What causes bullying in the United States? In Bully Nation, Charles Derber and Yale R. Magrass show how US inequalities of power, militarism and aggressive capitalism make both personal and institutional bullying commonplace.
A US Army helicopter flies over Washington State in a photo taken on August 11, 2016. The military hovers over many of this country’s most pervasive institutions, including schools. When we look for the roots of violence, we must look beyond individuals, and consider the influence of the military on our everyday lives. (Photo: The US Army)
The following excerpt of Bully Nation is from Chapter Six, “Marching to Bully: How the Military Trains Bullies, Both Inside and Outside the Services”:
American militaristic capitalism is a bullying system that draws upon bullying traditions found in, for instance, the Roman and British Empires. Our approach to the study of bullying is different from that of other investigators because we do not emphasize its psychological causes. But that does not mean we negate psychological and even biological influences. Clearly, a bullying society needs bullying personalities. There is no contradiction between focusing upon individual or psychological bullying and the study of institutional or structural bullying. Rather, both aspects depend on and reinforce each other. Elites depend upon institutions that build attitudes, values, and behaviors that make the rest of the population docile, willing to accept their subordinate position and to act and think in ways that maintain the status quo and enhance the wealth and power of the dominant people. This requires institutions that mediate between the elites and everyone else, conveying the appropriate attitudes and behaviors and making them normal and expected. Such institutions effectively transmit values and expectations. The next three chapters will look at various “transmission belt” institutions, starting in this chapter with the military itself along with its allied institutions.
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Bullying is woven into the very fabric of the military. Using violence and aggression to impose its will on others is the fundamental purpose of the military — even if it presents itself as a defender, a paragon of moral virtue, and the protector of the weak. In the schoolyard, the weak who resist the protection of the bully face his full wrath. The military behaves in similar fashion. Consider the brutality that confronted people in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq who resisted America’s protection or the lot of the colonial peoples who resisted the civilization offered them by white America or Britain. Empires cannot survive without the military, whose role is to bully weaker nations into submission. No wonder, then, that President Obama promised, “So long as I’m commander in chief, we will sustain the strongest military the world has ever known.”
The United States openly views itself as the world’s police force, morally ordained to impose its interests and values across the rest of the globe and justified in whatever it does, be that bombing villages, killing civilians, or overthrowing governments. America committed genocide against the Native Americans; raided Africa in search of slaves; seized about half of Mexico’s territory; conquered Hawaii and the Philippines; and invaded Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The victims may have viewed these acts as brutal bullying, and we shall see that they reflect the core values and dominance of the schoolyard bully.
The US government claimed its actions were morally justified under the doctrine of manifest destiny or for several other reasons: for instance, it had an obligation to bring civilization to the savages; it was the duty of the strong to protect the weak; and it was a matter of self-defense on a global scale — all themes that, as we show shortly, also reflect the implicit mindset of bullying kids. After World War II when the United States gave itself the world’s sheriff ‘s badge, it renamed the Department of War as the Department of Defense. The term defense may sound less aggressive than war, but war is sporadic whereas defense is permanent. It can be argued that small countries such as Switzerland and Sweden need defense, but in dominant empires such as the United States, the military plays a very different role.
American capitalism revolves around the military. The Pentagon underwrites many of the largest corporations through weapons contracts, and it protects US-based corporations as they abandon American workers in favor of plants abroad and as they secure foreign raw materials and markets. America’s militaristic empire cannot exist without people who support it and are even willing to kill and die in its battles. Accordingly, it must transmit militaristic values, which are essentially forms of violent bullying values, either through the military itself or through other institutions.
The words civility and civilian have the same root. Capitalism depends upon the armed forces, but militarism is in contradiction with the basic rules of everyday civil life. People generally agree that the most basic rule of common morality is “Thou shalt not kill.” The armed forces must make killing acceptable — in fact, glorious and heroic — and have those values pervade the entire society. Other institutions, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), the Boy Scouts, professional sports teams, and even some schools, as we shall see in a following chapter, also convey these values, often through direct or indirect cooperation with the military.
Even before World War I, President Theodore Roosevelt — the president who used the “bully pulpit” to truly express bully values for all of society — insisted that elite universities such as Harvard had to enhance their football teams if America was to dominate the world. He declared,”We can not afford to turn out college men who shrink from physical effort or a little physical pain.” The nation needed men with “the courage that will fight valiantly again the foes of the soul and the foes of the body.” The Boy Scouts, another leading proponent of military and bullying values in civilian life, promises that their alumni will be able to proudly declare: “America, here I stand my body strong to fight your battles! My mind trained to keep your democracy virile!”
Military values appear to be inherently contradictory. The military needs individuals who are violent, aggressive bullies but simultaneously willing to submit to a chain of command and otherwise be docile and obedient. Militarism is caught in this dilemma: how do you build bullies but control them so they will only attack people deemed enemies and not turn against the very people who made them into bullies? In other words, bullies are fine as long as they are good guys who subdue bad guys. As the NRA’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, put it, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This raises the question of how we can distinguish good guys from bad guys, especially if they both act the same way as gun-wielding bullies. Of course, this is not a problem that the ordinary soldier is allowed to worry about. As Alfred Lord Tennyson, poet laureate of the United Kingdom during the Crimean War, famously phrased it, “Ours is not to reason why, ours but to do and die.”
Training for Bullies
Now let us turn to the methods by which the military bullies its recruits into accepting Tennyson’s charge. When you join the military, you are normally sent to boot camp for basic training, where the sergeants and the officers attempt to transform your entire identity. The majority of military personnel sit behind a desk or are engaged in technical pursuits, so we might ask why most must go through the training about to be described. Perhaps the answer is that the training constitutes institutionalized bullying; it reinforces military values, builds obedience, and leads soldiers to accept their place within a chain of command whether or not they will ever actually need a gun.
In recent times, most killing has not been done by snipers such as US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the hero of the immensely popular 2015 movie American Sniper, who is credited with personally killing a record 160 Iraqis and Afghanis. Instead, most killing is done by unmanned drones or by tanks whose control panels look like video game consoles. These weapons require technical skills that are likely to be possessed by so-called nerds, many of whom have spent their childhood and adolescent years as bully victims. This reality expands in surprising ways the circle of military personnel whose careers involve bullying.
Physical strength is becoming less important in the modern military, leading to a broader range of potential military recruits and the infiltration of its bullying values into new groups. Today, women and gays are staffing the military, often going into combat. Until recently, though, military culture relied heavily on homophobia and masculine identity to bully the recruits into proving they would be worthy, obedient soldier bullies. For the most part, it still does, but these traditions are being challenged.
As it seeks recruits outside its traditional population, the military itself has become a battlefield in the culture wars we have discussed in other chapters, with a war about bullying itself emerging within the services. Obama — a symbol of the commander in chief personifying some of the new internal conflicts in military culture — was perceived by many within the military as a liberal foe who attempted to institute new policies that they saw as violating fundamental military traditions and values:
Obama is an unpopular president in the eyes of the men and women in uniform. … [He] oversaw repeal of the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Then he broke with one of the military’s most deeply rooted traditions and vowed to lift the ban on women serving in combat. And the commander in chief has aggressively sought to change military culture by cracking down on sexual assault and sexual harassment, problems that for years were underreported or overlooked. … To his critics, his moves amount to heavy-handed social engineering that erodes deep-seated traditions and potentially undermines good order and discipline.
Nevertheless, the military remains overwhelmingly committed to its traditional bully values. Despite the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the US Marine Corps still relies heavily upon homophobia to intimidate enlistees into proving they are not “namby-pamby wimps” but belong among “the few, the proud”:
We’re called faggots 10-50 times a day. “You think that’s yelling? That’s sweet, faggot.” “Yeah, you would think that’s a pushup, faggot,” etc. … “You stupid fucking thing. That’s more wrong than two boys fucking.” One captain, when giving an ethics class, and talking about how one mistake can change your life/identity told the entire company “you can be a bridge builder your entire life, but you suck one dick and you’re a cocksucker till you die.”
The shortage of white enlistees has led the civilian government to attempt to attract more soldiers of color. When the United States invades Middle Eastern countries, it actively needs Muslim soldiers who would be sensitive to local cultures. This leads to pressure to promote multiculturalism in the military, yet racism and xenophobia, particularly anti-Muslim xenophobia, remain prominent in the repertoire of bullying techniques used by drill instructors (DIs).
The one Indian looking kid in the platoon gets ripped by the DI’s [every] day. … “[Name] are you a fucking terrorist?” “no sir” “well, if you were a terrorist, you wouldn’t admit to it now would you?” “no sir” “so you’re probably a fucking terrorist.””aye sir””because you look like a fucking terrorist, why aren’t you driving a fucking cab like the rest of your people?”
Typically, the bullying practices used in basic training are many decades old. Repeated humiliation is standard. One recruit reports, “I had [to] stand in front of the mirror, point at the mirror and say, ‘You’re an idiot.’ Then point back at myself and then say, ‘No, I’m an idiot.’ Forced to keep that up for 30 minutes.”
One of the first things that happens to a male recruit is that his head is shaved, something for which he must pay money. (Women recruits are exempt from this requirement.) This is intended to strip him of any personal identity, to reduce him to a cog in the larger military machine, indistinguishable from anyone else — to turn him into someone without personal desires or needs who will just blend in and do his assigned task. Paying for the haircut represents his consent and participation in the process. Further, in contrast to the expectation of civilian etiquette to maintain a soft voice, enlistees are expected to shout:
DI: From now on, you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be “Sir.” Do you maggots understand that?
Recruits: Sir, yes, sir!
DI: Bullshit! I can’t hear you. Sound off like you got a pair.
Challenges to masculinity are regularly used to spur males to prove they are traditional men who have the stuff — men who can simultaneously be tough and able to “take it” but not think on their own or question authority. It has long been standard practice to address male trainees as “ladies.” In Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket, we hear recruits being told: “If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training you will be a weapon, you will be a minister of death, praying for war. But until that day you are pukes! You’re the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human fucking beings! You are nothing but unorganized grabasstic pieces of amphibian.”
There are more women in the military today than during Vietnam, when the events in Full Metal Jacket took place. The United States now has a volunteer military; supposedly, recruits can leave if they choose. But drill sergeants still use bullying, not reassurance and support, to intimidate enlistees of either gender to keep them from bailing:
During one of [a female recruit’s] first exercise routines where the drill sergeant was yelling at her, she started crying and said “I want to go home.” Overhearing her, the drill instructor ran up to her and said “What did you say?” She said “I want to go home.” He looked at her and said “Spin three times and click your heels.” After she finished, he said “You’re mine for the next 8 weeks Dorothy. Now give me 20!”
As part of their training, soldiers are placed in near-death experiences, which some people might classify as torture. This is part of the toughening process whereby they learn to bully and accept being bullied:
Now, for the army at least, one of the first “hardcore” tasks you get in training is being sent to the gas chamber. Think a concrete box filled with “Ow, goddamnit it’s in my eyes!” So, we march into the suck square, and they close the doors. We rip our masks off and breath in that sweet hookah from hell. … This shit burns your eyes, your nose, and especially your lungs — like you deep-throated Satan’s member against your will. Anyway, everyone’s puking, or crying, and they finally opened the doors to get out, so we stumble out.
Actually, the United States uses napalm, Agent Orange, and nerve gas, but no other country has used poison gas on enemy combatants since World War I.
Although the primary purpose of basic training is to produce tough, violent, but obedient bullies, it is also intended to weed out people who are so unstable that they cannot be trusted with bullying power or who might turn their guns against their own leaders or fellow soldiers rather than against designated enemies.
One of the senior drill sergeants held up a live round (live rounds are never, ever supposed to leave the range in basic training) and grabbed Private P. and brought him in front of the company. He was crying and the drill sergeants started screaming at him. We still didn’t know exactly what had happened, and then the MPs came and took him away. … Turns out he had smuggled 6 live rounds, and he had written in his notebook his plan to kill his 3 platoon drill sergeants, our company commander and first sergeant, and himself.
Bullying and Violence: Bith on Military Bases and in Civilian Life
Soldiers and veterans are trained to consider violence a legitimate response to a challenge and to believe bullying is fine as long as it’s done by those on the right side. Under extreme stress, both while they are in the military and as they try to readapt to a civilian society that considers many military values taboo, these individuals often turn to violence—an extreme form of bullying— directing it either against other people or against themselves. Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day. Christopher Kyle, the hero of American Sniper, was killed on a shooting range by another veteran whom he was trying to help cope with his alleged post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At Fort Hood, Spc. Ivan Lopez killed three other soldiers and wounded another sixteen before killing himself. A few years earlier at that same military base, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an army psychiatrist, killed thirteen people, and he may have actually killed or wounded over forty. He fired 146 rounds. Six years before Osama Bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center, Timothy McVeigh, who had been awarded a Bronze Star in the army during the First Gulf War, killed 168 people—slightly more than the total number of Afghanis and Iraqis that Christopher Kyle killed—and he injured at least another 500 when he blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building.
Christopher Dorner was a former navy lieutenant, a specialist in undersea warfare, a rifle marksman, and a pistol expert who lost his job in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). On February 3, 2013, he began a killing rampage, shooting his lawyer’s daughter and her fiancé, firing at three police officers, killing one, and issuing a manifesto threatening to kill at least twelve more. The LAPD announced that the weapons training Dorner received in the navy made him a very serious threat. On the same day that he went on his rampage, the Cable News Network (CNN) broadcast a long segment praising Clinton Romesha, a newly minted recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, as the “bravest of the brave,” a soldier who directed the killing of over thirty Afghani “enemies” in a twelve-hour battle that left eight Americans dead. We can ask what the difference is between Dorner and Romesha or between McVeigh and Kyle. If you kill enough, it seems, you may be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor; in any case, bullying triumphs.
Military values are transmitted — often through bullying in civilian life — by schools, gun companies, and other institutions connected to or at least strongly influenced by the military, which aggressively seeks to spread its values into civilian culture. High school students may not have military experience, but they are recruited by military officers in their schools; many are inspired by the militaristic culture, with some turning into routine bullies and others into violent killer bullies. In a number of cases, students have taken guns to school and turned them on fellow students, teachers, and themselves. The killers were often fixated on military equipment, war stories, and the military bases near their schools. One of the most famous cases occurred at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. After that event, Michael Moore made the film Bowling for Columbine, which showed that one of the Columbine shooters had lived on an air force base where a plane was displayed complete with a plaque proclaiming that it had killed people in Vietnamese villages one Christmas Eve. Moore asks: “Don’t you think the kids say to themselves, ‘Dad goes to work every day. He builds weapons of mass destruction. What is the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?'”
Both the military and its allies in the armaments industries have a strong stake in promoting a violent bullying culture where weapons are a norm.
A militaristic empire must inspire people to commit violence. It must reward the most extreme forms of bullying. It cannot guarantee that violent bullies on the battlefield will be nice, healthy, peaceful citizens on the home front. A society that routinely bullies other people cannot avoid having its own citizens bully each other. The military, the most violent bullying institution of all, can hardly expect to compartmentalize violent bullying. It will see it on its own bases, in the society from which it recruits members, and among its veterans as they return to civilian life. Treating violence and bullying as individual pathology cannot end it. This is a pathology that rests with the society, not the individual.
Copyright (2016) by the University Press of Kansas. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher.
Charles Derber is professor of sociology at Boston College. Yale Magrass is chancellor professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Their latest book is Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Is Creating a Bully Society.