Monday, February 28, 2005

The March Harper's has an article on American soldiers gone AWOL. There are a few, I think, who went to Iraq and (for whatever reason) don't want to go back. But what strikes me more are the ones who went into basic training and immediately found themselves desperate to get out. Part of the reason for that is what basic training has become, and why. First, the why:

Despite our entertainment industry telling us otherwise, it is not easy to kill. In his groundbreaking and highly influential study of World War II firing rates, S.L.A. Marshall ... interviewed soldiers fresh from battle and found that only 15 to 20 percent of the combat infantry were willing to fire their weapons ... even when their life or the lives of their comrades were threatened. When Medical Corps psychiatrists studied combat fatigue cases in the European Theater, they found that "fear of killing, rather than fear of being killed, was the most common cause of battle failure in the individual." ...

And the effect of his findings on the military has been profound. As Lietenant Colonel Dave Grossman notes in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, "A firing rate of 15 to 20 percent among soldiers is like having a literacy rate of 15 to 20 percent among proofreaders. Once those in authority realized the existence and magnitude of the problem, it was only a matter of time until they solved it."

By the Korean War, the firing rate had gone up to 55 percent; in the Vietnam war, it was around 90 to 95 percent. How did the military achieve this? As Grossman writes, "Since World War II, a new era has quietly dawned in modern warfare: an era of psychological warfare ... conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one's own troops. ... The triad of mechanisms used to achieve this remarkable increase in killing are desensitization, condition, and denial defense mechanisms."

So, there it is -- for the grunts, that's what the modern army does: it efficiently strips away their inhibitions against killing, and gives them ways to rationalize it, by intense psychological manipulation of the recruits. It's no wonder that troops who recognize what is happening to them, and don't like it, find themselves desperate to get away. The process is new enough, and little known enough, that they really didn't know what to expect.

I won't start preaching here about how evil this is, because I'm not at all sure that's right. If you're going to have an army at all, the people on the front lines have to be effective killers. That's what armies do. And having them trained to do it effectively has benefits for the rest of us: the more efficient they are, the fewer of them we need, and the less the rest of us need to get dragged into it. To a point.

The point where this logic reaches its end is when the army is deployed for tasks where efficient killing machines are not what is wanted -- where the normal hesitation to kill would be useful, and where hair-trigger firing and the "us against them" view of the world which the modern army demands cause far more problems than they solve. To put it bluntly: in combat, that attitude breeds success. In peacekeeping and law enforcement, in a society where any misstep is likely to start a blood feud, it's a bloody disaster. And that bloody disaster has played out repeatedly, by now, in Iraq.

If "supporting the troops" means anything at all, it means that the rest of us should work to make sure that when they are deployed, it is in a way that maximizes the chances that they can succeed. That obviously hasn't been a concern of Dubya's crew -- witness the laggardness and continued profiteering "contract anomalies" on armorplate for Humvees.

But to succeed, the troops need to be mentally, as well as physically, equipped. Dubya and Rummy sent an undermanned crew of trained killing machines into a nation-building exercise demanding the peacekeeping, diplomacy, and mediation skills of a good community policing squad. I've argued elsewhere that as an anti-terror measure, the attack on Iraq was bad strategy -- Saddam wasn't supporting anti-American terror much if at all, and it was a distraction from, among other things, continued action in Afghanistan which matters far more. It's just their way, I guess, to back up their bad strategy with phenomenally bad tactics.


Blogger lightning said...

Soldiers are not cops. Cops are not soldiers. Politicians have never been able to tell the difference.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Sam Dodsworth said...

Maybe the army needs to train more 'cops' and fewer 'soldiers', then?

6:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you're going to have an army at all, the people on the front lines have to be effective killers. That's what armies do.But that isn't true: you yourself have pointed out that armies existed until close to the present day without these techniques. As recently as half a century ago, give or take a decade, our grandfathers formed an army without benefit of psychological manipulation, and they did a good enough job of it that we call them the "greatest generation".

and having them trained to do it effectively has benefits for the rest of us: the more efficient they are, the fewer of them we need, and the less the rest of us need to get dragged into it.

I put it to you that being able to form an invading army from a tiny minority of your country's population is not a benefit, but a detriment.

9:05 AM  
Blogger charles said...

Sam -- if we're going to keep trying to rebuild other countries, somebody needs to train more cops. Whether it ought to be the army is a different question. But one of the ways we got into this fix is that Dubya came in with a strong reluctance to plan for "nation building" at all -- and even though he seems to like doing the nation-building thing, he still seems averse to planning for it.

Anonymous: if you think that the armies of an earlier age were not effective killers, you might want to review some of Mathew Brady's Civil War battlefield photos -- or, for that matter, a Mark Twain essay or two about what the American army was up to at the turn of the last century in the Phillipines. They weren't as effective as the current model, but the basic idea was the same: you give 'em guns and artillery because you want 'em to go out and kill people as you direct. That's what armies do. An organization that does different things might be good for a different purpose -- but it wouldn't be an army.

10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous --

Historically, the way you got effective killers was by attrition. This is why the high emphasis on veteran units in Napoleonic (and earlier) times; in the days before mass warfare, you got a group of reliable killers by putting a formed unit through enough hell that the unreliable killers died.

The present system is problematic mostly in that much, much less effort has gone into re-integrating all these artificial semi-sociopath barbarians back into civil society than has gone into producing them in the first place.

And yeah, cops aren't soldiers. You do need both. If you're going to do a lot of nation building, you need many more cops than soldiers.

My personal suspicion is that one of the problems for the neocons with Iraq is what do they do if they stop? They've produced at least a hundred thousand able killers who are personally angry with them. Can't afford to have those people in CONUS or talking to each other or out of the Army.

12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't afford to have those people in CONUS or talking to each other or out of the Army.How about we make it a rule that provincial troops can't cross the Rubicon River. Seemed to work pretty well the last time this problem arose.

Oh wait...

1:52 PM  
Blogger ernie said...

There's some doubt whether that 15-20% business is true or not. Nothing on snopes but lots of google links for example:

Also see Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel. Turns out that in primitive societies murder is the #1 cause of death. So I don't buy that only 15% of men are killers.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The US Army is moving towards doing much of the killing via battlefield robots by 2035. (New York Times)

Robots will, in the long run be cheaper, and they don't ask questions.

This will coincide with the already-in-progress shift in most other industries to the use of automated technology for non-creative jobs.

Some say that within 20-30 years, as many as 90% of us, globally, will be out of work.


So an unquestioning military may be an necessity in the face of food riots, etc.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While your conclusion that it is difficult to train people to be killers is probably accurate. One of the legs it stands on is shakey.
SLA Marshall's after battle interview techniques have been brought into considerable question. His methodology was faulty and he made assumptions that weren't backed up by the evidence.
Many of the men Marshall interviewed didn't fire their weapons because they didn't see anyone to shoot at.
The American infantry were trained to fire at individual targets rather than to use "area fire".
Since the end of the Napoleonic era troops have used cover making it kinda hard for soldiers to see someone to shoot at.
American soldiers have since WWII increased their firepower almost exponentialy and have adopted area fire as a tactic. So now instead of waiting for an enemy to pop up so we can shoot them we just shoot the hell out of the place they are taking cover in.
It's a tactic that works fine and dandy but but it dramaticaly lowers real estate resale values.

3:50 PM  

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