Cutting Edge Psychology

Rememberance Day- Soldiers want to kill?

Posted on November 10, 2013 at 4:15 AM

I am a fairly typical Australian- my Dad’s uncle has his 18th birthday on Gallipoli, and served with the Australian Light Horse Brigade in the Palestine campaign of WWI. He also served in New Guinea during the battle of Kokoda in WWII. And my Mum’s uncle had his left arm blown off as an 18 year old at the first battle of the Somme when, over the space of a week, more than a million men died.

Both of these men suffered for their entire lives in the way that so many of their generation did- even though ourside ‘won’ the wars.  Every Rememberance Day i think of these men and their generation. I also think about what their families went through over the war years, and the effect which this mass trauma had on our society. There was not a family left un-touched in Australia. This family agony was replicated in New Zealand, Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, Turkey, America, Canada and so on. Australia suffered the worst casualty rate of any army in the First World War. I wonder if this wide-spread trauma affected our national character, further entrenching our tendency to be somewhat emotionally closed down? Ordinary people needed to emotionally survive the trauma somehow. And then, a generation later, it all happened again- and the mass trauma just compounded.

Each year i also think of a German soldier who saved my Uncle Ray’s life in 1915. He’d been crawling around no-mans land for a week, weakened from a loss of blood and extreme injury, living off the food scraps he could find in the packs of his dead friends who lay all around. When a German patrol came upon him, one of them put a revolver next to his head and was about to pull the trigger when another one intervened, saying in German “No- he’s only a boy”. My uncle’s life was saved by the humanity of another man who had seen enough killing. I think of this German soldier and shared humanity which he displayed. I hope that he also survived the war.

This story demonstrates a little appreciated fact about humans. Even in war time- despite the countless millions who were killed in the wars of the last century, we are incredibly reluctant to kill our own species.  How can this be?

At the end of WWII, Brigadier General S.L. A. Marshall, the official U.S. historian of the European Theatre of Operations in World War II conducted extensive interviews with survivors on both sides of the conflict. Based on these interviews, he came to the conclusion that only around 15-20% of infantry riflemen were actually able to aim their rifle at another combatant and pull the trigger. The remaining 80-85% of riflemen either didn’t fire at all, or shot off to the left, to the right, into the sky or into the ground- even though their lives were in extreme danger.

This low willing to kill rate did not apply under certain conditions, eg. when the means of killing was less individual or personal, such as with machine gun or flame thrower crews; or when a superior was near-by demanding that they be willing to kill. But, left to their own devises, the finding that individuals are by and large unwilling to kill is a robust finding which has been replicated many times. Retired American Army psychologist and infantry officer, Lt Col. David Grossman states that “Every available, parallel, scholarly study validates Marshall’s basic findings. Countless other individual and anecdotal observations all confirm Marshall's fundamental conclusion that man is not, by nature, a killer.”

This finding makes humans not unlikemost other mammals. When attacking their own kind, most mammals will hold back on using fatal aggression- but when attacking an animal of a different species, they are fighting for real, and deaths are much more likely to occur.

Only sociopaths in the front-line for months on end did not wind up with psychological problems- for them, killing did not pose a problem. But they were in a small minority Being in the front line (or even behind the front line on recognisance patrols), even though at risk of being killed, did not result on major psychological problems as long as the role did not require killing, eg clergymen, medics, etc. It is primarily the requirement to kill members of our own species which creates massive psychological problems for soldiers.

With Brigadier General Marshall’s findings after the end of WWII, the American military realised that if they were going to be more effective as a fighting force, they would need to raise the willing to kill rate from around 20%. They changed the approach to military training in order to desensitise soldiers to killing (as had the Japanese army in WWII), and also introduced psychological conditioning procedures so as to ensure that soldiers would kill as a reflexive reaction to certain stimuli.

They were radically successful. The willing to kill rate in the Korean War was as high as 55%, and in the Vietnam War, it escalated up to 95%. The army had perfected its training procedures, which resulted in soldier’s whose nature had essentially been bent out of shape.

What is the result of this on humans? More than twice as many American Vietnam veterans have suicided than were killed in the war. As a society, we always knew that soldiers suffered from war trauma. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was the term put to this suffering after the Vietnam War, and veterans from that conflict suffered in higher amounts than those from earlier wars.

 Not only have all veterans since and including the Vietnam War suffered from the 95% willing to kill rate which the military have succeeded in creating, but they have also suffered from the loss of  “purification rituals”. Historically, war combatants undertook rituals which helped to cleans them of the ‘blood guilt’ which they felt. There were months of marching back home or sailing in ships- this acted a bit like group therapy; there were homecoming parades in which they were embraced back into the tribe; older veterans would guide and support them; monuments were created and honours were given to assure the returning warriors that what they had done was essentially good and for the benefit of all the people. All of these social rituals mitigated against Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Vietnam veterans, and all those since then, have benefited from very little of these purification rituals. They now return home in a matter of hours via a jet. There are no homecoming parades, or only belated ones. Vietnam veterans were rejected and shunned by their elders, and they were told that they had not participated in a ‘real war’. Sadly, the Vietnam veterans were punished by wider society for simply being young men who were inclined to do what they were told by their elders.

As a culture, we have certainly becomemore aware of the damage which the societal response to returning service personnel  can have. Vietnam vets eventually had their parade, and were allowed to join the returned services clubs. The anger with them has fallen away, and is now replaced by a general sympathy for all they have been through- both in the war and on their return.

However, the societal response and the lack of purification rituals is only one part of the problem. The other significant part is that military training now succeeds in altering human nature in order to overcome the natural reluctance to kill. This damages humans and results in  what has been called a ‘soul wound’.  PTSD is the more scientific term, and is really just the tip of the trauma spectrum.

PTSD manifests itself in the persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event, and persistent symptoms of increased emotional and physiological arousal, resulting in significant distress or impairment in social and occupational functioning. With the deliberately engineered increase in the willing to kill rate since the Korean War, a higher proportion of war veterans are suffering from PTSD than was the case after the First and Second World Wars.

Yes, it is right to commemorate the sacrifices and courage of our forebears. But unless we as a society are willing to overcome our unwillingness to confront the truth about what modern war service does to human beings, even to the so called victors, then we are condemning our children and future generations to lives of soul wounding. The best treatment for this wounding is for it to never happen again, and it is only cultural change which will see us demanding of our politicians that war should never be considered a viable option except, under the most extreme and unusual circumstances.


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