Robert E. Daniels
Acknowledgments: This paper is a revised version of the paper titled "Initiation or Assault? Ambiguities of Ritual in the 82nd Airborne" presented in the symposium honoring Beatrice and John Whiting at the Annual Meeting of The Society for Cross-Cultural Research, Santa Fe, New Mexico, February 28, 1992. I am very grateful for comments on an earlier draft from my colleagues Dorothy Holland, and Judith Farquhar, from Elizabeth P. Hahn, from Bryan Crutchfield and Christopher J. Kline, veterans of the 82nd, and from William Joseph Diehl III, ROTC student at UNC-CH.

Officers' initiations, Prop Blasts, are elaborate, classically structured rites. Enlisted men, left to their own devices, hold physical hazings, Cherry Blasts, which are outside regulations, tacitly condoned, dangerously unregulated, and ritually underdeveloped. Their metacommunicative ambiguities illuminate the relation between the self and social transformations, and reasons for the elaboration of rituals.

low drop
Jumping from airplanes isn't a particularly big deal, and many civilians consider it a sport. Military jumping is a different game from sport jumping, however; it is a profession and a mind-set. Sport jumping is relatively safe and is supposed to be done for fun; military jumping is, by design, enmeshed in peril. It is a means to deliver people to battlefields to fight, to kill and be killed (Halberstadt 1988:34-35).

In 1982 I was hired, by the defense, to serve as an expert witness on male initiations in a court martial of four enlisted men in the 82nd Airborne1 at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. The charge was assaulting a fellow paratrooper in the barracks. The defendants claimed that the incident was a standard induction similar to the one they, and most of their fellow paratroopers, had been given when they joined Charlie Company. The new man, on the other hand, had not granted them any such authority and had not surrendered to them. Injured by the hazing, he went to the emergency room at the base hospital. When the Military Police asked him what had happened, he did not "play the game" but described himself as the victim of an assault.

At the court martial the four defendants had already been found guilty before I took the stand. They were out of bounds. My testimony was aimed at contextualizing their act, at defining the nature of the boundaries they had transgressed.2 In the end they received reasonable sentences, not the extreme punishment sought by the prosecution.

As a result of this case, and other incidents, the command made some efforts to downplay the marking, and thus the targeting, of new men (discussed below). However, these efforts were peripheral to the rituals described here. Following the case, I wrote a senior Non-Commissioned Officer offering to help think of ways to bring the hazing under control, but did not receive a reply. I strongly suspect that Cherry Blasts continued in a largely unregulated fashion.3

In any case, at the time of the court martial, Cherry Blasts occupied a shadowy place among the social facts of Airborne life. Among the officers their existence was suspected or known but not scrutinized. Among the enlisted men their practice was furtive, with a large measure of spontaneity and little ritual elaboration. As a result, Cherry Blasts were marked by an ambiguity of structure which exposed participants to unnecessary levels of violence. For the analyst, this ambiguity also exposes some general questions about the relationship between the self and the social persona in ritual transformations.

Data Collection

I collected this information in private, open-ended interviews with several members of Charlie Company: the company commander (a captain), a lieutenant, the sergeant in whose barracks the offense took place, a group of five enlisted men, and with the four defendants themselves. I also had lengthy discussions with three of the deense lawyers who were themselves captains in the 82nd with active jump status.4

Prior to my involvement, the defense team had designed and distributed two written surveys about similar events within the company: open-ended interviews completed by 3 non-commissioned officers and 17 troopers and short answer questionnaires filled out by 2 officers, 2 NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers), and 30 troopers. I was also shown a letter solicited by the defense team from the Chief of the Department of Military Psychiatry, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which pointed out rites of passage in civilian and military groups, summarized a research paper on an informal initiation that arose in Viet Nam (Bey 1972), and discussed the issues of social and psychological functions, legitimacy, and command responsibility.

Additionally I spent a couple days making informal observations: joining troops in the morning jog, viewing a videotape on Ranger indoctrination, eating in the mess, touring the 82nd Airborne Historical Museum, and spending many hours with dozens of officers and men waiting outside the courtroom to testify.

Following the case I, along with thousands of other members of the general public, watched the 82nd's annual CAPEX (Capabilities Exercise) demonstration of parachute delivery of light and heavy equipment, a mass jump of 700 troops, and a live weapons display (including helicopter-borne artillery, shoulder-fired guided missiles, and low altitude air support).

At the time, my immediate goal was not to produce an academic report but legal testimony paid for and intended to assist particular parties in legal jeopardy. Virtually all of my data on the initiations comes from informants' statements. I consider them to have been offered honestly, and they are mutually supportive, but I have not directly observed nor participated in what I describe here (I myself have not served in the military). Halberstadt's recent book Airborne: Assault from the Sky (1988), while not discussing initiations directly, vividly portrays the ethos of the 82nd, and documents several details (cited below) that corroborate what I was told.

Jump School: Prerequisite for joining the Airborne

Each year approximately 2,200 men and women, ages 17 to 45 or so, of various ranks from all branches of the U.S. military and from allied nations, complete the three week long United States Army Basic Airborne Course, at Ft. Benning, Georgia.5

Rank holds no privilege in jump school; trainees are addressed by number, or simply as "AIRBORNE." But while officers and enlisted personnel are treated with equal rigor, their motives for going through jump school may vary. Many officers intend to spend their careers in the Airborne, but a large proportion do not: jump school "is a ticket-punch for many officers who have no interest in airborne ops [operations] but want to demonstrate the proper warrior spirit.... About one person in five in the whole army wears wings "(Halberstadt 1988:34). Enlisted personnel are less interested in accumulating merit badges. For almost all of them, jump school is the gateway to their goal of joining an Airborne unit. Among paratroopers, non-jumpers are scorned as "legs," and the appearance, discipline, and potential effectiveness of regular army units is considered scarcely better than that of the National Guard. To the Airborne, the Airborne is The Real Army.

The primary activity of jump school is, of course, technical training in the art of military parachuting. A large amount of time is also spent in arduous physical conditioning (to build strength and stamina beyond the advanced levels required for admission). Of equal importance is the regime of drill, scrutiny, and criticism designed to weed out anyone found lacking in ability, courage, or commitment. In terms of discipline:

There is a tremendous sense of ritual and tradition. Everything a student does is done formally. Language is formal; posture is formal.

All commands are answered with the shout "CLEAR, SERGEANT! AIRBORNE!" In terms of performance:

You've got to train yourself to react correctly and instinctively when you start jumping from airplanes on military missions. You have to do the right thing, right now, or you could kill yourself, or -- worse still -- endanger your unit's military mission (Halberstadt 1888:39).

Four percent of entering students do not complete the course for medical reasons. Even though the students are self-selected volunteers, another two percent are washed out and four percent quit, many on the first day. But while some of the 18 year old enlisted men coming out of the regular army may find the experience either transformational or overwhelming, one Airborne Captain, a West Point graduate, told me "They hate to have West Point cadets at jump school because they've already been through such hazing that they're not intimidated."

Jump school is divided into Ground Week, Tower Week, and Jump Week. Over the last five decades procedures have been refined for every step in the process of delivering paratroopers from their base to the battlefield. The events just before, and just after the soldier jumps from the airplane are clearly the most critical, and are rehearsed in great detail. Students are drilled relentlessly on the sequence of events in the plane as it approaches a drop zone. Communication is restricted to eight commands, each shouted over the roar of the engines and each accompanied by a distinctive hand signal, given by the jumpmaster in charge of each stick of jumpers (the line exiting from one door):

  3. HOOK UP
  8. GO6

Students must also master "The Five Points of Performance" to be executed during the jump itself:

  1. Maintain a good body position and count (until the main parachute opens around the count of 4 or emergency steps have to be taken)7
  2. Check canopy and immediately gain control
  3. Keep a sharp lookout during descent (avoid collisions)
  4. Prepare to land
  5. Land, executing a PLF

The PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) is a rolling collapse onto the ground that spreads the impact over the length of the body.8 Alternative methods for landing in a variety of hazards are also taught. The impact on an average jump is said to be equivalent to what one would receive jumping off the top of the cab of an 18 wheel truck doing 15 mph. Knowing how to execute a PLF is the first item of technical training. PLFs are practiced repeatedly throughout jump school and before every subsequent jump. They are also done, symbolically, in the initiations inducting both officers and enlisted men into Airborne units.

In all, successful students make five jumps before the proud moment at which they receive their Airborne wings. Many, perhaps most, of those completing the course not only have their wings pinned to their shirts as they stand on the parade ground, but also receive "blood wings" in informal ceremonies afterward. The clips are removed from the two short spikes on the back of the wings pin and the pin is punched through the shirt into the recipient's chest. Halberstadt (1988:54) includes a photograph of the moment with the caption:

Here's the hardcore way to wear your wings -- pinned directly to your body with a friendly little tap from your beloved student company commander. This is by request only.
Prior Training

There are two kinds of people in the military: officers and "other ranks," i.e. NCOs and enlisted personnel. And there are two kinds of initiation into the 82nd Airborne (summarized in Table 1[at end of paper]). I will first consider the situation among officers.

Young officers, newly posted to the 82nd Airborne at the Division's home base, Ft.Bragg, N.C., have already been through several stages of military training. Some are West Point Graduates, others attended private military academies, or went through ROTC training in civilian colleges, and attended Officers' Candidate School afterward. A few rare individuals rose to officer status from the ranks. Whatever the particular path, all have also been through Infantry Basic Training, Advanced Individual Training, and, of course, Jump School. In addition, many young officers, by the time they start long-term careers in the Airborne, have been through a number of other specialized courses. The most ambitious may have already qualified in one of the other two units, even more elite than the Airborne, authorized to wear the berets and wings of paratroopers: the Special Forces, or Green Berets, trained in "unconventional warfare," and the Rangers (commandos), who wear black berets. Training in the Rangers comes only after one has successfully completed the sardonically named Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP or R.I.P.), a six month course designed to teach each man9 his limits. As a graduate of RIP explained it, this is done by taking the man, not to, but beyond his breaking points of verbal abuse, physical exhaustion, hunger, and sleep deprivation. Advanced training courses in the Rangers teach men how to survive and fight in arctic, mountain, desert, and jungle environments.10

Military Insignia and Decorations

From the beginning of one's military career, completion of each stage is celebrated by some form of public, and perhaps private, ritual. For the more important achievements, graduates are marked by a particular pin or patch, worn proudly on the chest or shoulders. While the term "uniform" may suggest to civilians that everyone wears identical dress that masks all but the individual's rank and current military unit, in fact each person wears not only a name plate or name tape, but the military equivalent of a professional resumé or curriculum vitae. It comes as no surprise to officers new to the 82nd, therefore, that they are in store for yet another initiation before they will be fully accepted as joining the body of those who wear the red berets.

Prop Blasts

The origins of the officers' initiation, the Prop Blast (presumably named for what hits you as you jump out of an airplane), surely lies in the very early days of the Airborne's formation in World War II. Weiss, in his 1967 article "Rebirth in the Airborne," quite correctly pointed out that Prop Blasts are a rite de passage with the three stage structure first identified by Arnold van Gennep in his classic analysis of 1908.11 (If the subjects were a few years younger, Prop Blasts would further qualify, by Whiting, Kluckhohn, and Anthony's criteria [1958], as "adolescent male initiations"). Inasmuch as the vast majority of participants are career officers, there is a great deal of continuity from observance to observance, and no doubt the elaboration of the Prop Blast over the years has incorporated much conscious and subconscious thought. By the 1980s, the Prop Blast had evolved into a lengthy and elaborate multi-stage ritual, rich in symbolism, and replete with sacred objects and special lore.

Prop Blasts are held a few times each year. They are announced on the weekly roster of events posted at the divisional headquarters, but are scheduled on a Saturday, the events are always when the participants are "off duty." Participation by the candidates for initiation is said to be "completely voluntary." But in marked contrast to the initiations among enlisted men (described below), all new officers, male and female, Black and white, are expected to present themselves for Prop Blasting. It is, of course, difficult to imagine a new officer choosing not to take part, or what sort of future he or she might have in the division, given the very explicit and ubiquitous emphasis on esprit de corps in the 82nd, and the sense of pride in belonging to an elite outfit which is very evident in both officers and troops.12

Stage I: Separation

Prop Blasts begin at noon and last until 11 or 12 p.m. On the appointed day, candidates are instructed to assemble in the commanding general's driveway next to a large parking lot. Normally this is a taboo area to be avoided. They report in full battle gear, wearing their camouflage BDU (Battle Dress Utility) uniforms, their LBE (Load Bearing Equipment) harness belts, from which are suspended canteens, magazine cases and several other heavy items, parachute harnesses with main parachutes on the back and reserves on the front, rucksacks packed with dehydrated food, spare clothing, and personal equipment hanging in front of the knees, weapons secured in a padded container strapped to their left sides, helmets and jump boots. Upon lining up, inspection begins, supervised by a colonel or other senior officer. One item after another in each candidate's gear and uniform is found at fault. Weapons are broken down into many pieces, rucksacks are undone and their contents separated, belts are removed, jump boots are unlaced, laboriously relaced in the correct style, inspected and unlaced again, etc. Where once stood a proud candidate is now a harassed initiand, half-stripped, with his material self disparaged and scattered across dozens of square yards of parking lot. This disassembly of the initial identity graphically embodies van Gennep's first stage of separation portraying the symbolic "death" of the pre-initiation persona. Officers who had been "blasted" pointed out that this "public humiliation" takes place in full view of the enlisted men of their new battalion and company.

Stage II: Transition

My informants did not offer a great deal of detail about the middle, or transition stage of Prop Blasts except to stress its physical nature. In accordance with Army regulations, the initiators do not actually lay hands on the initiands. Yet the process is grueling. There are incessant demands for push-ups; one informant estimated that initiands do several hundred before the day is over. The most striking event during the second stage is the game of Bear Pit. The pit is a large bulldozed hole, 4 or 5 feet deep, similar to a shallow house excavation. The rules of the game are quite simple: the initiands, now dressed in BDUs and boots, are ordered into the pit; a whistle is blown, and the last person to stay in the pit wins. The whistle starts an immediate free-for-all in which the players gang up in twos or threes on their fellows to wrestle and throw them out of the pit. One's ally one second is one's rival the next. In keeping with the liminal nature of this stage, the harassment by the initiators, and the every-man-for-himself spirit of the Bear Pit, in which very ambitious young careerists get to act out untempered individualism, constitute a perfect inversion of the mutual support and selfless leadership expected of officers at all other times.

The players are all in peak physical condition, and the action in the Bear Pit can quickly turn very rough. Furthermore it is not unusual for the pit to contain a few inches of standing water, and although it should be raked clean of trash before use, several officers told me that they had witnessed initiands receiving severe lacerations from broken glass and scrap metal concealed in the mud.

For the past several years each initiand has been assigned a monitor who is responsible for his physical well-being from the start of events until, as a new initiate, he is safely in his bed late that night. I was told (but have not confirmed) that the practice of assigning monitors was instituted after an officer collapsed and died at home following his Prop Blast in 1979.

Stage III: Reincorporation

Finally, late at night, the initiands are again dressed in full combat jump gear. This time, however, their parachute packs have been filled with rocks. They are brought into a mock-up of an airplane fuselage mounted on a flat-bed truck (normally used for training), and are told to prepare for a "jump."

One by one the initiands assume the correct STAND IN THE DOOR pre-jump position in the doorway, with a hand on each side of the metal frame. Outside their initiators have rigged a field telephone to the structure and are cranking sufficient electricity through it to cause minor shocks. As the initiand prepares to jump to the ground, approximately four feet below, four men stand outside, each demanding that the execution of a different one of the approved methods of landing: "dirt" cries one, shoveling sand at the initiand, "water" cries another, spraying a hose, "trees" cries a third, waving branches in the initiand's face, "high wires" cries the fourth, lashing out with extension cords. The initiand jumps, attempts a PLF, and crashes to the ground with the burden of weapons, gear, and rocks. Using a mock-up a few feet off the ground prevents the jumper's 15 foot long static line, with one end hooked inside the fuselage, from opening the back parachute pack and pulling free. With this umbilical cord, the symbolism of Airborne birth through the airplane door seems complete.

To the raucous laughter of the crowd, the encumbered initiand hits the release catch on the parachute harness, wriggles free, and struggles to stand up. Blinded by spot lights, the initiand is asked a few questions of Airborne arcana (e.g. "What is the diameter of a fully deployed MC1-1B parachute?" [thirty-four feet], "Who was the first American general to jump into combat?" [Maxwell Taylor]). When the crowd signals thumbs up, the initiand is told to advance.

The initiand now realizes that he or she is standing before a table at which are seated three generals: the Commander of the 82nd, the Assistant Division Commander, and the Division Chief of Staff, along with other top brass. The initiand is then handed one of several two-handled tankards. These chalices, commissioned by and named after previous 82nd Division Commanders (e. g. the General Kroesen Cup), are normally kept in the 82nd Airborne Historical Museum on the base. Prior to the Prop Blast candidates had been asked whether they preferred to be given an alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink. Those who had indicated the former are given a tankard containing a mixture of various liquors, beer, and wine. Those who had indicated "non-alcoholic" are given a concoction of clam juice, Tobasco, fruit juice, etc., said to be even less palatable. The initiand is expected to chug-a-lug the "Airborne Brew"13as the crowd count off the seconds "`1000, 2000, 3000,' the time between an actual jump from a plane and the opening of the chute" (Weiss 1967:24). Those who take longer are mocked with shouts of "Malfunction! Malfunction!" The initiand then places the tankard upside down on the top of his or her steel helmet, salutes smartly, and reports in by rank and name. The commanding general returns the salute, asks the new member of the 82nd to step forward, shakes hands, and extends his welcome.

Following similar greetings from the other officers at the table, the new initiate signs the divisional registry book and is issued a Prop Blast card produced at the divisional printing shop and adorned with the 82nd's AA emblem14. At Prop Blasts, any officers previously initiated may be challenged to produce their Prop Blast cards. Failure to do so is said to entail resubmitting to another Prop Blast. I doubt whether that ever happens but I was told, in all seriousness, that some officers carry Xerox copies of their Prop Blast cards and keep the originals in safe deposit boxes at a local bank.

Enlisted Personnel
The officers' prop blast is different. It's a tradition. The troops don't have the mentality of officers, nor the education. They're adolescents! Eighteen to twenty years old. Officers are not together at night in barracks. If we condone hazing new troops, the troops will be afraid to live on base (Top Sergeant, Charlie Company).

The division between officers and enlisted personnel is reminiscent of a caste distinction and, of course, reflects quite directly class divisions in the larger society. Occupationally, aside from the special demands of combat, officers have administrative duties, non-commissioned officers occupy roles similar to shop stewards and clerical staff, and enlisted personnel are equivalent to production workers on the factory floor. In some units, for example an engineering company in charge of heavy diesel equipment, the parallels may be quite direct.

In terms of age structure, the social divisions within the Airborne resemble those found on a college campus. The officer corps, like a faculty, range in age from mid-twenties to retirement age, with seniority of rank closely correlated with age. While younger officers, single or with families, may live in army housing on base (though at some remove from divisional headquarters) and are on rotation so that essential offices are manned 24 hours a day, more senior officers tend to draw housing allowances, live in private subdivisions off base, and commute for the workday by car. The non-commissioned officers, roughly equivalent to a college's non-academic staff, also show a fairly wide range of ages. Some also live away from headquarters though of course many sergeants live in single apartments in the barracks where they have direct responsibility for maintaining order. Most enlisted men serve only a single hitch in the 82nd, and since they do not join the Airborne until they have completed at least Basic Training, Advanced Individual Training, and Jump School, they tend to spend about two years in the division. Troopers are thus generally 18 to 20 years old. The turnover rate of enlisted men is thus significantly higher than that among undergraduates at a college. The soldiers' living conditions and off duty lives are thus at least as divorced from those of their senior officers as fraternity boys' lives are from those of tenured faculty (perhaps more so since even fewer troopers aspire to careers as officers than students do to the status of faculty members).

Moreover, while the enlisted men have a large number of finely graded occupational ranks (e.g., Specialist 4th Class) that are tied to differences in pay, these ranks do not constitute a hierarchy of command among them. Thus, quite apart from the question of testing the personal character of new arrivals, initiations among enlisted men function to generate a hierarchy of seniority, a "mini age-set system" among the men of a company who live, work, and risk their lives together.

Academicians deal primarily with words; those events in academia that come closest to initiations, M.A. and Ph.D. oral examinations, are quintessentially verbal encounters. Most fundamentally, paratroopers are paid for their ability to perform physical tasks in the face of lethal danger, and for their readiness to deliver armed aggression against potential enemies with skillful efficiency. In the words of "The Parachutist's Creed," paraphrasing a remark attributed to George Patton (Halberstadt 1988:101):

U. S. paratroopers provide the enemy the maximum opportunity to give their lives for their country. (82nd Airborne Historical Museum n.d.:1).

Training is thus intense. To retain "jump status" and collect the extra hazard duty pay (in 1982 $110 a month for officers, $86 a month for other ranks), one must make at least one jump per quarter. Almost everyone in the 82nd does, not just the infantrymen, but the generals, cooks, MPs, diesel mechanics, typists, and lawyers.15 Jump status also requires that all troopers be able to pass a number of tests of fitness, including running 4 miles in less than 32 minutes (officers are "expected" to complete the distance in less than 30 minutes to set an example). Each platoon on duty starts its day with a run up and down Ardennes Boulevard through the middle of the divisional post. In 1982 the commanding general ran with his men each morning, spending a few minutes running in the middle of one platoon after another, setting a fast pace in each.

Training is also dangerous. Mass jumps of hundred of troops with drops of heavy equipment are held several times a year; smaller jumps occur frequently. Despite constant research and testing of equipment and procedures by a special unit in the Airborne, injuries and fatalities cannot be totally eliminated. At one point, as a couple dozen men waited outside to testify in the court martial, idle conversation turned to eyewitness stories of spectacular past accidents. One officer told of a mass jump, years ago, in which a C-130 transport plane lost power in one engine as it came over the drop zone. The plane dipped, veered off course, and flew into a line of paratroopers just as they were emerging from another plane in the formation. Several were killed as they were struck by the propellers and wing. Old hands delight in regaling younger men (and visiting anthropologists) with such tales of horror. But while such accidents are far rarer than their retellings, they are nonetheless all too real. The court martial in which I testified was postponed because the company involved had to attend a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery for four paratroopers killed in a mass jump in California a few weeks earlier.16 There are also countless tales of disastrous individual errors, for example exiting the plane with one's arm tangled in the static line, or colliding and collapsing parachutes in midair. In barracks conversations such mistakes are named after their perpetrators who thus achieve a legendary, perhaps apocryphal perhaps posthumous, status (e.g. "Don't go pulling an O'Hara").17

Surprisingly, none of the stories I heard involved accidents with live ordnance, though under combat conditions all men carry live ammunition, many carry anti-tank rockets (LAWs), one man in each platoon jumps with a 35 pound Dragon missile strapped to him, others carry mortar rounds, automatic rifles, etc., and engineers are laden with blasting caps and explosives. I did, however, hear of several practical jokes pulled in the barracks involving tracer rounds, smoke grenades, and blasting caps in which people narrowly avoided injury.

Cherry Blasts

When older paratroopers take it upon themselves to break in the new men in the barracks, they do so directly and physically, with their fists. Such hazings are therefore clearly in violation of Army regulations.

The hazings are known as Cherry Blasts; the parallel with the term for the officers' rite, Prop Blast, is intentional. But while the officers' initiations are held on a public, i.e. divisional, level, Cherry Blasts occur within the social limits of the unit of primary identity for enlisted men, the company, composed of about 125 men.

"Cherry" is the common term for a newcomer. A man's first two or three months in the new company are considered "a trial period" by the older soldiers. One man reported having seen, during his two years in the company, about thirty new men who couldn't make it in the 82nd and either went back to the regular army or went AWOL. Men who have joined the company more recently than yourself are said remain "cherries to you" or "your cherries" forever though this senior/junior distinction is not particularly relevant to most personal relationships after the "cherry" has been "blasted" or once he has proven that "he can do his job as a paratrooper."

As several men pointed out to me, prior to 1980 or 1981 new members of the 82nd stationed at Ft. Bragg, whatever their rank, were required to wear "cherry helmets" painted white with large red cherries on the sides when they made their first jump in their new company.18 All others wore standard helmets covered with camouflage-print cloth.

The term "cherry" is also echoed in the phrase "cherry belly" or "pink belly" (described below). When I pressed for the etymology of the usage, I was told that it might refer to the brightness of a newly issued red beret (though I could detect nothing faded about the berets of any of the troops I saw). My attempts to suggest that there might be some connection between calling a physical assault on an innocent new person a "Cherry Blast" and common sexual slang expressions were categorically denied before I could even spell them out.

Who Gets Cherry Blasted

In 1982 a small but significant proportion of people in the 82nd were women.19 Halberstadt reports women comprised approximately 13% of the division in 1988: 2,200 women out of the 1,100 officers and 15,000 enlisted people, concentrated "in the Plans and Operations shop, at the parachute rigging facility, in the motor pools, and elsewhere" (1988:66). To the best of my knowledge, in 1982 there were no women in Charlie Company (which specialized in heavy equipment and explosives). In any case, while new female officers are subjected to Prop Blasts, Cherry Blasts are strictly male events. My informants could offer no information on whether female enlisted troopers held unauthorized initiation rites.

While Blacks make up a sizable proportion of the 82nd, all of the men who were introduced to me as members of Charlie Company were white. I do not know if there were Blacks in the company, but if there were, they would not have been directly involved in the court martial. Several soldiers stressed that because of the nature of Cherry Blasts, an instance of whites blasting a Black, or vice versa, could well spark off more general violence.

Among the white male troops, Cherry Blasts are reported to be "a common thing for a new guy coming in," yet they do not appear to be universal. Only 12 out of 31 men who returned the short questionnaire reported that they had been Cherry Blasted, and a like proportion reported having blasted others.20 A few reported having been blasted twice. On the open-ended questions two sergeants reported having been blasted in other units before joining the 82nd, one in the Special Forces, the other in Germany, surprisingly in a "leg" unit. A private replied:

I feel that I should have gotten one, because everyone else got one -- I want to be part of the Airborne tradition of being blasted.

Another man told me that when he was posted to Ft. Bragg he knew what to expect, having had an older relative in the 82nd. After a month of waiting anxiously, he provoked his own Cherry Blast one night "to get it over with."

Precipitating Factors

Unlike the officers' initiations which are held on a public, i.e. divisional, level, Cherry Blasts occur within the social limits of the unit of primary identity for enlisted men, the company, composed of about 125 men.

And in contrast to the public location of Prop Blasts, Cherry Blasts take place in the subjects' rooms. Unlike the open bays of World War II barracks, with their long rows of bunk beds, where individuals had no privacy from the other men in the company, modern barracks are divided into small rooms, with a bunk bed and two men in each. This creates the opportunity for individuals to be assaulted in relative privacy and, the command maintains, furtively.

While the ritualized consumption of alcohol serves as both a physical test and first communion in the officers' Prop Blast, among enlisted men alcohol is simply a precipitating factor for Cherry Blasts. Although unscheduled, these events take place on a weekend night, usually just after a pay day, when a small group of older troops return to the barracks, often armed with the legal limit of two six-packs of beer each, after having spent the evening drinking heavily in The Red Beret or some other bar in Fayetteville. In some cases the fun begins earlier when they take the cherry to the bar with them to get drunk. The cherry, of course, buys.

Ill-Defined Structure

Rather than displaying the three-stage structure of a full rite de passage, Cherry Blasts start and stop without formalized context markers. And although there is a lack of standardization in the definition of the constituent elements of a "proper" Cherry Blast, the information collected from many soldiers indicates some clear patterns.

Cherry Blasts start when several older soldiers grab one of the new soldiers in their barracks and physically overpower him. Sometimes two or three cherries will be blasted together. Some resist with their fists, others submit more readily to the punching and kicking that follow. The "blastee's" clothes are stripped or shredded off, and he is held down on a bunk. In some cases he is tied up. He is given a "cherry belly," i.e. his stomach is slapped repeatedly until it is red, swollen, and sore. In many cases the blastee is bitten on the fingers, toes, and buttocks until bruised and bleeding.

Since paratroopers are not supposed to be afraid of falling, the blastee is stuffed into a sleeping bag that is suspended out a second story window. Although one man wrote "We had people hung out windows -- nobody never got dropped," another told me that he was dropped out a window, breaking his ankle and cracking his skull. The sergeant who had been blasted in the Special Forces reported he was "thrown out the 2nd floor window in my sleeping bag -- I was fucked up for 2 weeks." A more benign variant is to force the blastee to demonstrate the PLF by jumping off the apron roof between the first and second floors, running back up the stairs, and jumping over and over. In a few cases, blastees are dragged up and down stairs in foot lockers or sleeping bags.

Another fairly standard act is dragging the blastee into the showers and anointing him with some unpleasant substance. Most commonly this is scalding water, cold water, or beer, but frequently something else is added, shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream, scouring powder, wintergreen, Ben-Gay, Nair, or shoe polish. At times this can get out of hand:

One guy got painted in edge dressing [used to stain the edge of boot soles] -- the guy went to the hospital because his skin started burning.
They poured shoe dye or polish down my roommate's mouth, something like that, he had to get his stomach pumped.
The anointing is usually followed by a "golden shower": "In 1975 40 of us pissed on this guy." Embellishments may involve dragging an extension cord into the shower room and threatening to touch it to the blastee's dog tags, holding his head in a toilet as it is flushed, or forcing him to streak another company's area screaming "I'm a cherry!" Cherry Blasts end without any formal markers. When the perpetrators feel that they've had enough, they wander off to their rooms leaving the blastee to recover or, if necessary, to head for medical attention. The standard response to MPs and medical staff at the hospital, or to the sergeant on the parade ground the next morning (only a few have to report for sick call the next day) is to explain "I fell down the stairs last night."

Troopers' Reactions

The following statements are taken from the questionnaire responses of several men in Charlie Company:

The Cherry Blast puts him
in a stage of manhood.
The blasts are all in good fun.... The victim takes it all in stride. After the blast the guy that's blasted feels like one of the crowd. No hard feelings. I never saw anyone get hurt or upset. People tend to accept that the guy's been blasted.

Just a welcome into the unit type of thing.

Most people accepted it.... I think that the new troop should be indoctrinated by his peers, just as long as no one gets hurt.

I never seen a guy get hurt. Just humiliate a guy so that he is accepted into the company. Bite their feet and drag them around the floor -- fingers too. I feel that Cherry Blasts are needed -- you can tell the difference in the unit from the guy that has been blasted, fits better into the company. The guy that hasn't been blasted has a chip on his shoulder.

After being blasted you're "in".

I think Cherry Blasts are part of being new somewhere.

I've been blasted twice -- I was punched, kicked, bit, tied up, pissed on, thrown in showers, pretty much everything. This is one particular case here; I've seen guys get it 10 times worse. The blasts are all in good fun.

I think they're all right so long as nobody gets hurt.

Cherry Blast keeps the morale up.

Cherry Blast is a morale factor for the unit.

The Cherry Blast puts him in a stage of manhood.

Bruises, teeth marks, and abrasions, it seems, do not constitute significant injuries among paratroopers.

The social aftermath of Cherry Blasts is not, usually, resentment but, quite predictably, a bond of common membership, and sometimes personal friendship, between blasters and blastees. It appears that the pattern of Cherry Blasting follows social lines far more subtle than just racial distinctions. On the one hand, the self-proclaimed "rabble-rousers," those who delight in spending off hours drinking, womanizing, and getting tattooed in Fayetteville, avoid the "barracks rats, the guys who watch TV and spend their time ironing their uniforms and polishing their boots." On the other hand, some new men are clearly picked out as "having a chip on their shoulder" or showing other signs of not accepting the social order in the particular barracks into which they have been inserted: "If the guy is an asshole, fuck with him mentally [to] show him what type of guy he is." The lack of universality means that being Cherry Blasted can be both a victimization and an honor, an invitation to bond with the "rowdies" in what they perceive to be "the Airborne spirit."


The inevitability of Prop Blasts and Cherry Blasts, in one form or another, is well understood by both the officers and the enlisted personnel of the 82nd. Recognition of this fact does not require an extensive comparative knowledge of non-western cultures. As the chief Army psychiatrist indicated in his letter to the court, similar rituals of transition are found among the police, fire fighters, coal miners, and other occupations (one could add off-shore oil rig workers, prisoners, sailors first crossing of the equator and many other examples). Given a moment's reflection, an elite military unit without an induction rite seems inconceivable.

Nor do the officers need post-graduate training in the social sciences to appreciate the positive functions of their rituals; enlisted men can state them quite explicitly (and colorfully). Beyond the organization of seniority already mentioned, Cherry Blasts establish identification with the group, the strength of the identification deriving directly from the severity of the Blast received. While the status of co-blastee does not seem particularly significant, bonds between individual blasters and blastees are established. More generally Cherry Blasting serves to prove the worthiness of the new men to their fellows.

You have to see how much he can take. What if we go to war and he wimps out as a prisoner of war?

What if all the NCOs and officers die? Does he know what to do?

Trust is not a hypothetical issue when one jumps out of an airplane on the assurance of the man behind you that your static line and parachute are in proper order.

To the men being blasted, their Cherry Blast serves as a confirmation of their membership in the esteemed group, and clearly reinforces their commitment to their new role and their loyalty to their new group.

Cherry Blasts do build esprit de corps. They contribute synergistically to officers' efforts in the achievement of joint goals. Yet every few years an incident happens (by no means always the most outrageous or injurious) that transgresses so many regulations that it cannot be ignored but must be dealt with. These episodes not only raise problems for the rational structure of command, which are manageable, but also pose questions about the nature of military order, and social order in general, which are uncomfortable.

The Lack of Bracketing in Cherry Blasts

The absence of signifying acts beginning or completing Cherry Blasts is merely the most obvious example of the metacommunicative ambiguity which pervades these rites. Being unbounded, the hazings are internally unstructured and the meaning of particular acts undifferentiated. They lack the sense, and spatial portrayal, of process found in Prop Blasts. There is, for example, no clear signal of the blastee's reincorporation into the group; events do not fall neatly into the three stages of a rite of passage defined by van Gennep. One is tempted to turn to Garfinkel's model of "degradation ceremonies." Provoked by "moral indignation," (in this case that of introducing an inexperienced man into the group on a structurally equal footing),

The denouncer . . . must not portray himself as acting according to his personal, unique experiences. He must rather be regarded as acting in his capacity as a public figure, drawing upon communally entertained and verified experience. . . . the denounced person must be ritually separated from a place in the legitimate order ... He must be placed "outside," he must be made "strange." The witnesses must appreciate the characteristics of the typed person and event by referring the type to a dialectical counterpart . . . . as the profanity of an occurrence . . . is clarified by the reference it bears to its opposite, the sacred (1956:422-423).

But as Garfinkel reminds us

"A degredation ceremony bears close resemblance to ceremonies of investiture and elevation" (421).

The paucity of context marking during Cherry Blasts is not, I argue, a minor omission of formal detail, but an intrinsic feature from which stems both some of the rite's power and most of its potential for harm. To be sure, some of the features of Cherry Blasts which contrast to the officers' Prop Blasts can be attributed to the lack of long-term continuity in membership among the enlisted personnel, e.g., the highly spontaneous (i.e. subconscious) symbolism of constituent acts, and the use of whatever objects are at hand rather than the ritualized use of particularly meaningful material symbols. But it is the absence of bracketing and punctuation which leaves the construction of meaning dangerously open. Without formal markers, the context by which meaning is created remains ambiguous; no standard is specified delineating what is an appropriate thing to do to blastees and what is inappropriate, what is legitimate and what is illegitimate. Moreover, Cherry Blasts are not held en masse by the unit acting as a body but are perpetrated by a small number of men acting privately on the assumption of shared but unstated values. The absence of public scrutiny and a communal definition of what constitutes legitimate or illegitimate motivations on the part of the initiators fosters irresponsibility. Coupled with this, the uncertainty about who is vulnerable to being blasted (and whether or not they remain so after one episode) promotes victimization. Likewise, the very voluntarism of choosing to be a blaster allows the development of cliques within a company that are counterproductive to group interests.

As mentioned, some men being Cherry Blasted are forced to perform PLFs out a second floor window. But this is an exception. Unlike initiands in a Prop Blast who are put through several performances, the targets of Cherry Blasts, are not told to do anything but are almost totally acted upon. There is thus little opportunity for the enlisted blastee to work through the symbolic twists, puns, and inversions which characterize the peculiar state of liminality. Instead, the moment of ritual license belongs only to the self-selected initiators. License to do just what is left unclear; for some taking the part of blaster and losing oneself again in the rite may serve as the completion of the ritual process. There is, however, no clear marker of having taken this role.

The Illegal vs. The Illacknowledged

The problem faced by officers is complex: they may be ignorant of the details, but they know Cherry Blasts exist. Their personal points of view vary from approval, to unstated tolerance, indifference, quiet disapproval, or outright disgust. But from the point of view of the command, Cherry Blasts must remain officially unrecognized. I do not think any officer serious thinks that all physical hazing among the lower ranks can be eliminated. Any attempt by the command to regulate Cherry Blasts would seem, therefore, unavoidably to involve condoning some clear breach of regulations designed to protect individual rights.21 But to deny the existence of Cherry Blasts as a social fact, as an inherent part of what the 82nd is and stands for, is to deny one's understanding of one's own experience. The situation is thus reminiscent of "the curious disparity of awareness" that characterizes Bateson's model of schizogenic family dynamics (1972:237).

From the point of view of the troops, as several clearly recognized in their comments to me, Cherry Blasts derive some of their power from the fact that they are unruly, outlaw events. They express a measure of defiant social autonomy among the men in the barracks, a quality that would be compromised by any ceremony overseen by officers. But being ignored is also an affront. Many men reported that as long as Cherry Blasts did not run afoul of the military police, officers dismissed the practice as so much "horseplay" in the barracks. These comments were made with a clear sense of resentment at the implication that their rituals were not to be taken as meaningful. Several enlisted men also pointed to the Prop Blasts as justification for their own actions, and stated resentment at a "double standard" being applied in the decision to proceed with a court martial.

The tensions beneath the surface can be seen in the issue of cherry helmets. As mentioned above, their use was ended in 1980 or 1981 (one trooper in Charlie Company claimed that they were still being used in other companies at the time of the court martial in 1982). The extraordinary mass maneuvers of the 82nd are accomplished, not by souls submitting with monastic humility, but by assertive young men straining figuratively, and literally, at their harnesses. To mark a semi-outsider so obviously at a critical moment will be seen by a few as an invitation to express their egotism. I was told by some enlisted men that they considered it great sport, if the opportunity arose during the descent, to scare the cherry by aiming their parachutes toward him rather than attempting to maximize the margin of safety between themselves and the other men in the air.22 The order ending the use of cherry helmets explained that they were not "tactical" (in this usage a matte finish wristwatch with camouflage cloth strap is "tactical," a shiny watch is "non-tactical"). One trooper argued to me, however, that the former use of cherry helmets demonstrated that the command was being hypocritical in bringing charges against men for holding a Cherry Blast, that everyone understood that the purpose of the order was to withdraw tacit approval of known hazing and that the rather lame excuse given showed that the brass could not discuss the issue honestly.

Military Free Will

Every member of the Airborne is a volunteer at least three times over. They have volunteered, as individuals, to join the Army, to be trained as paratroopers, and to become members of a highly elite unit, the 82nd. But what have they volunteered? After three weeks of jump school, having evidenced an intense desire to join, having accepted the depersonalization of being nameless, of being called "AIRBORNE," of dealing with the peer pressure that builds as the class approaches the moment in which each person's performance endangers others, who or what is it that exercises the decision to "request" blood wings? In a very real sense paratroopers have surrendered their individuality and placed themselves in an organization where they serve the will of others. It is quite explicitly understood that this may lead to a situation in which they are personally expendable.

Yet the Airborne is as deeply immersed in the premises of western civilization as the rest of our society. This means not only a legal system which locates all agency and responsibility in the individual, but an epistemology that includes the concept of free will. But since the Army is an explicitly undemocratic institution, paradoxes abound. In order to do military justice, courts martial must grapple with the elusive concept of military free will.

The differences between field work and administrative office work could not be greater than they are in the Airborne. To judge the former in terms of the latter would only encourage a cynical view among the troops, an interpretation of the social order that is always available, and far more dangerous than the practices of hazing if it becomes widespread. To maintain that Prop Blasts are within regulations while Cherry Blasts are not is to split hairs, and the wrong hairs at that. Sporadically reactions to the problems inherent in Cherry Blasts on legalistic grounds are clearly inappropriate - inappropriate because they start from the categorical distinction of the "individual," whole, separate, and ultimately autonomous, capable of free will, standing in opposition to the mysterious, ultimately antagonistic, group. To the extent that military justice was done in this case, it came about because the sentences were determined not "by the book" but in light of mutually constituting experiences, even if they could only be acknowledged indirectly between officers and troops.

Implications for Psychological Anthropology

The inside reflects the outside; the psyche is shaped by cultural meanings and social actions. This is a constant process in everyday life. But initiations, conversions, therapies, etc., are particularly focused attempts to effect such change. And to be successful, the person who is the subject of these efforts must surrender his or her will and accept the role of object, placing some significant part of the self under the molding power of others. Here is where the lack of bracketing in Cherry Blasts is particularly dangerous.

Both Prop Blasts and Cherry Blasts, are supposed to be taken "in jest." Precisely because they are involved in the very serious task of building identity with an organization whose business is "death from above," participants must not take the rites "personally." That is, they must not confuse an attempt to undo and rebuild some aspect of the social persona which they have internalized with an attack upon their inner personal self, the self that is historically related to early childhood and primary identity. To do so in this case is to become brutalized by the rites, either as victimizer or victim.

If we view individuals as ontologically primary, and society as a secondary construct of those interacting individuals, than we do not have an adequate basis for understanding how shared ideas inform the development of individuals. Similarly, we must avoid an individual/group dualism that presupposes that the physical unity of the person is automatically matched by a social and psychological unity. Such a premise obscures the extent to which any person is psychosocially formed by the intersection of a vast number of shared ideas. Individually, we are faced with the task of recognizing the import of experiences, deciding their meaning in the larger flow of events, sorting, associating, or separating the information they convey, and reinforcing or changing our selves accordingly. Success is not guaranteed, but it is fostered by those interactions which give the individual more richly layered information at critical times in the organization of self. In the enlisted men's Cherry Blasts we see the need to mark social boundaries and to rework individuals' minds as they cross those boundaries. But the furtiveness of these events limits their elaboration and allows recurrent violence. In the officers' Prop Blasts, which have been free to develop under the aegis of legitimacy, we see the need to generate elaborate rituals around such transitions, rituals to protect the individual mind from disorder by symbolically marking and ordering the social events which touch it deeply.

  • 1 Since their beginnings in 1942, American paratroopers have been organized and reorganized under a large number of different unit designations. "Of the five airborne divisions of 1945, only one remains a full-fledged parachute organization, and that is the 82nd..." One other division has been reorganized for helicopter- and airplane-based air- assault. "Airborne" as a general term referring to parachutists, also includes Air Force Air/Sea Rescue units, the Navy SEALs, Marine Force Recon units, and in the Army the 82nd, the Special Forces, the Rangers, and several Special Operation Forces, some of which are "clandestine," including the DELTA force and small units specializing in high altitude, free-fall attack (Halberstadt 1988:15-16,61). To simplify, the 82nd are the "regular paratroopers" specializing in low altitude mass jumps followed by conventional military assaults. As such they are the descendants of the units which jumped at Sicily, Salerno, Normandy, and Nijmegen-Arnhem, and fought the Battle of the Bulge (Hoyt 1979).
  • 2 Although I was told some of the facts of the case "off the record," my interviews and my testimony were focused on the group practices that formed the context of the case, not on the specific events which led to the trial.
  • 3 Since Cherry Blasts are localized within companies, there is a fair amount of variation in different outfits. I understand that the practices described here, based on data from men in Charlie Company in 1982, may be more violent than those found in other parts of the 82nd at that time. It has also been suggested to me that hazings and roughhouse behavior in general probably declined sharply after the combat actions in Grenada and Panama. One wonders, however, a year after Desert Storm, how the differences between new members of the Division, and the majority, who wear combat badges, will be ritually marked.
  • 4 In order to maintain their independence, the XVIIIth Airborne Corps Trial Defense Service, and other legal services in the Army, are under the command of the Adjutant General rather than the command structure of the particular units in which they are posted.
  • 5 The details from this section are drawn from Halberstadt, 1988.
  • 6 On the first jump in school, the jumpmaster checks and dispatches each student individually with a loud "GO" and a slap on the backside. In all subsequent jumps, once the jumpmaster shouts "GO" to their leader, the jumpers in a stick shuffle toward the door (carrying up to 130 pounds of equipment) and leave the plane at one second intervals. A mass jump, with hundreds of troops exiting several airplanes in just a few minutes without the slightest hesitation or variation in spacing, is an amazing display of coordination and individual resolve.
  • 7 The objective is to get a maximum number of people on the ground in a minimal amount of time with an acceptably low rate of injury. The less time in the air, the less vulnerable the parachutist is to ground fire. Training jumps are made from an altitude of 1250 feet. The minimum altitude for exercises by the 82nd is 800 feet (planes in the second and subsequent waves come in slightly higher). If no parachute opens, the jumper will hit the ground in eight or nine seconds. The main parachute should open by the count of four. Since the reserve parachute needs to be deployed at least 100 feet off the ground, jumping from 800 feet gives the parachutist two or three seconds at most to make the right decision if the main parachute malfunctions and still have time for the reserve to open (panicking and releasing the reserve prematurely may be a fatal error, for the two parachutes can tangle such that neither opens properly). The two Ranger battalions who led the assault on Grenada in 1983 jumped, under hostile fire, from 500 feet. They did not bother to carry reserve parachutes. The American record is probably held by the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment's 1944 assault on Noemfoor Island, Netherlands New Guinea. They were dropped, through smoke, onto a coral strip littered with heavy equipment, reputedly from an altitude of 350, 200, or 175 feet (Hoyt 1979:84; Weeks 1982:47; Halberstadt 1988:125 - the story improves with age). They suffered almost 10 percent casualties in landing despite the absence of Japanese resistance.
  • 8 This method of landing was perfected by Flight Lieutenant Kilkenny of the RAF Physical Fitness Branch in 1941 (Weeks 1982:50).
  • 9 I am not aware of any women serving in the Rangers.
  • 10 The mountaineering course features walking blindfolded off a cliff into a mountain lake in full battle gear, while jungle survival training includes parachuting into the Central American jungle with only knives and learning to subsist on a diet of lizards and wild fruits.
  • 11 Weiss's article, while groundbreaking, unfortunately jumped between personal superstitions and group rituals, and mixed data from jump school with a description of only the last stage of Prop Blasts.
  • 12 The following comments by a first sergeant, quoted by Halberstadt (1988:100) are typical:
    The average paratrooper is quite a bit different from guys in other units, like night and day. Not just what they knew and how they trained, but their attitude. They're a different type of individual, they really are. A whole different attitude than you have in other units; they're tough, they're good to their buddies, they're loyal. It is particularly apparent when you go away, you can pick the airborne guys out of a crowd. They are a cut above; they expect to be a cut above! (emphasis in original)
  • 13 Weiss refers to the drink as "blast juice" (1967:24).
  • 14 The 82nd Airborne Historical Museum pamphlet (n.d.:2) explains:
    The 82nd was activated as an infantry division at Camp Gorden, Ga., Aug. 25, 1917. It was discovered there were men in the unit from each of the United States. That was the basis for the nickname "All Americans" and the design of the red, white, and blue shoulder patch with the "AA."
  • 15 Each jump is preceded by a detailed refresher course and thorough safety check of each piece of each trooper's equipment. Given the logistics when a large number of people are involved, spending a minute in the air can take all day. Some senior officers in rear echelon units wait for the opportunity to join small drops in order to meet the jump requirement with a minimum of hassle. For enlisted men the quota is no problem; they must jump much more frequently. Several explained to me that they joined the 82nd "to jump out of airplanes" and complained about the time spent on the ground on jump days. It is indicative of the Airborne spirit that there are four parachute clubs on the base for people who want to do sport jumping in their spare time.
  • 16 In "one of the largest airdrops since World War II," 2,200 paratroopers jumped over the Mojave Desert. In addition to the four fatalities, 156 others sustained injuries (New York Times Index 1982:1063).
  • 17 The classic example of morbid humor is the Airborne Song "Blood on the Risers" (the risers are the straps that attach the harness to the canopy's suspension lines), sung before the first jump in school (Halberstadt 1988:46). It is the ballad of a soldier who jumps with his static line unhooked, becomes entangled in his reserve parachute, and hits the ground with a "splat!" The chorus starts "Gory, gory what a helluva way to die" sung to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic (82nd Airborne Historical Museum n.d.:7).
  • 18 One member of the 82nd apparently escaped wearing a cherry helmet the hard way:
    Although the jumpers [who lead the assault on Grenada in 1983] were mostly from the Ranger battalions at Fort Benning, two of them came from the 82nd, and for one it was his "cherry" jump - the first after jump school. It got him and all the others who made the combat jump a small bronze star on their jump wings (Halberstadt 1988:31).
  • 19 The presence of female paratroopers, particularly in the enlisted ranks, raises a number of issues for the 82nd (including, of course, the psychosocial dynamics which are the focus of this paper) which are of concern to the command, debated among the troops, and still largely uninvestigated by social scientists.
  • 20 One might suspect some of the negative responses since, under the conditions of the impending court martial, they were statements of either solidarity with, or distancing from, the defendants, the top sergeant (who was under pressure from above) or the men's immediate officers who were concerned with controlling the potential damage to their own careers.
  • 21 These should not be read as impartial comments; their tone reflects company esprit de corps and solidarity with the respondents' four comrades then awaiting trial.
  • 22 In comparison to sport parachutes, military parachutes have very little maneuverability. The 82nd Airborne use two models, the MC1-1B with vents controlled by toggle lines that allow 360 degree turns and some forward motion, and the unvented T10, which can only be directed to a small degree "by spilling air out one side of the canopy or the other." "Airborne students make two jumps with [the MC1-1B] parachute, but they are not likely to use it much after that. Almost everyone in the 82nd jumps with the good old T10" (Halberstadt 1988:125-126). I was told the use of the less maneuverable T10 was considered the best method of minimizing mid-air collisions, although it obviously puts severe limitations on the paratrooper's ability to pick the landing spot.
82nd Airborne Historical Museum
n.d. The 82nd Airborne Division. Ft. Bragg, N.C.
Bateson, Gregory
1972 Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
Bey, Douglas R., M.D.
1972 Group Dynamics and the "F.N.G." in Vietnam - A Potential Focus of Stress. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy 22(1):22-30.
Garfinkel, Harold
1956 Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies. The American Journal of Sociology 61(5):420-424.
Halberstadt, Hans
1988 Airborne: Assault from the Sky. Novato, California: Presidio Press. (The Presidio Power Series. Landpower Book #3001)
Hoyt, Edwin P.
1979 Airborne: The History of American Parachute Forces. New York: Stein and Day/Publishers/Scarborough House.
New York Times Index
1982 Four paratroopers of 82nd Airborne Div die ...(March 31, 1:5), Airborne Division Aide ... (April 1, 18:1).
Van Gennep, Arnold
1908 The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (First published in French 1908)
Weeks, John
1982 The Airborne Soldier. Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press.
Weiss, Melford S.
1967 Rebirth in the Airborne. Trans-action 4(6):23-26.
Whiting, J. W. M., R. Kluckhohn, and A. Anthony
1958 The function of male initiation ceremonies at puberty. In Readings in Social Psychology. E. E. Maccoby et al., eds. pp. 359- 370. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.


INITIANDSNewly arrived officers in large groups Newly arrived enlisted men individually or in small numbers
INITIATORSSenior officers Self-appointed gangs of fellow enlisted men of longer standing
HISTORY Evolved over decades among officers with relatively long service in several Army units Evolved in small groups with high turnover of membership
STRUCTUREClassic 3-part initiation
  1. symbolic death: inspection and disassembly
  2. physical ordeals and tests: hundreds of pushups,
    liminal state: mock combat in bear pit
  3. rebirth: recognition, certification
Rite of degradation
  • subject is physically overwhelmed
  • biting and beating
  • pink belly
  • hanging out window in sleeping bag
  • PLFs off second story roof
  • golden shower
  • anointing with wintergreen, paint, shoe polish, etc.
STANDARDIZATION Highly standardized formUnstandardized in content (Lack of definition of appropriate motivations or constituent elements)
SYMBOLISM Very elaborate and consciously worked outLargely unconscious
PARAPHERNALIA Sacred objects from Airborne Museum No specialized equipment, whatever is at hand
TIMING Scheduled a few times a year, Saturdays: noon to late nightSporadically, several times a year Friday or Saturday nights
SOCIAL VISIBILITY Public, mass gatherings of officers Furtive, allegedly outside awareness of both officers and sergeants
LOCATION Tabooed space, Starts in general's drivewayPrivate space, In rooms in barracks
INITIAND'S DRESS Starts with jump gear, Fatigues throughoutInitiand stripped
PHYSICALITYPhysically demanding, Occasional injuries, At least one fatalityDirect assault on body and mind of initiand, Injuries in all cases (usually minor)
USE OF ALCOHOL Ritualized drink by candidate at end Initiators drunk beforehand
LEGAL STATUS Officially sanctioned and supervised by top officersIllegal. Widely known to exist. Approved, condoned or deplored but officially unrecognized.