Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On Killing - Posturing and Cultural Distancing

So I’m about halfway through a book by Dave Grossman called “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society”. It’s got me thinking quite a bit. The book itself is on the psychological process that goes on before and after someone kills another man, the methods used to overcome mental barriers, and training techniques used to prepare soldiers to kill.

According to LTC(ret) Grossman the average man has a considerable mental barrier to taking another’s life. Consider a Napoleonic era conflict where two armies are positioned shoulder to shoulder a mere thirty yards apart. With the average soldier able to hit a target at 150 yards 60% of the time the results should be devastating and very rapidly decided. The truth however is that these battles could last hours, and the artillery ended up doing the majority of the damage.

One of the early observations made in the book is a view I’ve never really considered. The thought of fight or flight has become such an overused expression that it has assumed the aura of a natural law. In truth however, fight or flight are only two of the four common results to aggression. Much more common are submission and posturing. Submission may not take the form of surrender; it may instead be manifested as suddenly finding more pertinent tasks to complete. Reloading, assisting wounded and relaying messages immediately come to mind.

Much more common in my experience is posturing. Think about what happens when two tom cats first meet each other. Most of the time there isn’t an immediate retreat or fight. Instead each tries to assert dominance while not endangering them. The puffing up and making aggressive actions and noise is posturing. Firearms provide an excellent tool for posturing. There is lots of noise, and it’s very scary, but usually there is no actual effect. When a unit receives contact and it is unknown where the contact is located it is common, especially in undisciplined units to begin firing randomly. On a purely tactical level this is insane. Indiscriminate firing consumes an infantryman’s most precious resource, ammunition at an alarming rate, gives the enemy a rough idea of the unit’s strength and location without direct observation, and exponentially increases the chances of fratricide and/or collateral damage. Despite all this not only does indiscriminate firing happen, it is encouraged among many units.

The immediate firing is often mischaracterized as “gaining fire superiority”. This is a misnomer, unless it wins the psychological battle with the enemy. Fire superiority is when incoming fire is limiting a unit’s ability to maneuver and return fire effectively. If the unit under fire is randomly shooting and not actually putting accurate fire into the enemy’s position than their ability to fire and maneuver is largely unhindered. What the indiscriminate firing does accomplish is twofold. The first is that the act of aggression no matter how impotent is much more psychologically empowering than inaction. I can testify that sitting behind a wall or hill and getting shot at while taking no action is much more frightening and stressful than actually pressing an attack.

The second reason for the indiscriminate firing is both functional and instinctive. The firing provides an effective form of posturing. This posturing can be seen almost anywhere where conflict is seen among men. I remember as a child if there was a school yard fight each “combatant” would puff their chest up and would engage in shoving matches rather than actually fight. The time I got in the most trouble in all of elementary school was when another boy shoved me and without thinking I clocked him. Everyone around me looked at me like I had broken the ritual and somehow cheated. Actual bodily harm and violence wasn’t supposed to occur. The boyhood scuffles were merely a way to assert dominance. When this posturing is used in combat it can actually be functional. In Ranger school (which is one of the most tactically vacant schools in the army) we were taught to “fire enough to make the enemy think they engaged a whole company instead of a squad”. The intent is to make the enemy retreat or be immobilized from intimidation. This mindset can be clearly seen in Vietnam where estimates range from 50,000 to 200,000 rounds per enemy killed. Is this effective? It depends on the enemy. If the enemy can clearly see that the engaged unit is misappropriating it’s fire the posturing can be empowering. Seeing the unit in a state of confusion further heightens the engaging enemy’s perception of safety and superiority. On the other hand if the enemy was also posturing and simply firing in the air or general direction of the unit without being in a position to accurately observe the unit, the posturing can be very effective indeed. Imagine a single insurgent shooting a couple rounds around a corner where he believes an American unit to be located. When his rounds, which had no real effect other than posturing, are answered by a massive show of force, dominance on the battlefield has been clearly established without a drop of blood being spilled.

I think that cultural distancing and moral distancing are the primary justifications that I see in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are hajjis. They are savages. They beat their women and molest little boys. They attacked us. They hate us. They are cowards that won’t stand and fight. They set bombs to kill innocents. All these represent moral judgments that are made as a way to assert superiority over the enemy and make killing them a just act. Many of these perceptions also are created by the language and cultural barriers that exist in the conflict. In every previous war soldiers either lived among or at least had very intimate associations with the local population. In Iraq and Afghanistan we are sequestered away on FOBs and only intermingle with the population while on missions or in very controlled settings with key leaders. I have a total of six rotations and as a direct action soldier I can only think of two positive interactions I’ve ever had with a local. In both cases the Iraqi spoke fluent English, the interaction was in that person’s home, and we had mistakenly targeted their house and entered by force. Two positive interactions out of hundreds of missions! The vast majority of soldiers that deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan will have no interactions at all with a local. Most soldiers never even leave the FOB and run the possibility of going to Iraq for a year without even seeing an Iraqi. The separation between sides becomes a clearly defined barrier for both sides. The differences in culture and lack of interactions make each side’s thought process completely alien to the other. In this situation it is inevitable that dehumanization of the enemy will occur.

I may post more on this later but I’m tired.

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