Monday, May 30, 2005

Killing and Its Cost

Nations customarily measure of the "costs of war" in dollars, lost production, or the number of soldiers killed or wounded. Rarely do military establishments attempt to measure the costs of war in terms of individual human suffering. Psychiatric breakdown remains one of the most costly items of war when expressed in human terms.

-- Richard Gabriel, No More Heroes

I came across this quote while reading Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman's On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society and I felt that it would be an excellent introduction to today's discussion. Of course, today is Memorial Day, a day set aside to recognize the bravery, heroism, and sacrifice of our fallen soldiers. The poignancy of this day is brought into further relief by the realities of the ongoing conflict in Iraq. With 1657 military fatalities thus far, and no end in sight, the debt we owe these men and women compounds with each passing day. There is no honor that we could provide that would be too great.

Yet, as we freely genuflect before these fallen heroes, more and more I come to believe that there are indeed forgotten casualties that we must begin to recognize. As Richard Gabriel indicates above, the incidence of psychiatric injury far outpaces those of a physical nature. For example, in Vietnam, approximately 210,000 soldiers (PDF) were killed or injured as a result of that conflict. Compare this figure to the estimates of psychiatric trauma in this same population that range between 500,000 and 1.5 million (representing between 18 and 54% of all combat participants). And despite the frequency of these injuries, they go largely unappreciated.

So, why do these injuries escape our notice? There are, of course, many reasons. Psychiatric disorders are generally less visible than physical injuries. They also tend to carry a social stigma, making it more difficult for us to acknowledge their existence. However, on some level, we simply do not see psychiatric combat injuries as a significant. Soldiers are lauded for their heroism due to the physical risks that they assume. In the minds of civilians, it is the threat to one's survival that emerges as the most significant feature of war. And when we do consider psychiatric injury, we usually see the ever present threat of death as a catalyst for it. Surely nothing else could affect us so deeply.

But, there is something else. Something that, from a psychological perspective, is far more damaging. Moreover, it is something that we demand of all soldiers. We may ask that these men and women put their lives at risk, but we do not require that they be killed or injured in the line of duty. We hope and pray that such sacrifices will not be necessary, and we do all that we can to ensure that they are not. This something else, though, is the raison d'ĂȘtre of soldiering in wartime.

We demand that they kill.


In our movies, books, and legends, the hero typically slays the villain without a thought, requiring only the moral justification provided by the storyline. Neither the hero nor the audience regret the act. In fact, rarely is this moment dwelt upon unless it is to portray the satisfaction our hero experiences after meting out such righteous justice. Often it occurs in passing, a background of event hardly worthy of notice and forgotten in the blink of an eye.

Of course, we don't have to be told that the reality of killing is different than that. But, it might surprise us to learn how different it really is. For a moment, imagine the experience of a soldier during World War II. During an attack, a marauding enemy closes in and threatens not only the life of the soldier, but the life of his comrades in arms and the noble cause that he serves. Moreover, he has been trained to loyally follow the orders of the commanding officer, who in this moment is demanding that he return fire in order to repel the attack. The soldier faces a decision to kill or be killed, and the decision to engage is supported by the control structure, peer pressure, and cultural justification (in that the conflict itself is deemed by society to be a "just war" against an evil aggressor).

How would a soldier in such a situation respond?

If you guessed that he would return fire, you would most likely be wrong. As surprising as it sounds, between 80 and 85% of World War II infantry soldiers refused to directly engage the enemy under any circumstances. This refusal was not driven by cowardice, as these soldiers did not flee or cower in fear. Yet, these men were rarely willing to fire their weapons at the enemy, despite the enormous pressures encouraging them to do so. Similarly, it has been noted that less than 1% of World War II fighter pilots were responsible for as much as 40% of all downed enemy aircraft, while the majority never fired their weapons at all.


To answer this question, Grossman convincingly argues that human beings are born with an incredible resistance to killing other members of our species. Evidence suggests that this resistance is so strong that it frequently overwhelms even our instinct for survival. In situation after situation, men have opted for any path that frees them from an obligation to kill. Death is actually preferable.

Clearly, this creates a problem for any military force, whose effectiveness is derived from its member's willingness to kill in combat. However, this problem is not insurmountable.


Historical accounts consistently document the difficulty that commanding officers have had in their attempts to persuade their soldiers to engage. This has undoubtedly been a military dilemma since the dawn of organized conflict. And in that time, many systems have evolved to assist men in overcoming this resistance.

Grossman's study examines these systems in detail. Here he identifies the important components of the authority that authorizes the kill along with the absolution for the act provided by the social unit. He also demonstrates the significance of distance between killer and victim. This distance is not merely physical distance (although that is important). It also includes emotional, cultural, moral, and social distance, each enhancing the killer's perception of the victim as an "other."

And then there's training -- also known as conditioning. Modern armies use a sophisticated arsenal of classical and operant conditioning techniques to increase the likelihood that soldiers will respond appropriately under fire. Today, soldiers rarely use neutral bull's-eyes during target practice. Instead, they fire at human shaped dummies that are rigged to recoil and bleed like a human target would. Soldiers who perform well during these exercises are rewarded with tokens of value (awards, weekend passes, etc.), while those who fail to perform adequately are punished.

At first glance, these conditioning techniques might appear rather benign. However, nothing could be further from the truth. On the one hand, many Vietnam veterans who were so trained describe their in-combat reactions as automatic, the engagement completed before they realized that they were not once again practicing on the target range. More importantly, we have hard data to document its effectiveness. As noted above, firing rates for World War II infantry soldiers hover between 15 and 20%. With the use of modern training practice, this figure rose to over 90% during Vietnam.


And thus, the modern soldier has been enabled to fulfill his duty at a level that was once considered inconceivable. Before entering the service, he would most likely choose to die before deliberately ending the life of another. Once trained, he kills reflexively. This willingness to kill is, of course, well-controlled. He fires only under orders and only at sanctioned targets. But he has successfully overcome one of the strongest natural instincts of the species. The resistance is not gone, but in the moment it is defeated.

Next comes the hard part.

Despite the existence of these enabling forces, soldiers almost universally experience strong reactions to the killing act. Among these reactions, revulsion, remorse, and regret are the most common. A number of factors can serve to increase or decrease the intensity of these emotions, thereby determining the effectiveness of the soldier's rationalizations. Predictably, the closer and more personal the kill, the more the killer must struggle to accept the reality of his actions. However, on some level, nearly any killing act is traumatic to some degree.

We can, and usually do, work as a society to assist those who have killed in our name (Vietnam being an egregious and shameful exception to this rule). By recognizing the soldier's noble service upon his return, we allow him to understand and accept his actions as justifiable. Moreover, the degree to which their act was committed in service of a greater good, understood as such by society at large, further serves to protect the veteran from the psychological consequences of his actions.

However, the processes by which we bestow absolution upon these men are far from perfect and, as demonstrated during the Vietnam era, are frequently lacking in certain respects. Likewise, certain combat theaters, especially those involving insurgent forces supported by the civilian population, create killing situations that are difficult to rationalize under any circumstances. Normally these men would have been prevented from these lethal actions by the aforementioned instinctive resistance. The greater the resistance that has been overcome, the more likely he is to develop psychological trauma as a result of his combat experience.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the kill or of the systemic efforts to reduce its consequences, the risk of trauma remains. And inevitably, a portion of combat veterans will submit to it.


Societies which ask men to fight on their behalf should be aware of what the consequences of their actions may so easily be.

-- Richard Holmes, Acts of War

Unlike Vietnam and the conflicts that preceded it, we as a society rarely experience the more trying aspects of our military excursions. We are not asked to sacrifice or to change our lives in any significant way. We are shielded from disconcerting images and the violent chaos of conflict. We have engaged enemies from positions of overwhelming strength, utilizing technology that serves to magnify our advantage even further. This fact, combined with advancing medical technology, has managed to limit combat fatalities to absurdly low levels. As a whole, war is not seen as the expensive proposition that it once was.

Yet, costs remain, even if they are more difficult to perceive. In fact, certain costs -- and specifically, the psychological costs -- are as great as ever. By transforming soldiers into the most effective fighting forces ever seen in the history of the world, we have predisposed them to psychological injury at rates never before seen. Military technology and training have advanced to an astonishing degree, but our ability to psychologically heal our combat veterans has not kept pace. The Iraq War is producing these injuries at an alarming rate and there is little we can do to stem the tide. It is an unavoidable, and hidden, cost of this conflict.

In fact, psychological trauma is inherent to all modern combat. We easily recognize the value of a soldier's physical health. We understand that our advanced weaponry is of no use unless someone is willing to carry it into the danger zone and pull its trigger. We freely mourn those who fall doing so. But, too often, we fail to recognize the hidden sacrifices that many of our soldiers endure simply because they do not bleed. But their scars are just as real, just as painful, and just as deep. It is a crime that we do not see this.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that occasionally necessitates the use of force. As the saying goes, freedom is not free. Frequently, our noble aspirations must be guaranteed at the barrel of a gun. However, the threshold of engagement can be fairly determined only when we are willing to account for all of the costs. If we refuse to recognize the full extent of the soldier's sacrifice, we risk deploying him in frivolous adventures. These men and women do the things that often must be done, things that we ourselves could not do. Too often, they do these things at the cost of their very soul. We must ensure that our ends justify these means.

The soldier is owed nothing less.

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