Monday, June 16, 2008

Worse Than Dying

cross-posted at the Smirking Chimp and the American Liberalism Project

“The soldier above all other people prays for peace, for they must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”
General Douglas MacArthur

What is worse than dying?


What is worse than loss of your life?

Loss of your soul.

When we talk about the horrors of this gruesome and unjust conflict in Iraq, most people (including myself) talk about the outrage of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

But what about the soldiers who are sent to do the killing?

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a West Point psychology professor, Professor of Military Science, and an Army Ranger, has made a lifetime study of the psychology of violence and killing, which he calls, simply enough, ‘killology’. His Pulitzer prize-nominated book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society explores the history and psychology of killing. In a time of so much death and destruction that has largely been sanitized and deliberately kept vague and abstract, out of the way of the American consciousness, to the extent of forbidding photographs of flag-draped coffins returning from overseas, the administration has substituted rah-rah jingoism and ‘flag-pin patriotism’, but remain curiously silent about those they send to do their unspeakably dirty work under the false premise of ‘protecting America’. Bush and his cohorts have taken base advantage of the best and noblest instincts of those who love their country enough to volunteer to serve and defend it with their lives, and repaid them by destroying not only their bodies and minds, but their souls.

Approximately 98% of people are averse to killing other human beings. The other 2% have been observed to have a “predisposition toward aggressive psychopathic personalities.” U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall was an Army historian during World War II, and he headed up a team of historians who interviewed thousands of soldiers in more than four hundred infantry companies immediately after close combat. The results were shocking, to say the least:

“only 15-20% of the American riflemen in combat during World War II would fire at the enemy. Those who would not fire did not run or hide (in many cases they were willing to risk great danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages), but they simply would not fire their weapons at the enemy, even when faced with repeated waves of banzai charges.”

These figures are borne out in other war accounts throughout history – up until the Korean War, this percentage of soldiers who chose not to kill was roughly the norm, from Alexander the Great on up through World War II. However, military science has evolved new training methods based on ‘operant conditioning’ and other psychological techniques which raised the ‘firing rate’ from 15 percent in WWII to 55 percent in Korea, and from Vietnam on, up to 90-95 percent.

These 'operant conditioning' techniques rely on simulating combat conditions as realistically as possible, with the soldier in full combat equipment firing at targets that look human and pop up randomly, rather than traditional marksmanship training that uses bull's-eyes at a known distance. With this training, with the psychological tools of depersonalization and denial, and variables such as revenge for losing friends and comrades in combat and physical and emotional distance removed from the target, soldiers are more able to fire their weapons on the battlefield.

While this is desirable from the point of view of the aim of war, which is to defeat the opposition, the price paid by the soldier and by society as a whole for every kill is enormous. When psychological damage and trauma of combat veterans are compared with that of victims of war – POWs, victims of attacks or civilians in bombed areas – the combat veterans sustain far greater mental and emotional trauma than the victims of war. Obviously, were we in a situation where we were attacked and needed to defend ourselves (which is the only legal reason to go to war), the ability of the soldier to do his duty on the battlefield is imperative, and if he is placed on the battlefield, he must be allowed to succeed. But when we ask a soldier - a normal human being with a built-in aversion to killing - to go against every instinct and kill another human, to deprive him of the moral justification which would help him to deal with the trauma inherent in killing is worse than criminal; it is evil. It is stealing his soul. Lt. Col. Grossman writes:
"(t)he higher the resistance bypassed, the higher the trauma that must be overcome in the subsequent rationalization process. Killing comes with a price, and societies must learn that their soldiers will have to spend the rest of their lives living with what they have done."

In World War II, there were a number of factors in place that kept veterans from suffering the type of PTSD that our Vietnam vets have experienced. Public recognition, respect, gratitude and appreciation - parades, memorials and monuments help to meet their desperate need to know that what they did was right, necessary and ultimately life-saving, and that they were welcomed back by the society to which they had literally given their lives and souls. Soldiers also returned home as a unit, and had days together on a troopship to 'decompress' - share their griefs, their fears, and process their war experiences with the only people who truly understood what they had been through: their fellow soldiers. Our Vietnam vets were deprived of most of these sanity-saving rituals and processes, and the psychiatric casualties are still affecting them and our society today.

Today's volunteer soldiers put not only their lives on the line for their country, but their very souls, with repercussions that extend into the rest of their lives, and the society as a whole. We must acknowledge this when we decide to engage in a conflict. To my mind, this is the worst of what has been stolen from us by George W. Bush and his neoconservative chicken-hawk puppeteers, greedy for domination, as well as his corporate war-profiteer cohorts, lip-smackingly eager for the unlimited riches which corporate sponsorship of war can generate.

The theft of the souls of these men and women who give their most priceless possession as a gift to the country they love is an unforgivable sin. And it is doubly vicious that those who are the most eager to spend American lives are the least willing to offer up those of their own. How dare Bush take this precious, irreplaceable resource and piss on it and then toss it away like so much Charmin? How dare he steal these souls with a lie? And then, when they come home, deny them health care, mental care, disability, and financial help in return? But the worst thing he has denied them is a just cause. How dare he?

The price of war cannot be measured merely in deaths and dollars. The uncounted cost of the mental and emotional trauma of those who must kill to do their duty is one we must account for if we are to be able to call ourselves a moral society. And by not holding the Bush regime accountable for these most heinous of all crimes, we are complicit in them. This is a wrong that can never be made right, and to allow Bush to add insult to injury by abandoning these soldiers whose lives he has already destroyed for his own ego, power and profit is to abandon our own souls. May God help us.


Comrade Kevin said...

Well said.

And if one observes the techniques by which an enemy is reduced to the crudest, most horrific stereotype of evil possible, which is the only way you can coerce human beings to kill others in a field of combat, this is where the truly soul-destroying component comes in.

Alicia Morgan said...

Exactly, Comrade. That is an important component of the conditioning and restructuring of the personality that a soldier must undergo to counteract his natural, built-in reluctance to kill. Desensitization, dehumanization, distancing - all essential for killing; all destroyers of the soul.

PhysioProf said...

Alicia, that is an incredibly powerful and horrifying post. Will we as a nation ever recover our soul?

Alicia Morgan said...

You know, physioprof, this is a subject that it took me a while to decide to write about. I don't hear people talking about it, and I wasn't sure how people would respond to it, but in the end I felt that I had to address it.

It makes me have to think about war in general, and the fact that there are and will be times that we must legitimately fight and kill to defend our country. I wish I could say that wasn't so; as of yet we have not figured out how to defend ourselves from attack without war.

But when we ask our soldiers to be there when we need them, we damn well better make sure that we know and respect what we are asking of them. To ask them to live the rest of their lives with the pain of the knowledge that they have had to kill or witness up close that kind of atrocity to satisfy someone's personal greed and power - is simply the most heinous, evil thing I can think of. May the Bush Crime Family rot in hell for that.

marykmusic said... --MaryK

Batocchio said...

Well done, AM. I actually bought that book almost a decade ago for research. I'm less sold on his ideas about the evils of video games and pop culture, but he handles PTSD and the psychological effects of killing on the killers quite well.

Terrible said...

Thanks for posting the McArthur quote!! It was on the wall at the barracks I stayed in at Ft Benning back in '82 but I couldn't remember exactly how it went or which General had said it. But it's been in my mind for the past few years and I've been trying to remember it and keep meaning to look it up. You've saved me a google search!

Alien Trucker said...

What a powerful post.
I was writing post today about the Good Morning America story this morning about the hell returning soldiers are living with experimental anti-depressant drugs they are giving them and this fits right in.
Thanks for writing this.

Alicia Morgan said...

Batocchio - it is a very strong book. I know that he's received a lot of criticism for his views on kids and violent games, movies, etc. but I haven't read all of that yet. I am not quite ready to categorically deny his claims, considering his field of expertise, but I think we'll find out over the next decade or so if his ideas are on point on that subject.

I tend to lean toward his point of view - I look at violent games, movies and TV as real pornography, rather than people having sex. However, I don't forbid my kids to play games or watch TV; I do monitor them and talk with them about my views on the subject.

I think that desensitizing kids to violence by giving them the endorphin rush that accompanies violence without suffering the consequences cannot be a good thing. I am not an expert, though, and many people see it as harmless.

Alicia Morgan said...

You're welcome, Terrible - I think it's a pretty awesome quote, and one that should be better known in certain circles.

Alicia Morgan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alicia Morgan said...

Thanks, AT. I didn't know about the GMA story, but this has been on my mind for a while, and I hope this is something that people will talk about and take seriously when somebody decides to start a war.