BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

War is Hell ...

This is one of those books that has been sitting around for years … I got it it in one of those post- post-holiday sales on, possibly as long as a decade ago, and it sat in a pile of books from that order since then. However, in a book I recently (well, in the past year, and I'm not sure which one it was) read, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society was highly recommended, and I had a “oh, wait – I have that” light bulb moment, and shifted this from the stack of unread books in an obscure corner and onto one of the “recent acquisition” stacks that are more-or-less at eye-level on my way in or out of my office.

Now, as I've noted before, stuff that I get from those sales are pretty much “pig in a poke” deals, as I scan through book listings looking for “interesting sounding” titles, but without my having much background info on any of them. I was unclear on the nature of this, but recently noted that it's got about a 4.5 star rating on Amazon, and is in the libraries of nearly a thousand users over on (which is pretty high – making me suspect that this is being used as a college text). Structurally, it's in eight sections, with two to eight chapters each … giving it an orderly progression through the factors involved in the main points of the book. The thrust is military, psychological, and societal, with some brain science, and zoology thrown in for good measure (like the factoid that when piranha fight among themselves, they primarily use tail-slaps rather than biting).

The piranha info (among others) sets up early on that most in-species conflicts across nature tend to have non-lethal results, which leads up to one of the most startling bits here – up through the Vietnam war, very few regular soldiers ever actually killed anyone (with most casualties coming from artillery fire, etc.). The first options in a conflict situation are between posturing and flight. Posturing can be anything from ridiculously large head gear, making the soldiers look bigger, to intense yelling that could make a smaller force sound like a more formidable foe. With amazing frequency, one side or the other in an exchange of posturing will opt to flee, and avoid the conflict. If both sides stayed engaged, the choices shift to fight, submit, or, again, flee. Bizarrely, firearms in most conflicts have mainly served to be loud sources of posturing … here's a bit about Civil War era battles:
      Muzzle-loading muskets could fire from one to five shots per minute, depending on the skill of the operator and the state of the weapon. With a potential hit rate of well over 50 percent at the average combat ranges of this era, the killing rate should have been hundreds per minute, instead of one or two. The weak link between the killing potential and the killing capability of these units was the soldier. The simple fact is that when faced with a living, breathing opponent instead of a target, a significant majority of the soldiers revert to a posturing mode in which they fire over their enemy's heads.
I was shocked to see that small kill rate, but the author reports studies that have looked at other conflicts which reported 252 rounds fired per hit, 119 rounds fired per hit, and on up to Vietnam, where there were firefights “when more than fifty thousand bullets were fired for every enemy soldier killed”. The author goes into quite a lot of detail on the ways that soldiers avoided actually killing the enemy … from muskets found with multiple loads crammed down the barrel (where the soldier was going through the process of prepping his weapon, but simply never firing it), to a look at how subtly aiming can be shifted to shoot over the heads of the enemy without looking like one was “trying to miss”. The point here is that this can't be laid at the feet of the arms themselves (even in the smooth-bore musket era, 75% hit rates should have been possible at the average distance of engagement), or marksmanship (a chimpanzee messing with an AK47 is going to do better than 1 kill for 50k rounds!), but it has to be put squarely on the soldier's unwillingness to kill.

While the kill rate didn't “improve” in Vietnam, the firing rate did … in earlier conflicts the firing rate had been as low as 15 percent, was around 55 percent in Korea, and (through “classical or operant conditioning”, the details of which appear to still be classified) got up to 90-95% in Vietnam. This leads the author off to Freud, and discussing Eros and Thanatos, the “life instinct” and “death instinct” and the psychological factors … and a note that the chances of becoming a “psychological casualty” “were greater than the chances of being killed by enemy fire”. He presents a fascinating chart that tracks “combat effectiveness” against days in combat, rising through the first 10 days, maximized over the next 20 days, being high but declining over the next 15 days, and rapidly crashing over the next 15, to being “vegetative” by 60 days in combat. Some really horrific examples of the mental breakdowns of battle are described, and ways that modern armies try to avoid these. One approach is to rotate out troops exhibiting psychological damage to situations with proximity (as close to the actual battlefield as possible), and expectancy (that they will be returned to their units as soon as possible), this helps to both avoid the worst of the psychological wounds, and “evacuation syndrome”, where “acting crazy” would seem to offer a way out. Grossman notes:
War is an environment that will psychologically debilitate 98 percent of all who participate in it for any length of time. And the 2 percent who are not driven insane by war appear to have already been insane – aggressive psychopaths – before coming to the battlefield.
The author dedicates chapters to Fear, Exhaustion, Guilt & Horror, and Hate, before moving into “Fortitude”. This is used rather than “courage”, as it encompasses a wider range of reactions. Here are some quotes: “heroism … is endurance for one moment more”, “it is willpower that can be spent – and when it is used up – men are finished”, and that 98% figure keeps cropping up, as in “In sustained combat this process of emotional bankruptcy is seen in 98 percent of soldiers who survive physically.”.

The third section of the book looks at “Killing and Physical Distance”, with a chart which maps “resistance to killing” against “physical distance from target”, going from one end at the oddly-named “Sexual Range” to “Max Range”, representing bombers or artillery (or, I suppose, ICBMs). As one might expect, the closer the enemy, the more “difficult” the act of killing. On the far end of the spectrum the author uses the July 1943 fire-bombing of Hamburg, where 70,000 died, but “from twenty thousand feet the killer could feel fascinated and satisfied with his work”, contrasted with the Assyrian destruction of Babylon in 689 BCE, where “someone had to personally hold down tens of thousands of men, women, and children, while someone else stabbed and hacked at these horrified {victims}”, and the hideous stories from the Nazi death camps. The personal nature of the up-close kill seems to be emotionally scarring, while the distance kill is emotionally detached. Interestingly, the survivors of bombing attacks are less traumatized as well, with their considering themselves as “incidental victims of an act of war”, and able to put it behind them, when the survivors of the concentration camps were haunted by the idea of “members of my own species actively seeking my end” – even if the machine guns and gas chambers were not as horrific as the face-to-face butchery in Babylon. Grossman walks the reader through chapters looking at killing at various ranges, from the maximum-range forms:“Artillery crews, bomber crews, naval gunners, and missile crews – at sea and on the ground – are all protected by the same powerful combination of group absolution, mechanical distance, and … physical distance.” ... and on to that “sexual range” where “much of the attraction to the killing process, and much of the resistance to close-in killing, revolves around the vicious side of ourselves ...”.

The fourth section is a deep psychological dive into human behavior, with looks at “demands of authority”, the just mentioned “group absolution”, the physical and emotional (including cultural and similar factors) “distance from victim”, the “target attractiveness of the victim”, and the predisposition of the killer, across several chapters. Not surprisingly, this starts with the work of Stanley Milgram (and Freud to the extent that he perceptively warned: “never underestimate the power of the need to obey”), and his iconic Yale experiment. One thing I found fascinating here (that had obviously not gotten on my radar previously) was that in proposing the experiment, Milgram's colleagues estimated that only a fraction of 1% of the subjects would keep going until the maximum (supposedly lethal) voltage was applied. As it turned out, with no more established authority than a clip board and a lab coat, the orders of the assistants running the experiment were complied with by a shocking sixty five percent of the test subjects. As the author comments, if 65% of test subjects could be convinced (what they thought was) to kill an innocent victim with just some “window dressing” of authority, how much more coercive is the authority of a military chain-of-command? Another interesting discussion in this section is that of the various strategies (either “institutional” by way of propaganda, or internal justification) of “dehumanizing” the enemy, making them emotionally less relevant. Another chapter deals with “disposition”, this can be achieved via training (the Rhodesian security force in the 70's had an over-all kill ratio of 8-1 against rebel guerrillas, with their elite units achieving as high as a 50-1 ratio), or by personal experiences: “the recent loss of friends and beloved leaders in combat can also enable violence on the battlefield”, on to the “natural soldier”. This is the previously-mentioned 2% … the author is careful to note that:
It would be absolutely incorrect to conclude that 2 percent of all veterans are psychopathic killers. Numerous studies indicated that combat veterans are no more inclined to violence than nonvets. A more accurate conclusion would be that there is 2 percent of the male population that, if pushed or if given a legitimate reason, will kill without regret or remorse.
He goes on to point out that those very low (non-artillery) kill rates from the Napoleonic wars through WW2 could indicate that most of the kills came from these, uh, motivated soldiers. I couldn't help but think both of lyrics by Arlo Guthrie, and a famed H.L. Mencken quote. This leads into a related subject in the fifth section, that of “atrocities”, but I'll spare you the details on that.

Section six is on “killing response stages” and relates to a fairly complex chart that seems to show that “all roads lead to PTSD”, with even more unpleasant results along the way. Again, this I'll skip here. The next section takes a specific psychological look at the Vietnam war, and how “between 400,000 and 1.5 million Vietnam vets suffer from PTSD”. Once the previously mentioned low rates of firing in earlier wars (as low as 20% in WW2!) were discovered, the military set out to fix the problem. This started in Korea, where a 55% firing rate was achieved, and moved towards a “boot-cam deification of killing” which, coupled with (operant) “conditioning techniques to develop a reflexive 'quick shoot' ability” got up to a 95% rate in Vietnam (although, not particular efficient shooting, as detailed above). The author also notes that Vietnam involved very young soldiers:
They were teenagers leading teenagers in a war of endless, small-unit operations, trapped together in a real-world reenactment of The Lord of the Flies with guns, and destined to interalize the horrors of combat during one of the most vulnerable and susceptible stages of life.
This coupled with increasingly high-tech equipment, pharmacological interventions to keep the troops engaged, and the disgraceful way that the media handled the war, created stress levels almost unique to that conflict. And, one of the primary coping factors was missing … instead of returning to a welcoming and thankful nation, the Left had created an atmosphere where soldiers coming home were cursed, spit upon, and exiled … driving an additional aspect to the PTSD equation.

Now, up through here, the book hasn't suffered from its age (written in 1995), but when he gets to the “What Are We Doing to Our Children?” section, it begins to sound very dated. Grossman latches onto some “pop psychology” of the time about movie violence, and “video arcades”. A couple of decades later, the level of violence in entertainment vehicles hasn't gone down, but things haven't gone out of control in the “pathological spiral” he forecasts. Most unsettling, he ends up taking serious anti-Constitutional stances directed (especially) to the 1st and 2nd amendments, which makes my Libertarian blood boil. Given that the rest of the book is fascinating, this last bit could well be lopped off to make its reading (in a whole new technological world) much improved!

Again, On Killing is likely being used as a textbook, as not only is it in a lot of hands on LT, but it's still in print at this point, with no substantial cheap used presence 20 years on. In fact, the on-line big boys have the 2009 paperback edition at a very reasonable price (admittedly, something not typical for a textbook!) that's not much more than the cheapest used copy plus shipping – so if you thought this was something that you'd want to check out, might as well order new.

This is a deeply engaging look at human nature, within the context of killing in war. I suppose, having been a reader of military history, it possibly had more of an interest for me than it would for somebody who was less familiar with the niche, but the level of psychological insight and “looking under the hood” into these mental-emotional factors should make it attractive to a wide range of serious readers.

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