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
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.