understand the nature of aggression and violence on the
battlefield, it must first be recognized that most participants
in close combat are literally "frightened out of their wits."
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).
In conflict situations, this primitive, midbrain processing
can be observed in the existence of a powerful resistance
to killing one's own kind. Animals with antlers and horns
slam together in a relatively harmless head-to-head fashion,
and piranha fish fight their own kind with flicks of the
tail, but against any other species these creatures unleash
their horns and teeth without restraint. This is an essential
survival mechanism that prevents a species from destroying
itself during territorial and mating rituals.
One major modern revelation in the field of military psychology
is the observation that such resistance to killing one's
own species is also a key factor in human combat. *Brig.
Gen. S. L. A. Marshall first observed this during his work
as an official U.S. Army historian in the Pacific and European
theaters of operations in World War II. Based on his post-combat
interviews, Marshall concluded in his book Men Against
Fire (1946, 1978) that only 15 to 20 percent of the
individual riflemen in World War II fired their own weapons
at an exposed enemy soldier. Key weapons, such as *flame-throwers,
were usually fired. Crew-served weapons, such as *machine
guns, almost always were fired. And action would increase
greatly if a nearby leader demanded that the soldier fire.
But when left on their own, the great majority of individual
combatants appear to have been unable or unwilling to kill.
Marshall's findings were and have remained controversial.
Faced with scholarly concern about a researcher's methodology
and conclusions, the scientific method involves replicating
the research. In Marshall's case, every available parallel,
scholarly study validates his basic findings. One of these
studies was Ardant du Picq's survey of French officers in
the Korean War when the rate of psychiatric casualties was
almost seven times higher than the average for World War
II. Only after the war settled down, lines stabilized, and
the threat of having enemy in rear areas decreased did the
average rate go down to that of World War II. Again, just
the potential for close-up, inescapable, interpersonal confrontation
is more effective and has greater impact on human behavior
than the actual presence of inescapable, impersonal death
du Picq's surveys of French officers in the 1860s and his
observations about ancient battles (Battle Studies,
1946), John Keegan and Richard Holmes' numerous accounts
of ineffectual firing throughout history (Soldiers,
1985), Holmes' assessment of Argentine firing rates in the
Falklands War (Acts of War, 1985), Paddy Griffith's
data on the extraordinarily low firing rate among Napoleonic
and American *Civil War regiments (Battle Tactics of
the American Civil War, 1989), the British army's laser
reenactments of historical battles, the FBI's studies of
nonfiring rates among law enforcement officers in the 1950s
and 1960s, and countless other individual and anecdotal
observations, all confirm Marshall's fundamental conclusion
that human beings are not, by nature, killers. Indeed, from
a psychological perspective, the history of warfare can
be viewed as a series of successively more effective tactical
and mechanical mechanisms to enable or force combatants
to overcome their resistance to killing other human beings,
even when defined as the enemy.
1946, the US Army had accepted Marshall's conclusions, and
the Human Resources Research Office of the US Army subsequently
pioneered a revolution in combat training, which eventually
replaced firing at targets with deeply ingrained conditioning,
using realistic, man-shaped pop-up targets that fall when
hit. Psychologists assert that this kind of powerful operant
conditioning is the only technique that will reliably influence
the primitive, midbrain processing of a frightened human
being. Fire drills condition schoolchildren to respond properly
even when terrified during a fire. Conditioning in flight
simulators enables pilots to respond reflexively to emergency
situations even when frightened. And similar application
and perfection of basic conditioning techniques increased
the rate of fire to approximately 55 percent in Korea and
around 95 percent in Vietnam.
Equally high rates of fire resulting from modern conditioning
techniques can be seen in Holmes' observation of British
firing rates in the Falklands and FBI data on law enforcement
firing rates since the nationwide introduction of modern
conditioning techniques in the late 1960s.
The extraordinarily high firing rate resulting from these
processes was a key factor in the American ability to claim
that the United States never lost a major engagement in
Vietnam. But conditioning that overrides such a powerful,
innate resistance has enormous potential for psychological
backlash. Every warrior society has a "purification ritual"
to help the returning warrior deal with his "blood guilt"
and to reassure him that what he did in combat was "good."
In primitive tribes, this generally involves ritual bathing,
ritual separation (which serves as a cooling-off and "group
therapy" session), and a ceremony embracing the veteran
back into the tribe. Modern Western rituals traditionally
involve long separation while marching or sailing home,
parades, monuments, and unconditional acceptance from society
In the *Vietnam War, this purification ritual was turned
on its head. The returning American veteran was attacked
and condemned in an unprecedented manner. The traditional
horrors of combat were magnified by modern conditioning
techniques, and this combined with societal condemnation
to create a circumstance that resulted in 0.5 to 1.5 million
cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Vietnam
veterans. The mass incidence of psychiatric disorders among
Vietnam veterans resulted in the "discovery" of PTSD, a
condition that we now know traditionally occurred as a result
of warfare, but never in such quantity.
PTSD seldom results in violent criminal acts, and upon returning
to society, the recipient of modern military conditioning
is statistically no more likely to engage in violent crime
than a nonveteran of the same age. The key safeguard in
this process appears to be the deeply ingrained discipline
that the combat soldier internalizes with his military training.
However, with the advent of interactive "point-and-shoot"
arcade and video games, there is significant concern that
society is aping military conditioning, but without the
vital safeguard of discipline. There is strong evidence
to indicate that the indiscriminate civilian application
of combat conditioning techniques as entertainment may be
a factor in worldwide, skyrocketing violent crime rates,
including a sevenfold increase in per capita aggravated
assaults in America since 1956. Thus, the latest chapter
in American military history may be occurring in the city
Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, 1963. John Keegan,
The Face of Battle, 1976. Jim Goodwin, Post-Traumatic
Stress Disorders: A Handbook for Clinicians, 1988. Dave
Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning
to Kill in War and Society, 1995. Dave Grossman,
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in
War and Society, 8th ed., 1996. Dave Grossman and Gloria
DeGaetano, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to
Action Against TV Movie, and Video Game Violence, 1999.