The Frontal Cortex

War, Soldiers, Killing

There was a very astute comment left in response to my post on evolution and psychopaths:

Normal people (however you define that term) can be desensitized to the suffering of others. Soldiers fighting in a war – those who don’t become shellshocked – become insensitive to killing and wounding. Indeed, people with ordinary lives sometimes have to “harden their hearts” just to do their jobs.

I think one of the more uplifting facts of human nature is that it’s very hard for us to “harden our hearts”. Consider the behavior of soldiers during war. On the battlefield, men are explicitly encouraged to kill each other; the crime of murder is turned into an act of heroism. And yet, even in such violent situations, soldiers often struggle to get past their moral instincts. During World War II, for example, U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall undertook a survey of thousands of American troops right after they’d been in combat. His shocking conclusion was that less than 20 percent of soldiers actually shot at the enemy, even when under attack. “It is fear of killing,” Marshall wrote, “rather than fear of being killed, that is the most common cause of battle failure in the individual.” When soldiers were forced to confront the possibility of directly harming another human being, they were literally incapacitated by their emotions. “At the most vital point of battle,” Marshall wrote, “the soldier becomes a conscientious objector.”

After these findings were published in 1947, the U.S. Army realized it had a serious problem. It immediately began revamping its training regimen in order to increase the “ratio of fire”. New recruits began endlessly rehearsing “the kill,” firing at anatomically correct targets that dropped backwards after being hit. As Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossmann noted in his book On Killing, “What is being taught in this environment is the ability to shoot reflexively and instantly…Soldiers are de-sensitized to the act of killing, until it becomes an automatic response.” These new training techniques had dramatic results. When Marshall was sent to the Korean War, he discovered that 55 percent of infantrymen were now firing their weapons. In Vietnam, the ratio of fire was nearly 90 percent. The Army had managed to turn the most personal of moral situations into an impersonal reflex. Soldiers no longer felt a surge of negative emotion when they fired a weapon. They had been turned, wrote Grossmann, into “killing machines”.

Sometimes I wonder if this increased “ratio of fire” in modern war is a one of the causes for the dramatic increase in PTSD among veterans. You can train people to kill, but can you really erase the emotional stress that is automatically generated when we hurt somebody else? I don’t know.


  1. #1 Moopheus
    December 14, 2007

    One has to also wonder if this type of training leads to more incidents of civilians and prisoners being killed in noncombat situations. As I recall (and it’s been a while since I’ve read it) Grossman’s book points out that during WWII, enemy combatants who were forced to surrender, and civilians who were caught in the crossfire, knew that US troops could be relied upon to behave “honorably”, or at least as much as circumstances allowed. This seems to be changing, at least in perception. I have no doubt that the vast majority of our servicefolks do regard themselves as professionals who try to do their job as well as possible, but it seems that perhaps this overagressive training and an overt effort to blur lines of “rules of engagement” are pushing some over the edge.

  2. #2 EK
    December 14, 2007

    This makes me wonder to if the surreal world that we have created via video games is creating desenetization as well. While the video game for the most part uses the controller and not a simulated weapon in simulating the act of killing, the targets physical response to trauma is very similar. I wonder if this current desensitatizon in our culture at large has any effect on our future soliders and the prevalance and types of crimes that exist within it.

  3. #3 Alan
    December 14, 2007

    One form of de-sensitization is pseduospeciation–conceiving of the defined enemy to be something almost less than human.

    Perhaps it’s a faint hope, but to the extent that our environs are increasingly shared by people different in race, religion, and indigeonous culture, we all might become less prey to this delusion. I would have to consult the book referenced, but I wonder whether the emotional state of the soliders in question was determined by measuring skin conductance or is based on self-reporting.

    Isn’t the phenomenon of PTSD partly due to hippocampal atrophy from repeated hyperactivity of other brain structures? If so, this would appear to be a type of desensitization different in kind from the presumed indifferent attitude acquired by playing violent videogames.

  4. #4 guthrie
    December 15, 2007

    I recently borrowed Grossman’s book “On Combat” from a friend, and found it very interesting.

    EK- in “On COmbat”, Grossman lays out the evidence showing that teenagers sho regularly use shooting type video games can score very highly when they pick up a gun and shoot at targets for the first time. This translates into superb skills at shooting people when a small number of them go postal, as happens in the USA.
    He also makes it clear how continual exposure to violence as children creates violent teenagers and adults, and films and games and tv are to blame.

  5. #5 Mark Brady
    December 15, 2007

    At a workshop at Esalen several years ago, I remember Bessel van der Kolk, one of the nation’s leading PTSD experts ( telling us that the trauma that results from killing people in war is much more intractable than actually being wounded or seeing fellow soldiers killed or wounded.

  6. #6 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 15, 2007

    I agree that this is very interesting, and reveals a lot about human psychology and the history of warfare.

    I have heard, but cannot provide an academic citation, that per capita murder, and/or serial killings, decreased in the United States during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

    An artistic expression of this was given by Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux, a film directed by Chaplin that debuted in 1947.

    Wikipedia bgins its article on the film with this summary: “The film is about an unemployed banker, Henri Verdoux, and his sociopathic methods of attaining income. While being both loyal and competent in his work, Verdoux has been laid-off. To make money for his wife and child, he marries wealthy widows and then kills them. His crime spree eventually works against him when two particular widows break his normal routine. The film ends as Verdoux is being led to the guillotine in the prison courtyard after defending his actions as no worse than those carried out every day by businessmen and soldiers…. The script for this film, originally written by Orson Welles, was inspired by the case of serial killer Henri Desire’ Landru.”

    Is there any peer reviewed support for what I’ve heard?

  7. #7 guthrie
    December 15, 2007

    Jonathan, off the top of my head, I imagine that the crude murder rate would drop during war time simply because you have all these 18 to 30/ 45 year olds, i.e. the age group that includes lots of youngsters eager to prove how “manly” they are by fighting others, often to the death, away in the army etc in a structure environment where they do get to kill other people.

    In Grossman’s book “On Combat”, he claims that returning veterans are less likely than non-veterans to carry out murderous acts, at least with guns and suchlike, because they have been so highly trained to use such tools in specific circumstances.

  8. #8 Milt Lee
    December 16, 2007

    I did a documentary on 3 Lakota Veterns – a WWII vet, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Each one suffered from PTSD – two of them probably killed people, and the third worked as a medic. But each was haunted by the war, and each eventually sought help from a medicine man to relieve their suffering. It was over 40 years later that the WW II vet sought help. Each was helped a great deal by Lakota Spirituality, but it was amazing to me the strength of the trauma that each had suffered. I don’t think that any of them was violent after they returned but it’s clear that being exposed to killing was almost more than they could take – no matter what their training might have been.

  9. #9 tom freeman
    December 16, 2007

    The relationship between the ‘suspension of empathy’ required in warfare and its impact on society is a theme in Pat Barker’s award winning trilogy consisting of Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road. In addition to the soldiers traumatized by the First World War, the physicians treating them for ‘shell shock’ (aka PTSD) also demonstrate a ‘hardening’ or tolerance for human suffering, even inflicting it, in the name of medical science.

  10. #10 nppahs
    December 17, 2007

    ptsd can certainly arise from killing another person, but killing in combat does not necessarily produce ptsd. psychotherapy with combat veterans, especially cognitive processing therapy for ptsd, suggests that ptsd symptoms are related to horrific shocks to one’s belief system that are schema-discrepant. i.e. a person who holds the just world hypothesis prior to being raped is going to have more trouble accommodating the rape into their world view, which creates increased cognitive avoidance and prolongs ptsd symptoms. they are likely to either deny that it was rape (assimilation) or conclude that they must be a bad person because bad things happen to bad people (over-accommodation). both approaches prevent the person from dealing with the primary emotions, and it is this avoidance that is the hallmark of pts.

    killing is more likely to cause pts in a person who’s self-concept prior to having killed was oriented around beliefs of pacifism and innocence. even well trained soldiers often continue to harbor distress about having killed women, children or civilians because despite their expectations of warfare and preparation to kill the enemy, they do not see themselves as a person who kills women, children or civilians. u.s. soldiers continue to identify women and children as non-combatants, even when this is not necessarily the case. a vet may experience great distress over having killed a child, despite the child having been armed. being called “baby killers” was especially upsetting to returning vietnam vets because it encouraged a self-image that soldiers were trying incredibly hard to avoid in their own minds. this identification as “baby-killer” hints at the type of over-accommodating belief that prolongs posttraumatic stress (e.g. i must be bad and evil because i killed a baby) by leading to avoidance of processing the reality (e.g. i killed a child who i thought was armed when i was ordered to do so, some bad things happen in war, but i am not necessarily a bad person. i did the best that i could with the information that i had.) i have worked with vietnam vets who shot at children, and work regarding cognitions/schemas related to killing is just as important as emotion regulation, non-avoidance, and other traditional ptsd interventions. i think that shocks to the pre-existing schemas are an essential determinant in who develops ptsd versus who does not.

    combat zones in which soldiers are ordered to kill any person in site (green zones?) seem to cause a greater incidence of ptsd than combat zones in which there is a clear enemy. no doubt, war is bad for mental, physical and spiritual health, but there are ways of fighting that are less psychologically taxing than others.

  11. #11 Dave Briggs
    December 18, 2007

    Sometimes I wonder if this increased “ratio of fire” in modern war is a one of the causes for the dramatic increase in PTSD among veterans. You can train people to kill, but can you really erase the emotional stress that is automatically generated when we hurt somebody else? I don’t know.

    I wonder too and lean towards the belief that the emotional trauma can be deep, severe, and even hidden from one’s own consciousness. I have personally known people who wanted to attain peace in their older years in life and were prevented from doing so until they dealt with issues of their having to inflict cruelty and death on others in war.
    Dave Briggs :~)

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