Random Facts About … Soldiers Trained to Kill, Part II

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By David Martin —

Last week’s Random Facts column discussed the reluctance of soldiers to kill an enemy, as covered by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, an Army Ranger and military historian, in his book, “On Killing.” Much of Grossman’s work is based on World War II studies by Army Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall who found, after interviewing thousands of combat soldiers, that only 15 to 20% would fire at the enemy. According to Grossman, “Those who would not fire did not run or hide — in many cases they were willing to risk greater danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages. They simply would not fire their weapons at the enemy even when faced with repeated waves of banzai charges.”

As pointed out last week, Grossman’s and Marshall’s findings are disputed by many in the military — but what’s not disputed is that the percentage of combat soldiers willing to engage the enemy has risen into the 80 to 90% range, up from that 15 to 20% in World War II and earlier wars.

Why? One reason is training, which has changed dramatically in the second half of the 20th century. Instead of shooting at bull’s-eye targets, as trainees did in the Second World War, soldiers are trained to shoot at targets that look more like the enemies they will face. In the Vietnam era, silhouettes of humans were used. When terrorists became our enemy, targets were used that depicted men holding rifles and dressed in Middle East garb. Targets are no longer static but pop up at random, requiring the soldier to fire instinctively. The purpose of using lifelike targets that require a quick reaction is to facilitate the transition from practice shooting to killing an actual enemy.

From crime reports, you might think that humans have a natural propensity to kill one another, but that’s not true. As explained in SFGATE, a California news site, “The reality is that the brains of human beings — unless they fall within the demographic sliver we call psychopaths — are hardwired not to kill other humans. Like rattlesnakes that fatally bite other species but fight fellow rattlers by wrestling them, humans overwhelmingly recoil from homicide.”

To understand and overcome this innate reluctance to kill another human being, a line of study has been developed that Grossman calls killology, “the scholarly study of the destructive act.” Soldiers are trained to think of themselves as killers and the enemy as deserving death. Killing is taken out of the abstract to become real and personal.

In an online site for military company commanders, one contributor advised that training soldiers in knife-fighting techniques “ … will help to create killers. If you can train Soldiers to stab someone, you can expect them to shoot the enemy when required. You must create the mindset in them that killing the enemy is an acceptable action when given the permission to do so by legitimate authority.”

Killing comes at a cost, of course. The subtitle of Grossman’s books is, “The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.” He points out that the act of killing is more psychologically traumatic for the killer than the danger of combat. The all-time high rate of suicides in the military bears this out. We put our soldiers in a terrible dilemma: Kill our enemies to protect us but don’t lose your soul doing it.

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