Special Journey to Our Bottom Line

On hazing and counterinsurgency

Adam Ekberg, Extinguishing a Small Fire. 2014. Courtesy of Adam Ekberg and ClampArt, New York.

In 1983, the University of Pennsylvania instructor Peggy Reeves Sanday learned that one of her students had been gang-raped at a frat party. The student had been drunk and on LSD at the time. Sanday, an anthropologist and anti-rape activist, had already done a cross-cultural study of sexual assault. She decided that her next scholarly endeavor on this topic would focus on a single culture—that of fraternity brothers at Penn. Her book Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus (published in 1990, with a second edition following in 2007) synthesizes the results of this investigation with data about sexual assault in colleges across the United States.

Today, Fraternity Gang Rape remains an unsurpassed frat-guy ethnography. It’s also a truly shocking book, thanks to Penn’s very candid fraternity brothers, many of whom spoke at length to student interviewers trained by Sanday. In addition to calling the author’s raped student “an ignorant slut” and campus feminists “rug-munching dykes,” the guys say things like “no is meaningless” and “She was responsible for her condition, and that just leaves her wide open . . . so to speak.” Even more disturbing are those passages in which the men expound upon their worldview. “One of the few barriers left in this society is sexual barriers,” says one. “It’s cutting down [sic]. When you can strip somebody down, and get everything possible out of them, whether it’s sexual, sexual parts, sexual this and that, and just say, that’s where you are.” This has the ring of genuine sadism. Another interviewee defines a “nerdy” guy as someone who will not “allow any sexual needs to invade someone else’s rights.” My needs matter, your rights don’t: this, too, is a sentiment Sade would find relatable.

But if the Sadean libertine is individualism’s sociopathic limit case, Sanday’s frat guys make clear that for them, libertinage is a group activity, and morality begins and ends with esprit de corps. One says: “Real individuality, and the arguments that go with it, never looked as attractive as the shared, seemingly revolutionary creed that we could all champion as a group, supporting each other as we inflicted our rowdy common self on the world and its stuffy sensibilities.” Another passionately fleshes out this vision:

Everyone and everything was open to ridicule, all people and all standards became vulnerable, because we had powerfully felt our own vulnerability [in initiation hazing]. . . . We knew how insignificant people can feel when they are really up against the wall. . . . We had staggered through hell, and came out to look at the world with the jaded, contemptuous eyes of the combat veteran. Our initiation experiences . . . gave us a secret weapon and invisible armor. It made us special, and it united us against the world. . . . We were privileged not only economically but in our souls as well. Whenever we chose we could bring yet another into the circle, mold and manipulate him as we retraced our steps and took him on the special journey to our bottom line.

We had staggered through hell, and came out to look at the world with the jaded, contemptuous eyes of the combat veteran. Some people might think it’s hyperbolic to describe a frat initiation as a hell akin to combat. Those people don’t know much about frat initiations. While stories of brutal and sadistic initiation hazing regularly make the news, usually because a pledge has died, the coverage of these tragedies tends to suggest that the brutality and sadism are aberrations, excesses, instances of boyish roughhousing spinning out of control. In fact, brutality and sadism are perfectly normal in fraternity initiations and always have been.

One of the things that makes Fraternity Gang Rape valuable is Sanday’s persuasive case that the significance of frat initiations is underappreciated, that these violent rituals are absolutely foundational to fraternity culture, that they are not merely mettle-testing bonding exercises but something more profound: a “radical resocialization.” Supporting such a claim requires demonstrating the genuinely radical nature of initiations, the extent to which the experience warrants the language of extremity (“really up against the wall,” “bottom line”). And this, in turn, requires documenting initiations from start to finish, in blow-by-blow detail—something that media accounts, however graphic, almost never do.

Sanday’s interviewers persuaded two informants to break omertà and describe their initiations with highly unusual thoroughness. Here’s what happens in the first initiation. A group of pledges arrive at a frat house, where they’re “hosed down with buckets of red, sticky liquid” and told to put on diapers. Hours of cleaning and push-ups ensue. Then the fraternity brothers, chanting “Shit, shit, shit,” force the exhausted pledges to drink milk and eat baby food. The pledges are herded into a bathroom and doused with “buckets of feces mixed with water.” All except two start throwing up; these two are forced to drink milk with hydrogen peroxide in it until they vomit too. The brothers make the pledges lie down in the shit and barf, then tell them to clean up the mess. The pledges obey, vomiting copiously all the while. “You’ll never become men, so you must die!” yells a brother once the bathroom is clean. The pledges are bound and gagged; hot candle wax is dripped on their backs; they are forced into caskets, which are lowered into holes in the floor. As the pledges scream and pound on the caskets, the brothers chant, “Die, pussies, die.” After half an hour, the pledges are let out of the caskets—some have urinated on themselves—and are sent to the showers to clean up. They put on black robes, and a white-robed brother gives a speech: “By force we removed the woman in you. We killed it and buried it. Now you must be willing to kill the man in you to show your loyalty. Turn around, then, and prove yourselves.”

Turning, the pledges find themselves looking at an elevated platform, above which a row of nooses are hanging from a pipe. They climb onto the platform. Pillowcases are placed over their heads, and the nooses are put around their necks while music blasts at earsplitting volume. The platform is tipped, the unsecured nooses give way, and the pledges fall to the ground. After that, they are officially welcomed into the fraternity.

The second initiation differs in many particulars—these pledges are hit with wooden paddles, submerged in ice-filled tubs, and made to drink a rotted-squid beverage; the frat brothers brandish red-hot pokers and threaten to burn the pledges’ genitals, blindfold them and apply Bengay to their scrota. However, like the first initiation, the second has a quality of rambling, episodic interminability that is sadistic in itself, not merely in the sense of prolonging suffering (though we are talking about a time span of many hours in both cases), but in the sense of establishing in the pledge’s mind a suspicion that this truly will never stop, that things of a totally unpredictable yet unvaryingly horrific nature will just keep on happening. There is also a set of common elements, a shared vocabulary: exhausting labor or exercise; emetics; human waste and ejecta; freezing or burning; confinement and/or immobilization; insults that emphasize effeminacy; and surprisingly hard-core, really quite serious mindfucking.

These are the basic conventions of fraternity initiations, at once flexible and durable, manifesting in various permutations down the decades. Similar abuses are well documented in the first major national hazing scandal, which occurred a hundred and twenty years ago. In 1898, a West Point plebe by the name of Oscar Booz was subjected to merciless hazing that included beatings, forced consumption of Tabasco sauce, and the same hot-wax treatment Sanday found at Penn some eighty years later. Booz died of tuberculosis in 1900, insisting to the end that excessive Tabasco had brought on the disease—a claim startling enough to prompt a congressional investigation. A House select committee began taking testimony and quickly discovered that hazing at West Point was, to put it mildly, out of control. Plebes (first-year students, also known as fourth-class men) were subject to dozens of distinct abuses with names like eagling, chou-chouing, and wooden willying. In addition to Tabasco, they were forced to ingest soap and quinine; they were made to do headstands in tubs of water, to exercise until they vomited, to stand at attention until they passed out, and so on.

To delve into the recent annals of fraternity hazing is to contemplate an unending and ultimately monotonous parade of diaper-clad, puke-besmirched bros.

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Occasionally the exhausted plebes went into convulsions, which was always cause for concern. When a young man named Kensel had a seizure after too much exercise, the older cadet who was responsible “was so frightened,” said a witness, that “he choked him in order to keep him still.” (The witness did not say what happened next, but Kensel apparently survived.) At the heart of this regime was a gladiatorial spectacle: plebes were compelled to participate in bare-knuckle boxing matches against older, stronger opponents.

Having assessed the situation, the committee members, in their 1901 report, observed that “something at the Academy has benumbed the consciences of most of these otherwise creditable young men.” It does not seem to have occurred to them that that something was hazing itself.

And while none of the beating, hot-sauce drinking, or candle play took place in the context of an initiation ceremony, there was a fraternity connection. This is documented in a 1902 edition of the Record of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, SAE’s then quarterly compendium of news and alumni musings.

A Brother Cadet Who Led His Class
By Henry Sydnor Harrison

Fifty-four young men graduated from the United States Military Academy . . . out of a class which had numbered one hundred and twelve as plebes. At the head of this class . . . was William Augustus Mitchell, who was initiated into Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute in 1895. The class of 1902, West Point, was a noteworthy one in many respects. It was, among other things, the class of Oscar Booz, the unfortunate young cadet whose fate stirred up such a hornet’s nest of investigation not long ago. This class was perhaps the most ardent exponent of the practice of hazing that ever entered West Point . . . and for this cause many cadets were . . . dropped from its rolls. It was also, however, a class that ably supported the West Point traditions and the West Point honor. . . . It may be stated without undue vaunting, what was very generally admitted at the Academy, that the policy and line of action of this class was, during not the least creditable part of its history, controlled and directed by Cadet Brother W. A. Mitchell.

While the author’s somersaulting negatives are a bit dizzying, Harrison apparently seeks to assure us that Mitchell, though universally acknowledged as leader of his class, was not the ringleader of all that ardent hazing. This smacks of special pleading. In the accompanying photograph, young Mitchell proves a handsome fellow of considerable bulk and martial bearing. He does not look like the kind of leader who would permit a years-long orgy of chou-chouing and wooden willying to transpire without his approval.

Hazing in the broad sense—an ordeal preceding acceptance into a group—is of course an ancient and general practice. But fraternity initiations are not ancient and general. Like the WASPs who invented them, they might seem like a generic default but aren’t. They belong to a specific hazing tradition, with its own history (rooted in the much older British-public-school practice of “fagging”), its own stylistic traits (zany burlesques of military drills, a thick layer of Masonic kitsch), and its own set of abusive tactics. This tradition would appear to have coevolved in frat initiations and in the baiting of first-year military-academy students, with cadet brothers like Mitchell—i.e., young men affiliated with both a military school and a frat, of whom there were many—presumably transmitting innovations back and forth.

While the existence of hazing in institutions of higher learning had been well known long before the American public heard about the travails of poor Booz, the West Point scandal marked the first time these practices were publicized across the country, in comprehensive detail. A Naval Academy hazing scandal followed soon after. Over the ensuing decades, hazing was, you might say, normalized. Newspapers in the interwar era were full of stories of fraternity “hell week,” but these tended to be indulgent in tone, conveying the impression that everything was all in good fun. An anonymous article published on March 12, 1939, in the Arizona Republic was a rare exception.

College and fraternity authorities have outlawed Hell Week, but it still flourishes pretty generally in colleges most everywhere. . . . During Hell Week just about anything goes. The bludgeons swing hard and painfully. You haven’t felt anything until you’ve felt a paddle with a well-trained fraternity 200-pounder behind it.

The author reports that blindfolded pledges are told to stand in front of “a lot of broken glass” and “ordered to jump. . . . The glass is actually removed, but that doesn’t help your nerves.” Mention is made of emetics (“your kindly mentors will usually take care of any ills by feeding you castor oil”), subjection to freezing temperatures (“you take your bath amid chunks of ice”), and cage matches in which pledges pummel each other with rolled-up magazines wrapped in tape.

When I sought to chart the continuity of this hazing tradition in the years since Sanday discovered such practices as paddling, ice baths, and forced puking still flourishing at Penn, I found nothing to suggest that the proliferation of antihazing laws has had much of an effect. What I found was consistency with variation—the hallmark of a thriving culture. Sometimes these variations are genuinely outré (“A Kappa Alpha member killed a deer, saved the intestines, and made [pledges] ‘run and slide through all of this’ before wrestling in it”). Still, even with such occasional frissons, to delve into the recent annals of fraternity hazing is to contemplate an unending and ultimately monotonous parade of diaper-clad, puke-besmirched bros. And so, while I wish to provide evidence of the persistence of initiation conventions, I have put the bulk of this documentation into a footnote for readers to peruse or not, in accordance with individual preference and abjection thresholds.1

Justin Stuart, who in 2012 pledged the SAE chapter at Salisbury University in Maryland, told Bloomberg News that his experience “honestly reminded me of Guantánamo Bay. It was almost like torture.” SAE members—the latter-day brothers of West Point’s William Augustus Mitchell—had “forced pledges to drink until they almost passed out and dressed them in women’s clothing and diapers” and “confined recruits for as long as nine hours in a dark basement without food, water or a bathroom, while blasting the same German rock song at ear-splitting volume.”

This is not almost like torture—this is torture. The anonymous author of the 1939 hazing exposé felt no need to temporize in this regard: “The ancients devised no more effective tortures than the men who think up Hell Week activities.” That’s what fraternity hazing is: a very highly developed, very vibrant tradition of torture born at the heart of the old patrician power structure.

Frats themselves have recognized that hazing is torture. At the thirty-sixth annual meeting of the National Interfraternity Conference, representatives unanimously passed a resolution declaring that “all forms of hazing involving mental or physical torture are a menace to the welfare of educational institutions.” That was in 1944. National interfraternity organizations no longer throw the T-word around. But they are undoubtedly aware that the customs publicly recognized as torture by sixty fraternities more than seventy years ago, and solemnly banned many times since, have in fact continued unabated.

Rumblings about the CIA’s “harsh interrogation tactics” began in 2003, and the following year the Abu Ghraib scandal exposed parallel crimes committed under the aegis of the Department of Defense. It did not take long for observers to begin drawing comparisons between frat hazing and the federal government’s forays into organized sadism. In 2005, a California superior court judge told Chi Tau brothers from California State University, Chico that “U.S. soldiers were charged with torturing Iraqi prisoners for doing far less than what happened in that basement.” The men had already been charged with manslaughter because of what happened in that basement: a pledge had been forced to drink water while performing calisthenics in a freezing-cold room (the CIA term for this was the “cold cell” treatment; in the context of the Trump Administration’s detention of people whose crime is seeking asylum in the United States, the term is “the icebox”) until he died of water intoxication.

In 2016, Eric Trump said that “waterboarding is no different to [sic] hazing.” Like his father, Eric has the moral intellect of a tapeworm, and so he intended his remark as a defense of waterboarding, not as an indictment of hazing. But his basic point was sound. It should be noted that of the twelve enhanced interrogation techniques that the CIA asked the Department of Justice to approve in early 2002, the only one deemed too extreme to green-light, mock burial, has long been a recurrent feature of frat initiations. The earliest example I find is in the Sigma Chi Quarterly, 1886: “The neophyte was blindfolded and placed in a coffin. . . . The coffin was then lowered a few feet, which seemed a hundred to the inmate bereft of his senses through fright and terror.”

There are obviously some important ethical distinctions between frat initiations and the enhanced interrogation program. For instance, a pledge is free to leave at any time, unless he’s trapped in a coffin or locked in a basement with Nargaroth blasting at 130 decibels, and provided he doesn’t mind being branded a pussy for all eternity. So, yes, some important ethical distinctions, but also some important ethical similarities. What is happening, in initiation as in interrogation, is that a person is being stripped down, rendered utterly abject. “The systematic destruction of a person is what we’re talking about,” said a University of Washington administrator in 2000, in reference to Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges being beaten with tape-wrapped newspapers, deprived of food and sleep, blindfolded, and forced to stick their heads in toilets. One of Sanday’s informants said that by the end of his initiation, he was nothing more than “a whimpering, blindfolded form whose every feeling was completely under the control of the brothers.” This is a perfect description of the condition to which CIA interrogators hoped to reduce detainees—“learned helplessness,” as it was fondly called by James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the consultants who designed the program.

Sexual assault is helpful in inducing learned helplessness, which is why the enhanced interrogation program came to include rape, a.k.a. “rectal exams conducted with ‘excessive force.’” I’m not sure what you call putting Bengay on somebody’s scrotum, but if you were convicted of doing it in my state, you would go to jail as a sex offender. Mortal terror is also helpful and is clearly intended to be part of frat initiations, which are designed so that it becomes progressively easier to inflict such terror. By the time the pledges were subjected to the feigned hanging described in Sanday’s book, for example, they might not have been thinking clearly enough to understand that their tormentors were not really about to commit mass murder.

With their obsessive reveling in vomit, blood, shit, and piss and their not-especially-latent sadomasochistic eroticism, frat initiations are certainly transgressive. But of course, transgression and subversion are not the same thing. CIA interrogators ostensibly induced learned helplessness in order to gather intelligence. Fraternities do it, per Sanday, as a means of radical resocialization. While it seems unlikely that even the most brutal initiation could transform a decent, empathetic person into a paragon of toxic masculinity, it’s not at all hard to believe that such a bizarre and traumatic experience could anneal whatever bigotries and authoritarian tendencies already exist in a pledge’s character. “The overwhelming conclusion,” Sanday argues, “must be that these rituals re-produce an abusive social order.”


In 1898, the year Oscar Booz entered West Point, bare-knuckle boxing was illegal in all states. It is a messy sport. During the House committee’s investigation, one young man acknowledged that towels “covered in blood” were deposited in the school laundry after each match, but reassured the committee that “we do not require more than half a dozen” towels per fight.

The Iowa Republican Walter I. Smith asked, “And there is no complaint made about that?”

“I have never heard of any complaint made.”

Smith was fishing for evidence of something that was obvious but hard to prove: the people running West Point were allowing hazing to continue, even though it was against the rules of the academy. The cadets would not corroborate this. They forthrightly admitted to specific infractions but grew cagey when it came to generalities about the prevalence of hazing at the school. One notable exception was Cadet Lewis Brown Jr., class of 1901, who had an unusually blunt exchange with Smith.

It began when Cadet Brown stated that hazing was a necessary part of the West Point experience, because it humbled conceited plebes. Specifically, he said that provincial young men tended to arrive on campus puffed up with a rube’s self-confidence and needed to be taken down a peg by their cosmopolitan peers.

This did not go over well with the congressman from Council Bluffs. “Where did you derive your right, sir,” Smith asked, “to override the rules and regulations made for the government of the Academy, except from your assumption?”

“I derive my right to do what hazing I do from custom.”

“From custom?”

“Yes, sir.”

“An unlawful and illegal custom forbidden by the rules of this Academy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you . . . do not think you are impudent, or arrogant, or conceited, or need anything to redress that trouble?”

“I don’t wish to say anything about my own characteristics. . . . I do not think it is impudent or arrogant in a good many cases to break regulations.”

“You do not?”

“No, sir.”

“I presume, then, that if you should become an officer in the United States Army, that you would still deem it your privilege to override the laws of your country when you might think your wisdom greater than that of the law-making power?”

“I may have a great many different views then, and may be guided by those who have had more experience than I have.”

“But you decline to be guided by your superiors now in these matters . . . ?”

“If breaking regulations is declining to submit to the orders of my superiors, I would have to admit so, because I do break regulations.”

“And willfully break them?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And still you think the fourth-class men are conceited and need to be corrected?”

“I don’t see how that has anything to do with the regulations.”

“Well, if you cannot see it, that is all.”

With that, Brown was excused, having left posterity a valuable glimpse of the West Point code. But the lesson flew right by Smith, who was operating under the common assumption that America’s future army officers were taught strict adherence to rules and discipline. This assumption was wrong.

The limits of imagination truly were the only meaningful constraint on American officers charged with executing the violent labor of colonial conquest.

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As you’d expect, the curriculum at West Point circa the turn of the last century was geared toward preparing cadets for the types of wars that the United States military actually fought. We tend to think of Vietnam as marking the United States’ first major foray into so-called unconventional warfare, but in the broad sweep of American history, unconventional warfare is thoroughly conventional. A number of military historians have proposed a gestalt shift in our view of the longue durée of American carnage: a foregrounding of what used to be called petite guerre (asymmetrical, “irregular” warfare), particularly in the context of the centuries-long series of frontier conflicts known as the Indian Wars. As John Grenier argues in his 2005 study The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607–1814, “Early Americans created a military tradition that accepted, legitimized, and encouraged attacks upon and the destruction of noncombatants, villages, and agricultural resources. Most often, early Americans used the tactics and techniques of petite guerre in shockingly violent campaigns to achieve their goals of conquest.” In other words, the small wars added up to one big war of extermination. To center the Indian Wars in our military history is to center genocide in our national history.

And so, where history should be, there is instead myth. In a trilogy of books published between 1973 and 1992, Richard Slotkin scoured pop culture and political discourse from Puritan captivity narratives to The Wild Bunch to document the crucial and insidious role of what he calls the “frontier myth” in American ideology and self-perception. “At the core” of the frontier myth, writes Slotkin in Gunfighter Nation, the trilogy’s final installment, “is the symbol of ‘savage war.’” He chillingly illustrates the processes by which Americans convinced themselves that the Indian Wars were existential conflicts in which atrocity was necessary for national survival—a conviction that helped to defuse class tensions by uniting Euro-Americans against a “savage” enemy. In an influential literary genre he calls “virilist realism” (cf. Frank Norris, Jack London), Slotkin shows that the white combatants in savage war were portrayed less as disciplined soldiers than autonomous warriors, knights errant. The proverbial “Indian fighter” belonged to an “aristocracy of violence” that transcended class.

When it came to the prosecution of small wars, West Point at the turn of the last century trained its cadets to be aristocrats of violence. The US military did not publish an official manual on unconventional warfare until 1940; however, notes Andrew Birtle in his 1998 survey U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine, 1860–1941, “the absence of a formal, written doctrine . . . does not mean that American soldiers did not develop concepts and theories” of unconventional warfare, “some of which became enduring principles.” A chief architect of these concepts and theories was Dennis Hart Mahan, who taught at West Point from 1830 until 1871. Mahan began teaching “small wars” tactics in 1835, eschewing rote memorization and encouraging his students to embrace “the essential irregularity of irregular warfare” (as Birtle puts it). At some point, Mahan decided to distill the army’s collective knowledge of small wars as gleaned from various historical sources and soldiers’ unwritten lore. The result was 1847’s An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-Guard, Out-Post, and Detachment Service of Troops. Out-Post, as it was known, was indispensable to several generations of soldiers—“de facto doctrine,” said the army major Conrad Harvey in a 2007 paper. “By authorizing the use of Mahan’s text and teaching plans, the Army adopted his methods of warfare,” despite “the lack of a formal, structured doctrine manual on counterinsurgency and fighting Native Americans.”

Out-Post emphasizes agility, flexibility, and cunning—small units, intelligence gathering, skirmishes, ambushes, raids. Mahan stresses, however, that the book is not to be taken as an instruction manual, because this type of warfare can’t really be taught: “To trace anything more than a mere outline, as a guide in operations of this kind, which depend upon so many fortuitous circumstances, would serve but little useful purpose.” He closes with these words: “An active, intelligent officer, with an imagination fertile in the expedients of his profession, will seldom be at a loss as to his best course when the occasion offers; to one without these qualities, opportunities present themselves in vain.” That is, if you can’t think on your feet and outside the box, you’re useless.

According to Birtle, Mahan believed that “only by striking at the foundations of Indian society could the Army compel its elusive opponents either to capitulate or to stand and fight.” To ensure that they didn’t get too carried away in striking at the foundations of Indian society, cadets were required to take the “chaplain’s course,” where they learned to make war like Christian gentlemen. Here the principal text was the Swiss philosopher Emer de Vattel’s The Law of Nations, from 1758, which contains an early theorization of just war. Vattel offers many humane proposals, urging decent treatment of civilians, arguing against cycles of reprisal, and so on. However, these precepts only pertain to “legitimate and formal” wars, i.e., conflicts between recognized sovereign powers.

As far as the application of Vattel’s ethics in wars against “savage” enemies, Birtle sums up as follows. On the one hand, “West Point encouraged the nation’s young officers to respect the civil rights of aboriginal peoples and to treat native prisoners well”—note that the word is encouraged—while on the other hand, “the destruction of property and food supplies, the imposition of communal punishments, and the execution of particularly incorrigible individuals were all acceptable . . . if such measures were compelled by military necessity.” He calls this the “dual approach.”

In light of the dual approach, the sinister implications of Mahan’s parting aphorism are all too clear. The limits of imagination truly were the only meaningful constraint on American officers charged with executing the violent labor of colonial conquest. There were no ethical constraints whatsoever, since military necessity could justify any atrocity against a “savage” enemy, and officers were trusted to define military necessity however they saw fit.

This is the ethos that Cadet Brown was defending. If breaking regulations is declining to submit to the orders of my superiors, I would have to admit so, because I do break regulations. Brown understood that breaking regulations is not the same thing as declining to submit to the orders of one’s superiors. Orders are one-off directives legitimized by the authority of the man who gives them, not because he is a man (though this is a prerequisite) but because he is a fellow officer. Rules and regs are fungible abstractions—mere outlines. When circumstance demanded it, officers could make their own rules, asserting a prerogative that might be justified via superficially reasonable logic (necessity), but that in reality was backstopped not by logic but by the arbitrary self-justification of privilege.

When Brown said that “custom” gave him the right to haze, he was referring to everything that everyone at West Point understood, but that no one had ever written down—for instance, that when your superiors conspicuously fail to question the source of the blood that soaks the towels you’ve used in your illegal boxing matches, their silence is itself a message. Hazing was officially disavowed. It was also crucial to the academy’s curriculum. Mahan schooled his pupils in the theory of small wars, but no instructor could school them in its praxis, because its praxis is about doing what you’re not instructed to do. Familiarizing themselves with a repertoire of illicit cruelties, cadets desensitized themselves to violence while absorbing certain lessons about the kind of power they were being taught to wield and its negotiable relationship to law. The very fact that hazing was prohibited was the core of its tacit pedagogy.


Now they look at me: “Mr. Trump, how do you feel about waterboarding?” They think I’m gonna say, “Oh, it’s a terrible thing.” . . . In fact it’s supposed to be—you know the big question is, is it torture or not? In other words, it’s so borderline, it’s like your minimal, minimal, minimal torture.

So said Trump in one of his most repugnant speeches ever, delivered on February 19, 2016, in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s the one where he blathered about ISIS beheading people, enthused about torture, and then caused a mini scandal by repeating this old wing-nut fantasy about John J. Pershing executing Muslim insurgents:

General Pershing was a rough guy. And he sits on his horse, and he’s very astute, like a ramrod, right? . . . And he caught fifty terrorists. . . . He took fifty bullets, and he dipped them in pig’s blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the fifty people, and they shot forty-nine of those people.

Though Pershing has been lionized for leading US forces in World War I, he initially made a name for himself during America’s long, dirty, forgotten colonial war in the southern Philippines. This conflict was so dirty that it was expunged from national memory almost as soon as it was over. When was the last time you saw a Moro War memorial? And yet, with the exception of our never-ending story in Afghanistan, the Moro War is the longest military conflict in American history, lasting from 1899 to 1913. A number of graduates of the West Point class of 1902, including William Augustus Mitchell, wound up serving in this lengthy war.

If the southern Philippines has not exactly been a graveyard of empires, the region has not occasioned much imperialist rejoicing either. When the Spanish ceded the archipelago to the United States in 1898, the Moro people—the name is an umbrella term for a number of indigenous groups, all of whom practice Islam—had been resisting colonial occupation for centuries, and they had no intention of laying down their arms. They were adept at guerrilla warfare, and Pershing proved adept at finding and killing guerrillas. In 1903, after “pacifying” a particularly obstreperous group known as the Lake Lanao Moro, he left the Philippines, returning six years later to serve as military governor of the whole of the occupied Moro territory. He was apparently fairly enlightened as colonial military governors go. This is not a high bar, but Pershing made serious efforts to negotiate political settlements with Moro leaders and endeavored to learn about their culture. He did not preside over a mass execution like the one Trump described. No such incident ever took place.

Nevertheless, the journalists fact-checking the Charleston speech went too far in exonerating the revered commander. They accurately reported that the firing-squad lie was rooted in an ugly truth: American soldiers in the Philippines desecrated the corpses of suicide warriors, called juramentados, by burying them with the carcasses of hogs. But they either ignored the question of whether Pershing knew about these burials or said there was no evidence that he did. Yet in his memoirs (which are in print and searchable online), Pershing wrote of his time as military governor:

These juramentado attacks were materially reduced in number by a practice the army had already adopted, one that Muhammadans held in abhorrence. The bodies were publicly buried in the same grave with a dead pig. It was not pleasant to have to take such measures, but the prospect of going to hell instead of heaven sometimes deterred the would-be assassins.

Presumably the fact-checkers failed to find this quote because they were quite reasonably triaging in the face of candidate Trump’s blitzkrieg attack on truth. In any case, a PolitiFact reader sent it to the site’s editors, who posted it in an update ten days after the speech. By then no one was paying attention.

Sometimes people forget history and are thereby doomed to repeat it. Sometimes people forget history so that they can repeat it.

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When Trump tweeted about the firing-squad myth in August 2017, the whole thing was rehashed. This time some of the reporting acknowledged that Pershing had known about the burials, but the coverage was overwhelmingly exculpatory, emphasizing the great man’s pioneering hearts-and-minds approach to pacification. In the Washington Post, Alex Horton said, “It was a people-centric strategy adopted a century later in Iraq and Afghanistan.” This was meant as a compliment.

In fact, Pershing’s Philippines career was that of a skilled counterinsurgent but not an especially innovative one. Both as a military governor and, earlier, as a captain in the field, he was no doubt happy to negotiate and to avoid violence if he could achieve his objectives without it. But he also dispensed the havoc and death that military necessity required, leading attacks on forts called cottas although he knew that civilians, including children, traditionally sheltered in them. He didn’t prioritize diplomacy over violence. He used them both as he deemed necessary, and he respected his subordinate officers’ prerogative to do the same. This is evident in his attitude toward the blasphemous burials. Given that he was the head of the chain of command, his choice to do nothing about the ongoing desecration of enemy dead was not a passive posture. It was permission and facilitation. Accounts of the burials make clear that they were obscene and horrifying spectacles that local civilians were forced to witness. Supposedly carried out in order to deter future suicide attacks, they were really reprisals against the entire populace—communal punishments.

Though it was formulated in the continental United States, the unwritten doctrine of small wars was easily exported to foreign climes. As Slotkin puts it, paraphrasing the influential rhetoric of Teddy Roosevelt, “overseas imperialism” was “the necessary continuation of the ‘Winning of the West,’” a “metaphoric extension of Frontier categories to a new situation in which Asians become figurative Apaches and the Philippines become a symbolic equivalent of Boone’s Kentucky or Houston’s Texas.” On some level Pershing must have recognized that whoever had come up with this diabolical method of weaponizing the Moro combatants’ religious beliefs was displaying just the kind of creativity that Out-Post encouraged. The tactic was perfectly in sync with the lessons he’d learned when he himself was a West Point cadet.

Pershing’s biographer Frank Vandiver says that when Pershing was an upperclassman, he “invented an almost foolproof method of hazing,” which involved forcing plebes to do a strenuous form of jumping jacks. The “beauty of the maneuver,” and what made it almost foolproof, “lay in the swift conversion to simple squad drill”—which is to say, it was easy to avoid getting caught. Pershing graduated in 1886 and returned to the school in 1897 to spend a few months as a tactical officer, or “tac”—an instructor. He was “one of the most feared and disliked tacs,” says historian Geoffrey Perret. “It was too much to expect someone like Pershing to do anything to discourage hazing, even though it was a clear violation of the academy’s own regulations.”

Pershing believed that hazing was important, that it helped to forge the kind of officers who could maintain and expand the American imperium. He once said, “I hope the day will never come when hazing is abolished.” He would be glad to know it never did.


Sometimes people forget history and are thereby doomed to repeat it. Sometimes people forget history so that they can repeat it.

The May 22, 1902, issue of Life magazine featured a cover illustration that would mystify most people today. The image shows a wide-eyed man lying on his back on the ground with a funnel in his mouth. An American soldier sits on his chest, steadying the funnel with one hand and pointing a pistol at the man’s face with the other. A second soldier pours water into the funnel while an officer stands nearby, looking relaxed and rather suave, cigarette in hand.

Whisperings of hideous goings-on in the Philippines had started filtering back to the States almost as soon as American soldiers had landed there. Though reluctant to give ground to the milquetoasts of the Anti-Imperialist League, Henry Cabot Lodge, chair of the Senate’s Philippines Committee, had grudgingly commenced an investigation. Filipino and American witnesses offered one appalling testimonial after another, the overall takeaway being that US troops in the Philippines were committing every conceivable war crime.

The interrogation technique depicted on the cover of Life had become a particular focus of public outrage. It was in wide use. There was even a marching song about it: “Keep the piston going boys and let the banner wave / The banner that floats proudly o’er the noble and the brave / Keep on till the squirt gun breaks or he explodes, the slave / Shouting the battle cry of freedom . . .” In keeping with the sardonic spirit of the song (reprinted in its disturbing entirety in Christopher J. Einolf’s 2014 history America in the Philippines, 1899–1902: The First Torture Scandal), the technique was called “the water cure.”

Frat guys understand that hazing is against the rules, but they also understand that the minimal and haphazard enforcement of those rules is a message of permission and facilitation.

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There were two wars going on in the Philippines at this point: the Moro War in the south and, in the north, the slightly less obscure Philippine-American War (1899 to 1902), which pitted US troops and Filipino auxiliaries, known as Macabebes, against the army of the revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo. The water cure was associated with the northern conflict. A suspected insurgent or sympathizer would be held under a pump or faucet; if no source of running water was handy, a funnel was used. A stick would be placed in the victim’s mouth to hold it open, and water would be pumped down his throat. (The water cure was sometimes administered to male children, but rarely to women.) When his stomach was fully distended with water, his abdomen would be punched or stomped until the liquid came bursting out of his nose and mouth. In addition to inducing a terrifying sensation of drowning, the process was excruciatingly painful. It could also cause fatal internal injury.

On the evening of May 22, 1902, a crowd of Bostonians, some perhaps toting copies of the new issue of Life, converged at the city’s Tremont Temple to protest the atrocities in the Philippines. The Unitarian reverend Frank O. Hall delivered a fiery speech, inveighing against the many depravities of which American soldiers had been credibly accused, but growing especially impassioned on the subject of the water cure.

“There is no doubt that under the American flag has been carried on a campaign of torture,” he said. “Where did our soldiers learn such methods of warfare? . . . To be sure, the investigation of hazing at West Point, still fresh in our memory, brought out the fact that our officers are trained as boys to torture each other. . . . But even in that institution officers are not taught the water cure. Where, then, did they learn it?”

He then answered his own question: “From the Macabebes.” A consensus had already emerged that these Filipino soldiers had introduced the vile practice to American boys. The same origin story is accepted by contemporary historians: in Honor in the Dust, his harrowing 2012 chronicle of the United States’ Philippines adventure, Gregg Jones says that “Filipino collaborators had taught Americans the technique.” And where had the collaborators learned it? “Its origins resided in Spain. The ‘strangling torments’ of torture by water had been perfected during the Spanish Inquisition.”

The reverend seemed confident about this etiology, confident that even at West Point officers were not taught the water cure. But he might have been wrong.

During the hazing hearings, the indefatigable Walter I. Smith had asked a cadet named Birchie Mahaffey, “Did you ever hear of any cadet or cadets being tied and placed under a faucet or water spout?”

“No, sir,” said Mahaffey.

“You never heard of that at all?”

“Yes, sir; I heard of one man being held that way.”

“Who was it you heard was held that way?”

“An officer of the Army told me he helped to hold a man under that way once.”

“That was many years ago?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Has that practice been in vogue in the Academy at all since you have been here?”

“No, sir.”

“So far as you know, I mean, of course.”

“No, sir; it has not.”

How had Smith gotten the idea that tying up cadets and placing them under a faucet or spout might once have been in vogue at the academy? The answer appears to be lost to history. What is certain is that he was not dreaming up random torments to question cadets about. Someone or something had suggested to him that water torture had been part of the school’s hazing repertoire. Mahaffey’s evasions, if that’s what they were, were successful. Smith moved on, and that was that.

In the case of any historically recurring phenomenon, the question of whether you are dealing with inheritance or reinvention may be unanswerable. All you can do is propose the most parsimonious explanation of the facts. There is no reason to believe that the CIA torture known as waterboarding evolved from the water cure used in the Philippines, the similarities between the two tortures notwithstanding. As the sociologist Albert D. Biderman observed in a famous (and widely mischaracterized) 1957 paper, certain torture techniques have been used repeatedly by “police and inquisitors” in disparate cultures across centuries. Simulated drowning is an efficient way to traumatize a person—Abu Zubaydah said that when he was subjected to the “minimal torture” of waterboarding, “I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress”—and so it stands to reason that different groups of sadists would arrive at the technique independently.2

But if in fact West Point plebes in the late 19th century were being tied up and placed under faucets or waterspouts, then in my view the most parsimonious explanation for the origins of the water cure would be that American troops had learned it from their own officers, who’d done it to one another at West Point, and who would later be in charge of deciding when such measures were necessary. The practice that gave rise to the nation’s first, now forgotten scandal over the use of torture as an interrogation technique might have been American, rooted not in Spain or the Philippines but in a homegrown tradition that bears the deceptively innocuous label hazing.


We take a chap right down when he first comes here, right to the bottom. And then we build him up again into what we need. . . . Some people might say it’s a dehumanizing process, and maybe it is. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s the way it has to be if we have to keep this unit up to standard.

These are the words of Ron Reid-Daly, who was a leader of the Selous Scouts, a special operations unit of the Rhodesian Army. The Selous Scouts became notorious during the civil war that ended white-minority rule in what is now Zimbabwe; today, they are much admired by white supremacists. James MacManus, a Guardian correspondent in Harare (then Salisbury) in the 1970s, described the outfit as “a pseudo-terrorist and tracking unit” funded by the government of apartheid South Africa, which, he said, also provided “direct access to the latest counter-insurgency methods.” Under this tutelage, the Scouts grew proficient in search-and-destroy expeditions, false-flag operations, assassinations, and the like. To me, one of the most chilling things about Reid-Daly’s words is the way they echo those of the anonymous frat guy in Sanday’s book. We take a chap right down when he first comes here, right to the bottom. And then we build him up again . . . Whenever we chose we could bring yet another into the circle, mold and manipulate him as we retraced our steps and took him on the special journey to our bottom line.

The instructors of West Point understood that the most effective agents of conquest and enforcers of sovereign rule might be people who themselves are not necessarily bound by the rules. In the figure of the “Indian fighter,” the tension between desperado and good soldier was easily resolved in the service of empire, just as it is resolved today in the pop-culture cliché of the bearded, keffiyeh-sporting special operator. These hyperbolic archetypes are the true ideals of reactionary American masculinity, embodying a dynamic equipoise between transgression and authoritarianism. We should take fraternity hazing seriously as a kind of counterinsurgent practice in its own right, a violent resocialization that better equips young men to wield privilege, put down challenges to existing hierarchies, and police the status quo—which is what is happening whenever a bunch of frat guys decides to commit a rape or a hate crime or to express their “revolutionary creed” via some sort of offensive provocation (“Pick my cotton”; “No means yes, yes means anal”). Such acts constitute participation in the irregular warfare by which privilege has always propagated and defended itself.

The public record on fraternity initiations has long been robust enough to establish that these rituals are antithetical to the professed values of frats themselves and of the schools that host them. Frat guys understand that hazing is against the rules, but they also understand that the minimal and haphazard enforcement of those rules is a message of permission and facilitation. As Michel Foucault put it in the enduringly relevant Discipline and Punish, torture is “not the expression of a legal system driven to exasperation and, forgetting its principles, losing all restraint. In the ‘excesses’ of torture, a whole economy of power is invested.”

Whatever the origins of the torture called the water cure, it aroused the Reverend Hall’s righteous ire. The intensity of his anger is palpable. I wish I could celebrate his oration, but it is grossly racist, describing the Macabebes as “a savage tribe who hate the civilized Tagalogs as the Indians hated the Anglo-Saxon.” Yet toward the end, Hall’s speech became something worthy, if not of celebrating, then at least of remembering. When he arrived at his peroration, the reverend called down a moral vision straight out of the Old Testament, a metaphysics of nationhood even more atavistic than the crudest political nationalism, even more primal, because it rested not on blood or soil but on the uncaused cause that exists prior to either of those things and creates them both. Hall’s American nation is only secondarily a bond of shared ancestry or territory. It is primarily, fundamentally, a bond divinely ordaineda collective destiny, a shared fate.

“There are sixty or seventy thousand young men out yonder at the present time being educated in these methods of torture and extermination, taught by savages, schooled in cruelty and abominations,” he told his audience. “These men are shortly coming back to America with bodies degenerate by unnamable disease and souls degenerate because of the experiences they have been through, accustomed to torture and extermination.” And although the people who’d gathered to hear him that night were Americans of conscience, just as he was, Hall made a point of telling them that they were not exempt from retribution. It didn’t matter who had perpetrated the crimes and who had brought the criminals to justice, who had tortured and exterminated and who had cried out in protest, because this thing was too big and too terrible. It was going to taint everyone, even those yet to be born. “Do you know that the next generation of Americans are to be cursed in body and in soul by what is being done in the Philippine Islands today?” he demanded. “You may have no son there. You may have no son to send. But you may have a daughter who shall marry one of these men corrupt in body and soul. Or you may have a grandchild who shall marry the grandchild of one of these men. Thus shall the curse come home to you,” proclaimed the Reverend Hall. “Sooner or later, as there is a just God in Heaven, it will come home.”

  1. The vast majority of fraternity initiations are never described in the public record, and I do not know what percentage of these still-secret rituals are such kindly and decorous affairs as to not even risk drawing scrutiny. But the similarities across time and space among the initiations that do garner media attention indicate that the tradition of sadistic violence is widespread. A chronological sampling of hazing stories leading more or less to the present day:

    1989: Kappa Epsilon, Penn State. “Passersby gazed in horror last February as a fraternity pledge... wearing only his underwear in near-zero temperatures was hung from a tree by his ankles while his ‘brothers’ threw food, water, and vomit at him” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

    1995: Kappa Alpha, Auburn University. “Fraternity members beat pledges, threw one down a flight of stairs, broke his hand, and dumped a gallon of tobacco spit over another fraternity recruit.... Mr. Jones said that on one occasion he and other recruits were required to dig a ditch... then fill it with water, feces, urine, dinner leftovers and vomit. He said pledges were required to get into the ditch, ‘often in midwinter,’ and wrestle.... He said they were forced to eat... until ‘someone puked’” (Montgomery Advertiser).

    2000: Delta Kappa Epsilon, University of Washington. “A week of hazing... included forced exercise on short food and sleep, being paddled in the shower with Wiffle bats and beaten with rolled-up newspapers wrapped in duct tape.... [Pledges] were made to drink a concoction that included goldfish blended live.... They were made to root through the garbage with their heads, bob for apples in a toilet and spent much of two days blindfolded” (Associated Press).

    2006: Sigma Alpha Epsilon, University of Central Florida. “Police went to the fraternity house Oct. 26 after someone heard screaming, sobbing, and moaning coming from the house.... They found pledges crawling on their hands and knees and wearing items such as diapers, a striped prison uniform and women’s underwear, reports said. Three men, one who was vomiting and having trouble breathing, were taken to a hospital and released” (Associated Press).

    2008: Tau Epsilon Phi, University of Florida. “Police are investigating whether fraternity members forced pledges to do exercises, made them eat laxatives, poured food on them and submerged their body parts in water” (The Ledger).

    2015: Tau Kappa Epsilon, Johnson & Wales University: “A former student... is claiming to be the victim of a fraternity hazing so brutal that he had to be hospitalized for a month and undergo multiple surgeries, including skin grafts and the removal of necrotized flesh” (Daily Beast).

    2017: Pi Alpha Nu, State University of New York at Plattsburgh. “Twenty-one students... have been charged with hazing fraternity pledges by making them drink alcohol, forcing them to eat food off the floor, and vomiting and urinating on them” (NBC New York).

    2018: Sigma Pi, Ohio University. “[Collin] Wiant was made to do laundry for other members, clean and be available at all times of the day or night.... Wiant was also verbally, physically and mentally abused and forced to drink and take drugs.... He was allegedly pelted with eggs.... He was ‘repeatedly punched.’... ‘His body was found surrounded by drug paraphernalia, including canisters of nitrous oxide’” (CNN). 

  2. As for CIA waterboarding’s true etiology: the received origin story of enhanced interrogation techniques is that they all derive from “brainwashing” methods used on American POWs during the Korean War, which were then incorporated, via Biderman’s paper, into the air force’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program and ultimately reverse engineered by Mitchell and Jessen. This oversimplifies the truth to the point of distorting it; however, the complex history of EITs is beyond the scope of this essay. 

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