Sunday, April 21, 2019

The difficulty of killing - III

The basic aim of a nation at war is establishing an image of the enemy in order to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder. — Glenn Gray 

The observation of low firing rates till World War II resulted in the US army, and subsequently other armies, initiating certain changes in their training methods designed to enable killing in the modern soldier. These changes resulted in a firing rate of 55 percent in Korea and a 90 to 95 percent firing rate was attained in Vietnam. These training methods appear to represent a form of classical and operant conditioning (a la Pavlov's dog and B. F. Skinner's rats). The philosopher-psychologist Peter Marin says the lack of discussion about the topic is "a massive unconscious cover-up" in which society hides itself from the true nature of combat.

According to Grossman, the most important aspect of modern military training is the role of (1) Pavlovian classical conditioning and (2) Skinnerian operant conditioning. What Pavlov did was ring a bell just before feeding a dog. Over time, the dog learned to associate the sound of the bell with eating and would salivate when he heard the bell, even if no food was present. The conditioned stimulus was the bell, the conditioned response was salivation: the dog had been conditioned to salivate upon hearing a bell ring.

This process was further refined by B. F. Skinner into what he called behavioral engineering or operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is when a stimulus automatically triggers an involuntary response. In contrast, in operant conditioning, a voluntary response is followed by a reinforcing stimulus. It is a process that attempts to modify behavior through the use of positive and negative reinforcement based on the fundamental idea that behaviors that are reinforced will tend to continue, while behaviors that are punished will eventually end.

Training techniques of modern soldiers are nothing more than an application of conditioning techniques to develop a reflexive "quick shoot" ability. Instead of shooting at bull's-eye targets, the modern soldier spends many hours with full combat gear shooting at  man-shaped targets at varying ranges . The soldier must instantly aim and shoot at the target(s). When he hits a target it provides immediate feedback by instantly dropping backward — just as a living target would. Soldiers are highly rewarded and recognized for success in this skill of accurately "engaging" the targets — a standard euphemism for "kill." In addition to traditional marksmanship, what is being taught in this environment is the ability to shoot reflexively and instantly. Grossman writes:
In behavioral terms, the man shape popping up in the soldier's field of fire is the "conditioned stimulus," the immediate engaging of the target is the "target behavior." "Positive reinforcement" is given in the form of immediate feedback when the target drops if it is hit. In a form of "token economy" these hits are then exchanged for marksmanship badges that usually have some form of privilege or reward (praise, public recognition, three -day passes, and so on) associated with them. 
The intensity of the trauma suffered by an individual who kills another is proportional to the distance between the two. At hand-to-hand combat range the instinctive resistance to killing is strongest. The soldier is disturbed less by the use of a grenade than a rifle, especially if the killer does not have to see or hear the screams of his victim. A U.S. Air Force officer explained: "In the air, it's very clinical, very clean. … You see an aircraft; you see a target on the ground - you're not eyeball to eyeball with the sweat and the emotions of combat, and so it doesn't become so emotional for you and so personalized."

Various enhanced technologies used in modern warfare enable killing. For example, dropping bombs from planes or drones provides emotional distance between the killer and the victim. Similarly, mechanical distance provided by the unreality of killing through a TV screen, a thermal sight, a sniper sight, or some other kind of mechanical buffer makes killing easier. These new weapon systems enable the solder to fire more accurately and the victim becomes an anonymous blob. Night-vision devices provide a superb form of psychological distance by converting the target into an inhuman green blob. Grossman quotes Richard Holmes in Acts of War:
A soldier who constantly reflected upon the knee- smashing, widow-making characteristics of his weapon, or who always thought of the enemy as a man exactly as himself, doing much the same task and subjected to exactly the same stresses and strains, would find it difficult to operate effectively in battle. . . . Without the creation of abstract images of the enemy, and without the depersonalization of the enemy during training, battle would become impossible to sustain.  
But if the abstract image is overdrawn or depersonalization is stretched into hatred, the restraints on human behavior in war are easily swept aside. If, on the other hand, men reflect too deeply upon the enemy's common humanity, then they risk being unable to proceed with the task whose aims may be eminently just and legitimate. This conundrum lies, like a Gordian knot linking the diverse strands of hostility and affection, at the heart of the soldier's relationship with the enemy.

The rate of killing increases all right with all these changes but the mental cost for members of the military, as witnessed by the increase in post-traumatic stress, is devastating. Grossman says that psychiatric trauma is due primarily not to incredibly high levels of physical stress and constant fear, but to the moral strain of overcoming one's instinctive revulsion towards killing. And worryingly, civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army’s conditioning techniques.

Grossman points out that young people see on television or at the movies detailed, horrible suffering and killings. They are learning to associate this violence with their favorite soft drink, candy bar, and the close contact of their date. Firing ranges with pop-up targets and immediate feedback, just like those used to train soldiers, are found in interactive video games. Grossman argues that this is responsible in part for the rising rate of murder and violence, especially among the young. He writes, 'We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.'

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The difficulty of killing - II

Nations customarily measure the "costs of war" in dollars, lost production, or the number of soldiers killed or wounded. Rarely do military establishments attempt to measure the costs of war in terms of individual human suffering. Psychiatric breakdown remains one of the most costly items of war when expressed in human terms. — Richard Gabriel 

It was thought that civilians would be much less prepared to deal with the horrors of war and hence the bombing of cities would result in a lot of psychiatric causalities. That was a major reason for the German bombing of Allied cities, and the Allies' bombing of German civilians. But civilians suffered hardly any psychiatric causalities while there was plenty among soldiers. Why? Could it be that, as rough as things were for civilians in a besieged city, the one thing they were not forced to do was kill?

Anecdotal evidence bears this out - when prisons are bombed, psychological trauma is observed only in guards, not prisoners. Both groups are endangered, but only one holds the moral responsibility for the lives of others. Studies show that naval personnel have experienced almost no psychiatric damage because they don't have to kill anyone directly. Instead of killing people, modern navies kill ships and airplanes. There is a personal price paid by individuals who kill others, even though that killing may be done with the sanction of the state.

Why is this reluctance of the average soldier to kill on the battlefield not often discussed? Grosman says that for those who avoided killing, it would be an intense, traumatic, guilt-laden situation which they will not be proud of. It will inevitably result in a web of forgetfulness, deception, and lies. Such situations continue for thousands of years and become institutionalized. Dave Grossman says that there  have been two institutions about which the male ego has always justified selective memory, self-deception, and lying:  sex and combat. He writes:
In A History of Militarism, Alfred Vagts accuses military history, as an institution, of having played a large part in the process of militarizing minds. Vagts complains that military history is consistently written "with polemic purpose for the justification of individuals or armies and with small regard for socially relevant facts." 
He states, "A very large part of military history is written, if not for the express purpose of supporting an army's authority, at least with the intention of not hurting it, not revealing its secrets, avoiding the betrayal of weakness, vacillation, or distemper."
Vagts paints an image of military and historical institutions that for thousands of years have reinforced and supported each other in a process of mutual glorification and aggrandizement. To a certain extent, this is probably because those who are good at killing in war are quite often those who throughout history have hacked their way to power. The military and the politicians have been the same people for all but the most recent part of human history, and we know that the victor writes the history books
As a historian, as a soldier, and as a psychologist, I believe that Vagts is quite correct. If for thousands of years the vast majority of soldiers secretly and privately were less than enthused about killing their fellow man on the battlefield, the professional soldiers and their chroniclers would be the last to let us know the inadequacies of their particular charges. 
Grossman also blames the media for perpetuating the myth of easy killing and have thereby become ‘part of society's unspoken conspiracy of deception that glorifies killing and war’. It gives very superficial insights concerning the nature of killing and war. Looking another human being in the eye, making an independent decision to kill him, and watching as he dies due to your action causes deep psychological trauma in all but a minority of human beings.

Usually killing in combat is reflexive; the human being becomes a weapon. It is later that the psyche responds. Grossman says, ‘For those who have never experienced it, the depiction of battle that Hollywood has given us, and the cultural mythology that Hollywood is based upon, appear to be about as useful in understanding killing as pornographic movies would be in trying to understand the intimacy of a sexual relationship.’

PS: In The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Raghavan Iyer writes about Mr. Rae, a schoolmaster at Harrow, who deplored the fact that even children have been so indoctrinated  by the idea of inevitable killing that they have no vision of a world, no desire for a world in which killing is as uncivilized as cannibalism. He mentions three dangerous myths - 1) that violence is not only justifiable but also laudable; 2) that war is fun, a great game; 3) that physical courage is the finest virtue and the moral courage shown by the conscientious objector is contemptible. He writes:
These myths were not, of course, created and spread by those who were doing the fighting; no one who has looked war in the face could describe it as a game. These myths were an essential part of the home front, offspring of official propaganda and human blindness.
Mr. Rae believes that wars are made possible not by megalomaniac dictators or religious fanatics or foolish politicians or blind patriots, but because the majority of people in the world have been brought up to accept war and violence as a normal part of life.