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.'

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