Monday, March 25, 2019

The difficulty of killing - I

"The soldier above all other people prays for peace, for they must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war." -  MacArthur

On killing : the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society is a book written by Dave Grossman. He is a soldier of twenty years' service, has been a sergeant, a platoon leader, a general staff officer and a company commander in an infantry Division. In addition, he is a parachute infantryman and an army Ranger. He has been deployed to the Arctic tundras, the Central American jungles, NATO head-quarters, the Warsaw Pact, and many mountains and deserts. In short, he knows what he is talking about.

He quotes Leo Tolstoy at the beginning of the book:  ‘War has always interested me; not war in the sense of maneuvers devised by great generals . . . but the reality of war, the actual killing. I was more interested to know in what way and under the influence of what feelings one soldier kills another than to know how the armies were arranged at Austerlitz and Borodino.’ This is a topic that is not generally focused on. This book is different because it focuses on the psychology and the motivations of soldiers in actual combat which made them shoot or not shoot.

The standard way to model the response of an endangered creature is the fight or flight model.  This model is fine for inter-species fights but for intra-species fights, the set of options expands to include posturing and submission. Thus, the first response in intra-species fights is deciding between fleeing or posturing. The intimidating but harmless posturing motions and sounds are designed to convince an opponent  that the posturer is a dangerous and frightening adversary. What is created is a "perfect illusion of violence." When the posturer has failed to dissuade an intraspecies opponent, the options then become fight, flight, or submission. When the fight option is utilized, it is almost never to the death.

Similarly in war, as in gang war, posturing is the name of  the game. Small, invisible groups yelling could make itself sound like a regiment if it shouted loud enough. Plumed helmets, brilliantly shined armour, war cries, exploding grenades, charging bayonets,  etc., are posturing devices meant to intimidate the enemy before actual fighting. Adding the posture and submission options to the standard fight - or -flight model of aggression response helps to explain many of the actions on the battlefield. When a man is frightened, he literally stops thinking with his fore brain (that is, with the mind of a human being) and begins to think with the mid brain (that is, with the portion of his brain that is essentially indistinguishable from that of a non-human animal), and in the mind of an animal it is the one who makes the loudest noise or puffs himself up the largest who will win. Grossman writes:
. . . modern training or conditioning techniques  can partially overcome the inclination to posture. Indeed, the history of warfare can be seen as a history of increasingly more effective mechanisms for enabling and conditioning men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human beings. 
Prior to World War II it had always been assumed that the average soldier would kill in combat simply because his country and his leaders have told him to do so and because it is essential to defend his own life and that of his friends. But the unexpected discovery was that, of every hundred men along the line of fire during the period of an encounter, an average of only 15 to 20 "would take any part with their weapons." Why did the others fail to fire? From his studies, Grossman concluded that an important factor contributing to this surprising finding is that within most men there is  an intense resistance to killing their fellow man, ‘a resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it’.

Several studies have confirmed this: surveys and observations of the ancients, numerous accounts of ineffectual firing, assessment of Argentine firing rates in the Falklands War, data on the extraordinarily low killing rates among Napoleonic and American Civil War regiments, the British Army's laser re-enactments of historical battles, the FBI's studies of nonfiring rates among law-enforcement officers in the 1950s and 1960s, and countless other individual and anecdotal observations all confirm that the vast majority of combatants through-out history, ‘at the moment of truth when they could and should kill the enemy, have found themselves to be "conscientious objectors." ‘

Studies show that only a few men actually fire at the enemy, while others prefer to do other tasks like gather and prepare ammo, load weapons, pass weapons. Those who did fire seem to have intentionally missed their targets. Most soldiers seem to have an inner resistance to firing their weapon in combat.  This lack of enthusiasm for killing the enemy causes many soldiers to posture, submit, or flee, rather than fight; it represents a powerful psychological force on the battlefield; and it is a force that is discernible throughout the history of man.

Grossman interviewed numerous soldiers during his research. He says that while writing the book, he had been concerned that World War II veterans might take offense at reading that the vast majority of combat veterans of their era would not kill. But he found that not one individual from among the thousands who have read On Killing has disputed this finding.  He writes:
Just as I do not wish to condemn those who have killed in  lawful  combat, nor do I wish to judge the many soldiers who chose not to kill. There are many such soldiers; indeed I will provide evidence that in many historical circumstances these non-firers represented the majority of those on the firing line. As a soldier who may have stood beside them I cannot help but be dismayed at their failure to support their cause, their nation, and their fellows; but as a human being who has understood some of the burden that they have borne, and the sacrifice that they have made, I cannot help but be proud of them and the noble characteristic that they represent in our species.

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