The military's hazing hell

Carol Burke, author of "Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane and the High and Tight," talks to Salon about the military's frat-boy culture, how torture and initiation rites are used to transform civilians into soldiers -- and how Abu Ghraib is just a drop in the bucket.

Published June 4, 2004 5:23PM (EDT)

By now, the photos are hard to forget: A hooded and draped Iraqi stands on a box, his limbs attached to electrical wire, like some menacing, anonymous art project. Naked men configured in a macabre version of a cheerleading pyramid. An Iraqi prisoner being forced to simulate oral sex on another man. The recent images of torture at Abu Ghraib prison were stunning not only because of their cruelty, but because of the peculiar, sexualized, almost theatrical manner in which the prisoners suffered. Perhaps most sickening, however, was the fact that all of this misery was accompanied by the grinning, gleeful faces of the American soldiers evidently proud of their work. It's natural to wonder: Where did these servicemen and -women get such sick and twisted ideas?

Carol Burke, author of the new book "Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High and Tight: Gender, Folklore and Changing Military Culture," wasn't at all surprised to learn that soldiers ritualistically tortured Iraqi prisoners and documented their deeds. Her research, done long before the Abu Ghraib news broke, shows that these types of practices are widespread in military cultures around the globe. Initiation rites often involve elaborate, carnivalesque ceremonies, which can include dressing up, physical pain, and personal and sexual humiliation. And the soldiers nearly always leave behind a trail of photographs and videotapes.

Burke's analysis of militaries as specific cultures, and very nearly cults, provides another way to understand what happened at Abu Ghraib. Her ideas also make the problem much more complicated. Ultimately, according to Burke, to truly eradicate such practices, the military would have to reform not only the fraternity-like initiation at service academies, but also the traditions long used to transform soldiers from civilians into soldiers.

Burke, a professor of English at the University of California at Irvine, spoke to Salon about the military's shocking marching chants, some disturbing examples of military initiation rituals, and why it's not surprising that women committed torture at Abu Ghraib.

How did you become interested in military culture?

In the late '80s and early '90s I was a civilian professor at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. While I was there I was working on a book on women in prison. I found a number of similarities between prisons and the institution I was going back and forth to every day. One experience I had during the first semester I was there was a formative one. I came in really early one morning and this small group of would-be Marines [the Naval Academy recruits Marines too] were doing a running march together. Like a lot of groups in the military they were chanting and as they came by me, I heard: "Rape, maim, kill babies, hooah. Rape, maim, kill babies, hooah," over and over.

Later that day I met my class and I said to my students, "I just heard the most bizarre thing," and told them. My class looked at me and said, "Oh, ma'am, after a couple of weeks, you don't really hear the words that they're saying anymore." And I said to them, "What you just said to me is far more frightening than what I heard this morning."

Chants are used for various reasons -- to keep time while marching, to let off steam. But some are pretty ugly.

A kind of sinister cast came over a lot of marching chants during the Vietnam era and post-Vietnam. Probably the most famous Vietnam chant that has a chorus of "Napalm sticks to kids, napalm sticks to ribs." It's a macabre chant about the sadistic American killing everything in its way, including civilians and particularly children. The way I read that is as a kind of response to protesters stateside who were chanting at their rallies, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today," and calling the soldiers baby killers. The soldiers are saying back, Oh you want us to be baby killers, we'll be baby killers. One doesn't perform these on the battlefield. They're performed in training rituals in this transition from civilian to soldier in order to desensitize civilians -- who've been raised not to kill anyone -- to be able to kill on demand in the name of the state.

And a lot of these chants alienate women.

That's really important. When you have an institution that exists in part to inscribe manhood on its members, you have this very intricate process of doing that by separating men from the civilian world, which includes [separating them from] mothers, sisters, girlfriends. When you take that rich tradition of separating men from the women back home, and then introduce women into the military, you're saying to the female soldiers, "You're not quite a part of this elite membership."

The military before racial integration had a history of staging things like minstrel shows. Those completely went by the wayside because you can't try to form this group cohesion and do it in ways that clearly alienate and scapegoat one portion of your group. Unfortunately, the misogynist practices have been much slower to be relinquished.

How much pressure are women under to fit in then?

An extraordinary amount of pressure. When new members enter the military, if you're successful, the last thing in the world you want to do is to draw any attention to yourself as different or unique in any way. And already if they're females, they're different. There's incredible pressure to suppress femininity and be one of the guys. When I asked women who've been in the military about the sexist jokes, many of them will say, Well, although I don't like them, I'm just not going to put myself out and say I don't like them because that will look like I'm not one of the group. And so they go along. Slowly, this is changing.

You found in your research that male initiation rituals still go on in the military.

Yes, it's something that's in the shadows. Typically, military rituals -- like fraternity rituals -- take the initiate into this dark underworld where they're deprived of sleep, infantilized and feminized. Often there's a good deal of homoeroticism. Simulated sex is not unusual. The problem is, what we're talking about are secret practices in a very closed institution and there's typically not a lot of scrutiny.

I write about one special forces unit in the Canadian military that staged an initiation practice in which the one African-American initiate was pulled around by a leash and a dog collar. Similarly, Lynndie England in Abu Ghraib was holding a leash attached to a crawling Iraqi prisoner. These practices, though horrifying, are unfortunately not that uncommon.

Some apologists for the administration have argued these [actions] are like the hazing that goes on in fraternities. The difference is that although the same thing might be enacted in a frat initiation, eventually and finally, the frat member is free to get in his car and go home if things get too tough. When an individual isn't free, that very act becomes torture.

I saw "Control Room" recently, the documentary about Al Jazeera. The director shows interviews with a few young American soldiers in which they're asked why they came to Iraq. Every soldier says, "I follow orders." How programmed are soldiers? How free are they to have their own mind?

While the institution of the military certainly says you are free to disobey an unlawful order, the lower down you go on the hierarchy the more premium is placed on absolute obedience as opposed to independent question of orders. The place I found it most troubling is when you look at the [advancement] of officers. One would think that if there's any place you would want to encourage questioning it would be at the officer level. Now, I'm not sure if it's still performed today, but just a couple of years ago, midshipmen (students training to be Naval officers) at the Naval Academy, as part of their summer basic training, were led into a prison interrogation system. The upperclassmen played the interrogators and dramatized a mock interrogation to frighten the neophytes. The plebes were psychologically abused and interrogated. It inscribes this idea that to be a good leader you must be a good follower. If you're going to get ahead you need to not get out of place in the chain of command.

The sexual undercurrent at Abu Ghraib and in these initiation rituals -- where does that come from?

The military is a kind of brotherhood. I would call aspects of these initiation rituals "cultic." Within that brotherhood, there's male love. It's not surprising that an erotic element is involved. But in this enactment of eroticism, there is also punishment.

I did quite a bit of work in Australia at the defense force academy. There, pranks went like this: A freshman would be charged with something bogus. It might be something as simple as, "The person you went out with this weekend was a dog. She didn't meet standards of acceptable beauty." There would be a fake trial. The end of the trial was always conviction. All of this existed for ritual punishment and it took various homoerotic forms. For example, they sprayed whip cream on a freshman's genitals and another freshman would have to lick the cream off him.

In Colorado Springs, at the Air Force Academy -- and this did reach the light of day and it was discontinued -- one guy would tightly hold an apple in his rear end and another guy had to eat the apple out of his rear end.

In the book, you also mention some bizarre rituals involved in the Navy's "crossing the line" ceremonies, performed onboard ships since the 1600s.

Yes, these kinds of things are not that atypical in some of the Navy's crossing-the-line ceremonies. When a ship crosses the equator, King Neptune comes up from the sea. It's a carnivalesque thing. An enlisted guy takes charge of the ship as King Neptune and all the people who haven't crossed the equator are initiated. What they typically do is go through this gantlet and its wet and slippery. The other people who've crossed the equator already have their wet towels and they're slapping the initiates. Then they have to go through this tube that's filled with all kinds of garbage. It's called the whale's asshole. The initiates are reborn at the end.

Some of the ceremonies in the past have gotten out of hand. In one example, the King Neptune, accompanied by his son, the Royal Baby, who's usually the fattest sailor onboard dressed in a diaper, has this hose that's attached to his groin. The initiate would have to come and bow down and suck this hose.

Now this doesn't happen in all crossing-the-line ceremonies; it doesn't even happen in most. But certainly the whole gantlet part of it is there. We saw it in the Tailhook scandal. These naval aviators in the Las Vegas Hilton formed this gantlet, and women trying to get down the hallway were being treated the way an initiate would be treated in a crossing-the-line ceremony. But in this special sexist version the women were groped and mauled. This was a form of torture.

And there are no rules in the military warning about this stuff?

Yes, there are rules against a lot of this stuff. For example, the "Hell Night" initiation of American Marine Corps' elite "Silent Drill Team" in Yuma, Ariz., came to the public's attention in 1993 when ABC's "Prime Time" broadcast a video showing the new members of the drill team, naked, having their genitals covered with "edge dressing," the highly caustic polish used to provide a polished edge to the soldier's black dress shoes. They were also sprayed with urine. That certainly was never officially condoned. But it went on until a tape of this reached the public. On lower levels there are officers who look the other way. Of course, there are lots of commands in which this never happens.

I read a Barbara Ehrenreich article in the Los Angeles Times in which she said, "a certain feminism died in Abu Ghraib." She had more faith that women would never do these kinds of things. Does military training serve to strip women of their gender?

It does -- and it encourages its suppression. Now I haven't seen a lot of the photos and videotapes from Abu Ghraib -- a lot of them aren't available yet -- but if you look at the one that's been the most scandalous, the one of England with the leash, what you see is the use of a woman to pose as a dominatrix. The other soldiers are staging England. You certainly have some dereliction in duty on the part of some of the people in charge, but I've seen no indication that women are orchestrating this whole practice. The women are certainly willing participants, but I think what they're doing is performing in a male ritual.

But the person who was running the prison was a woman, Gen. Janis Karpinski.

There have been accounts that she did know that some abuses were going on but these were in areas of the prison that had been put under other command. I'm not sure and I think that story still needs to be revealed.

Given all your research were you surprised that this story broke or did it make some sort of morbid sense to you given all you've learned?

I've done a book on American prisons, too. Prisons are places where absolute power can be brought to bear on those under your control. Therefore, if there is not absolutely tight regulation on individuals who have that power, and if they don't know exactly what they're supposed to be doing, abuses can happen really easily. So you have that prison situation. Then, even prior to this you have the current administration deciding that we're not necessarily bound by the rules that we have defined for ourselves as a civilized democratic society, the rules that we've agreed to based on the Geneva Convention. That lays the groundwork for things to get out of hand. To find out there was abuse in Iraqi prisons, considering that we'd abdicated our responsibility to the Geneva Convention, doesn't necessarily surprise me. The fact that this kind of abuse took place in a ritualized form that I've seen in military culture doesn't surprise me. That doesn't mean that I'm not terribly shocked. It's horrifying.

Did it surprise you that the abuses were so well documented by the soldiers?

No, that really doesn't surprise me. These kinds of practices, certainly in initiation rituals, are always photographed or videotaped. And the reason they are, in the context of initiating one of your own, is to preserve the pollution and shame that the whole process represents. So if somebody gets out of line in the future, you produce the photographs and say, "See what happened to you? You're dressed in women's clothing. You're abject." There's always a trail.

Do you think the abuses at Abu Ghraib will have any effect on how far these initiation rituals are taken in the future?

Most people are not seeing Abu Ghraib in any way in relationship to military culture -- certainly the administration doesn't want to see this as an indictment of any aspects of military culture. They want to see it as an aberrant act of a few. And I would argue that unless you look at this in the context of all these other abuses, you're not going to do anything other than deal with the symptoms. You're not really going to transform the culture.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

MORE FROM Suzy Hansen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abu Ghraib Torture