Reflections on killing

large_1728644102When I was an undergraduate English Literature student, I had the opportunity to write a dissertation in my final year about (relatively) whatever I wanted. I had just finished a module on American Literature, with a emphasis on war-related fiction and I knew what I wanted to write about: the representation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Gulf War Literature. So started a life-long interest in the effects of killing on individuals serving in the armed forces and in civilian life, such as serial killers. There are a wide range of different angles this type of interest can take and I will start covering some of them over the course of the next few months on this blog.

Needless to say, regardless of the situation, taking another life is a pretty big deal. You are effectively extinguishing a life and reducing a living being to a motionless body that will then need to be disposed of in whichever method is most culturally appropriate. The effect of this kind of death in far-reaching, from the individual to the family of the deceased. However, understanding the reasoning (or sometimes lack thereof) behind a killing and the subsequent effects of that event can be of great value to immediate communities, the legal system and society as a whole.

The angle that I will be discussing in this post is the issue of a trained solider having to kill the enemy. Arguably, soldiers are people who have been trained to do this sort of thing, so it should be a foolproof process right? Not quite.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, it was reported that 27, 574 muskets were recovered from the battlefield, of which around 90% were found to be loaded. Of that loaded amount, around half were loaded more than once with another 25% found to be loaded between 3 and 10 times, with one musket having been loaded around 23 times. So what was preventing these soldiers from firing their weapons? If it was an issue of faulty weaponry or wet gunpowder, then why did they not discard their weapon and find another one? Or even more importantly, why did they continue to load these weapons without firing them?

If could be put down to the confusion of being on the battlefield, but it also arguably could be something far more simple: the soldiers did not want to gun down their fellow man. A similar issue occurred in World War II, with 80-85% of soldiers being reported as unwilling to fire their weapons at the enemy. These were soldiers who were fighting alongside their comrades and so were under a form of peer pressure to perform, so rather than run away and desert their posts, many soldiers appear to have ‘gone through the motions’ of loading their weapons, just not pulling that final trigger.

The same issues appeared in World War I, with Colonel Milton Mater discovering that many new recruits thought that ‘if they didn’t shoot at the Germans, the Germans wouldn’t shoot at them’. Arguably this approach caused a far bigger problem as soldiers who froze in their position essentially became sitting targets for the enemy who were willing to shoot. The only reason we know about the World War II soldiers’ unwillingness to fire is due to research carried out by General S.L.A. Marshall who asked these soldiers immediately after battle about what was going on. This knowledge had a huge impact on the way that soldiers have been trained ever since.

Training of military personnel has changed a great deal over the years, especially with regards to overcoming the strategical challenges seen in previous wars of soldiers being unwilling to fire upon the enemy. With more effective psychological methods such as conditioning approaches, dehumanisation of the enemy and a great deal of instilled peer pressure, soldiers have been trained to become better at what they are supposed to do. Kill the enemy.

Yet, as anyone who has been paying attention to even our most recent war in Iraq will know, this approach of moulding often malleable (and young) minds into killing machines has had a dramatic knock-on effect: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It has been argued that the use of the word ‘stress’ in this psychological term aligns this condition with the mere stresses of a job, which is a gross misunderstanding of what is really going on.

There is a reason as to why human beings generally resist wanting to kill another human being. From an evolutionary psychology approach, killing another member of ones own species makes little sense as it removes a potential for growth of your own species. It is relatively unusual to see killing happen within species in nature for this very reason, yet inter-species killing is more common. From a more practical viewpoint, we are taught by our societies that killing is wrong and those that do so are punished and/or ostracised. Through pushing past this huge psychological barrier that we have within our minds can only have hugely negative consequences on the human brain.

Unsettling developments in warfare, such as drones and other remote tools, remove the immediate pressure on the mind that pulling a trigger creates. Yet it will be interesting in a few years to measure the psychological impact of the gamification of killing in warfare that these electronic methods create.

If you are interesting in reading more about this topic, I highly recommend Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing: the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. This book is used regularly in teaching for the FBI, DEA and other law enforcement organisations and has greatly influenced this post.

As a disclaimer about my views of the military, I support the troops but not the war. We ask these men and women to fight on our behalf and we should be there to pick up the pieces and support them afterwards. I almost served in the military but had to pull out due to health restrictions.

Image credit: Kevin Dooley via Flickr Creative Commons





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