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Is Hazing a Form of Torture?

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Here they go again.

As reported by Huffington Post and other media outlets, we now have two scandals in two days involving our security forces.

The first scandal involves guards at the U.S. Embassy Kabul who have engaged in extreme forms of violence. If you have the stomach for it, you can see photographs here.

According to the Project on Government Oversight, these episodes, which include simulated anal sex, are a form of "deviant hazing [that] has created a climate of fear and coercion, with those who declined to participate often ridiculed, humiliated, demoted, or even fired."

The second scandal is about a U.S. Navy unit in 5th Fleet in Bahrain where a gay sailor was brutalized for two years after he expressed disinterest in sleeping with a prostitute (a widespread practice at the base), and where female sailors were handcuffed to a bed and forced to simulate lesbian sex while on video. An official Navy report confirmed almost 100 different types of abuse. But, the Navy promoted the supervisor who oversaw the abuse even though Naval officials were well aware of what had happened. And the Admiral who was in charge of the 5thFleet at the time just received his fourth star this year, and now serves as Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

The participants in Kabul scandal were contractors, not service members. But in the wake of Tailhook, the rape scandal at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and a long-term pattern of violence among members of our armed forces, we should get a few things straight about the connection between the Kabul and Bahrain violence.

First, in no way do these incidents represent "bad apples" or isolated cases. One of my doctoral students just completed her dissertation on military training, a project for which she actually went through boot camp as a part of her research. I begged her not to go to boot camp to do her research because i believed she could get assaulted. Sure enough, every single woman in her training was sexually harassed, including one woman who was raped. The reason behind the pattern is that in order to train our troops for combat, we train them to brutalize one another.

Second, these cases are not hazing, they are torture. By referring to torture as "hazing," or "homosocial behavior" we make the violence seem like it is okay, just boys being boys. Hog-tying someone to a chair and then shoving him into a dog kennel full of feces, as was done to the gay sailor, is not boys being boys. In fact, the victims of such treatment often develop PTSD. One of the sailors implicated in the Bahrain scandal died from suicide, while another told me that he developed suicidal ideation as a result.

Third, the pattern of violence is not an accident, but reflects official policy, including the "don't ask, don't tell" law which makes it almost impossible for gay victims to report abuse. And even though the military does have policies in place to deter violence against women, these policies often produce contradictory results. For example, I am aware of a rape case that was not reported because the base commander had announced a "zero-tolerance" policy for assault, which the troops took to mean (accurately according to people I interviewed) that he did not want to hear about incidents.

This week's news should be a reminder that war is a violent business, and the people we train to conduct it often direct that violence at one another. Whether we're talking about private contractors or military service members, our collective national stereotypes what it means to serve in uniform leave a lot unspoken.