These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways

Robert Ranstadler - January 23, 2018

History is painted red with the blood of countless battles. Ancient tribes and loose bands of warriors ruthlessly slaughtered one another while fighting over spirits or scarce resource. As time progressed, the ranks of monarchical and national armies swelled with soldiers who, willingly or otherwise, marched off to more “civilized” wars. Prior to meeting on the field of battle, all these combatants were forced to follow initiation rites or training the fostered their lethality, obedience, and discipline. What follows are twelve timeless trials that tested the mettle of would-be warriors from ancient times to the present.

Akkad’s Military Dictatorship (2334 – 2154 BC)

In lifting the veils of the past and peering through the misty haze of antiquity, one would expect to find tales of primitive cultures that lacked the organizational practices and sophisticated features of more modern societies. Nothing could have been further from the truth, during the late third millennium BC, when some of the world’s first agrarian societies were vying for power in remote areas of ancient Eurasia. Centuries of incessant conflict across contested stretches of fertile land eventually gave rise to the Akkadian Empire, a venerable powerhouse of early Mesopotamia, and one of history’s first professional armies.

Sargon the Great (later, Sargon of Akkad) founded the empire that bore his name c. 2340 BC; almost two thousand years before his Persians successors first clashed with the western world. He ruled with an iron fist, from atop what was perhaps the world’s first military dictatorship, and is credited with forcibly uniting the city-states of Sumer and Akkad under a single banner. Scholars glean a great deal of information about the Akkadian Empire from ancient Sumerian administrative records etched into clay tablets. Carved in cuneiform—one of the world’s oldest written languages—these accounts reveal much about Akkadian warfare.

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Akkadian army.

The rise of sedentary farming centers led to the growth of diversified labor and made professional soldiering possible starting around 4000 BC. Constant battles between Mesopotamian city-states hastened their martial development beyond that of neighboring cultures. Administrative records and archeological evidence suggest that the Akkadian army consisted of thousands of troops who were forced to serve dictators under brutally tough conditions. While little is specifically known about Akkadian basic training, conscripted soldiers were compelled to serve their ruler under penalty of torture or death—a world first that earned them an initial nod on this list.

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Spartans at war. Total War Wiki.

Spartan Krypteia Initiation (900 – 396 BC)

The Greek city-state of Sparta was home to some of the most feared warriors in history. Many movies and books recount the stories of a martial society so grim that their very name is invoked today when describing rugged individuals or localities devoid of frivolous comforts or luxuries. The Spartans are frequently portrayed as champions of western liberty and freedom, bravely defending the Hellenistic world against encroaching adversaries from the near east. The reality of the matter was much grimmer—especially for the young men who were forcibly recruited into an elite and mysterious Spartan faction known as the Krypteia.

Spartan life was demanding from the start. Baby boys, if deemed weak of unfit at birth, were often left to starve in the wilderness or pitched off the edge of a cliff. Infants fortunate enough to make it past this initial inspection were pressed into a life of austere frugality where any sign of emotional or physical weakness was met with quick and swift punishment. Preadolescent boys were indoctrinated into a harsh military environment and warrior lifestyle by participating in ritualistic combat training, receiving public beatings, and being cast off on survival excursions into the unforgiving Laconian wilds.

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Recruited by the Spartans. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Candidates who passed all the above trials earned the iconic crimson cape of a Spartan hoplite. For some, however, the journey did not end there. A select few went on to join the ranks of the Krypteia, an elite branch of covert killers and Bronze Age commandos. Many historians agree that the Krypteia served three purposes. First, they kept the helot (slave) population in check by terrorizing local peasants. Second, they acted as a sort of quasi-secret police force that performed the bidding of the state. Finally, they waged guerrilla warfare against any who dared oppose Sparta on the battlefield.

Pairs of Krypteia recruits were provided with nothing more than daggers and ordered to roam the countryside under the cover of darkness. Their initiation was literally an exercise in coldblooded murder. Eager candidates would stealthily approach groups of unsuspecting peasants and pounce upon them, while they either slept or were otherwise unprepared to defend themselves against a surprise assault. The timeless philosopher Plato described the practice in a more romantic light, writing that the Krypteia “afforded a wonderfully severe training in hardihood, as the men go bare-foot in winter… and rove through the whole countryside both by night and day.”

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Roman troops on the march. Metaphysic’s Speaks.

Roman Legionary Combat Training (107 BC – 200 AD)

It’s difficult to think of a military force more disciplined, well-structured, or influential than the hardnosed legions of the early Roman Empire. Nascent legios safeguarded the budding Roman Republic as early as the 5th century BC. Organizational and operational reforms improved upon these early units, with Rome’s military might reaching its zenith during the late 2nd century BC. Early armies were nothing more than loosely organized part-time soldiers, while the legions of the late empire primarily consisted of unreliable mercenaries. In between these two ends of the strategic spectrum existed perhaps the finest standing army of antiquity.

During the early Roman Republic, General Gaius Marius instituted a series of improvements that professionalized military service. His edicts fundamentally changed the composition and role of the Roman army, which significantly affected the legions and those serving within their ranks. The most significant aspect of these “Marian reforms” was the unprecedented inclusion of landless men into the Roman ranks. Another innovation was the introduction of the Roman Legionary, or heavy infantry, that most people think of when imagining a soldier from the period. Expanding the army, however, meant that droves of new troops would require intense training and stern discipline.

The Roman chronicler Vegetius observed, “Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it.” To that end, men assigned to the legions literally trained around the clock—drilling, marching, and fighting until exhaustion. Food was withheld from those who failed to master weapons training or specific drill movements. Soldiers were additionally forced to carry loads of at least 60 pounds over countless miles of rough and difficult terrain. Nonconformists, deserters, and cowards were kept in line with public beatings, torture, or the arbitrary murder (decimation) of their comrades.

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Vikings. The History Channel.

The Viking Hernaðr (793 – 1066 AD)

Viking culture has seen a resurgence in popularity over the past several years, with major movies, television shows, and books recounting the exploits of famous figures in medieval Scandinavian culture. What’s worth mentioning before moving on, however, is that not all Scandinavians were Vikings. The title Viking derives from Old Norse and Old English, roughly translating to “raider” or “pirate” in modern English. Thus, while life was certainly tough for almost everyone in medieval Northern Europe, adventurous Vikings sailing to the far-off coasts of Britannia or the European continent were a particularly hardy and brutal breed of Northmen.

Unlike the some of the emerging powers in continental Europe, or the earlier Western Roman Empire, the Vikings didn’t organize themselves into standing armies. Groups of Scandinavian raiders would instead unite for political, cultural, or economic reasons in the quest for power, fortune, or glory. Savage bands of plunders raided most of coastal Europe for centuries, slaughtering any who stood in their path. Their brutal effectiveness on the battlefield stemmed from many years of hard training while growing up in a culture that glorified virtues like bravery, strength, and decisiveness.

Scandinavian children were taught the lessons of warfare through hunting and violent sport. Eager warriors often pledge allegiance to influential jarls (kings) who waged incessant wars against their rivals. Vikings, on the other hand, looked to the sea and the promise of glory abroad. Part-time adventurers participating in these hernaðrs (campaigns) gained considerable experience and prestige, but were at the mercy of leaders who followed an unforgiving honor system. Moreover, medieval Scandinavia laws and Norse sagas condoned punitive killings under a variety of circumstances. Suffice to say, raiding was a tough way to learn the ropes.

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Maori warriors. Daily Mail.

The Māori Warrior Ethos (1280 – 1872 AD)

An indigenous New Zealand culture, the Māori evolved in near isolation until visited by Europeans during the mid-seventeenth century. Their lives were thus a bit less differentiated than continental societies, with a greater emphasis placed on fighting than diversified labor. Tribal warfare was virtually compulsory, with most boys expected to fight for their chief before manhood. Initially, however, small groups of these early Polynesian settlers coexisted with one another in relative peace. They first arrived at their present-day home around 1280 AD, when there was little competition over plentiful land and resources.

Over the next few centuries, dramatic climate change and a string of natural disasters placed an ecological strain on local resources. These challenges spurred mass tribal migrations that inevitably led to conflict amongst competing Māori factions. Decades of violent infighting gave rise to one of the most savage and feared warrior cultures the world has ever seen. To this day, the largest domestic engagement in New Zealand history is the Battle of Hingakaka, which occurred c. 1780 AD. The encounter was fought between about 16,000 warriors who brutally slaughtered 7,000 of their tribal neighbors in vicious hand-to-hand combat.

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
A Maori patu pounamu (war club). New Guinea Tribal Art.

The unique spiritual and cultural beliefs of the Māori, along with their taste for combat, gave rise to a brutal warrior ethos. Men initially armed themselves with heavy wooden or stone clubs that were designed to crush an opponent’s skull. Māori wars, in addition to being fought over scarce resources, were a means of restoring tribal mana (power). Europeans introduced some of the Māori gunpowder weapons, during the early 1800s, which precipitated a string of conflicts collectively known as the Musket Wars. For nearly 40 years, various Māori factions fought over 3,000 intertribal battles that resulted in an estimated 40,000 deaths.

Initiation rites took place during early boyhood. The training was ritualistic and very much a part of daily life. They were taught, for example, to extract vengeance by consuming fallen opponents through ceremonial cannibalism. Warriors who excelled in Māori society displayed their accomplishments with tā mokos, body markings placed on the face, buttocks, or thighs. Unlike the ink tattoos that many of us are familiar with today, the tā moko was literally carved into the skin of the recipient, resulting in a series of artistic grooves and patterns. Violence perpetuated violence in Māori culture, from the cradle to the grave.

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Janissaries in action. Alchetron.

Janissaries and the Ottoman Devsirme (1363 – 1826 AD)

Pretend you’re a young Christian boy or teenager, perhaps 6 to 14 years of age, living in medieval Eastern Europe. Your days are dark and troubling. Now imagine the horror of being kidnapped from your home and taken to a faraway land. Next, you’re forced, under penalty of death, to renounce your family name, convert to Islam, and take up arms for a foreign power. This was the Ottoman devsirme—a blood tax involving the forcible abduction and recruitment of tens of thousands of Balkan children into one of the most elite military units in history, the Turkish Janissaries.

Roughly meaning “new soldier” in English, the Janissaries were a professional corps of highly-trained Turkish troops exclusively loyal to the Ottoman Sultan. Widely regarded as Europe’s first professional army, the Janissaries were originally intended to be nothing more than elite bodyguards for Murad I (r. 1362-89). Over the centuries, however, the Janissaries developed into a fearsome fighting force, with individual soldiers mastering many soldiery arts, such as horsemanship, archery, swordplay, and eventually marksmanship. Initially numbering no more than 1,000 men, the Janissary’s ranks swelled to over 40,000 troops during the early 18th century.

Janissaries were involved in some of the most influential battles in European history including the capturing of Constantinople (1453), the conquering of Egypt’s elite Mamluks, the Siege of Vienna (1529), and the three-month-long Great Siege of Malta (1565). Despite their many successes, a string of sociopolitical developments eventually eroded the Janissaries’ battlefield prowess; especially after gaining significant political power and influence. While it might seem counterintuitive for the Janissaries to have lost strength from a position of authority, that’s precisely what happened. Biased troop selections and leadership appointments resulted in the “civilianization” of the force and their eventual demise.

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Prussian grenadiers under Frederick the Great.

Prussian Conscription and Discipline (1701 – 1919 AD)

Anyone devoting serious amounts of time to studying military history is familiar with the evolution and influence of the Royal Prussian Army, which served the predecessor kingdom and state of modern-day Germany for approximately 200 years. Tracing its origins back to 17th century Europe, the monarchical Prussian army was founded during a time when roving bands of hired mercenaries dominated the tactical landscape. These motley groups of killers held shifting interests, sold their services to the highest bidder, and had no qualms about abusing or murdering noncombatants while waging wars on behalf of their affluent patrons.

Enter the Great Elector, Frederick William of Brandenburg, who sought to expand and standardize his royal army during the closing years of one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history, the Thirty Years’ War. In conjunction with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) Frederick raised a standing army of over 30,000 men through the first use of mass conscription in the modern era. William recognized the fact that his decision would not be welcomed by all the peasantry and aimed to control his new levies with an iron fist.

Prussian military officials made use of several punitive policies in dealing with unruly troops, such as hanging deserters and looters, public lashings, and the running of the gauntlet—a particularly savage form of corporal punishment where the offending soldier was forced to run between two columns of men who would lash out and strike the condemned man with blunt objects, such as rods or stones. Prussian tacticians and strategists introduced several innovations in maneuver warfare, which required incessant drilling and practice. Conformity was so stifling that soldiers unable to grow beards were forced to paint their faces!

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Impressed into naval service.

British Royal Navy Impressment (c. 1800 AD)

The United Kingdom’s Royal Navy is one of the world’s oldest and most respected professional military institutions, boasting an operational history that spans over four centuries. Critics lament recent declines in the organization, citing budget shortfalls and aging technology as points of concern. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of sailors currently enjoy fruitful employ within the Her Majesty’s Naval Service. To be sure, there were darker times in the RN’s history—particularly around the turn of the 19th century when the old British Royal Navy was in desperate need of men to fight at sea.

Prior to the introduction of conscription, or legally sanctioned compulsory service, many countries simply abducted recruits and forced them into uniform. The practice was referred to as impressment and typically involved groups of men, called “press gangs,” forcibly seizing individuals and carrying them off to war. Several armies impressed unwilling men into service centuries before the rise of the English navy, but it remained a mainstay of Royal Naval service until the mid-1800s. It’s also worth mentioning that the practice wasn’t restricted to captured prisoners of war. Nobody was safe from impressment, including the subjects of the British Empire.

Distressed sailors resisted impressment, going as far as jumping overboard while their ship was at sea. The British responded by implementing an unforgiving disciplinary system that made a public spectacle of foolish dissenters. A good flogging or whipping by the gangway was effective. Almost as popular was caning, where juvenile offenders were beaten repeatedly while spread-eagle over the top of a cannon. Finally, hanging at the yard-arm was a fatal sentence reserved for deserters or mutineers. Wrongdoers were typically strangled to death, in full view of their petrified shipmates, while swinging from a noose attached to the ship’s rigging.

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Zulu Impi.

Zulu Recruitment (1816 – 1897 AD)

The Zulu are a Bantu people that presently number around 12 million, making them the largest ethnic group in present-day South Africa. Within the realm of popular history, the Zulu are best known for the 19th century accomplishments of their great war chief, Shaka, who led his men to a stunning victory over the British army at the Battle of Isandlwana (1879). The British nearly lost a second hard-pitched fight to Shaka during the subsequent Battle at Rorke’s Drift, eventually gaining the upper hand and complete victory at the Battle of Ulundi during the summer of the same year.

That said, King Shaka managed to work several tactical wonders during his time as a tribal commander in the Mthethwa Empire and later Zulu nation. In taking a few strategic cues from his European and domestic adversaries, Shaka introduced a series of strategic and logistical reforms that transformed the Zulu army into a formidable fighting force. Chief amongst these innovations were improvements to Zulu weapons and shields, along with the introduction of the impondo zenkomo (a tactical formation and battle strategy that relied upon lighting fast strikes and pincer movements to overcome technologically superior forces).

Shaka’s success did not come without a price, nor did it occur overnight. In capitalizing upon Bantu warrior traditions, he indoctrinated regional youths into the Zulu army, beginning at ages as young as six. Boys were made to run incredibly long distances, over unforgiving terrain, which turned them into swift warriors. Anyone who couldn’t tolerate the training, or otherwise complained about Shaka’s methods was summarily killed on the spot. Recruited boys were also forced to constantly train for battle by stick fighting, which typically ended with one opponent shamefully submitting to the other. Some fights, however, carried on until death.

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Counting Coup.

Counting Coup on the Great Plains (c. 1870 AD)

Great Plains Indian tribes of the trans-Mississippi West used to be numerous, with those meeting encroaching white settlers and emigrants usually doing so on less than favorable terms. Beginning in the early 16th century, white colonists steadily pressed most tribes west until, during the mid-1800s, many groups found themselves on the far side of the Mississippi River. Tribes, such as the Sioux, Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapaho generally resented such treatment, were willing to pick a fight, and resisted most attempts at being forced onto reservations by the U.S. Army and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

After the Civil War ended, American policy-makers turned their full attention to the interior of the country and launched a full-fledged war against the recalcitrant members of Plains Indian society. The frontier army generally excelled in stand-up fights against these tribes, but was occasionally dealt stunning defeats, such as Custer’s infamous “last stand” at the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876). With all the U.S. Army’s training, technology, and manpower, one is thus left wondering how pockets of renegade Indians presented such a great obstacle to westward expansion.

The Plains Indians wars dragged on, in part, due to several policy issues that exacerbated logistical and operational problems within the War Department and U.S. Army. On the opposite side of the coin, however, soldiers were facing a proud and savage enemy that excelled in irregular warfare and guerrilla tactics both on and off the battlefield. Native American warriors were great fighters because they were born into a society that exalted bold warriors who constantly engaged in intertribal warfare. While they lacked a professional standing army, Plains Indians organized themselves into devastating raiding parties on short notice.

Plains Indian tribes prepared their young men to fight from a very early age. Some Lakota tales, for example, recount little boys practicing horsemanship and archery during their fifth summer. Initiations into this warrior culture were manifold, but the most hazardous ritual was undoubtedly counting and collecting coup. Done in the pursuit of honor and glory, warriors would ride into battle and, instead of trying to kill their enemy, would simply attempt to touch them with a special coup stick. This practice continued even after the introduction of firearms, which made it a particularly risky rite of passage.

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Shtrafbat (penal battalion).

Soviet Shtrafbats (1942 – 1945 AD)

Living in the Soviet Union during WWII was undoubtedly hard. Being sentenced to a Russian prison was worse. Fighting for your life against a seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine, in the dead of winter, was likely horrific. Having to endure all three is virtually unimaginable. Nevertheless, this was indeed the case for approximately 422,000 Soviet convicts who were forced to serve the Red Army on the Eastern Front during the closing years of the Second World War. Not surprisingly, very few of these soldiers survived to tell their stories.

Joseph Stalin’s shtrafbats were Soviet penal battalions that filled three roles. First, they served as an example of what Stalin did to cowards and conscientious objectors, thereby increasing the discipline and obedience of the regular Red Army. Putting convicts on the front lines also emptied Soviet prisons, which consequently lessened the fiscal strain on an already burdened wartime economy. Finally, the penal battalions served as low-cost cannon fodder that could be used to slow the advance of approaching Nazi forces. Prisoners were often sent out to battle, for instance, without boots or weapons.

All of this was fine from Stalin’s perspective. On the ground, however, life was insufferable in the shtrafbats. Literally forced to follow the communist decree, that Soviets take “not one step back” in the face of advancing German lines, penal battalions were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Barrier troops, stationed behind the penal battalions, would shoot anyone retreating from the front lines. Most shtrafbat soldiers consequently rushed straight into the jaws of death. Fortunate prisoners were killed quickly. The unlucky ones were gathered up by the barrier patrols and forced to repeat the task in future engagements.

These 12 Torturous Military Exercises Would Test Troops Through History in the Most Brutal Ways
Kaibil special operators.

The Kaibiles (1974 AD – Present)

Nearly every major country has its own breed of special forces these days—the Navy SEALs and Army Rangers are two examples of elite U.S. groups. Guatemala, on the other hand, has the Kaibiles. Their motto is “If I advance, follow me. If I stop, urge me on. If I retreat, kill me.” What’s not to like about such an enthusiastic group of paramilitary professionals you ask? Well, for starters, how about being convicted of human rights violations for torturing and murdering over 200 noncombatants during an internal armed conflict in the early 1980s?

Anyone brave insane enough to join up with this group of Central American commandos is in for a wild and potentially life-threatening ride. Kaibil candidates receive lessons in counterinsurgency operations over the duration of a two-month-long course that most experts consider an “intense training program.” Much of the standard commando-type stuff is covered here, including weapons handling, infiltration techniques, and hand-to-hand combat. Not to be outdone by other programs, Kaibil training offers some truly disturbing events like “raising puppies and killing them after bonding with them, biting off chicken heads and drinking water out of a fired artillery shell.”

Unlike nearly every other entry making this list, Kaibil training is completely voluntary. Predictably, only about twenty-percent of recruits make it to graduation day. Despite the incentives not to join this group of nutters, nearly 7,000 men have graduated from the course (as of 2011) with more signing-up every cycle. This is especially alarming when one considers that international watchdogs have, in addition to the aforementioned human rights atrocities, charged the Kaibiles with all sorts of criminal transgressions. Alleged wrongdoings include the violent eviction of local peasant communities and several questionable connections with Mexican drug cartels.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Grand Valley Journal of History: “Krypteia: A Form of Ancient Guerrilla Warfare.”

Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus: De re militari.

BBC History: Vikings Weapons and Warfare.

The Vikings of Bjornstad: Old Norse Dictionary.

Angela Ballara: Taua: Musket Wars, ‘Land Wars’ or Tikanga? Warfare in Maori Society in the Early Nineteenth Century.

Australian Museum: The Meaning of Tā Moko – Māori Tattooing.

Mesut Uyar and E. J. Erickson: A Military History of the Ottomans: From Osman to Atatürk.

Otto Büsch: Military System and Social Life in Old Regime Prussia, 1713-1807: The Beginnings of Social Militarization of Prusso-German Society. Impressment.

War History Online: How the Royal Navy kept order, Through Caning, Flogging, and Hanging.

Journal of Southern African Studies: “Zulu Masculinities, Warrior Culture and Stick Fighting: Reassessing Male Violence and Virtue in South Africa.”

Native Heritage Project: Counting Coup.

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA Fact Sheet: Guatemala’s Elite Special Forces Unit: The Kaibiles.

Wikipedia – Shtrafbat