16.09.2006 | Nelli Fursova

Curbing bullying in the US Military


Chronic bullying[1] of young soldiers by junior commanders and officers is not a serious human rights issue now in the United States Army. My first task was to try to understand when and how the bullying had been eradicated.

Even before segregation was abolished in the country under Truman, people of different races already served in the same military units. At that time, bullying was of a clearly racial nature. Later, when women were admitted into the army, there were many problems with gender inequality. The results of systematic measures to inculcate state policy in the army can be illustrated by two examples: a woman general heads the US Army’s department of legal issues while a training base of the US Navy is headed by a black woman.

After questioning many officers, lawyers and civilians we reached the conclusion that it’s not possible to say that bullying doesn’t occur in the US Army, but it is not a systematic thing. Furthermore special programs are carried out in individual military units and in the army as a whole to prevent bullying.  This was confirmed even by teachers of the School of navy chaplains in New Port, Roy Island.

So how has this come about?  The army lawyers were asked what had prompted the military management to turn their attention to the problem. The reason proved to have a scandal in the media. 

A soldier had videoed the ritual “bloody wings”, where junior officers who’d just received their breast badge had the occasion “marked” by being hit on the chest where the badge with its “wings” was pinned to the clothes. Obviously there was a lot of blood, with the skin and tissue pierced. The video appalled the public and caused a furore in the press and on television. The senior common were forced to pay attention to such traditions. An example was made, with those guilty being severely punished, and instructions issued aimed at preventing such bullying.  We were given copies of the orders, instructions and standards for the Department of the Navy, dated 994-1997. From then on the only recipe needed for fighting bullying in the US Military has been: “Read the instructions”.

For example it is stated clearly in the Department of the Navy Instructions that bullying is incompatible with the basic values of honour, courage and duty.  Army training demands strictness from officers and a lot of effort from soldiers in order to have professional servicemen and women doing their duty by defending their country. How does one differentiate then between bullying and physical punishment aimed at training a soldier, and how can one compel soldiers to strictly carry out orders which is so vital in military situations?  On the same naval recruit training base the following was offered as the distinction, that bullying is only aimed at physically degrading or humiliating a person, it endangers life and well-being, and serve as entertainment for those of higher rank. Discipline, on the other hand, is intended to build the physical and moral qualities of soldiers.  Bullying, then, is aimed at hurting soldiers, discipline is for their benefit.. Encouraging others to bullying behaviour, of a physical, verbal or psychological nature are also consider to be bullying.  Unspoken consent to bullying does not absolve a person from responsibility. However actions demanding that officers’ orders be obeyed are not deemed bullying.  Norms of physical loads for soldiers have been also established, and nobody has the right to exceed them.

Similar normative documents were also drawn up for other parts of the Military.  On the basis of “naval seals” training, we saw cards with norms of physical loads, without which an instructor has no right even to approach a soldier.

The right to apply physical punishments is given only to the commanding officer, but not to any instructor or other person, even those of higher rank. In order to prevent abuse, a sergeant must carry out the same physical task as the person, who is assigned additional physical tasks. He must also inform the officers of such cases. A whole unit may not be punished for the mistake of one soldier.

Another problem in the military is that of cruel traditions, initiation ceremonies passed from one generation to another and support the “group’s honour”. The naval tradition was cited where first-timers are forcibly bathed on their first crossing of equator. It is impossible and harmful to fight against such traditions or to prohibit them, but there is a way out: these traditions should become safer.

Yet, the struggle fight against bullying would not be successful without permanent legal education in the Military. Every sergeant or officer obtaining new rank must go through a training course, including a course on legal issues, where the Joint Code of military justice is studied. People with a criminal record are not admitted to the army and navy, as well as those who don’t pass an IQ test.  And at all levels the rule is repeated: “No physical contact”   One soldier has no right to touch another, except in cases of emergency.

Most cases of bullying are considered by the unit commander, who has a strong interest in creating the sort of atmosphere where such situations cannot occur. During our visits to military units we heard everywhere that commanders, junior officers and sergeants of the US army and navy are not interested in concealing cases of bullying.. “Everything secret comes out”, and where such incidents have been covered up,  the commander will be punished more than if isolated cases are investigated on time, thus preventing systematic violations. The spirit of competition is highly developed in American society, especially in the army, so a higher officer will CERTAINLY learn about the unfortunate incident from other people, so it is better to tell everything voluntarily. Otherwise, the officer, concealing such facts, can pay not only with his career, but even with scandalous dismissal from army, which means the loss of medical insurance and pension, impossibility of further employment, etc.

I was also interested to find out what problems are experienced by US non-governmental organizations dealing with human rights in a contract army.  One would imagine that all rights and duties of the parties should be regulated by the contract between the state and the recruit with the parties simply fulfilling their commitments.

We contact several human rights organizations. The first was “Center on consciousness and war”, created by an association of religious groups in 1940. These days it defends soldiers who enlisted under contract conditions, but have since changed their attitude to arms and war, and consciously reject serving in the army and taking part in military operations. Yet, it is very difficult to cancel a contract with the army, which has spent a lot of money on training professional soldiers. This organization provides legal aid in such cases. I asked how the government reacted to their work, and learned that the government was not pleased very much with the results of these human rights activities. It is strange since I would have thought getting rid of such “pacifists”, the army would increase its efficiency.

The organization makes public facts showing that the percentage of rapes in the army is much higher than among the civilian population. We heard nothing about this problem during our visits to military bases. Members of this organization also protest against recruiters who paint rosy pictures about the future in the American army, forgetting about the down side -  participation in military actions and a hard physical and psychological load.  By not giving all information they infringe the rules of recruitmentm tge reason being that their pay depends on the number of people who enlist.

During the visit to two non-governmental organizations in San-Diego, California, we learned of another problem of the US army – the problem of people with non-traditional sexual orientation serving in the army. The USA laws prohibits enlistment of homosexuals into the army. Yet, there is a rule: “Do not answer, if not questioned”. The state needs many recruits now, during the military operation in Iraq. The human rights organizations are adamant that gays and lesbians should be permitted to serve in the army. “After equal rights were achieved for people with a different colour skin and women, this is the last bastion where civil rights are violated in the army” we were told..


“Prava ludyny” commentary:

Ms. Furtseva’s report about her trip as part of the program of international visits “Protection of civil rights in the USA Army”  evokes sad thoughts, since those in power, including military courts and military prosecutor’s office, know about bullying not less than human rights protection activists. Yet, we have neither the political will, nor law-abidingness, which have almost eliminated  bullying in the armed forces of the United States.

Some time ago the USA was one of the worst developed countries in terms of the number of cases of bullying.  American society is young and dynamic, and, as a result, it has no stable social interrelations. They are learning to live humanely in the process of development. We are not

Undoubtedly, there are criteria in our life, which cannot exist in the USA. The diseases inherited from the Soviet army, disregard of the law in general, and military law in particular affected the Ukrainian armed forces. Besides, the American army is based on contract service, which should contribute to eliminating bullying.. Yet, if our military were interested in liquidation of this terrible legacy of the USSR, they would find the means and possibility to do that.

The first element of struggle with this shameful phenomenon is complete openness and access to information.

The second is perception by army officers of all levels and by society as a whole of the fact that bullying really and seriously decreases the potential of the army.

The third element is inevitable responsibility (administrative or criminal) not only of the persons directly guilty of these crimes, but also of officers who demonstrate criminal negligence or directly encourage bullying by their subordinates

In addition people who enter the Ukrainian army by contract, are examined seriously and critically, since the state does not want to pay money for nothing. Yet, the examination of recruits, mobilized en masse, is carried out negligently. So, very often boys, ill psychologically and physically, are taken into the army. These youths are the first victims or, on the contrary, subconscious provokers of bullying.

Responsibility should be inevitable, including the responsibility of those, who enlist ill people to the army! Alas, our society is indifferent to human life!

Elimination of bullying must become the primary task of the army and politicians. Only then can the situation in our army improve. Well, they managed to do that in, for example, Germany and Israel, where armies are also conscripted as in Ukraine.

However, we have the impression that nobody cares about that and  If so, then the problem of bullying will not be liquidated even when the Ukrainian army is completely  based on contracts, but only the form of such relations will change.

We need only the will and desire. Otherwise what are we worth?

Inna Sukhorukova

[1]  The Ukrainian is “didivshchyna”, and implies mistreatment of conscripts or soldiers by those senior to them. [translator’s note]

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