Most People Are Not Predisposed to Kill, Even in War

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Liberty Leading the People: Eugene Delacroix

Note: When the U.S. went to war in Iraq under the Bush administration, I noticed an immediate shift in the media. Suddenly, the major media used the work “kill” this and that. There was also the “de-humanizing” of Saddam Hussein and demonizing of Iraqis who surrounded and supported Hussein. I knew this was the major media serving the role of psychologically preparing the country for war and violence which, in effect, tried to justify “war” and “killing”.

Yet, contrary to what some might think, we humans are not predisposed to killing our fellow humans. We don’t want to do this. In fact, only 15 percent to 20 percent of us are willing to kill. Otherwise we have to be trained for this purpose.

And this is what happened after WWII. The U.S. military was not thrilled with the American lack of “killing” thrust in the war, so it changed its training curriculum. With this new training, by the Korean War in the 1950s, 55 of the soldiers were willing to kill and by Vietnam it was 95% (albeit the Vietnam War was known as the first pharmaceutical war as many soldiers were given drugs to dull their senses.)

Around the time that Bush lied his way into war against Iraq in 2003, I discovered this fascinating book by psychologist Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman – On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1996). The following is an excerpted narrative about us being “non-killers” from my article below:

Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments against sending our young women and men to war is that most of us don’t want to kill at all. In spite of being taught how glorious the battles might be, most of us don’t comply with the request to kill. In his fascinating book On Killing, psychologist Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman devotes a whole chapter to the “Nonfirers Throughout History.” Research has found that throughout history, in any war, only 15% to 20% of the soldiers are willing to kill. This low percentage is universal and applies to soldiers from every country throughout recorded history.

We are now hearing that there are some 22 suicides of veterans every day. So my question is, what on earth are we doing to our youth. What kind of nonsense are we teaching them in military schools that obviously has a lasting effect on them, which would be exacerbated if they actually engaged in excessive violent behavior in the midst of war not to mention of impact on their victims. This obviously has a lasting effect on our young military and on all of us when we witness their pain. It is, after all, our tax dollars that are paying for this training. We should be better apprised of it all, not only and especially for our youth and their mental health, but for our society and for humanity overall.

Below is what I wrote in 2003 based on the exceptional work of Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman.

Most Soldiers are Non-Killers in Battle:
The Aftermath of State Sanctioned Violence and Who It Targets

By Heather Gray –

There’s nothing glorious about war or in killing. The human cost of war reaches far beyond the battlefield – it has a lasting affect on spouses, children, brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles for generations, and of course on the soldiers themselves. It has also been found most soldiers throughout history are not willing to kill other human beings and to do so apparently so goes against their very nature. As a license to use violence in resolving conflict, then, the consequences of killing in war are dire…and the aftermath of violence sanctioned by the state is usually devastating for both the so-called winners and losers. It’s a no-win situation.

Bush has said we face the peril of the “axis of evil” being Korea, Iran and Iraq. Whereas, Martin Luther King, Jr. said the intractable evils in the world are poverty, racism and war. King’s triple evils are played out every day in U.S. domestic and international policies. Perhaps if Bush were really interested in ending terrorism he would look more closely at King’s far more profound analysis.

Throughout history, debates have ensued on how best to resolve conflict. The choices are generally violence and non-violence. There also appears to be a resolute difference in attitudes between how “individuals” within a state resolve conflict and how conflicts between “states” are resolved. It is in these conflicts and their resolutions that poverty, racism and war interact.

The vast majority of people in the world resolve individual conflicts through non-violent methods (i.e. discussion, verbal agreements). Dr. King said the purpose of non-violent social change or non-violent conflict resolution is not to seek revenge but to change the heart of the so-called enemy. “We never get rid of hate by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy,” he said, “by getting rid of enmity. By it’s very nature hate destroys and tears down.”

Most countries also have laws against the individual use of violence. In the U.S. civil society, for example, an individual is not supposed to deliberately kill another person. If so, they are vulnerable to prosecution by the state that might result, after a jury trial, in the state itself killing the individual for committing such a crime. Punishment in the US, however, is generally reserved for those without resources. It is worthy of note that the United States is the only western country that still uses the death penalty, which is invariably imposed on extremely poor people and disproportionately those of color – people who usually don’t have the wherewithal to defend themselves. The death penalty is a profound example of state sanctioned violence (or terror) as a way to resolve conflict. In Dr. King’s terms, American domestic policy is racist, essentially a war against the poor and, with the death penalty, demonstrates a people who are not willing to forgive.

Defeating the Nazis was glorious, we were taught, and the sacrifices were necessary. My family was definitely part of the fervor to end fascism and willingly joined the vicious cycle of violence. My uncle was killed in Germany during World War II. Flying for the Royal Canadian Air Force, the German’s shot him down in 1941 after a bombing raid over Berlin. My grandfather, who had served as a Canadian physician in World War I in Europe, requested that my uncle place a bomb down Hitler’s chimney as a gift from him. After escaping from a high security prisoner of war camp, my mother’s childhood boyfriend, then a soldier in the Canadian forces, was gunned down by the Germans. He had sought revenge after learning in the camp that his brother’s body had been washed ashore on the cliffs of Dover in Britain. My father was devastated by the loss of his brother and after the war he searched everywhere for his younger brother’s body or proof that he was actually dead. He never forgave the Germans.

Later, I wanted to learn more about the war and naively probed some of my father’s friends who had fought in Germany. They wouldn’t talk with me. They wouldn’t share anything. It took a while to grasp the meaning of their rejection. War, I have since learned, is synonymous with such violence, pain and suffering that is it not surprising that sharing those experiences is something most people are not willing to do. In his book What Every Person Should Know About War, correspondent Chris Hedges writes, “We ennoble war. We turn it into entertainment. And in all this we forget what war is about, what it does to people who suffer from it. We ask those in the military and their families to make sacrifices that color the rest of their lives. Those who hate war the most, I have found, are veterans who know it.”

In resolving conflicts “between states”, among reasonable people at least, war is always considered a last resort for any number of reasons, not the least of which being its tremendous destructive capacity. The “just war” concept is based on that premise – that everything else has been attempted to resolve the conflict before war is ensued. Obviously, a “just war” is not something George W. Bush wishes to pursue. The United States has a tragic history of using excessive violence in an attempt to resolve international conflicts, as has been the case most recently in Iraq, Vietnam, Panama and in countless other countries throughout the last century. To quote Dr. King again, he wisely asked why “the murder of a citizen in your own nation is a crime, but the murder of citizens of another nation in war is an act of heroic virtue?” The values are distorted to be sure.

With parallels of the triple evils of racism, poverty and war, as stated by Dr. King, the targets of U.S. wars have conspicuous similarities to who gets punished in its domestic arena. U.S. invasions have largely been against extremely poor, ill equipped and countries populated by people of color, where the U.S. can be assured, at least, of a short-term victory.

Violence has a “brutalizing” effect on us as a society. It is not good for us anyway you look at it. Some years ago the British anthropologist Colin Turnbull studied the impact of the death penalty in the United States. He interviewed guards on death row, the individuals who pulled the switch for electrocution, inmates on death row and the family members of all of these people. The negative psychological impact and health problems that prevailed for all those directly or indirectly involved in the state killing was profound. No one escaped the horrors.

Sociologists have also begun to look at the impact of “war” on society. It also has a “brutalizing” effect on us. It is known that what largely molds our individual behavior is the family and peers that surround us. But what sociologists had not looked at is the impact of the state’s policies on individual behavior. Some sociologists have found that after war there is an increase in individual use of violence in the countries of both the losers and winners in the conflict. Sociologists have looked at the violent veteran model, and economic disruption model and others to explain this phenomenon. The only explanation that appears to be the most compelling is the state’s acceptance of the use of violence to resolve conflict. When all the branches of government from the executive, to the legislature, to the courts accept violence as a means to resolve conflict, it appears to filter down to individuals – it’s basically a green light to use or consider violence as an acceptable course in our daily life.

Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments against sending our young women and men to war is that most of us don’t want to kill at all. In spite of being taught how glorious the battles might be, most of us don’t comply with the request to kill. In his fascinating book On Killing, psychologist Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman devotes a whole chapter to the “Nonfirers Throughout History.” Research has found that throughout history, in any war, only 15% to 20% of the soldiers are willing to kill. This low percentage is universal and applies to soldiers from every country throughout recorded history. Interestingly, even distance from the enemy does not necessarily encourage killing. Grossman offers the fascinating finding that “Even with this advantage, only 1 percent of the U.S. fighter pilots accounted for 40% of all enemy pilots shot down during WWII; the majority didn’t shoot anyone down or even try to.”

The U.S. obviously didn’t appreciate this low percentage of killers, so it began changing the way it trained its military. Americans began using a combination of the “operant conditioning” of I.P. Pavlov and B.F. Skinner in their training, which desensitized our soldiers through repetition. One marine told me that in basic training not only do you “practice” killing incessantly but you are required to say the word “kill” in response to virtually every order. “Basically the soldier has rehearsed the process so many times,” said Grossman, “that when he does kill in combat he is able to, at one level, deny to himself that he is actually killing another human being.” By the Korean War 55% of U.S. soldiers were able to kill and by Vietnam an astounding 95% were able to do so. Grossman also states that Vietnam is now known as being the first pharmaceutical war in which the U.S. military fed our soldiers enormous amounts of drugs to dull their senses while they engaged in violent behavior and they are likely doing the same in Iraq.

Addressing the question of the low percentage of killers in battle, Grossman says that “As I have examined this question and studied the process of killing in combat from the standpoint of a historian, a psychologist and a soldier, I began to realize that there was one major factor missing from the common understanding of killing in combat, a factor that answers this question and more. That missing factor is the simple and demonstrable fact that there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.”

The fact that we don’t want to kill is a thankful affirmation of our humanity. Do we really want to behaviorally modify our young men and women into professional, skilled killers? Do we really want to modify our youth’s behavior in this way? Do we really want our youth desensitized to their own humanity and that of others? Isn’t it time we addressed the real evils in the world, the real axis of evil being racism, poverty and war? Do we really want our tax dollars used to kill the poor of the world, destroy their countries and make us all more violent in the process? Surely we can better than this!

© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.