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.