Why people aren’t so bad as all that, and what the military can do about it

I was flipping through an old Harper’s recently when an article on the US Army (“AWOL in America: When desertion is the only option”, March 2005) caught my eye. I was interested to learn that the main cause of desertion is apparently recruits realizing they’ll actually have to kill people once they’re deployed. At first glance this probably seems ridiculous — what else are infantry for? — but it’s not, really, as the author explains:

Despite our entertainment industry telling us otherwise, it is not easy to kill. In his groundbreaking and highly influential study of World War II firing rates, S.L.A. Marshall, a World War I combatant and chief historian for the European Theater of Operations during World War II, interviewed soldiers fresh from battle and found that only 15 to 20 percent of the combat infantry were willing to fire their weapons, and that was true even when their life or the lives of their comrades were threatened. When Medical Corp psychiatrists studied combat fatigue cases in the European Theater, they found that “fear of killing, rather than fear of being killed, was the most common cause of battle failure in the individual,” Marshall reported. […] his findings have been replicated in studies of Civil War and World War I battles, even in re-creations of Napoleonic wars. And the effect of his findings on the military has been profound. As Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman notes in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, “A firing rate of 15 to 20 percent among soldiers is like having a literacy rate of 15 to 20 percent among proofreaders. Once those in authority realized the existence and magnitude of the problem, it was only a matter of time until they solved it.”

By the Korean War, the firing rate had gone up to 55 percent; in the Vietnam war, it was around 90 to 95 percent. How did the military achieve this? As Grossman writes, “Since World War II, a new era of psychological warfare — psychological warfare conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one’s own troops. … The triad of methods used to achieve this remarkable increase in killing are desensitization, conditioning, and denial defense mechanisms.”

Training techniques became more realistic and varied. Soldiers no longer stood and fired at a nonmoving target. They were fully suited up, down in foxholes, and shooting at moving targets, targets that resembled other humans. Simultaneously, the “enemy,” whether North Korean, North Vietnamese, Russian, or Arab, was purposefully dehumanized. Killing people was described graphically, and with relish. As [Gwynne] Dyer notes, most recruits realize the bloodthirsty talk of drill sergeants is hyperbole, but it still serves to desensitize them to the suffering of an “enemy.”

So the answer to the question “How could they not know that they were there to learn how to kill?” is another question: “How could they even begin to comprehend what that meant?”

The article goes on to describe how boot camp now includes calculated racism and other techniques to teach recruits that their enemy is less than human, such as having soldiers take turns walking into the dorms with towels wrapped around their heads so that the others can pretend to shoot them.

Part of me is encouraged that most people, even those who have chosen to be soldiers, find it hard to kill each other. But it’s also very disheartening to learn how easy it is to remove those inhibitions. It seems a little brainwashing can go a long way.

Update: I’ve since found the full text of the article online.