A congressional hearing investigated the hazing related death of a promising young man from Eastern Pennsylvania. He was beaten. Hot sauce was forced down his throat. Hot wax was poured on him while he slept. He told his brother back home about the abuse. He would never violate the unwritten code and reveal names of his abusers, but he did say why. They picked on him because of his faith; because of how often he read the bible. They called him weak, uncommitted and soft. He was forced into a boxing match against a senior. He was beaten badly in the ring, picked up off the floor and encouraged to keep fighting. Those matches of freshmen against seniors were common. Others in his class were forced to ride down splintered boards naked. (Why is there always someone naked? I mean… seriously?!)
The students accused in the hearing stood by their tactics. When interrogated it was clear they were bought into their traditions believing it was an important part of their training. They believed it would weed out the unqualified candidates and make them stronger physically and emotionally. It was important to their culture and the outside world just doesn’t understand.
Everyone cried out. Things have to change! This kind of behavior is criminal! It was beneath the dignity of these young men, and that fine institution. And, tragedies like the death of Oscar Booz could not be tolerated again. There was agreement that things would need to be toned down a bit. The hazing would be reined in. Notice, not eliminated.
That was 1900. The hazing culture within the West Point Military Academy that led to the death of a first-year student was investigated. Even Douglas MacArthur (as a first-year cadet) was brought in to testify about the humiliating abuse he endured. This man who would rise to the rank of Five Star General and Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army surely remembered it when he became the Superintendent of the Academy 20 years later. He changed the rules and “curtailed” hazing but allowed it to continue.
Hazing continued to be a significant problem at West Point for first year “plebes.” In 1990, nearly 100 years after the death of Oscar Booz, hazing was finally abolished altogether. Students were prohibited from disciplining younger students on their own. West Point is still far from easy for first year cadets. But, with clear discipline for breaking rules, clear expectations for accountability of peers, and clarity of the purpose and goals of training exercises… it is much better.
“Hazing can be phased out” is a LIE. Half measures never work in eliminating hazing. They only kick the can down the road for others to be tormented, injured, killed. Tradition is a word used by cowards too afraid to change that which they know is wrong. A clean break in the culture, the expectations, and the accountability are necessary to make a difference.