Optimizing the efficiency of war
// Dexter Fergie

Far from being natural, or even instinctual, humans are in no way born killers. In fact, just the opposite is true: even in the face of danger, there exists a psychological mechanism that discourages us from taking the life of a fellow specie member. This reluctance to kill is rooted in our very biology. When animals (humans included) confront danger, a fight-or-flight sequence generally takes hold of the mind and body. When this danger comes from a fellow specie member however, a different process occurs.

The initial response is, instead, a choice of fleeing or posturing; of escaping or intimidating. Within the animal kingdom, the latter could mean looking big and aggressive; within war, it could mean shooting a rifle into the air rather than at the enemy. When intra-specie conflict does escalate into fighting, it is almost never to the death. For example, both rattlesnakes and piranhas are known for their lethal bites, yet when engaged in battle with their own kind, the rattlesnake wrestles, and the piranha fights with its tail. These non-lethal fights typically end when one of the combatants submits with the instinctual knowledge that the victor will not inflict any more harm after they surrender.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former career soldier and professor of psychology at West Point, the US military academy, persuasively demonstrates that this phenomenon indeed applies to humans as well. In his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Grossman documents how the overwhelming majority of soldiers in wars, from the American Civil War to WWII, either fired their weapons without the intent to kill, or never even fired at all. This historical fact, caused by a psychological mechanism embedded in us all, has infuriated military planners for just as long. An army comprised of soldiers who will not use their weapons to kill presents a clear conundrum while trying to wage a war. Playwright Bertolt Brecht cleverly identified this problem in his poem entitled, “A German War Primer”:

General, your tank is a powerful vehicle
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men
But it has one defect:
It needs a driver.

Yes, weapons have overwhelming destructive power, but that destructive power can only be realized with thinking, moral beings operating them. As cynical as it may appear, the development of modern military procedures can be seen as one large effort to overcome the soldier’s reluctance to kill.

The US military in particular has worked to resolve this, integrating psychologists and behavioral analysts into their training programs. “The era of psychological warfare,” to borrow Grossman’s words, is upon us. The irony is, of course, that this warfare is not being conducted against the enemies of the United Sates, but against the Pentagon’s very own troops, with the aim of making killers out of men.

The results were not trivial. As Grossman explains, “In World War II, only 15 to 20 per cent of the combat infantry were willing to fire their rifles. In Korea, [the number was] about 50 per cent.” Pushing the new training method’s success, this number peaked at 90 to 95 per cent in the Vietnam War. Yes, the reluctance to kill was eliminated, but only to be replaced by another, much more monstrous problem: the proliferation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) amongst veterans.

To go back to Brecht’s last lines in “A German War Primer”:

General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.

Now that the Pentagon has succeeded in compelling soldiers to kill, the soldiers now must deal with the fact that they have now killed. Up to 1.5 million of a total of 2.8 million US military personnel that served in the Vietnam War were clinically defined as PTSD subjects. In other words, despite military efforts to deprive them of their instincts, the soldiers retained some of their humanity in the form of guilt.

However, scientists serving the military have found a solution to that as well. While the training methods have become more realistic, the developments on the battlefield have moved in the opposite direction. Military technology is rendering the battlefield into more and more of a simulation, furthering the distance between combatants and making the act of killing ever more unreal (read: easier). Pilots no longer see other planes, but only blips on screens. Snipers don’t shoot humans, but only targets in their sight. And so on…

This development climaxes with Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles, or drones. For military personnel, both the soldier and the scientist, this technology brims with possibility. Drones are cheaper, more accurate, and less risky than the alternative of placing soldiers in combat – and these are merely sideshows to their true value. The drone’s significance lies in the ease with which they can kill, and without any of the messy repercussions such as PTSD. No longer does the military have to deprive soldiers of their instincts, they can abandon the soldier altogether.

This is truly the haunting spectre: the removal of that thinking, moral, biological being, who in history has acted as a brake on the very limits of war. In its place, we have a new warfare, conducted not on the battlefield, but from an office building in Northern Virginia. Instead of soldiers, civil servants fiddle with joysticks while watching images on computer screens; images not of humans, but “enemy targets,” belonging not to “our world” but to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Somalia.

When the operator pushes “fire” on his keyboard, though, he really is ending somebody's life. This new warfare - ending the age where enemies, at the very least, appeared as men - squeezes the last remnants of humanity from war itself.

// Dexter Fergie

// Artwork by Stefan Tosheff

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