Abolishing War Part 2

Blog by Milan Rai

It turns out that it is quite hard to train soldiers to kill.

Former US army ranger, and later professor of military science at Arkansas State University, lieutenant colonel Dave Grossman has written two books dealing with the psychology of inflicting lethal violence: On Killing – The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995); and (with Loren Christensen) On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace (2004).

Grossman started with a startling historical fact. US brigadier general SLA Marshall, a US Army historian during World War II, found through interviews with thousands of soldiers immediately after they had been in close combat with German or Japanese troops that, of every hundred men along the line of fire during a period of encounter, an average of only 15 to 20 soldiers “would take any part” with their weapon. The others would not fire at the enemy; they would not run or hide, and many would take great risks to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or to run messages.

Though Marshall’s work has come under sustained attack, Grossman found a wide range of other studies that confirmed this finding, pointing to something that he later termed ‘the universal human phobia’ against killing another person. (Grossman also found evidence that the phobia had declined over the decades among US soldiers, as the rate of solders shooting to kill increased to 90% during the Vietnam war; Grossman also believes that violent video games – which he calls ‘murder simulators’ – also erode the phobia against killing.)

Many of us, most of us, perhaps all of us, have experienced at some time that flash of killing rage that wishes someone was not there, and gives us however briefly the desire to seriously physically harm them and perhaps end their lives. And yet, it turns out that while, most of us find it extremely difficult to actually kill people face to face, even if we have chosen to enter the military. Grossman has written:

‘Before retiring from the military, I spent almost a quarter of a century as an army infantry officer and a psychologist, learning and studying how to enable people to kill. Believe me, we are very good at it. It doesn’t come naturally, you have to be taught to kill.’ (http://tinyurl.com/4mrnesq, emphasis added)

War only happens because complex social institutions are created to create the capacity for war: uniforms, bullets, bombs, tanks, meals, fuel, all delivered to the right place at the right time, all paid for by systems of taxation and budget allocation, all made by trained personnel working dispassionately, all to be consumed or deployed by combatants drilled repeatedly in their use, with only a very small proportion of those drills invoking feelings of killing rage. Wars happen not because humans are inherently violent – because it seems that most humans have to be emotionally reconstructed by the military in order to be able to kill strangers face-to-face.

Wars happen because we are willing to obey.

In Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment at Yale University in 1961-1962, people from nearby New Haven, of all different occupations, were led to believe they were participating in an experiment to test the role of punishment in learning. Specifically, they were to apply steadily increasing electric shocks to a ‘learner’ strapped into an electric chair. The switches on the shock machine were labeled: ‘slight shock’, ‘moderate shock’, ‘strong shock’, ‘very strong shock’, ‘intense shock’, ‘extreme intensity shock’, and ‘danger: severe shock’. Two switches after this were marked ‘XXX’. The maximum voltage was 450.

In fact, the shock machine was fake, and the victim was an actor, but the man being observed did not know this. The experiment was performed in different ways, but the basic form was that the victim’s memory was tested, and every mistake they made in learning word pairs was punished with an increasingly high voltage shock.

In most versions of the experiment, the victim could be heard pitifully complaining. Milgram wrote: ‘At 120 volts, he complains verbally; at 150 he demands to be released from the experiment. His protests continue as the shocks escalate, growing increasingly vehement and emotional. At 285 volts, his response can only be described as an agonised scream.’

Overall, 65% of the participants carried on past this point, and gave shocks up to the maximum 450 volts (beyond the ‘danger: severe shock’ label) despite the fact that the victim had done nothing to ‘justify’ such violence. Only 35% of people stopped before 450 volts.

The highest rates of obedience were found in experiment 18, when the participant merely passed on the instruction to shock to another person (also an actor) who pressed the lever to apply the shock. Less than 8% of those tested stopped before 450 volts. (After the experiment was over, participants were told that the shocks had been fake, and met the unharmed ‘victim’.)

Milgram wrote later of experiment 18, in his book, Obedience to Authority (1974): ‘it is typical of modern bureaucracy, even when it is designed for destructive purposes, that most people involved in its organization do not directly carry out any destructive actions…. Any competent manager of destructive bureaucratic systems can arrange his personnel so that only the most callous and obtuse are directly involved in violence. The greater part of the personnel can consist of men and women who, by virtue of their distance from the actual acts of brutality, will feel little strain in their performance of supportive functions. They will feel doubly absolved from responsibility. First, legitimate has given full warrant for their actions. Second, they have not themselves committed brutal physical acts.’

Wars happen not because as a species we have a tendency towards physical aggression, but because we have a tendency towards obedience to authority. We obey too much and resist too little.

If this is right, then the focus for our abolition work should not primarily be on manifestations of aggression (such as violent video games or violent language), but on manifestations of obedience. In other words, the violation of conscience through conformism.