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Military Punishments: Then and Now

Militaries across the ages have tried to instil discipline using a cocktail of humiliation, pain and downright fear of death…

Image from Lance Cpl. John Kennicutt / marines.mil

Militaries across the ages have tried to instil discipline using a cocktail of humiliation, pain and downright fear of death.  From the Romans to Britain and Japan, the threat of humiliation and physical violence has been seen as an effective method of discipline. Thankfully, armies have realised the strength of team-building and character-formation exercises for maintaining morale and authority. As a result bizarre and cruel punishments are no longer so de rigueur. You can read more about this topic here.

Back In The Day…

For misbehaving soldiers, the Romans decided to make that most enjoyable of pastimes – eating – a very uncomfortable experience indeed.  They were forced to eat raw barley, causing inflaming their digestive system.  Other sanctions involved docking pay or even banning them from using fire and water. This removal of access to facilities crops up again in the modern military punishment of food rationing.

Over a millennium after the Romans, The U.S. Civil War saw both sides use a humiliating method for punishing minor infractions called bucking and gagging.  The person would have their arms tied around their shins and a rod put under their knees, and then gagged.  Not much opportunity to make their case like that… 

The Dutch navy liked to use their own boats as instruments of punishment.  They would drag the accused under the boat where they were often scratched by the barnacles and would then either drown or be left scarred for life. A slightly different take on marine discipline than walking the plank…

Image from Benjamin Park / Flickr

The British military has its own history of questionable punishments.  The navy used birching and flogging while the army used the whirligig, which was a spinning cage that would severely disorient the accused occupier, causing nausea. Birching involved whipping the accused with steamed birch twigs soaked in salt and vinegar, while flogging was straight-up whacking them with waxed ropes… ouch.

More Recently…

These historic examples of disciplinary methods are quite shocking, but there have been some pretty brutal examples more recently, too. During WWII, the Japanese military were very harsh on seemingly tiny slip-ups, such as dress code or responding incorrectly to hearing the Emperor’s name. The Japanese military were known for their rib-cracking, teeth-smashing beatings that would leave soldiers permanently maimed. You have to wonder what use this physical assault is to an army when having soldiers be fighting-fit is ideal for them. The deterrent factor might have been quite high though…

What About Today?

In today’s world, punishments are still meted out that are uncomfortable and potentially damaging to health such as confinement, food denial and public shaming. However, these are enforced alongside the commonly-recognised importance of building morale. If soldiers feel bound by teamwork rather than an abject fear of physical punishment, it seems less necessary to be so physically threatening to convey authority.

Looking back, it is all too easy to trivialise these unorthodox historic punishments.  Our relation to these time periods occurs mainly through textbooks and history lessons.  However, the soldiers affected were real people and the world in which they lived was cruel. The only distance between their world and ours is the passage of time, and the change in attitudes over that time. Thank goodness for the progress which has been made towards more holistic methods of discipline, in both military and civilian life! For some slightly happier military customs, read about the three things you need to know when attending a military wedding.

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