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.

No comments:

Post a Comment