Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In Defense of Hazing

I've made long winded entries (Hazing part 1 and part 2) on how hazing works and in what forms it manifests itself. You might have guessed I am no advocate of it but in an ironic twist, I will try to "justify" or "defend" the perpetrators of hazing in this entry. I am not saying people who practice their misguided and archaic methods of discipline are right, I'm saying there's a reason for what they do and it isn't always entirely their fault.

People need to remember that treating subordinates in a less than desirable fashion (often like shit), and employing anger, insults and even violence as a method of enforcing discipline have been traditionally very common practices in Korea. Though things may have changed a lot now, people in my generation and even younger have been subject to violence from teachers and parents throughout our entire lives. I was beaten and insulted on a regular basis as a student in Korea, both by teachers and upperclassmen. As an elementary school student, I've seen my peers literally get tossed across the room and tripped by teachers. Later in middle school, getting smacked across the face with a textbook was a thing, as was getting ganged up and stomped by older students in the same school. I also remember getting hit and yelled at by adult strangers for what they saw as poor behavior in public. This may be a case of memory bias but I wasn't getting hit for stealing or punching a handicapped kid; I remember getting attacked by a stranger for being too loud on the bus. This is the type of society I and many other Koreans grew up in. You can discipline a member of your society lower than you on the hierarchy tree and utilize savage techniques to do so. No one would bat an eye.

Things have changed quite a bit since then. I'm not knowledgeable enough to even begin to describe why these changes have come about, but I according to people I talk to and the media, corporal punishment is rarely, if ever, employed by faculty members now. At least in Seoul. The big thing nowadays is school violence among students but I'm willing to bet that media sensationalism is over blowing this social issue as always. Where were these concerned journalists and parents when kids were getting belted and smacked by teachers simply for talking funny back in my day? I'm not even that old. "My day" was only a decade ago. Funny how things change.

Anyway, I digress. Things change. In schools, in society, and even the military. These cuddly new attitudes on discipline seep into the military as new generations get conscripted, and guess what? They clash with existing attitudes and ideas. Older guys don't understand why cussing at a subordinate isn't allowed anymore, much less beating him. It's really because some guys snap and off themselves or others. Some call their mothers and tell them about all the horrible things they are subject to. The media gets a hold of these stories, the military gets flak and people get angry. More importantly, voters get angry. Politicians bitch at the commanders and the shit rolls down hill. Guys are told to stop hitting juniors and conscripts in general are restricted in how much they are allowed to talk about their lives in the military. Because it's not really about stopping hazing, it's about protecting careers.

Nobody cares about hazing in itself. What people care about is that hazing is the leading cause of suicide and desertion, and the following media backlash can affect careers. If nobody killed themselves, nobody would give a shit.

I could go on a lot more about the bureaucratic mess of it all but this is about why it exists. I'm just going to add that in a way, we really need to thank the crazies who snapped and mowed down their unit members. These incidents, and the public condemnation they received, really drove the military brass and politicians to get off their asses and enact change. Even a couple years before my entry, I've heard a lot of stories of violence and even sexual hazing. But the shootings and suicides changed that.

Despite the changes, hazing still exists. In some (I'd wager most) units more tame forms of it are common while in others, more "traditional" versions of it still persist. This article by Kyunghyang Shinmun is the most recent information I could get on military hazing. The title says violence in the military has increased two-fold in seven years according to a survey conducted mostly on active-duty conscripts on leave. The chart they posted as evidence doesn't make it seem that bad though. The chart says 17.7% of respondents witnessed violence but 52.7% of them feigned ignorance. 12.5% say they were the victims of violence.

I would personally consider other factors for the increase. I have a hard time believing things are really worse than the good old days of regular beatings (oftentimes endorsed or conducted by military leadership themselves). The newer generation of conscripts are probably more vocal about their negative experiences and demanding of change compared to previous generations, which I think is a trait more prevalent among younger Koreans in general. These guys were probably a lot less afraid of being frank since they were on leave as well. Also, these younger guys are also more spoiled and softer than previous generations. After being accustomed to be being cuddled for so long, any negative experience is going to be shocking. As I expanded on my previous entry, it should also be noted that there really is no clear definition of hazing. What one considers playful teasing could be perceived as being invasive and hurtful to another. How many of these incidents of violence were intended to be playful by the perpetrator and how many of them were truly hostile and damaging? Cognitive bias should also come into play here as the particular situation and victim's opinion of the perpetrator could influence how the incident is remembered. Hell, I knew a guy who got in trouble not because what he did was really damaging (he cussed a lot), but because he was just really annoying and guys were sick of him.

With that in mind, it is probably difficult for a lot of guys, in particular guys from lower socioeconomic back grounds, to get rid of old habits or to comprehend why they can't shit on a subordinate when it's been happened to them their whole lives. To some it's simply unfair. It's their chance to "get back" at all the shit they've taken and now it's not allowed. If one is convicted of things such as violence or foul language, punishment is presented in the form of restricted leave, demotion, prison, and in some cases, unit transfer.

Other than the threat of punishment, the military also attempts to educate us on these matters but I found them to be extremely lacking. Once in awhile, we have mandatory viewings of "educational" videos basically telling us how to be good soldiers and that hazing is bad. That's really it other than the commander assembling the entire unit and screaming. There's your grand hazing prevention policy. It works in a way. The threat of being caught and being sent to prison is enough for many to either cease their transgressions or tone it down. Not all. It'll be like trying to reduce crime by enacting harsher sentences. Sure it would probably work to some degree but there are much more complicated social issues that need to be addressed. Hazing is no different. I think one of the biggest factors in decreased or less harsh hazing is simply the influx of newer generations and newer attitudes. It has less to do with anything the military actively has tried to do.

I would liked to have seen more proactive attempts. Poor education and training is a big factor in hazing's persistence in my opinion, and a real issue in all aspects of the ROK military's effectiveness. There is no real leadership training courses for conscripts. No real education or training in dealing with discipline and relationships with subordinates. I was a squad leader and I got one lazily constructed week of squad leader training. Same educational principles here: watch a few propaganda videos, attend a few lectures, and you're ready to lead a squad! You think a twenty-something year old with a year of military experience is going to master the art of discipline after a week of lectures, much less be ready to lead troops into battle? By the way, you can't fail the course either so if you're not concerned with getting points and earning leave, you can doze off the entire time. Some guys don't even enroll in the training course but are given the leadership position.

We are told to be "gentle" and use words of encouragement to discipline our men. Simply being told to alter to one's behavior isn't always effective. Habits are hard to break. Beliefs and traits instilled through out the years by one's environment isn't going to change that easily.

Yet simultaneously, there's an extremely heavy demand for discipline by the brass. Lower ranking officers, NCOs, and conscripts are constantly harassed for better discipline. Conscripts get yelled at, lectured, and have our free-time infringed when our discipline is poor. Seemingly insignificant things like the proper positioning of your belt buckle or how straight you wear your hat are a big deal. If a lower ranking private is caught with poor discipline, his seniors are the ones who get reprimanded for not properly teaching the guy. The problem here become clear. Young guys, with little to no true leadership training, are pressured to disciplined their troops and resort to the methods they've been exposed to their entire lives despite warnings from above not to do so.

Let me give you an example. Let's say you're a squad leader and during a training exercise, you have a few rookies who keep forgetting to keep their helmets on at all times. You remind them continuously but due to confusion, not having developed that habit yet, or simple stupidity, they keep forgetting. Then a few officers pass by see that your men aren't disciplined! They reprimand you, or other seniors in your squad. They yell at you that your lack of leadership is undermining the safety of your squad. But it doesn't end their, word gets to your commander and what's he going to think of you and your squad now? The unit commander will undoubtedly have a "talk" about this issue with your platoon leader who will undoubtedly pressure you even more to keep your men disciplined. If officers of other units or higher in the division witness this, this could affect your CO's standing within their eyes. Your officers also have an image in manage. That is their "face" and we all know how important that is Korean culture. So you get shit from your platoon leader, your company commander, and maybe even battalion commander. Other NCOs and officers will chide and criticize you. You get frustrated at your rookies' inability to adjust in a timely manner. Although you really wanted to be the "nice" senior, desperation hits and you end up cussing at them. Maybe you hit them or shun them socially. You may resent your guys for causing you so much grief.

Senior conscripts also have the added burden of teaching new juniors on how to do their jobs. Except for highly specialized occupations such as driving, most conscripts receive no formal job training for their MOS. The skills required are handed-down by senior conscripts. When you first enter the military, you are taught as you go along instead of going through an official training course that specifically deals with your specialty. You can imagine how ineffective this can be since some seniors will tend to forget certain things, are bad at their jobs themselves or are just bad at teaching. It boggles my mind that I was allowed to handle sensitive military intelligence without any sort of training or even a simple briefing on protocol. I sort of picked up on the dos and don'ts as I went along and got yelled at a lot. When a rookie mucks up because he doesn't know what he's doing, his senior is going to get chewed out by officers and in turn the the senior is going to return the favor on the junior.

The brass expect impeccable discipline and performance yet demand no feelings to be hurt in the process. It's a tall order for a bunch of 20 year-olds with no real training on the matter. Guys technically aren't allowed to hit, insult, yell or even hurt feelings. Words of encouragement can only go so far. What other recourse is there when that doesn't work? The proper way of going about it is reporting to the higher ups but as I have outlined this before, there is a general mistrust of the professional ranks among conscripts. Many times officers and NCOs don't do shit or their ideas of reform only end up making things worse. For example, in an attempt to prevent religious oppression of junior conscripts, COs made everybody go to religious service, effectively infringing on the religious rights of everybody not Christian or Buddhist. Many of their solutions to these things are knee-jerk reactions that look for short-term results. In some cases the officers will blame you for being a weak leader who can't even control his own men.

Another example is the military's move to compartmentalize ranks by room. The military is supposedly having soldiers of the same rank share a room so there is less hazing and abuse of power. They don't want sergeants lying around watching TV while the privates are cleaning the room. Anybody who's been in the ROK military would know this is extremely unrealistic as there is no way a unit can maintain an equal ratio of ranks. Guys get discharged (sometimes unexpectedly due to injury) or transferred. Sometimes the unit composition changes they may end up having more new privates than expected. Sometimes guys get early or postponed promotions. Sometimes a platoon will have a one private. There's no way that one private is going to get a room all by himself. Plus seniority in the ROK isn't dictated by rank anyway; it's by your date of entry. Senior privates will still share the room with lower privates. Also, what's to stop the sergeants or corporals from going over to the privates' rooms and telling them to clean up all the rooms? Due to the impracticality of this policy, I suspect it won't be applied across the board but rather, the article I linked is likely an announcement by the military to show the public that they are trying something to curb hazing. Many of these "solutions" to hazing are merely political gestures to abate public criticism and take no consideration to what conscripts actually go through. How would they know anyway. Most of these generals and high-ranking officers have never lived as a private.

There are some guys, conscripts and officers alike, who are natural leaders. They command respect and inspire obedience through their personality. They're the type of guys who you don't want to disobey because for some reason you don't want to disappoint them, not because you're afraid of their wrath. Some guys you trust with their command because they're just badass. But these guys are rare. I've only met a few in my lifetime, much less in the two years of military service. The military needs to try to educate and grow such leaders instead of expecting everybody to be gifted in this area.

So what do you do if you aren't a gifted leader who can inspire genuine comradeship and discipline, and you lack inter-personal skills? How do you deal with a stubborn or stupid junior who won't follow orders and ends up making you, your unit and CO look like clowns, or worse, undermines the effectiveness and safety of your unit? Talking to the junior doesn't work, you're obviously not allowed to use harsher methods and you are afraid of going to your commander because he's an asshole and has a history of making bad decisions because he's a shitty leader himself. All the while you're receiving pressure from above to deal with it in a timely manner. What do you do? Many times senior conscripts (and officers) will find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to disciplining subordinates.

Of course there are guys who haze and abuse their juniors because they are genuine assholes. Some guys are insecure dicks who use military service as their one chance in life to act like a tough guy without retribution. When else are they going to be able to order other adults around and be all "alpha?" There's also the guys who resist the change toward leniency because they hold a grudge on the shit they've been through in the past and have a need to still "get their's." They immaturely resent the newer conscripts who have it easier than they have.

The problem is that when hazing happens, there is no real way to be there all the time to catch guys in the act. In my unit's case, we had close to 300 conscripts but only two officers and 4 NCOs. Officers can't always be watching conscripts when they have their own responsibilities to take care of as well. The victim can report it but sometimes there's no real way to prove the crime. What if an asshole junior decides to accuse every senior he doesn't like? There's also the fear of being seen as a "snitch" if you report hazing or testify in favor of the victim. Social ostracism is a factor to consider.

There are no real ways to effectively enforce hazing regulations. It's entirely dependent on someone reporting it. For this reason I think eliminating hazing from a top-down approach is unrealistic.

The professional soldiers of the ROK military sort of act as the enforcers and police when it comes to conscript discipline. Of course there are the actual military police but they tend to deal with more serious infractions. Within a unit and in the military as a whole, the officers and NCOs are the elite and ruling class so to speak. It's difficult to trust most of them when they themselves violate the same regulations they're supposed to enforce and nothing happens to them. Sometimes the guy in question happens to be too high of a rank to touch. Sometimes the officers see a report for hazing and just shrug their shoulders. How many people would snitch to the police if they regularly witness police corruption and brutality? Also, as mentioned, guys won't report hazing because they don't trust the higher-ups to deal with it effectively.

When the violators are of the "elite," the system is much more favorable to they are than they are to conscripts. Most of the time reporting hazing by an officer is pointless because nothing will happen to the guy.

Here's another facet to think about. I'm going to stress this again because it is important. There is no real clear definition of hazing. I've been told on several occasions that if the victim feels he has been violated, then that is a violation. Imagine if laws worked that in the civilian world. I'm going to press charges on you because I feel you offended me. A senior could playfully wrestle with a guy because he genuinely likes the guy and that's his way of showing affection (and we all know how touchy Korean guys are with eachother) but if the "victim" of this situation feels violated, the senior is in the wrong. Many times the junior can't speak out and candidly express his feelings to the senior because he is afraid of offending someone above him. There is no other recourse for the junior other than to go behind the senior and report it, or bottle it up and boil with resentment for the rest of his service.

At what point is it hazing and what point is it just guys being guys? At what point is it sexual harassment and at what point is it affection? Nobody knows and this just adds to the confusion.

My last reason is rather obvious and perhaps painfully idealistic. Hazing happens because people let it. If everybody just simultaneously said fuck being bullied by superiors, hazing would stop now. Nobody would be afraid of reporting it or being ostracized. I guess you could say the same about pretty much everything. My point is that the general societal attitude is a factor in why hazing is persistent, and why it has gotten better. Conscripts and young officers nowadays are from less violent backgrounds and don't see hazing as an effective tool. Hazing will probably never go away entirely, but there will be much less of it as military culture changes.

This goes against the grain of Korean thinking and the nature of military organizations, but the military needs to stop with the top-down control of conscript lives. There needs to be a building of trust, communication and true comradeship. It needs to be organic instead of being forced upon us. A bunch of strangers aren't suddenly going to be best buds because someone tells them to. This also goes against Korean culture but the obsession of showing "respect" and formality between subordinate-superior relationships has to go. Lower ranks should be able to communicate their concerns to their seniors without fear. We're guys, stop with the tiptoeing around.

On that note, stop being bitches. Let guys be guys. The military has this intense opposition to violence, which seems a bit ironic to me. One-sided hazing is one thing, but they should let guys, regardless of seniority, duke it out like men in a controlled setting. Settle their differences like warriors. Provide boxing gloves or wrestling mats or something. There'd be a lot less immature political bullshit like clique forming and picking of sides. Losing a fight isn't as bad as being treated like shit or being friendless. Some may say, "Isn't that barbaric?" Uh, we're also learning to shoot people so learning to throw and take a punch seems like a step down barbarity to me.

I don't want to sound like I'm blaming the victims here, but to some degree the victims and the public in general also need to realize this is the military. It's an organization that ultimately kills people. Soldiers go to war and people fucking die in them. It's not always going to be pretty and add to that it is a male-dominated society. And men like to fuck around, crack dirty jokes, play fight, real fight, and make fun of each other. Modern society has a tendency to coddle people and make things easy for them, and when we conscript people from this sort of society, its impossible to avoid sensitive people who get offended by any sort of teasing or criticism. There are victims of real hazing, but I wouldn't surprised if we see a lot more "victims" who report hazing just because someone made them feel bad about the shitty job they were doing. These people will undermine military discipline.

Just like bullying, I don't think hazing will ever be eradicated completely. It's human nature and no matter what you do, there will always be some assholes who abuse their position of superiority over others. But I think there are definite steps toward reducing it. Starting with regular sparring matches.


  1. Don't forget that university life is full of hazing, too, from the OT "freshman orientation" through to the MT "membership training" events. Corporations as well. Without hazing, in fact, the Hite-Jinro Co. could go into bankruptcy and be out of business, so add that to your list of defenses of the practice.

    1. Since when do they haze freshmen? I just came back from my freshman OT and the seniors there seemed alright.

    2. Not going to a SKY uni then, are you?

  2. Hazing is pretty rampant where I'm from. Guess that's just how it goes.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your previous posts on the Korean military. I got drafted in sep 09 till june 11. The only thing i remember during the first six months was the bliss of of being able to lie on my back at 22.00 and the last part of my service when take the p4ivates on a mental rollercoaster of distress.
    Yes i was an asshole just before my final discharge.... Not something i am proud of....
    Another saying i remember from my days in my base.

    There is always one dickhead in a group. If you cant find a dickhead it probably means you are that dickhead.