Danny Chen and the Deindividuation and Disinhibition of the Army

An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

19 years old. Chinese-American, born to Chinese immigrant parents. Rebellious, wanted something different than everyone else at school, loved adventure.

If you have not yet read about Danny Chen, do (Life and Death of Private Danny Chen & Why Black America Should Care About Danny Chen). Private Danny Chen served in the US Army but on October 3, 2011 he shot himself. That day, his superior “forced him to crawl, with all his equipment, across some 100 meters of gravel in order to return to the tower so he could start his shift. While he was on the ground, two other superiors pelted him with rocks. And once he reached the tower, a superior grabbed him by his body armor and dragged him up the steps.”

Danny was in Afghanistan and miles away from home, and the men who were supposed to lead him instead “tormented Chen on an almost daily basis over the course of about six weeks in Afghanistan last fall. They singled him out, their only Chinese-American soldier, and spit racial slurs at him: “gook,” “chink,” “dragon lady.” They forced him to do sprints while carrying a sandbag. They ordered him to crawl along gravel-covered ground while they flung rocks at him. And one day, when his unit was assembling a tent, he was forced to wear a green hard-hat and shout out instructions to his fellow soldiers in Chinese.”

Danny’s story is similar to Harry Lew‘s and Brushaun Anderson‘s, a 20-year-old African-American soldier who served in Iraq: “[his superiors were constantly] overpunishing him for even the smallest mistakes; ordering him to put on his body armor and do extreme physical exercises; calling him “dirty” and forcing him to wear a plastic trash bag. His tour of duty ended in 2010, inside a portable toilet in Iraq, when he fired a bullet into his forehead.”

I’m taking an interterm course on the Psychology of Good and Evil, and our class on Tuesday focused on the learning of evil. People learn to mimic aggressive behavior (see Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment), can be primed with aggressive thoughts and feelings, and indeed, most of this has very little to do with personality (see Milgram’s obedience experiment). The foundation of systems of oppression is creating a culture of obedience.

But what about inaction? Standing idly by. Because what defines the character of an individual is just as much what they didn’t do as what they did do. For institutional cultures of the establishment, there is the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility (see Kitty Genovese murder). There is deindividuation, because the 8 men who are being charged with negligent homicide and manslaughter in Danny’s case saw their actions and inactions as actions and inactions of Army men, not John, Bill, George, etc. For a culture that relies on discipline, the line between discipline and race-based hazing gets fuzzy and military men become disinhibited after being exposed to violence so often (see Rodney King).

Why did the Ku Klux Klan have masks? Deindividuation. Why did more than 900 people drink the kool-aid in Jonestown? Disinhibition. If our men and women in the military are supposed to be men and women of honor, then why did Danny, Brushaun, and Harry die the way they did? Why did their own team find it easier to either humiliate them or do nothing about what was happening instead of speaking up? It may be personality, it may be obedience, it may be any number of terms the field of psychology has come up with.

Either way, this is hazing that has gone too far and for too long. An Army spokesman said there had been “regulations and policies against hazing and bullying…we inculcate our soldiers with the need to treat all with dignity and respect.” Establishing a corporate culture and a system of values that will guide every member of the organization is critical, but this needs to go beyond spending hours in a room dreaming up a sexy mission statement. The Army needs to step it up, and soon.

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