Sunday, August 13, 2006


The case of Pvt. Steven Green and the five soldiers who in March of this year helped him rape a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, then murder her family, has prompted much commentary on the nature of atrocities -- which are, as we are frequently reminded, a feature of all wars:
British troops executed and raped civilians during the Revolutionary War, according to U.S. historian David Hackett Fischer's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Washington Crossing"; Red Army soldiers raped an estimated 100,000 Berlin women between 1945 and 1948, as described by the British historian Antony Beevor's "Berlin: The Downfall 1945." During the Korean War, U.S. commanders repeatedly ordered their troops to kill Korean refugees caught on the battlefield. And last Sunday, the Los Angeles Times published details of a once-secret Pentagon archive that describes 320 alleged incidents of American atrocities against Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians -- not including the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which U.S. troops killed more than 300 Vietnamese civilians in the course of three hours, and which became a turning point in Americans' perception of the Vietnam War.

Since the war in Vietnam, the U.S. military has abandoned the draft, raised its recruiting standards, tightened its rules of conduct in war zones -- outlawing, for example, alcohol consumption or sex during deployments -- and introduced mandatory courses on warrior ethics in Army and Navy colleges.
In addition to mandatory courses on warrior ethics, the Pentagon has in recent years implemented a number of rather more ambitious programs designed to help our overtaxed troops develop the psychological resiliency they will need to liberate the freedom-hungry peoples of faraway, oil-rich lands from tyranny, oppression, and all the other ills that flesh is heir to. They fall under the general heading of killology:
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. That's usually a good thing, because it prevents society from disintegrating into bloodthirsty anarchy . . . .

"Once the bullets start flying, most combatants stop thinking with the forebrain (that portion of the brain that makes us human) and start thinking with the midbrain (the primitive portion of our brain, which is indistinguishable from that of an animal)," writes retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former U.S. Army ranger and West Point professor of military science who coined the term, on his Web site
killology.com. "In conflict situations, this primitive, midbrain processing can be observed in the existence of a powerful resistance to killing one's own kind. This is an essential survival mechanism that prevents a species from destroying itself during territorial and mating rituals."

The only thing that has any hope of silencing the midbrain, he argues, is what influenced Pavlov's dogs: conditioning.

The need for new drills became apparent once researchers noted that a majority who had been trained in other ways to kill, surreptitiously refused to do it.

In World War II, when U.S. soldiers got a clear shot at the enemy, only about 1 in 5 actually fired, according to sensational and controversial research by Army historian Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall. It wasn't that they were cowards: On the contrary, they performed other perilous feats, including running onto the battlefield to rescue fellow soldiers, and sometimes they even placed themselves in greater personal danger by refusing to fire. And yet at the moment of truth, they just couldn't kill . . . .

The Pentagon improved firing rates. Research suggests that 55 percent of U.S. soldiers fired on the enemy in the Korean War. By Vietnam that rate had climbed to more than 90 percent. Police studies document similar changes in recent decades . . . .

Today's apprentice killers train in situations designed to simulate combat as closely as possible, and they rehearse in a fashion that would be instantly recognizable to pioneers of behavior modification, from Ivan Pavlov to B.F. Skinner. The bull's-eyes have been replaced by human-shaped targets that pop up without warning, for example, with polyurethane faces on balloon bodies inside uniforms. A trainee spots the targets, fires almost on instinct and gets rewarded with points, badges and three-day passes. Over and over, these "kill drills" build muscle memory and acclimate the brain to the act of killing . . . .

Some training focuses on rationales for killing -- to overcome an enemy that threatens the "American way of life" or "wages war against freedom" or simply trying to kill innocent victims. But a key part of many programs is to make killing more palatable -- even socially acceptable and desirable.

Consider an excerpt of a lecture on mines to Marines at Parris Island, who grunted their approval.

"You want to rip (the enemy's) eyeballs out, you want to tear apart his love machine, you want to destroy him, privates. ...You want to send him home in a Glad bag to his mommy!"

Such bloodthirsty language helps "desensitize them to the suffering of an 'enemy' at the same time they are being indoctrinated in the most explicit fashion, as previous generations of soldiers were not, with the notion that their purpose is not just to be brave and to fight well; it is to kill people," observes military historian Gwynne Dyer in his book "War: The Lethal Custom."

Another technique is to create physical and emotional distance between the killer and the target by fostering a sense of us versus them. While physical distance is achieved with bombs, rocket launchers and even night-vision goggles, which reduce humans to ghostly green silhouettes, emotional distance often is achieved by categorizing targets as different because of their race, ethnicity or religion. The military does whatever it can to deny the fellow humanity of enemy soldiers and is loath to repeat the spectacle of Christmas Day in 1914, when German and British soldiers crawled out of their trenches to share cigarettes, candy and soccer.

In his autobiography, top Marine sniper Jack Coughlin writes from Iraq: "So far in this war I had fired six shots and had six kills -- exactly the right ratio. I considered the ill-trained, poorly led soldiers of Iraq to be hamburger in my scope, practically begging me to kill them, and I was more than ready to grant their wish" . . . .

A more pervasive risk, however, is that soldiers and cops who kill pay a steep psychological price for not only using the new skills they acquire but also for acquiring the skills in the first place. The Pentagon is waging an unprecedented campaign to deal with the mental and emotional scars of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Turning human beings into killers is a tricky business.
Especially if you expect them to come home one day.

"Anybody can maintain discipline for a short period of time," [said sociologist Raymond Scurfield]. "It's the protracted, repeated stuff that becomes very difficult. As the war is prolonged and becomes nastier, as (American servicemen) are put into very difficult situations, as the civilian populace doesn't come out friendly and aid Americans -- all those dynamics are going to make such incidents happen more frequently."

"See, this war is different from all the ones that our fathers and grandfathers fought. Those wars were for something. This war is for nothing," Green reportedly said.

| | Technorati Links | to Del.icio.us