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Hazing but the shiny side of the killing coin


In a time when there are no real wars to fight, the true nature of the military has a chance to surface. And if the recent hazing incident of paratroop trainees is any measure, its nature is morally bankrupt.

Those of us who watched the videotape on the evening news felt our heads about to burst with images of sadism that took their force from a certain dreamlike quality, frightening not for its substance but for its apparent lack of meaning. The recruits, we saw, were lined up against a long blank wall, arms at their sides or behind them, while their fellow soldiers stabbed them in the chest with medal pins over and over. You couldn't see the medal pins clearly, but the fist-sized badges of blood spreading on the recruits' chests made it evident that something sharp was being plunged into the flesh again and again. Some of the recruits tried to resist, but most stood there against the wall, screaming helplessly in pain as their attackers continued to stab and then twist the pins into their flesh.

How could such savagery, such sadism take place in the armed forces of the United States of America? It seems an important question to ponder.

Looking back to Stanley Kubrick's 1987 "Full Metal Jacket" -- a brilliant film about the Vietnam war -- one can see how this savagery happens and, consequently, how the military as a culture isolated from everyday human affairs threatens us.

In its opening sequence, the film shows Marine recruits, one after another, being clipped like sheep with electric shavers. The expressions on their faces are pained, benumbed, all the while the soundtrack plays a patriotic country and western ditty about saying goodbye to sweethearts and saying hello to Vietnam. In this brief opening, Kubrick exposes the schizophrenic thinking that holds to ideals of glory and bravery while sacrificing innocent lives to the fire and steel of war.

When we next see the recruits in boot camp, they are no longer individuals, no longer even human beings, as their drill instructor says, but rather "the lowest forms of life on earth ... unorganized grabbasstic pieces of amphibious shit." At the end of boot camp, these same young men are transformed into "ministers of death praying for war," into "killers," into "Marines." The transformation is complete when a dimwitted private, dubbed "Gomer Pyle," goes insane and kills his DI before killing himself on the eve of being shipped out to Vietnam.

We see no hazing in "Full Metal Jacket." However, what we do see is a similar invasion of the psyche -- an invasion that rearranges every molecule of one's being so that one can be "born again hard," as the DI says. "It is a hard heart that kills," he exhorts the recruits. And his words come back to him through the muzzle of an M-14 wielded by a simple boy who got hardened, then pushed over the line.

Kubrick chillingly shows how in war (and, one might add, in the perpetual state of preparing for war that is military life) the morality of one's actions is banished and brutality is made the norm.

Some 20-odd years before America's involvement in Vietnam, the "zoot-suit riots" in Los Angeles were actual invasions -- dress rehearsals for the large scale attacks upon the Germans and Japanese in World War II.

In this shameful, often overlooked chapter of U.S. history, young military personnel, fresh out of basic training, preyed upon southern California Chicanos who dressed in the lavish style of the zoot suit.

What happened in Los Angeles the first two weeks of June 1943 is psychologically dense and morally reprehensible. For 10 days servicemen and some civilians -- up to 400 at a time -- poured into Mexican barrios in fleets of taxis to attack "zoot-suiters," who were perceived as foreigners, as scapegoats, as the very antithesis of the soldiers. Though miraculously no one was killed, it was open season on Chicanos and blacks, whether or not they wore the zoot suits.

In a controversial theory expounded in The Zoot Suit Riots, psycho-historian Mauricio Mazon has argued that the young sailors and army personnel who hunted down, captured, beat, stripped and shaved the heads of the "zoot-suiters" were re-enacting the dehumanization they suffered at the hands of their superiors in boot camp -- a dehumanization that enabled these young recruits to become avenging sadists, and further still, a destroying army.

According to Mazon, the structure and significance of the experience these young men suffered is identical to a symbolic annihilation, whereby their unique individual identities were destroyed and a collective identity created in their place. This new collective identity, that of an aggressor, was made possible not only because recruits were stripped of their own identities but also because they identified themselves with the source of power in their lives. This is the core of the psychodynamics of transformation whereby the individual is changed from the person threatened to the person who threatens.

Of course one can neither overlook the scapegoat aspect nor the inherent racism in this history, for the soldiers preyed upon a group of people who had been substituted in the popular mind for the Japanese, and whose marginalization was based upon their race and class as well as their ambiguous identity as "zoot-suiters."

Still, Mazon's theory seems to fit the facts of what happened in California, where scores of our country's good soldiers, not just a few rotten apples, committed acts whose immorality and viciousness were the result of their training as soldiers -- acts repeated with greater ferocity in Vietnam and, though less tragically, once again most recently in our all-volunteer army.

The culture of the military is predicated on dehumanization and dominance. While it sends troops to "trouble spots" around the world, policing other nations and races, protecting our "vital interests," the real story of the military begins back here at home with the individual men and women who are systematically, violently transformed into a collective that inflicts suffering with impunity.

The recent hazing of paratroop trainees is not an isolated incident, for the military is an institution that teaches torture, which is precisely what the School of the Americas was and remains all about. Through the SOA, our military bears grave responsibility for the reign of death and terror unleashed by SOA graduates in El Salvador and Guatemala during the 1980s. And yet there has been no reckoning of this history. Instead there has been denial. And now the military denies that hazing is condoned. The history of physical and psychological dehumanization within the armed forces, however, says otherwise.

Is there a lesson we North Americans can take from the Latin American experience, especially as it occurred in countries like Argentina and Chile? If so, it's this: When a military has nothing to do, no wars to fight, no invasions to launch, it can turn its harrowing power on its own citizens. The recent hazing incident may be a small but real step in that direction.

For the individual man or woman, the experience undergone in the military is often a kind of schizophrenia, a ripping of the psyche in two. As the main character in "Full Metal Jacket" wryly says, "Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?" There is the old familiar self that suffers helplessly at the hands of sadists and there is the American hero transformed into a phony Hollywood hero who prays for a world of war without end.

Andrés Rodríguez is NCR opinion editor.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 1997