Profile: Carol Burke
The atmosphere around Carol Burke belies her association
with military culture. Her office, a bright, airy room in the
newly renovated Abel Wolman House on Charles Street, is decorated
with plants, photos and artwork, including childhood etchings by
Burke's now teen-age daughters. And her inviting demeanor and
casual presence are not what one might expect from a woman who is
considered an expert on the treatment, training and conduct of
Yet for the past several years, Burke, an associate dean for academic affairs in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, has immersed herself in the study of the rigid and often criticized practices of military training and life. Before arriving at Hopkins, she was a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. She is also the author of numerous articles on women in the military, prison culture and American folklore.
Though Burke believes there are benefits to the kind of discipline that occurs at military camps and institutions, she is a fierce critic of ritual humiliation seen in some traditional practices that date back to the 1600s. She is also dismayed, but not completely surprised, at the accusations of abuse against women who enter the male-dominated world of the military.
Burke is currently researching and writing a book that will examine military culture. It is expected to be published in January 1999 by Harcourt Brace.
It is the blatant behavior, including one practice during which recruits march in groups exposing themselves, that may garner headlines. But Burke is also interested in the mundane everyday demands that affect the lives of those who serve in the military.
"If you look at the transition period in most branches of service from civilian life and civilian identity to a military life and a military identity, you see a very conscious effort on the part of military institutions to erase an old individuality and substitute a corporate one," Burke said. "You take away the clothes, you shave the hair, you deprive them of sleep, you yell and scream at them. What that does is break down the individual and make him a follower. That's a somewhat risky process when waging wars demands both followers and leaders."
Military training institutions like Annapolis and West Point and quasi-military institutions like The Citadel were designed to breed good followers and leaders, Burke said. Part of that breeding has historically included induction pranks of sending flaming aerosol fumes under dorm doors and ritualized "paddling" sessions, acts of intimidation and punishment reminiscent of life in a British boy's school.
"The flaming practice at service academies has been going on for years," she said. "The simulated sodomy that sometimes appears in military rites of passage has never been sanctioned, but it has been condoned. Brought out of the closed institution and revealed to a larger public, it becomes shocking," she said.
Behavior that may sound outrageous to those on the "outside" is deeply rooted and traditional to those taking part.
"For members it is not rational," she said. "It's just something that is done."
Over the years, the Pentagon has studied the effects of military training on recruits. Burke challenges the military to direct their psychologists to conduct research that would justify the ritual humiliation many tout as essential. She does not believe such justification would be forthcoming.
"I think there are far more sophisticated ways to train people to work in groups that are more effective," she said.
While women have made great strides in the military, the training techniques have largely remained the same.
"In civilian life, there has certainly been a re-examination of gender roles and of what masculinity is," Burke said. "There is a nostalgia in the military for an institution you could count on to confer manhood to its members."
Burke recalled talking to a national news reporter recently about the harassment and abuses against women in the service and the service academies.
"He couldn't understand why I would not be willing to admit that if you're going to have women in the military, sexual abuse is inevitable," she said, still surprised at the interview." He said, 'When you get these women together with these men, they're going to have attractions to one another.'
"I said, 'Abusing somebody is not an amorous attraction. It's an effort to destroy them, to weed them out, to get rid of them," she said. "That comes from a whole history of abuse being ritualized and sanctioned over and over and over."
Burke does, however, believe there are benefits to the kind of training that occurs at military camps and institutions.
"All the technical training is absolutely appropriate and necessary, as well as deference to authority and the sacrifice of individual desires for group accomplishments," she said. "These are essential to military discipline."
In fact, Burke believes many military institutions would benefit from adopting the "group first attitude" drilled into recruits.
"Military culture is made not born. If the traditions which constitute it do not further the goals of a democratic society, they must be transformed," she said. "Even some of the people in the military would agree with that."
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