Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Psychology Behind Killing: A Brief Historical Analysis of the US Armed Forces' Combat Training and Its National Security Implications

I suppose there are a number of security related current events that I could write about this weekend. Most of them, however, have already been discussed in this blog so it would be pointless for me to rehash them. But, just to add my quick thoughts, I think, ultimately, the collapse of the port deal will hurt the US in a number of long-term ways (which I won’t get into now), and I believe Iran needs to be held accountable to the Security Council in a manner that (primarily due to the Russian opposition) will never occur. And that’s that. Now onto my topic at hand…

I decided to discuss something that is a bit out of the norm, but nonetheless important and, I would argue, just as relevant for national security as, say, the Iranian nuclear crisis. This issue is, specifically, how the United States trains its men and women in uniform to commit an act which is perhaps the most difficult for any human being with a conscience to commit. That act is, of course, the taking of a fellow human’s life. If the training in this act is not done properly, and the individual that is empowered by his government to kill actually does kill, the individual in question will experience a feeling difficult to comprehend. Indeed, if not dealt with, the feeling encompasses guilt, severe regret, and a sense of de-humanization. Killing is a vicious and savage act; and whether it is done for reasons that fit societal justifications or not, the psychological harm that can result in its aftermath, for even the most “stable” individual, can have lasting consequences. Therefore, in our armed forces, training in this “art” must be accomplished by competent professionals at both the practical (i.e. shooting, hand-to-hand combat), and psychological levels. Missteps can result, especially during long wars where large segments of a society are exposed to combat, in a warped and depressed populace.

I’ll never forget my first day at Infantry Officer’s Course as a young 22-year old 2nd Lieutenant. The Commanding Officer of the school handed to me and my fellow classmates a letter stating his goals for the course. Near the end of the letter he wrote that our training objective over the next ten weeks was “to learn the very serious business of how to kill the enemy.” Never before had I attended any school whose objectives were just that—training in the arts of killing my fellow man. It was a sobering statement and one I felt, given the relatively peaceful environment of the pre-9/11 world, I would never really have to execute. This of course all changed in later years.

For the next couple of months we were indoctrinated not just on methods used to kill (rifles, artillery, aircraft, ambushes, and grenades to name a few) but also how to “inspire” those under us to kill. We were after all Officers. Training 18-19 year olds to “pull the trigger” or to stand their ground with a bayonet if overrun by the enemy was part of our job. If our men ran away in the face of battle, we had failed in our duties. How then were we to “evoke” within our men courage that they did not know they possessed? How do you “inspire” men to pull the trigger when every instinct that is naturally endowed to a human being tells them not to? How do you convince them that the “values,” goals, and ends which they are fighting for actually merit taking the life of another? While admittedly these training methods will shift from group to group (i.e. Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Marxist revolutionaries will form their own judgments based on their own values) the United States military, I believe, takes an approach based both on its own unique historical experiences and generally accepted understanding of human nature. As will be seen, the US has traveled a long road to balancing combat proficiency with a healthy value system that will ultimately allow members of the Armed Forces to reenter the civilian world as stable and productive people, even after possibly experiencing horrible events. I will begin with a brief discussion of the “moral resistance” to killing and the effects this has had on combat proficiency. I will then analyze what steps were taken by the military to overcome this “resistance,” these step’s consequences, and current trends in training methods used to eradicate these consequences. Throughout all of this, I will attempt to demonstrate how this subject relates to our nation’s national security in the long run.

First, Officers and their counterparts in the Non-Commissioned Officer ranks (NCOs) approach every recruit or new boot-camp graduate with the recognition that there is, inherent within every individual, a natural abhorrence to killing another human being. Call it a “moral resistance,” “mental-wall,” or whatever you like. It is real and it must be overcome. Interesting studies have been conducted on this “natural resistance” and some even more astounding findings have been uncovered. For instance, in WWII, it is estimated that between 75%-80% of riflemen did not actually fire their rifles when an enemy was exposed and threatening. What?? Yes! When it came right down to it, most riflemen in this war were unable to fire their weapons when the “moment of truth” arrived opting instead to allow their comrades-in-arms to do it for them. These numbers were about the same for both the Civil War and World War I. While the results of this research can certainly be questioned (and many have questioned them), these wars represent, ultimately, a failure in training because these men were not able to overcome an inherent “moral” objection to killing even when their lives, or their friend’s lives, were at stake. (These wars were unique, of course, from later wars in that, especially in both the US Civil War and WWI, armies tended to line up on either side of the battlefield and attack each other frontally. This gave an increased opportunity for soldiers to rely on the individual standing next to them to shoot. Research in this area was completed through private questionnaires but also through direct battlefield evidence; i.e. full magazines, etc). In contrast, the non-firing rate in Vietnam was only 5%! This could certainly be attributed to the new type of warfare that ensued in the region (smaller unit level, anti-guerilla tactics), but the training techniques utilized to train soldiers for this war, and the concepts driving them, were most certainly a major factor. What exactly were these "new" approaches? The answer, as put by Lt. Col Dave Grossman who wrote the book on the subject, stated: “Since World War II, a new era has quietly dawned in modern warfare: an era of psychological warfare—psychological warfare conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one’s own troops.” This was started post-WWII to combat the inability of soldiers to fire their weapons. Its affects started to be noticed in the Korean War and were later perfected during the Vietnam War. The main concepts that drove these techniques are summarized below. They are still practiced today.

First, desensitization to “killing” is undertaken. Whether its through violent cadences, or human-shaped targets, the soldier is familiarized with the word and hence the concept on a daily basis. Second, conditioning makes firing weapons and hitting "targets" almost a natural occurrence given certain conditions and subesquently rewards soldiers for doing so. On any given week, one can find infantry companies in the Army or Marine Corps conducting extended field operations. My time in the infantry consisted of 3 out of 4 weeks a month in the “field” constantly moving to different positions at night, attacking ready-made “objectives,” and perfecting defensive positions and offensive maneuvers. Live-fire exercises would be incorporated into training operations as well as more non-conventional operations like ambushes, patrols, and raids. Certainly these were intended to build unit cohesion and develop standard operating procedures, but they were also meant to condition soldiers to fight under adverse situations and be rewarded when the mission was accomplished. Third, and lastly, is the implementation of “denial defense mechanisms.” These, essentially, are instituted to enable the soldier who has committed the act of killing to deny that he/she has actually done something that is “inhuman.” This is primarily accomplished through imagining one's opponent to be a mere target, not actually a human being. The previous steps are taken into consideration now when developing these denial mechanisms. The soldier has become desensitized to the act of killing (regardless of the environment), has been conditioned to believe he will be rewarded for killing, and believes the enemy now to be something less than human; indeed, the enemy is nothing more than a moving target.

Training methods that highlighted these concepts were implemented brilliantly during the Vietnam War. Their success was demonstrated through the ability of Soldiers and Marines to fire their weapons at an increased rate when required. However effective these methods were in creating combat proficiency, though, they failed miserably in the next crucial element of training a soldier properly; that is, enabling a soldier to cope with the stress and “moral crisis” that will inevitably follow after committing such a horrible act. As a result of this failure, Vietnam War Veterans have become almost synonymous with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Why? Because in the end Veterans, upon returning home and considering their actions (and often facing the scorn of a very hostile nation) could not cope effectively with the “unnatural” acts their nation asked them to commit. Sacrifices made by soldiers, especially those that experience combat up close and personal, goes beyond the mere chance that they may not come home alive. Indeed, once exposed to the atrocities of war, many are never again able to function properly in society. While training in previous wars resulted in non-functioning soldiers, the failure in Vietnam-era training methods resulted in non-functioning civilians. This is a mark of shame primarily on our military training techniques, but also on an American public who often held these returning soldiers in contempt.

Military training, in the post-Vietnam War era, has focused its efforts on trying to significantly reduce cases in post-traumatic stress, while also not losing the combat benefits it gained from the above described training concepts. Therefore, the military has started recognizing that whenever a barrier has been torn-down, as in the case with the natural “resistance to killing,” another one must be constructed in its place. In this case, a new "artificial" moral barrier must be reconstructed, one that is compatible with the military's mission. Hence, the Armed Forces have begun emphasizing and incorporating more forcefully into their training programs ideas that have always been present. These include duty, honor, courage, commitment, and the laws of war as sacred, moral principles. Now-a-days ethical training follows closely alongside combat training. For example, as a Rifle Company Executive Officer (whose primary job was to plan and set-up training), rules of engagement were always heavily stressed in operations I planned. My fellow officers in other companies were equally sensitive to these things. Marines violating them were reprimanded in any number of ways. Additionally, Officers and NCOs alike started taking more of an interest in their young soldier’s personal lives, tracking more closely any unusual types of behavior. Counseling at hospitals or by the unit Chaplain has become a common tool used by the chain-of-command to ensure the proper growth, development, and stability of its unit’s members. Counseling is also highly encouraged upon return from any operation deemed high-stress. And lastly, patriotism and love of country has been more strongly reinforced. This is crucial in a young soldier’s mind. He must believe in the cause, and therefore he must believe in the country that is sending him to achieve that cause. If he questions his nation, he will not be able to do his job. Patriotism and love of country, often scoffed-at notions in some circles, must remain central to military training. The day soldiers think the worst of the nation they serve is the day that nation’s national security truly is at risk.

As a final note, a war is a nation’s collective responsibility, regardless of what one feels about it. The majority of the burden lies on the military for preparing our young men and women in uniform to reenter society after experiencing life-altering situations. But the populace at large must ultimately welcome them home and back into the society that they were willing to defend. For a country to ever turn its back on its soldiers returning from a war zone is to turn its back on its very future. While many may question a war, and even at times laugh under their breath at such “mindless” concepts as duty, honor, and love of country, these ideals are, ultimately, what keeps a combat veteran on the side of sane, and hence, ensures future national security and stability.

The information for this essay is primarily from the author's experiences and the book On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Back Bay Books, New York: 1996.


Jesco said...

From your own experience, were you or your comrades negatively effected by the strong criticism of the wars at home? I've always wondered what the soldiers must feel about what they probably interpret as a lack of patriotism in the US. How easy is it to tune out the public and narrow in on the mission? You said that the soldier needs to believe in what he is doing, and that makes so much sense, since killing is such a naturally repulsive thing.
Thanks for writing this by the way. You should consider writing your own article about your experiences.

Waw Waw said...

This is interesting. I am glad you shared that information with us because I have been curious about it before.

Robert Farley said...

This is a very good and interesting post. I wonder about this:

"He must believe in the cause, and therefore he must believe in the country that is sending him to achieve that cause. If he questions his nation, he will not be able to do his job. Patriotism and love of country, often scoffed-at notions in some circles, must remain central to military training. The day soldiers think the worst of the nation they serve is the day that nation’s national security truly is at risk."

because I'm not sure that it's wholly true. Studies of the Wehrmacht in World War II showed that while SS units (the most ideologically committed fighters) did fight the hardest, the difference with other German units was pretty marginal. Especially towards the end of the war, a lot of the rank and file of the Wehrmacht no longer identified with the Nazi regime, yet the high operational and tactical effectiveness (much higher than the US Army, for example) remained.

Similarly, a large percentage of the Red Army hated Stalin and the Soviet system as a whole. Nonetheless, they also achieved a level of effectiveness that surpassed the US or British armies.

So, I'm unconvinced by this part of the argument, as there seems to be some evidence that soldiers with reservations about their countries do fight well. Nevertheless, good post.

Cavour said...

Dr. Farley,

Enforcer said soldiers have to love their COUNTRY. In the examples you're mentioning, soldiers dislike their GOVERNMENT. I don't know much about the Wehrmacht, but I do know that Russian soldiers, regardless of their opinion of Stalin, loved the motherland fanatically. One can love one's country while still loathing the government.

Robert Farley said...


But that leaves a pretty enormous degree of latitude. If soldiers with deep reservations about their government can continue to fight well, then I'm not sure I know what Enforcer's point is. "If he questions his nation, he will not be able to do his job". If your interpretation is right, then I can't see how Enforcer's argument applies to the US context; are American soldiers in danger of starting to hate America? I very much doubt it...

Perhaps a clarification by Enforcer is in order.

Robert Farley said...

Another question on my mind; I don't think I've ever, even once, heard anyone "laugh under their breath at such “mindless” concepts as duty, honor, and love of country," and I've spent a lot of time around people who question the wisdom of particular wars.

The Enforcer said...

Thanks for the comments from everyone. For Jesco, when I returned from my couple of tours in Iraq, the war had not yet grown unpopular. In fact, I don't even think that the anti-war sentiment now has reached anywhere near what it was at the end of the Vietnam War. With that being said, however, I personally have been called a "murderer" on a couple of occasions. Although these remarks hurt, I nevertheless recognized that these comments came from those on the fringe of public opinion. Though they have stuck with me to a degree, they ultimately didn’t bother me tremendously because I already had little to no respect for these individuals to begin with. But what if I had? I think about those instances and attempt to put myself in the shoes of a Vietnam Vet (or any Vet for that matter) and try to imagine what would happen if I were younger, and heard these accusations coming from people that I actually did, at one point, respect. You can probably see where a moral crisis could quickly evolve. If the current national mood persists and eventually translates into something like what we saw during and following Vietnam, then we could have similar problems. I have faith enough in the American people that they would not let this national tragedy repeat itself. But again, from my perspective, the military needs to be preparing its men and women to deal with the types of feelings they may encounter following their experiences so no matter what they may face upon returning home, they will be convinced in the “rightness” of their cause, and hence be able to avert severe emotional breakdowns.

For Dr. Farley’s comments, Mach stole some of my thunder :) Like Mach, I can’t speak much to the Wehrmacht question. And in response to the Red Army’s actions in World War II, Mach is right. Stalin (after finally emerging from seclusion following the invasion of his country) appealed to the Soviet people in a manner that would eventually redefine the nature of the Soviet Union itself (I actually found this subject so fascinating I wrote a short paper on it last year titled: Stalin in WWII- Yet Another Revolution) Instead of “Big Brother” (sorry, I’m currently re-reading 1984:), Stalin was now a fellow countryman (although many ignored that he was not actually a Russian, but a Georgian), and instead of appealing to the Soviet people on the basis of “proletarian internationalism” as had been the earlier practice, he now appealed to them as Russians; thereby emphasizing ethnicity. The Orthodox Church was allowed to dust-off its most famous and holy Icons from the warehouses and parade them in front of the troops, while heroes from Russia’s Imperial past were brought back to life. Of course Stalin, being as shrewd as he was, eventually wove his own cult of personality back into the picture and by the end of the war, and subsequent Red Army victories, had all but claimed sole responsibility for the “brilliant” win. But, when it counted, Stalin, and the regime he oversaw, appealed to the people primarily on a nationalistic and ethnic, vice political, level.

The other thought that occurred to me was how much different troops may fight when their homeland is actually being invaded physically, instead of being engaged in a conflict overseas. In both the Soviet and German examples given, is it possible that both armies’ allegiances had, perhaps, shifted completely from their nation and solely to the defense of their homes and families by this point? If so, why didn’t they then desert to return home rather than stay in uniform and fight? I don’t know. The German and Soviet examples are also in direct contrast to how the Iraqi regular units fought upon the US invasion. As I witnessed first-hand, these men did anything but stand and fight. On the contrary, they cheered us on! It was the ideological Fedeyeen units that caused the most problems (and still are). So, back to my earlier point, the bulk of the Iraqi military lost complete faith in their government, the army collapsed, and Baghdad fell. It was the "true believers" who remained and fought. Why did the regular Iraqi units react differently then either the Soviets or the Germans when their homelands’ were invaded? Again,I have my guesses but I ultimately don’t know. I could offer many ideas on the subject but this response is already too long :) So, I’ll stick with my original statement that was brought into question. While in every case involving security, faith in one’s nation and government may not be required; ultimately, for National Security, I would feel a heck of a lot better if I knew those in uniform charged with defense believed in the nation and the legitimacy of the government they were fighting for. Enjoy the NCAA Tournaments...go cats! T.E.

The Enforcer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Enforcer said...

Just saw Dr. Farley's comments after I posted mine and wanted to respond quickly to his last one. I have heard people, professors I currently have (not in the Patterson School) for example, laugh at these "concepts" and refer to them as mindless. These comments are what prompted the statements I made in my original post.

Robert Farley said...

Yeah; Ken Pollack's book Arabs at War is a very useful look at how Arab armies have performed historically at the tactical, operational, strategic, and political levels. Very revealing.

There has to be some truth in Enforcer's argument, because, as I understand it, US tactical combat effectiveness declined in Vietnam as the war became increasingly unpopular. Still, the German and Russian examples present problems. The Germans retained their tactical effectiveness across the whole spectrum of possible situations. The Russians remained effective (more effective than the British or Americans) after crossing the old Soviet frontiers.

All of which simply suggests that there must be multiple determinants of effectiveness.

Cavour said...

I don't think anyone disputes there are multiple determinants of effectiveness. To use Dr. Farley's example, Pollacks examines several of those determinants. In addition to loyalty to country, there is also unit cohesion, technical skill, junior officers' tactical skill and initiative, and information management. I think the dispute was over the line at which soldiers lose faith to the point that they lose effectiveness.

As for the Iraq example, Iraq is a new (and rather artificial) state. It may be that the soldiers Enforcer mentions did not consider themselves Iraqis, which might explain their unwillingness to defend it. The Russian and German troops were still loyal to their countries, even if they were not loyal to their governments.

Meow said...

Wow...good lord...I go away for a few weeks, and look what happens...

gunny said...

It has been my experience that soldiers (I’m using that for all service members), do care what the country thinks of them. If a soldier believes’s that he has the moral high ground it can improve his performance in desperate times. In fact it’s one of the seven factors to consider when planning special operations, the higher the moral high ground the better the chance for success. It also helps his chances of survival when he returns home, if he thinks he killed for the good of the country it will help with some of the guilt that he experiences. Plus I think soldiers like being hero’s or at least being thought of by the general populace as hero’s, and this correlates directly to what the opinions of the war is by that populace. Again the thought of gratitude by that populace makes it easier for him to endure the hardships of combat.
I also know that professionals soldiers, when it comes right down to it, do not give a rats ass about what anyone thinks (except for JAG or the CO/XO) when it come down to mission accomplishment. They are professionals and they take pride in that, a mob mentality takes over and in most cases the soldier would rather die then lose or surrender. I believe this is why there was such a high suicide rate among German and Japanese’s officers in WW2, Generalfeldmarschall Paulus was a note able exception to this.
As for Dr. Farley comments, “US tactical combat effectiveness declined in Vietnam as the war became increasingly unpopular. Still, the German and Russian examples present problems. The Germans retained their tactical effectiveness across the whole spectrum of possible situations. The Russians remained effective (more effective than the British or Americans) after crossing the old Soviet frontiers.” I think you are comparing apples and oranges. The degree of effectiveness deeply depends on the type of combat operation you are in. (I also think the train helped the Russians and the fact that they did not have Montgomery to deal with.) Offensive combat operations will always inspire troops, there is very little need to inspire them, the next town, city or battle will do that for them. In defensive operations effectiveness is hard to measure but with a three to one kill ratio in favor of the defense you already have good odds. Plus you are usually fighting for some higher goal i.e.… staying alive or fighting for your family and friends. I think if we compared German operations against the Russian Partisans we may have a different view of American forces in Vietnam, and OIF2. Also, didn’t the Russians have a much higher mortality rate then the Canadians, British and the Americans? Combat effective or just stupid?

Robert Farley said...


I'm not sure what you mean about apples and oranges; German and Russian combat performance was consistently better than US combat performance in WWII, down to the level of the infantry company and below. US generals complained mightily about the resistance of American infantry to dangerous situations.

And yes, Russian troops did experience higher casualty rates, but they were typically fighting against much larger and more experienced German formations than the Americans came up against.

But, on the other hand, you're quite right that the Russians didn't have to deal with Monty. For some reason, the British still worship that guy...

Robert Farley said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
gunny said...

I will concede that German troops out performed American troops, I will also concede that the Russian troops were better soldiers in some ways than the Americans. German Generals hint at this in the book Fighting in Hell (good reading for insurgency operations).However, to say that the Russians out performed the Americans I would have to disagree. Russian units were constantly kept at bay by single Tiger tanks. You could say that this was true for American troops as well, but the difference is that the Russians had a better tank.(T-34) Also do you think the Russian offensive operations were a little dated causing them undue amount of loses. I always thought that the Russians were great at defense but just through numbers at the Germans in the offense???? (I think Soldat, Forgotten Soldier, and Panzer Commander confirm this.)

Robert Farley said...


Recent work on World War II has transformed our understanding of how the Eastern Front was fought. Before about 15 years ago, we only had German sources, and the tactical and operational capabilities of Russian forces were not clear. With the opening of Russian archives, we now know a lot more about how Russian forces fought, and in particular how well they fought.

The upshot is that, by early 1944, Russian forces had achieved a tactical and operational capacity that exceeded that of the Wehrmacht. They were able to carry out offensives on a scale impossible in the West. Also, the casualty rates of Russian forces in the field dropped dramatically in late 1943 and 1944; while it is plausible to suggest that they just threw a lot of people in 42 and 43, by 1944 this simply wasn't the case.

Red Army operations in 1944 and 1945 were as expertly conducted as any of the German operations earlier in the war, and were much better than similar US efforts. This wasn't apparent at the time, because no one had a good idea of the Red Army order of battle. Now, however, we have a much better picture of the fighting capabilities of the Soviets, and they were extremely high.

The Red Army also pioneered "deep battle" warfare in the 1930s, along with the Germans, but lost much of that capability with the purges of the officer corps in 1937. By 1944, they had regained those capabilities, and then some.

I recommend the following:

Storm of Steel, Mary Habeck
When Titans Clashed, David Glantz and Jonathan House

gunny said...