Wednesday, November 12, 2003

this time, sociology and the military and killing

one more of my posts to a sociology list...

I wanted to make a comment on the observation of the killing during Vietnam.

Last year, I purchased a book written by an Army psychologist entitled, “On Killing.” Great book and one I would recommend. He makes the case that we have gotten better at killing (or at least the military has) and uses data to support this. He notes that during WWII, the fire rates (i.e., the percentage of those soldiers who actually fired their weapons at the enemy) was about 15 – 20%. In Korea it was 50 - 55% and in Vietnam it was 90 – 95%. He accounts for the differences (and subsequent increase) on the training that had been developed to increase fire rates. I don’t recall if he detailed what that training consisted of, but I suspect it had some kind of behavioral component to it other than better instruction on firing one’s weapon.

He also notes that distance has much to do with killing an enemy – the farther one is from an enemy the easier it is to fire a weapon (long range artillery, missiles, bombs, etc.). Hand-to-hand combat is the most difficult as one knows fully well that s/he is attempting to kill another human being. Furthermore, he discussed how many, if not most, soldiers were/are not bloodthirsty, i.e., enjoy killing. Those that do and/or have little compunction about killing, according to him, are diverted into special forces, or some other kind of more clandestine unit.

I also seem to recall that part of his argument for making it “easier” to fire a weapon and kill an enemy is not seeing them as human, as “objectifying” them. This makes sense in light of the intended purpose of firing a weapon (killing someone else). However, one has to wonder, what effect this has not only on the individual doing the objectifying, but on the culture that supports such a notion.

A recent example…I found it interesting a week or so ago reading about the intelligence officer who was being charged with cowardice (charges since dropped) because he got sick and was disturbed at seeing an Iraqi man cut in half by a machine gun. I think this is quite a “normal” response, one, in fact that gives me some hope in humanity. Curiously (or not), he was admonished by a superior to “get [his] head out of his ass and get in the game” – I think we all know what this means. I suspect in a situation like that, not a bad thing to do as a way of protecting oneself and one’s peers, and perhaps an example of precisely what the author of the text I reference is talking about in not seeing another human being as a “human being,” but as an object.

Again, the question for me is, do we want to live in a world in which shrugging off the sight of another human being mangled by a weapon is an “appropriate” response?

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