On a cloudless night in the summer of 2010, a guy in my platoon walked off our combat outpost in Kandahar. He wasn’t headed anywhere in particular. Just off. Just away from us, the men he had spent the past several months eating, sleeping, shitting, and patrolling with in the mud-brick villages and grape fields of southern Afghanistan.

Our platoon sergeant decided to hold off on calling in a DUSTWUN and instead asked for volunteers. The landscape was rugged but flat enough to see for miles, and the sun was already coming up. Plus, the guy, whom I’ll call Pvt. Smith, had a reputation for being weak and a little dumb. He wouldn’t get far.

The search team didn’t have much trouble tracking Smith down. He was hiding in some bushes about 500 meters from the outpost on the edge of an open field, where a few days before we had been ambushed. He threw his hands up in surrender when the volunteers trained their rifles on him. He was unarmed.

Back on the outpost we all got the story. There are no secrets in an infantry platoon. Around four in the morning, Smith had been caught sleeping on guard, again, and his punishment, administered by a young sergeant, had been nothing out of the ordinary: a lengthy “smoke session” of forced exercises in full body armor that left the 19-year-old private exhausted, bruised, and in tears.

Life on the line wasn’t for Smith. Or at least that was the verdict handed down from our leadership. He was quickly reassigned to headquarters platoon.

Smith had fucked up, and whether you’re a soldier in Afghanistan or a civilian working the nightshift at McDonald’s, when you fuck up on the job you get punished for it. Maybe the boss gives you a verbal warning. Maybe he docks your pay. But if you’re a private in the infantry, he’ll probably just smoke the shit out of you instead.

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Related: The fine line between military hazing and discipline »

“Getting smoked” is a euphemism for a specific brand of disciplinary action that has long been used to keep young service members in line throughout the military, especially in combat units. It begins day one of basic training, when a drill sergeant puts a knife hand in your face and tells you to do pushups until the walls sweat, and it persists until you’re finally high enough in rank to be the one dishing it out.

For many service members, such abuse is both an acceptable and necessary part of the military experience. It instills discipline. It makes you tough. It weeds out the wimps and helps ensure that only the strong rise to the top. But as far as a growing number of military outsiders are concerned, smoking amounts to nothing more than government-sanctioned hazing, and it needs to stop.

“Incidents of hazing in DoD and the Coast Guard can have effects that extend beyond their victims and perpetrators, undermining unit cohesion and potentially reducing operational effectiveness as a consequence.” So begins the concluding section of a report released by the Government Accountability Office in February 2016. The report followed a lengthy investigation conducted at the behest of Rep. Judy Chu of California, who is currently spearheading an ambitious campaign to end hazing in the military.

Rep. Judy Chu of California testifies on Hazing in the United States Military at a hearing by the House Armed Services Committee - Military Personnel Subcommittee. Coast Guard photo by Telfair H. Brown, Sr.
Rep. Judy Chu of California testifies on Hazing in the United States Military at a hearing by the House Armed Services Committee – Military Personnel Subcommittee.

But in a profession that often requires an exceptional tolerance for physical and mental discomfort, will Chu’s efforts only result in a softer, less combat-ready fighting force? Many seasoned service members are convinced it will, which is precisely why it’s imperative that they begin playing a much more active role in finding a solution.

Less than a year after Smith walked off our patrol base, Chu’s 21-year-old nephew, Marine Lance Corporal Harry Lew, was also caught sleeping on guard in Afghanistan. As punishment, Lew was berated, kicked, and punched by two of his platoon mates, all while being forced to do exercises in body armor. But instead of staging a dramatic cry for help, as Smith did, Lew promptly placed the muzzle of his M249 Squad Automatic Weapon in his mouth and killed himself.

Four months later, in August 2011, a 19-year-old Army private named Danny Chen belatedly joined his infantry platoon at an outpost in Kandahar. Immediately singled out for being both the new guy and Asian, Chen endured several weeks of extreme abuse at the hands of his superiors. He too was apparently guilty of falling asleep on guard. And he too used his service weapon to take his own life, in a guard tower on the morning of Oct. 3.    

The soldiers and Marines thought to be responsible for driving Lew and Chen to suicide did eventually stand trial, but only two — one from each case — were convicted of crimes by court-martial. Both were sentenced to one month in jail.

Outraged by what she believed was a failure by the military to deliver adequate justice, Chu ramped up her anti-hazing campaign, which she had launched in the wake of her nephew’s death.

While she acknowledged that the military must “take every mistake that puts the lives of soldiers at risk serious,” Chu argued that service members like the ones who hazed her nephew weren’t being taught the difference between corrective training and abuse.

“Hazing has no place in our military,” Chu wrote in a 2012 New York Times op-ed. “It threatens unit cohesion, undermines our military readiness and deeply scars the volunteers who are forced to endure it. In public statements, the military’s top brass agrees. But their actions don’t reflect that.”

In May 2012, Chu introduced the Harry Lew Military Hazing Accountability and Prevention Act. The bill called for the military to make hazing a prosecutable crime, and for the Department of Defense to come up with a comprehensive anti-hazing plan. Chu also successfully pushed for the independent GAO study, which ultimately recommended that the services “provide additional clarification” to service members about what constitutes hazing.

“The noncommissioned officers we met with generally agreed that the broad definition of hazing prevents them from effectively doing their jobs, including disciplining service members, taking corrective action, or administering extra military instruction for fear of an allegation of hazing,” the report said.

Bolstered by the report’s findings, Chu testified before the House Armed Services Committee on March 1, 2016, petitioning defense leaders to include new anti-hazing initiatives in the upcoming defense authorization bill debate. “I urge Congress take action to eradicate hazing in the military,” she said. The House is expected to finish drafting the annual defense authorization bill, a vehicle for setting military policy in late spring, according to Military Times. The Senate is aiming for early summer.

But as the GAO report indicates, the services have already started cracking down on hazing in the ranks, eliciting concerns from service members that military culture has been infiltrated by the self-infantilization mentality currently pervading American campus life. Whether the military is on track to implementing “safe spaces” where soldiers can seek refuge from the distressing viewpoints of their peers remains to be seen (though, not likely).

In an article titled “That Thing You Call ‘Hazing’ Made Me The Man I Am Today” recently published on The Havok Journal, Jarred Taylor, an Air Force joint terminal attack controller and the chief marketing officer of the popular military-oriented apparel company Article 15, argued that the growing consensus that the military suffers from a hazing epidemic can be at least partly attributed to a problem of semantics.

“Rituals like this have existed within our ranks and specialized units for years,” Taylor wrote. “The sad thing is, they are disappearing fast because of the word hazing. The problem is, hazing is grotesquely mislabeled and misunderstood by our senior leadership. It all stems from leadership afraid to lose their job from a congressional inquiry.”

According to several Army noncommissioned officers interviewed for this article, the Army appears to be taking the same victim-centered approach to combatting hazing that it has to combating problems of sexual assault and prejudice in the ranks. As in, when a soldier is accused of hazing, the leadership is more inclined to err on the side of advocating for the supposed victim.

“The Army’s definition of hazing is pretty vague,” Sergeant First Class Harlan Kefalas, an active-duty soldier and former drill instructor, told Task & Purpose. “Really, anything that makes someone else feel demeaned could be hazing.”

A portrait of Private Danny Chen is displayed on a funeral procession vehicle during the procession on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 in New York. AP Photo by Jin Lee
A portrait of Private Danny Chen is displayed on a funeral procession vehicle during the procession on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 in New York.

As the GAO report makes clear, the result of that ambiguity is an atmosphere in which leaders are overly cautious when it comes to disciplining their subordinates. Corrective training measures that were completely acceptable several years ago, like forcing a soldier to do, say, 50 pushups for being late to formation, are now widely perceived as being off limits. And so are many traditional rites of passage, such as punching rank into a soldier’s chest when he or she gets promoted or ordering a brand new private in the motor pool to “collect a exhaust sample.”

Not surprisingly, many service members like Taylor, who came up in a military that more or less condoned physical abuse, now fear the NCO Corps is being stripped of essential tools for fostering discipline and esprit de corps. Others acknowledge that it’s time to adapt their leadership style according to the new standard, but admit that their military upbringing didn’t adequately prepare them for this post-hazing reality.

“I’m sure I’ve been guilty of things that would be considered hazing if the person complained,” said Kefalas. “But I didn’t know any better, really.”

Sgt. Tim Sharpe, an active-duty infantryman, entered the Army in 2012, just as Chu’s anti-hazing campaign was ramping up. He too admits to feeling hamstrung by the Army’s vague no hazing policy, but recognizes the need for tighter controls. A few years ago, he explained, a scandal erupted in a neighboring battalion when it was discovered that a senior specialist was sodomizing new soldiers “with his thumb” as part of a perverse initiation ritual.

“There’s an overall feeling among NCOs that we can’t do the things that used to work,” Sharpe told Task & Purpose. “It’s hard to say that out loud, because there’s a fear of being crucified on the cross just for saying stuff like that, because people think of all the negative things, like that soldier who died in Afghanistan, when guys start talking about, ‘Oh, I support hazing.’ But I feel those guys are just thinking about all of the things that used to work and used be good with hazing, versus the very extreme bad things like beating people up or sexually assaulting them.”

One of the most compelling arguments advanced by “those guys” — the ones who would like to see the military’s hazing culture remain fully intact — is what I like to call the “sleeping on guard defense,” which basically contends that stripping leaders of the power to physically punish their subordinates puts lives at risk. A young soldier who doesn’t truly fear his leadership is prone to cutting corners on the battlefield, or so the thinking goes.

In a post that appeared on the now-defunct ultra-right-wing website SHTF Journal in 2014, a writer who identified himself as a former cavalry scout and an Iraq War veteran railed against Chu’s role in the anti-hazing movement, writing, “These people who feel it is their responsibility to try and change military culture should stop, step back, and realize that they have no idea what they are talking about.”

Of Chen’s suicide he wrote: “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.” Adding, “It is likely that [Chen’s] actions would have killed someone or even multiple people had he not killed himself.”

But nobody, not even Chu, has ever argued that falling asleep on guard duty is a negligible offense. In her Times op-ed, Chu made it clear that she understood what is at stake when we diminish the authority of military leaders at war. She wrote:

Our young people make a great sacrifice when they go off to war. They are in mentally tough, physically dangerous situations all the time. We must take every mistake that puts the lives of our soldiers at risk seriously, whether it is falling asleep on guard duty or something else. “Corrective training” is designed to do that. The Army recommends that senior officers create a plan with a soldier who needs improvement, supervise the training and set timelines and targets. But using corrective training as punishment is supposed to be strictly prohibited.

The reality Chu fails to acknowledge here is that in a deployment setting, leaders at all levels rarely have the luxury of developing such training plans. Alternative disciplinary actions, like counseling statements, are far less impactful in a war zone than they are in garrison. And if they’re commanding a battalion in war, senior officers certainly don’t have the time or bandwidth to develop a comprehensive training plan for an 18-year-old private who keeps falling asleep on guard. Platoon-level leaders haze, i.e., use “corrective training as punishment,” because it’s quick, jarring, and it doesn’t require getting the battalion commander involved.

There is, however, a glaringly obvious reason why hazing someone who perpetually falls asleep on guard is a bad idea: It tires them out. Between grueling daily or twice-daily patrols and an unrelenting guard-duty schedule, a private deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan might get four hours of sleep a night, max. During my deployment to Afghanistan, despite the never-ending supply of Rip Its, it wasn’t uncommon for anyone below the rank of sergeant to fall asleep standing up or mid-conversation. If the goal is to ensure that privates aren’t falling asleep on guard, but your “corrective training” plan only makes them more exhausted, that’s hazing, plain and simple.    

Were the men who hazed Lew and Chen pulling enough guard duty themselves to help alleviate the physical toll the op tempo was taking on their subordinates? I don’t know, but based on my own experience in an infantry platoon, I’d venture to guess they were not.

All of this is to say that while hazing does often succeed at reinforcing the hierarchy within a platoon, it’s not necessarily the smartest or most practical approach to leadership, especially in a war zone. There are better ways to keep a combat platoon in line than striking fear in the hearts of privates. Alternative methods just require a certain level of creativity that not everyone possesses. And that’s precisely where training should come in.

“Finding out what motivates your soldiers to do better is the point,” said Sharpe, who currently serves in the Army’s 1st Armored Division. “Sometimes it can be a positive thing and sometimes it’s a negative thing. Not every soldier is going to respond to the ‘do a good job, get rewarded’ approach. One thing that my first team leader would do if he had a soldier who was falling asleep on guard or just fucking up on deployment was put the soldier on ammo detail and make him take apart the 7.62 completely, clean the links and rounds, and put it all back together. That’s something that isn’t going to tire the soldier out but also teach him a lesson.”

Hazing weakens our military, but so does stripping platoon-level leaders of the flexibility to carry out punishments that don’t require paperwork or getting senior officers involved. If we want to deal with the problem effectively without turning our fighting force soft, we must do more than simply say, “Don’t haze.”

“When they have those anti-hazing classes, a lot of time they’re not taken seriously, because they group actual hazing together with things that are widely regarded as tradition or rites of passage,” Sharpe said. “They’ve placed punching a soldier’s Expert Infantry Badge into his chest into the same category as a team leader sticking his thumb up someone’s ass for initiation. Most soldiers see those things as being totally different.”

Kefalas offered up a similar observation. “I think a lot of leaders are just getting, ‘No more hazing,’ from these classes,” he said. “So now they feel that everything they do is hazing and they feel like their power base has been taken away. We need to create a better space for NCOs to learn these new methods. That goes back to professional development and our first sergeants and sergeant majors having these discussions in their ranks. Like, ‘Hey, Sgt. So-and-so, here’s a situation, what’s your response?’ It should be in an informal setting so all of that experience in the room can be shared.”

The road to a combat-effective, post-hazing military is not paved with PowerPoint presentations. A smarter, more realistic approach to overhauling the system is both necessary and not at all difficult to execute. It’s the same approach the NCO Corps has successfully applied to teaching everything from land navigation to how to perform a functions check on a .50 cal. Had the soldiers and Marines who drove Lew and Chen to suicide been taught alternative corrective training measures, had they received an informal block of instruction on what leaders should do when they find a soldier sleeping on guard in a war zone, things might have turned out much differently.

When Smith walked off our post in Afghanistan, nobody in the platoon was all that surprised. He got smoked a lot. But nobody felt bad for him, either. All of us got smoked, and we all dealt with it. That’s what soldiers do. Soldiers also occasionally fall asleep on guard. The rest of us were just better at not getting caught.