Hazing hell in Afghanistan

Initiation rituals in the army may have led to the deaths of two Chinese Americans this year. Is cru

In October, a 19-year-old army private called Danny Chen climbed into a guard tower in Afghanistan and shot himself in the head. According to the Chinese-American soldier's relatives, his comrades had subjected him to a painful process of "hazing" and racial abuse, including pelting him with stones and ordering him to do pull-ups with a mouthful of water, which he was prohibited from spitting out or swallowing. In a surprise announcement on 21 December, the army announced that eight of his comrades would be charged for offences ranging from assault to involuntary manslaughter.

This was the second such case in six months. In August, three marines were charged with mistreating another Chinese-American soldier, Harry Lew, who killed himself while stationed in Afghanistan. Lew, who had allegedly been stomped, kicked and tormented, was found dead in a foxhole that he had dug for himself. He had written on his arm, "May hate me now but in the long run, this was the right choice. I'm sorry. My mom deserves the truth."

Racism and bullying in the military are nothing new but for those outside the US, the concept of hazing rituals is hardly explicable. In the 2004 book The Hazing Reader, edited by Hank Nuwer, Stephen Sweet lists incidents of college students harmed or even dying while pledging to join fraternities: some were buried alive, others were shocked with electrical charges or pressured to drink far in excess of their capacity. The willingness of young men and women to submit themselves to degrading and sometimes dangerous acts, designed specifically to humiliate them, is as bizarre as the willingness of others to inflict such cruelty on their peers, colleagues or comrades. Is this a uniquely American predicament, and if so, why?

Hazing is all too easily explained (and even justified) as a means of cementing bonds within a group - but surely underlying any sense of belonging that it may induce is the assumption that, for those bonds to matter, a species of isolation from others not initiated through the ritual is necessary. To enter into a group through hazing is, in effect, to step out of the rest of the world and its rules. Or, at least, it is to position yourself as a member of a chosen people, separate from the rest. In many ways, it is a natural, microcosmic extension of that particularly American notion of exceptionalism: ever since the Puritan lawyer John Winthrop delivered his 1630 sermon exalting America as a "city on the hill" upon which the "eyes of all people" gazed, the nation has believed in its own otherness, even as its culture and political power grew more and more dominant across the world. The frontier is where it all began and the mythology of the United States remains rooted there.

The "true" American must play the role of the outsider: the Davy Crockett, the Billy Bonney. Look to the Tea Party or the Westboro Baptists - each group is besotted with its own outlaw fantasy. Yet to be a genuine outsider is unthinkable. Dan Choi, an Iraq war veteran who was forced out of the army under "don't ask, don't tell", recently told Public Radio International that being an Asian American in the military was a lonely experience. Racism was rife but he endured abuse in order to "fit in": "I wanted to joke and make other people feel comfortable . . . In the army, you're taught if you stick out, there will be consequences. If you look different, you're starting off with that additional burden."

Seen in this light, Chen's hazing and its outcome are more complex than yet another "isolated incident" of needless cruelty, as Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, insists. Humiliation has long been used to establish or normalise social relations; indeed, the social scientist Evelin Lindner pointed out in 2006, "In the English-speaking world, humiliation was not seen as hurtful until about 250 years ago." "For millenia," she wrote, "people believed that it was normal and morally correct to have masters and underlings." In hierarchical environments such as the military, this power relationship is bound to be more pronounced than elsewhere. Ten years before Lindner, the social psychologist Alexander Durig described the "mind of the individual" as principally motivated by "fear [or] need of humiliation . . . We often learn to respect those who humiliate us. Conversely, we often learn to humiliate those who respect us."

Chen, like Choi, seems to have initially taken the abuse hurled at him on the chin. This was the army, after all. In a letter to his family, quoted in the New York Times, he wrote: "Everyone here jokingly makes fun of me for being Asian." In another: "People crack jokes about Chinese people all the time; I'm running out of jokes to come back at them." After his suicide, a Pentagon spokesman said that soldiers "treat each other with respect and dignity" but this platitude rings hollow. What to the insider are "jokes", to the outsider - the ethnic minority, the gay man, the lesbian - can be slow psychological torture. The US army claims that hazing is prohibited and insists that there is no racism in its ranks but the activist Kwong Eng seems correct to argue that "the culture allows it to happen".

Researchers have shown that those who perceive themselves to be targets of bullying experience high levels of stress and are less likely to trust the established avenues of redress. With little prospect of official intervention, Chen no doubt felt compelled to play along. Maybe his fellow soldiers saw the brutality they allegedly inflicted upon him as a form of initiation ritual. Maybe not. Yet the fearful desperation of a culture that requires such horrific customs has, once again, been dragged out into the light. Eight men are being charged but the issue cannot be resolved through the punishment of scapegoats alone.

The incident has been presented as a crisis of poor discipline. It is also, on some level, a crisis of national values and identity. While US popular culture glamourises the outsider, many are terrified enough by the prospect of being at the bottom of the social pecking order to assert their insider status by humiliating - literally, "bringing to the ground" - weaker peers. Bullying and racism are not unique to American culture but in few other nations is the question of belonging so central an anxiety.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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