CEREMONIAL BONDING OR UNCIVILIZED CRUELTY?

CNN recently ran a video of an inpromptu ceremony showing U.S. Marine paratroopers receiving their jump wings after completing training. The film clip was prefaced by displaying a subdued, somewhat ashen-faced Pentagon spokesman, who told the viewing audience the following material might be unpleasant and disturbing.

The ceremony must have taken place at a barracks, since the video showed young marines dressed in white T shirts and fatigue pants holding still long enough to have jump wing pins inserted into their T shirts and the underlying skin. Then the wings were roughed by hand or fist to increase the already considerable pain. As an old Navy frogman who both observed and endured some rather memorable experiences during his underwater demolition training, I sympathized with the young men, a few of whom writhed to their knees from the sharp pain. According to the spokesman, none of the principals being pinned ever complained to the military, and the issue became known only when someone submitted the video tape up the chain of command.

There is no question a clear memory of the ceremony will remain in the young jumpers' minds for many years: it certainly had little in common with the old fraternity tradition of pinning the sweetheart of Sigma Chi. America's military services long ago prohibited all forms of hazing, and what was shown was definitely illegal. Consequently, our non-military, well-dressed Pentagon spokesman, looking a little dazed, disapproving, queasy, and very uncomfortable, said the perpetrators would, if convicted, be discharged from the Corps, and quite possibly serve prison time. His one uncertainty was just how the Pentagon would treat those guilty parties who had already left the service.

I couldn't help wonder how much time he'd spent in the military, and watched the few minutes of coverage with mixed feelings and deep emotion. In the strict sense of the law, I agree hazing is both universal and fundamentally evil. But as a former military man, I recognize the need for brotherhood and strong bonding between combat troops who are expected to perform dangerous missions. In my opinion, this was a rather stupid, painful and insensitive form of what I consider to be harmless hazing. I contrast it with dangerous hazing, where lives are at risk, where no physical control exists over the surroundings, and where an innocent miscalculation can be terminal.

Without endorsing this or similar activities, I recall the rites of passage of American Indians, the lancing of flesh with knives to form scars of certain African tribes, and even the art of tatooing which sailors traditionally undergo. The general purpose of all these rituals is to show individuals have the self-discipline and strength of mind to suffer pain, thereby demonstrating their masculinity and manhood. The crude, informal ceremony was not conducted to convince erudite Supreme Court justices that these young men were now worthy airborne warriors. Its purpose was to demonstrate in the minds of their senior comrades and peers, who did believe it, that they were the kinds of men worthy of entrusting with lives in a combat situation. Mercilesss as they seem, there are times when these unsophisticated, cruel practices are justified. Combat, as practiced today, is not chivalrous tilting by knights, nor was it designed for gentlemen.

America's general public is horrified at such activities, and feel they are barbaric and unnecessary. A cerebral part of me understands that indictment, but there is an experienced and pragmatic side of me that knows how much a frogman depends on his swim buddy. The term blood brother has a dark and mystic side that defies rationalization. I cannot define it. But I know how necessary an unbreakable emotional bond can be when men do the things I once did, such as diving under ice floes, and swimming off submerged submarines at night in black water. The kind of rough horseplay shown in that video clip is precisely one of numerous small activities that build such a bond.

After the initial outrage has passed, can the following view be examined dispassionately? We can and should punish the guilty, but I don't believe a general or bad conduct discharge and jail time are justified for those involved. There was no malice nor danger in what took place. To make scapegoats of these men in a paroxysm of loathing and political correctness is wrong. It seems to me that delay in promotion and fines of a few hundred dollars for the worst offenders would signal that kind of hazing is unacceptable. The military must work efficiently to perform its function of defending the country. Making an example of men whose primary sin is tradition, esprit de corps, being tough, and never leaving their wounded behind is conterproductive to that military efficiency.

___________________________________________________________

Sam Orr

World Traveler

and Philanthrope

(Location Unknown)