is abused, however, it becomes hazing.
Hazing in the Marine Corps generally comes in two forms: as part of a rite-of-passage ceremony or as an abuse of power. The first, ritual hazing, usually takes place when a Marine enters a new unit or receives some type of recognition, such as graduating from a school. The second form involves abuses of the senior-junior relationship, either in billet or rank.1
Excessive incentive physical training or organized "blanket parties" are examples of power-abusive hazing. According to Major Rick Schieke, senior trial counsel at Camp Lejeune, the ringleaders of this particular type of hazing tend to be lance corporals filling a senior billet such as squad leader or team leader. Major Schieke also has dealt with numerous cases where noncommissioned officers (NCOs) have solicited hazing by encouraging troops to "take care of it." This form of hazing can be difficult to control because of its surreptitious nature and "blind eye" given by junior leaders. Power-abusive hazing is inexcusable and is a gross violation of our rank structure.
Many NCOs believe they lack the tools to instill discipline and, not wanting to end a Marine's career with formal punishment, may turn to hazing to correct a problem. A Marine leader may become frustrated when extra military instruction does not correct the behavior of a subordinate. In this situation, a Marine may cross the line to get the desired results and thereby jeopardize his or her own career. Power-abusive hazing may seem the best alternative. It's not, but it does reflect the limited tools our noncommissioned leaders have to correct a troubled subordinate.
Hazing is not always an abuse of the junior-senior relationship. It can be an effort to demean or discipline an individual by forcing him or her to engage in humiliating or painful activities. Although the risks are high—four petty officers recently were discharged from the Navy for their part in an ad hoc ceremony on board the Princeton (CG-59)2—hazing continues to flourish. Many claim it has a "unifying" property or that a person shows loyalty by enduring extreme pain or psychological torment. Some defend it on the grounds that those being hazed participate voluntarily and even enjoy the experience.
Of course, not all rite-of-passage ceremonies, initiations, and rituals are hazing. So, when does an activity cross the line? To answer this question, a Marine needs to ask two questions: Is the ritual or initiation sanctioned and supervised by proper authority? And if it is, is it nonabusive?
When we hear the word hazing, many of us conjure up memories from college days. Hazing marked the ceremonial passage from pledge to active member in the Greek fraternities. Although most of us who went through it are none the worse for the experience, college hazing claims a dozen lives every year. What usually starts out as an innocent ceremony often falls victim to "hazing creep"—that is, it gets progressively worse as each year's group attempts outdo the former. Rituals that are sanctioned and supervised can avoid this pitfall.
Hazing is a relative term and is difficult to define in a military sense. The mental and physical stress we place on our recruits and officer candidates during introductory training probably would constitute hazing in a collegiate setting, but it is essential to building warriors. We certainly cannot apply the same standards, but using common sense, most of us could or should recognize when a situation becomes abusive. The Marine Corps currently is developing new policies and definitions of what constitutes hazing. The Navy, on the other hand, defines hazing as "any behavior that causes or has the potential to cause an individual or group to be embarrassed, humiliated, or injured."
But does the Navy follow its own policy? Consider the crossing-the-line ceremony, a sanctioned rite of passage that takes place when a ship crosses the equator. Those crossing the equator for the first time are labeled "wogs," hit with fire-hose whips called shillelaghs, and made to crawl through garbage. They participate in a wog queen and wog dawg ceremony and, finally, must kiss the "Royal Baby's" lard-covered tummy—all in the name of tradition. The ceremony, however, usually is enjoyed by most who voluntarily participate in it, and it has been around since the days of John Paul Jones. This is not to say that we should retire the crossing-the-line ceremony, but it does send a conflicting message to our Marines as to what constitutes hazing.
What about the fact that some Marines "volunteer" to take part in ritualistic hazing? We need to examine the idea of volunteerism in hazing. Was peer pressure present? Was any type of coercion used to persuade Marines to participate? Would the Marines be stigmatized if they didn't participate? If any of these factors are present, participation may not have been voluntary.
Why Do We Haze?
Hazing capitalizes on an individual's need to feel that he or she is part of a larger whole, a process psychologists call de-individuation. "There is a pressure exerted by the group and people lose the ability to regulate their individual behavior," explains James Ogloff, professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.3 "You are not accountable for what is going on, so you end up doing things that you wouldn't do individually," notes Frederick Mathews, a community psychologist.
Mathews goes on to say that all groups have initiation rites and that "these ceremonies test one's resolve to surrender his identity to become part of the group." They test how much an individual wants to become a part of a group: the harder the hazing the closer the group tends to be and the stronger the bond.4 For warriors, these tests have been around for as long as there has been a warrior class. Feudal knights had to prove their bravery by winning a jousting contest. The American Mandan Indian tribe had a particularly brutal ceremony in which they pierced their warriors through the pectoral muscle with a bone, attached a rope to the bone, and hung them from the roof of the lodge.
These are extreme examples, but bonding, via rituals, is essential for warriors. In the Marine Corps, it is as much a combat multiplier as tanks. The point should not be to legislate this need away but to feed it in a positive way. We can do this by taking rituals out of the backrooms—by institutionalizing, supervising, and sanctioning each one. After all, our organization is built on legend and ritual. We need to make bonding ceremonies work for us, not drive them underground where they can work against us. Obviously, our Marines are looking for some form of renewed bonding after boot camp and Officer Candidate School.
The Marine Corps is steeped in tradition, lore, and heritage; and hazing is as much part of that tradition as playing taps at a funeral. Blue Nose, shell-backing, blanket parties, and blood stripes are military rituals that date back hundreds of years—bizarre rites of passage that were meant to impart tradition to Sailors and Marines.5 And our unique culture is comprised of young males who relish the warrior spirit, a macho image, and an ability to withstand pain, all factors conducive to hazing.
Accordingly, should we be surprised about the hazing incidents that have been reported recently? Probably not. Does this mean we should tolerate hazing incidents? Absolutely not. Rite-of-passage ceremonies, rituals, and initiations are a part of the culture and ethos of the warrior class, but we must examine the value these ceremonies have in bonding warriors to each other and then take responsibility for monitoring them.
Hazing is not unique to either the Marine Corps or to the other U.S. armed forces. In the Russian military, hundreds of conscripts die each year in hazing-related incidents. The situation has attracted international scrutiny from human rights groups, and Russian mothers have formed the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers in an attempt to report and prevent further abuses. In addition, the fear of hazing is so great among conscripts that it has made draft-dodging one of the Russian military's most challenging problems.6 It would be naive to think we could not have a similar problem. Our yearly recruiting mission, already difficult, could become impossible if potential recruits believe they will be abused and hazed.
The Canadian government was shocked by a video showing airborne hazing ceremonies during which "soldiers made violent racial slurs and ate vomit and feces."7 Another tape showed a black airborne recruit crawling through a gauntlet of blows and a shower of human waste with the words "I love KKK" scrawled on his back. The soldier later said he hadn't minded the treatment, in the context of hazing ritual, and didn't consider his buddies racists.8 Nevertheless, the Canadian government was so outraged by this incident and other related problems resulting from the airborne unit's deployment to Somali that the unit was disbanded.
Understanding hazing and its causes is the first step in surmounting this difficult leadership challenge. The second step is to promulgate the Marine Corps policy of zero tolerance and to educate all Marines about what constitutes hazing. Our noncommissioned leaders and especially our troops must know what is appropriate behavior and what are acceptable corrective measures. NCOs and SNCOs also must be more assertive during off-duty hours. Their presence will help reduce the environment for hazing. Visible leadership, knowing our Marines, and stopping hazing before it gets out of control are the tasks at hand.
We need rites of passage, rituals, and initiations in our Corps. The warrior bond between Marines is our greatest weapon on the battlefield. What we don't need is hazing. It invites abuse; it gets bad publicity, and it is no substitute for strong leadership. We must eliminate the negative and accent positive by making each rite-of-passage ceremony a powerful, memorable occasion that is sanctioned and supervised.
1 Interview with Maj. Rick Schieke, USMC, senior trial counsel, LSSS, Camp Lejeune, N.C.
2 John Burlage, "High cost of hazing: Four sailors discharged," Navy Times, 28 July 1997, p. 8.
3 Joe Chidley, "Bonding and Brutality: hazing survives as a way of forging loyalty to groups," Maclean's, 30 January 1995, p. 18.
5 Kerry DeRochi, "Navy trying to remove old military tradition, hazing," KnightRidder/Tribune News Service, 11 January 1995. p. 0111K1109.
6 Vladimir Isachenkov, "Fighting to Dodge the Draft," Associated Press, 24 November 1995.
7 Charles Trueheart, "Canada Can't Shake Somali Scandal; New Military Chief Quizzed on Troops' 1993 Torture-Killing," Washington Post Foreign Service, 29 December 1994.
Captain Wilcox, a 1997 graduate of the Marine Corps Amphibious Warfare School, is commanding officer of Weapons Company, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines. He served as executive officer of Kilo and Echo companies and as platoon commander, communications/demonstrations platoon, Officer Candidate School, and as company commander and executive officer, Weapons Company, 3d Battalion, 1st Marines.