The Best Defense

Hazing vs. leadership: Some thoughts on getting my arm broken at West Point

I found this essay, which until now has only been available on an internal Army website, quite striking. It essentially asks: How could a place that prides itself on its honor code tolerate sadism?

Just FYI, the author's own title for this piece is "Cool on Honor: Sadism, Cruelty, and Character Development at West Point."

By Lt. Col. Peter Fromm, U.S. Army (Ret.) 

Best Defense department of military ethics

Cool on Honor: Sadism, Cruelty, and Character Development at West Point

          I have had one serious unanswered injustice done to me in my life, and it occurred when I was 21 years old. I mean "unanswered" in the sense of reciprocity-there has been no accounting for this injustice. I have always wanted to write about it, not because of self-pity but because of something I learned from it that has grown on me over the years. This personal essay describes it as a snapshot from the Army's troubled times in the 1970s. The story surfaces one important aspect about leadership and stewardship in the modern Army: the antithetical relationship between gratuitous cruelty and honor and the duty to do something about it. In my experience as an Army ethicist, having been sent to graduate school for that purpose, I have seen this antithetical relationship as potentially the most important ethical failure the institution faces. I say this because the institution puts weapons in the hands of young, inexperienced people and then gives them the power of life and death over others. If we do not do all that we can to get this part of Army culture right (the relationship between cruelty and honor), we stand convicted of hypocrisy of the worst kind.

When the Army educated me to teach ethics (a sign of health in the organization that it actually does such a thing), I developed an eye for institutional moral window dressing. That's mostly what I want to talk about here. In the Odyssey, Homer says that "the blade itself incites to violence." I want to rephrase that beautiful observation to say that "power over others incites to cruelty." When one exercises power over another, if there is a lack of moral sense, of maturity, or of wisdom in the execution, it inevitably becomes entangled with that most basic of impulses, sexual dynamics.

As Jean Paul Sartre demonstrates in Being and Nothingness, this sexual component to power dynamics remains a common denominator in human nature, a basic component of our social-political experience. In the case of power over others, there is a psychological impulse to see the other as an object, to dehumanize the other, and to attempt to take action to literally objectify the other through violence or through institutionalized cruelty. This impulse stems from a need to exert one's existence at the expense of the other, and in this effort there is a tendency toward sadistic abuse. This dynamic is what happens when adults abuse children, as in the case of pedophiles. In power relationships, like rank hierarchies in the military, sexual impulse arises either overtly or in some sublimated way. If it arises overtly, it often ends in sexual harassment or assault, such as what became known at the Air Force Academy in 2005 when several women came forward to say that had been raped or otherwise assaulted there. Another famous case occurred at the Naval Academy when women were chained to urinals in the men's latrines. When this impulse arises in some sublimated way, it often finds its outlet in violence vented out in some more or less "acceptable" form, such as hazing. Army leaders have to be knowledgeable of and on guard against this natural tendency and not minimize it, writing it off as, or justifying it as, discipline, toughness, or some other thing not daring to name it for what it is, which is what happens all too often. Such abuses happen primarily at the lower levels, at the young levels of leadership, though we are all too familiar with the abuses of more senior and notorious "toxic leaders" of the past.

Click here to view a PDF of the entire essay. 


The Best Defense

Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: Yes, Dogs Really Do Get PTSD. So What Do We Do About It?

                                                                               See the complete War Dogs slide show here. 

By Rebecca Frankel

Best Defense perceiver of the divine in the canine

We've said it here before but we'll say it again: Yes. Military working dogs deployed to combat zones can become afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), just like their human handlers. And some, according to a new, buzz-worthy NY Times article, "After Duty, Dogs Suffer Like Soldiers," are even being treated in the same way as humans -- with Xanax. 

Over the last year or so the military has made a big push to up its numbers of handler-dog teams on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, the more dogs that go to war, the more dogs there are who are likely to suffer the traumas of combat. According to the article: "By some estimates, more than 5 percent of the approximately 650 military dogs deployed by American combat forces are developing canine PTSD. Of those, about half are likely to be retired from service, Dr. Burghardt [chief of behavioral medicine at Lackland's MWD hospital] said."  

While the article points out early on that "the concept of canine PTSD is only about 18 months old, and still being debated," canine PTSD is nothing new. It's been around as long as dogs have been fighting alongside soldiers. But what I think is actually noteworthy here is that the term has as the article says, recently "gained vogue among military veterinarians." Maybe now canine PTSD will get the attention and resources it deserves.

As handlers have told me, sometimes there's just no way to know how a dog will handle the stress of an actual firefight -- even if they tolerated the noise of a ammunition on a training facility back on base, doesn't mean they'll handle it the same once deployed. And some dogs -- remember Gunner? -- don't even make it through the earliest stages of that transition to combat zone. 

There has been headway in rehabilitating canines showing symptoms of PTSD, even with those dogs who are almost completely debilitated by their fear of sudden noises, strangers, or the dark. But these methods vary in time and intensity, availability of resources, and degrees of success. As more dogs are put into service, the problem is likely to rise and the military will have to adapt to keep up the number of active, high-performing dogs on the ground.

So how do we solve a problem like MWD PTSD?

One Army veterinarian commented on a MWD Facebook forum in response to the NY Times article, the answer is not to wait and depends first and foremost on vigilance of the handler who, upon seeing and signs of stress or trauma, must immediately alert a veterinarian so that the appropriate meds and therapy can be applied as soon as possible.

"Remember," she writes, "It takes a TEAM to combat cPTSD!"

In other War Dog news: Peg, a stray adopted by the family of a fallen parachutist, Pte. Conrad Lewis, is finally out of quarantine and is going home, for real this time. And Gracie, a dog rescued from Afghanistan by U.S. soldiers needs a home. She lost a leg and part of both ears to neglect but makes up for it in spades with her loving disposition. Any takers?