Hazing is a matter of life in the military, especially in combat arms units. It has always been there and hopefully, it will always remain. This is even more important today than ever. Today’s young men and women are arguably the most coddled and sensitive group that has ever been thrust upon the military. They have had their hands held and told how incredibly wonderful they are since they were babies. The toughest job in the military is Drill Sergeant and trying to get these guys into a mental state prepared to suffer and kill is next to impossible in the short time they have. Much of the conditioning necessary to get combat arms soldiers and Marines ready is done when they get to their line unit and it is brutal, mean, and necessary. Everyone gets picked on. I will say it again, EVERYONE GETS PICKED ON! Those guys who you will call brother will be some of the meanest sons of bitches you will ever meet. They do this because they know that you will need to be just as mean and just as prepared to do what is necessary when all hell breaks loose. Believe it or not, it saves lives.
I get the need for tribal initiation, the need for new members to pass the ritual tests, both official and otherwise, to join a brotherhood. When you’re the New Guy in a unit, you will catch a ration of shit. It is how your peers (and to a lesser extent, your superiors) discover if you have what it takes to succeed as a member of the team. Official tests include successfully completing Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training, or Airborne School, Ranger School, what have you. Unofficial challenges might be your squadmates getting you drunk your first night in your new unit, only to smoke you during Physical Training the next morning, just to see how you react. The ways are limited only by the imagination of your peers. Virtually every new Private has been sent for a box of grid squares, and told to fetch an ID10T form from the First Sergeant. And for the most part, that’s just harmless good fun.
But things often take a darker turn.
There is nothing that shows a person’s complete and total disregard for his battle buddies than falling asleep while on guard duty. It might seem like a trivial thing for those who have never been to war, but there is a reason why that up until the 20th century, falling asleep on guard duty was punishable by death. You are putting everyone on that base in danger to attack and a horrible death at the hands of the enemy. I am sorry that Chen killed himself, but the truth of the matter was that he was obviously not the caliber of soldier that his comrades needed him to be. It is likely that his actions would have killed someone or even multiple people had he not killed himself. The members of his unit had every right to make his life hell.
No. The members of his unit did not have the right to make his life hell. They had an obligation to uphold standards. His chain of command, especially his Sergeant, had a duty to correct him, and either train him up right, or discharge him. And I’m not saying that correcting him would, should, or even could be a pleasant experience for Chen. But care and judgment have to be used. Very quickly, accountability and correction can slide to maliciousness. The chance to fix a solder is lost. The peer group moves quickly from correcting to destroying, where there is simply no chance that, no matter how much improvement a weak troop might make, they will never be included in the group.
Sergeants must make sure this never happens. Sometimes, it’s best to just administratively discharge the troop (a process in the Army called “chaptering” from the chapters of the regulation regarding admin discharges). Other times, simply moving the troubled troop to another platoon or company can suffice. Removed from a toxic environment, they may actually succeed. Again, this is a process that calls for judgment. And judgment is a very human thing. People do make mistakes.
Goodness knows I made my fair share of mistakes, especially my first enlistment. Out of 24 months, I’m pretty sure I spent 12 of them doing flutter kicks, mountain climbers, pushups and a fair bit of koala-fying. And while my peers were quick to hold me accountable, it never devolved to a Lord of the Flies level either. The NCOs of my chain of command were firmly in charge. There’s a difference between an on the spot correction by means of a boot in the ass, and the systemic, concerted and sustained effort to degrade, humiliate, and break someone.
The first is sometimes necessary. The other is against every soldierly ethic.