Lethal Defense Training in a Good Society
Implications of the Psychology of Learning To Kill
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
When violent attacks by enemies of a good society occur, those working to build or maintain that society will have to make an informed decision after collective consideration as to whether or not violence is a justified tactic of self-defense. I think a guiding principle for that discussion should be that violence must be an absolute last resort for survival when all nonviolent self-defense fails. To help us prepare for any future attacks, we need a clearly defined vision of defense institutions, defense training programs, and the institutions to determine when and how we protect ourselves. I am not proposing that vision here, but my goal in writing this essay is to describe the psychological aspects of lethal violence against other human beings and how this should inform our preparation for violent self-defense. This is an important issue to consider long before we are attacked and compelled to decide our response, and I believe it should be central to our formulation of a defense vision.
Several ideas can be entertained regarding the best way to organize defense forces and violent protection for a good society (See for example, Matt Grinder's "International Relations Involving a Participatory Society"). Should we have everyone in society undertake collectively agreed upon warfare tasks, sharing the burden of this work as a type of balanced job complex? Should we have a standing army or a decentralized militia? Should we train the whole of society in violent self-defense so it can protect and quickly organize itself as necessary without having to grant dangerous power to specialists? These are all questions we should consider at length as we move toward building a better society. However, in all cases, we must address the psychological aspects of killing as we establish our defense institutions and training.
In his book, On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill In War and Society, Dave Grossman hypothesizes that human beings have in innate, biological resistance to killing members of their own species. He notes that throughout the animal kingdom, animals in conflict between species often have a physiological fight/flight response to danger in which they become predisposed to escape from danger or kill the threat. However, in conflict within species, most of Earth's animals go into a variation of the fight/flight response in which combat is rarely lethal but instead involves a ritualistic series of bluffs that usually ends in flight or a display of submission by one of the animals. Grossman puts forth evidence for this pattern in human warfare, noting several historical examples supporting his claim that humans, like most animal species, do not instinctively and easily kill their own kind. Generally speaking, we bluff, submit, run away, and sometimes even die before we kill another human being.
This resistance to killing has been frustrating to states such as the U.S. government, and much study has gone into ways to effectively condition people to kill other people in war. As Grossman notes, U.S. infantry fired their weapons approximately 20 percent of the time that warfare conditions dictated they should in World War II. When it came time to fire, the majority of soldiers tended to go into behavioral patterns reminiscent of intraspecies conflict in the animal kingdom. In other words, the instinctive rule against killing a member of one's own species seemed to get activated when the soldiers were in survival mode. However, through discovery and manipulation of the psychological variables that override human resistance to killing, the U.S. government was able to increase infantry firing rates to 50 percent during the invasion of Korea, and over 90 percent during the invasion of Vietnam.
Those who train most of the world's professional armies have identified several of these variables and exploited them to enable people to kill in war. According to Grossman, these include the social psychological forces of authority and group influence. These in turn interact with the individual psychological predisposition to kill, which is influenced by variables such as the temperament and training of the person doing the killing. This combination of social and individual psychological influences interacts with the unique attributes of the killing situation, such as whether or not alternatives to killing have been exhausted. Finally, killing gets easier with greater physical and emotional distance from the victims.
Whereas state armies and corporate mercenary firms have simply amplified the influence of all of these factors to create the maximum possible killing propensity, our job in creating alternative defense institutions is to determine the best ways to effectively protect ourselves with lethal violence without sacrificing our humanity in the process. Detailed exploration of the killing factors described above, as well as what role they should have in a good society, will assist us in this task.
Both the proximity and perceived legitimacy of authority figures seem to strongly influence whether or not people kill. In a famous study of obedience to authority, Stanley Milgram found that the mere authoritative statements of a person calling himself a doctor and wearing a lab coat were enough to get participants in an experiment to go along with orders to electrically shock another human being with what they believed to be dangerous voltage. Similarly in war conditions, people are more likely to kill if they are ordered to by an authority who is physically close to them, seen as legitimate, and strongly demanding that they kill.
Vision for defense organization will determine whether or not we have authorities and what form such command structures might take. Regardless of that decision, I believe a defensive training regimen for a good society should have at its core a questioning of authority and strong emphasis on the dangers of obedience. This is a radical departure from the training approaches of state militaries. However, if the history of states has taught us anything, it is that terrible atrocities can be carried out simply because they are ordered. Blind trust in authority should have no place in a good society, including in its defense training.
The social influence of the groups with which people align themselves also seems to impact whether or not they can kill others. Similar to authority's influence on killing, groups conformity pressures can increase the likelihood of killing. People kill more easily if they identify as members of groups that demand that they kill.
Thus, the dark side of group solidarity is that it can lead to atrocity, even in the absence of authority. The brutal actions of lynch mobs demonstrate that not all crimes against humanity are the result of a top-down command structure ordering them. Therefore, defensive training in a good society should also emphasize the danger of blind conformity to the group and encourage dissent among group members, similar to the healthy distrust of authority that we should instill in our defense forces.
Individual Killing Predisposition
Besides the group factors that can influence anyone regardless of background, Grossman identifies several individual psychological variables that influence killing. Two key factors in this area are the person's level of innate resistance to killing, as well as the person's recent training experiences.
As noted above, Grossman's theory is that humans are like most animal species in that we have a biological resistance to killing our own species that is not a conscious, moral decision so much as an instinctive set of possible behaviors that gets activated when we are confronted with the threat of violence from other human beings. While this set of behaviors does not preclude killing, it relegates such a tactic to a last resort. Studies of human behavior in warfare seem to support this hypothesis. However, there is a minority of people who do not seem to have any hesitation in killing situations and will kill as a first resort. In state armies and mercenary organizations, such people often do very well in battlefield conditions. But a sociopathic predisposition is not a success in a good society. Should we need lethal violence for defense, those who can easily carry out the task may be useful, but we should contain their behavior to the extent possible. As we formulate defense vision, we should consider that the existence of some people who have no instinctive aversion to killing could be an argument against having volunteer armies in a good society, since such people may join for this reason and shape the army culture into one that kills with enthusiasm.
The way we view killing and the social messages we use in our training should be on the side of reluctance to kill, not enthusiasm for it. Therefore, in our defense training, we must reject the glorification of killing used in state military training today. The concept of killing being a heroic act worthy of praise should not exist in a good society. Rather, it should be accurately emphasized as the tragic act that it is, to be used as a last resort when all other options have failed. Necessary killing should be mourned rather than celebrated in a good society.
Desensitized Killing Predisposition
Realistic, repetitive drills of simulated killings are the principal method professional armies use to train their soldiers to kill. This appears to bypass the innate resistance to close range killing that has been observed throughout human warfare. I see no way around incorporating this method into lethal self-defense training in a future society. If we are forced to violently defend ourselves, we will die if our frightened brains won't let us shoot back. Grossman notes that untrained guerilla armies are generally much less accurate in their firing than professionally trained ones and attributes this to the guerillas' lack of realistic killing drills. So, this is one existing technique that I believe we should keep in a good society.
However, such training will have consequences that we must address as we define our defense institutions. If we have an instinctive brake on killing, and we condition ourselves to bypass it, that means that we run the risk of habituating to killing our own kind. This can become even more of a problem if we have universal training or if we see warfare work as part of a balanced job complex, because the habituation can be society-wide. The defense vision debate should be informed by this consideration. I suggest we counteract the killing desensitization that training can bring by having strong social messages that killing is only to be done when absolutely necessary, i.e., when all other options for self-defense have been exhausted. Another way we can restrain the ease of killing that realistic killing drills can bring is by mediating one of the factors that makes it easy for human beings to slaughter each other: distance.
Killing At a Distance
Distance from the people we are killing helps obscure the reality of what we are doing and thus breaks down our resistance to it. Presuming Grossman's theory of resistance to intraspecies killing is correct, this makes sense. If the instinctive parts of our brains think we're killing a different species because we cannot physically or emotionally see our commonality, the brakes on killing come off. People don't look as human to us if we look at them on a satellite map or through a sniper scope, nor after we have tricked ourselves into thinking they are another species called undermen, grasshoppers, cockroaches, gooks, hajjis, savages, targets, or collateral damage. With this delusion, we can slaughter accordingly.
Physical and Technological Distance
Advanced weapons technology allows people to kill other people with greater distance, and therefore, more ease. This, perhaps more than any other distancing factor is what separates powerful nation states from weaker enemies in ability and propensity to kill, as well as the scale of the killing. Powerful states such as the U.S. government can afford the technology necessary to carry out the world's largest slaughters from a distance that makes the acts invisible to the perpetrating state and its population. The degree of advanced weapons technology we authorize will have to be an important part of vision, considering the moral implications of killing from a distance, as well as the terrible legacy of state terror that high technology weapons have made possible throughout the world. Regardless of the distance we deem acceptable, we must address and counter the ease of killing that comes with physical distance.
Killing a person in face-to-face, hand-to-hand combat appears to be the hardest for people to do. Not seeing a person's face makes it slightly less difficult. The ease increases respectively with shooting at close range, sniping at long range, and becomes easiest from the distance of a missile or aerial bombing. Consequently, our defense training is going to have to compensate for the blindness to humanity that comes with distance. If a good society has to kill to protect itself, it must do body counts, genuinely mourn its victims, and atone for what it has done. The words "collateral damage" will have no place in the lexicon of a good society.
I cannot think of a single genocide in human history that did not first involve a psychological ritual of turning the targeted group into something other than human, thus paving the way for the species suicide that followed. Stan Goff writes of this dehumanization process in Vietnam and how it affected him as a soldier:
"We knew that what we were doing was wrong. So they became dinks or gooks,
just like Iraqis are now being transformed into ragheads or hajjis... something
inside us told us that so long as they were human beings, with the same intrinsic value we had as human beings, we were not allowed to burn their homes and barns, kill their animals, and sometimes even kill them. So we used these words, these new names, to reduce them and strip them of their essential humanity, and then we could do things like adjust artillery fire onto the cries of a baby... When you take away the humanity of another, you take away your own humanity. You attack your own soul because it is standing in the way."
The deliberate use of racism to enable killing is a crime that should be eradicated on the path toward a good society. It will obviously have no place in the world we want to see. However, as part of our defense training and mental approach to any warfare we deem necessary, we must protect against the dangers inherent in the subtle and unconscious ways we emotionally distance ourselves from those whom we see as different. We must constantly remind ourselves that the people we face are ordinary human beings with lives and loves, fighting and dying for what they believe in, just as we do.
The killing behavior that moral distance enables may be the greatest liability for a good society. Should we use violence to defend ourselves, it will most likely be against an oppressive group or institution that is directly attacking us, and we will probably have the collective backing of the good society. Our moral superiority in such an instance will probably be indisputable. But the danger of seeing one's enemy as morally inferior is that we can become the monsters we despise by not restraining our killing behavior with humility and the recognition that our enemies are still human like us. Consider, for example, Martha Stout's observation:
"Throughout all of human history and to the present, the call to war has included the flattering claim that one's own forces are about to accomplish a victory that will change the world for the better, a triumph that is morally laudable, justified by its humane outcome, unique in human endeavor, righteous, and worthy of enormous gratitude. Since we began to record the human story, all of our major wars have been framed in this way, on all sides of the conflict, and in all languages the adjective most often applied to the word war is holy."
The psychological risk of this mindset of moral superiority, irrespective of its truth, is summarized in Sam Keen's poem, "To Create an Enemy:"
Start with an empty canvas
Sketch in broad outline the forms of
men, women, and children.
Dip into the unconscious well of your own
with a wide brush and
stain the strangers with the sinister hue
of the shadow.
Trace onto the face of the enemy the greed,
hatred, carelessness you dare not claim as
Obscure the sweet individuality of each face.
Erase all hints of the myriad loves, hopes,
fears that play through the kaleidoscope of
every finite heart.
Twist the smile until it forms the downward
arc of cruelty.
Strip flesh from bone until only the
abstract skeleton of death remains.
Exaggerate each feature until man is
metamorphosized into beast, vermin, insect.
Fill in the background with malignant
figures from ancient nightmares - devils,
demons, myrmidons of evil.
When your icon of the enemy is complete
you will be able to kill without guilt,
slaughter without shame.
The thing you destroy will have become
merely an enemy of God, an impediment
to the sacred dialectic of history.
Thus, we can lose our humanity through our belief in our moral superiority if it blinds us to the humanity of our opponents. Ironically, our justified belief that we are on the side of good can lead us to dehumanize with almost identical callousness to racist distancing from victims. We should not defend ourselves violently in a good society unless it is considered absolutely necessary to do so. If this is the case, once again, the killing act should never be glorified nor celebrated. Killing is not righteous, but tragic, especially if carried out by a good society forced to do so by an outside attack. This should be the mindset of those who carry the burden of killing. We should mourn the lives we have taken and continuously evaluate whether the killing or its scope was absolutely necessary for our survival.
The psychological aftermath of having to kill another human being is high for most people put in that situation. For example, Rachel MacNair, in analyzing data gathered from the National Vietnam Veteran Readjustment Study, found that the experience of killing best predicted the severity of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This supports the idea that we are not predisposed to kill, and that overriding this resistance comes at the expense of our sanity. Those who kill defending a good society should be treated with the utmost empathy and care, and their killing behavior should neither be glorified nor condemned. Rather, the act of killing should be seen as a necessary and tragic last resort. We can expect that those who kill will be traumatized by the experience; therefore, psychological treatment should be the top priority for the women and men who are placed in the surreal situation of simultaneously being perpetrator and victim.
Treatment can follow established and effective techniques that are currently used to treat PTSD. However, one caveat to these approaches that should be central to treatment of anyone who has killed is to involve them in a society-wide mourning process for those whose lives they have taken. We should also be very emotionally supportive of those we ask to perpetrate the violence we deem necessary to defend ourselves, avoiding the temptation to scapegoat those who did the dirty work we authorized. When we kill or ask others to kill after we have exhausted all other options for self-defense, we must weep for the people who will never spend another minute pursuing their dreams and loves. We must also weep for ourselves at having to stain our humanity with the grisly work necessary to stay alive.
Societies composed of oppressive systems do their best to make killing easy and ignore the victims, including the perpetrator-victims they manipulate. Such societies use the following tools to do this: authority, group conformity, realistic killing drills, glorification of killing, and above all, blinding their people and warriors to the humanity they share with their victims. Most of these techniques will have no place in a good society, and the psychology behind them should inform ways we can inhibit rather than enable killing.
I propose that a good society's defense institutions should kill only as a last resort of self-defense, realizing that violence is only one of many methods of self-defense. The only tool that a good society should use to this end is the realistic killing drill training used today so that we are able to fire when necessary. Our training should counteract unquestioning obedience and group conformity to keep us from killing blindly. We must stay emotionally close to our victims, recognizing that we are taking the lives of people just like us. Most importantly, if we ever experience the tragedy of having to take life to stay alive, we must grieve those we have robbed of their existence and the bit of humanity we lost in doing so.
Goff, S. (2003). Hold On To Your Humanity: An Open Letter to U.S. Troops Serving In Iraq. www.counterpunch.org/goff11142003.html.
Grossman, D. (1995). On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Killing In War and Society. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Grinder, M. (2009). International Relations Involving a Participatory Society. www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/20324.
Keen, S. (1986). Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
MacNair, R. (2002). Perpetration-induced traumatic stress in combat veterans. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 8, 63-72.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
Stout, M. (2005). The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us. New York: Broadway Books.