Dave Grossman is an American author, who after retiring from the US Army as lieutent colonel, has written and lectured extensively on the psychology of killing on the battlefield. In an article ‘Hope on the Battlefield’, published in 2007, he wrote:
‘During World War II, U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall asked average soldiers how they conducted themselves in battle. Before that, it had always been assumed that the average soldier would kill in combat simply because his country and his leaders had told him to do so, and because it might be essential to defend his own life and the lives of his friends.
Marshall’s singularly unexpected discovery was that, of every hundred men along the line of fire during the combat period, an average of only 15 to 20 “would take any part with their weapons.” This was consistently true, “whether the action was spread over a day, or two days, or three.”
Marshall was a U.S. Army historian in the Pacific theater during World War II and later became the official U.S. historian of the European theater of operations. He had a team of historians working for him, and they based their findings on individual and mass interviews with thousands of soldiers in more than 400 infantry companies immediately after they had been in close combat with German or Japanese troops. The results were consistently the same: Only 15 to 20 percent 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 greater danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages. They simply would not fire their weapons at the enemy, even when faced with repeated waves of banzai charges.
Why did these men fail to fire? As a historian, psychologist, and soldier, I examined this question and studied the process of killing in combat. I have realized that there was one major factor missing from the common understanding of this process, a factor that answers this question and more: the simple and demonstrable fact that there is, within most men and women, an intense resistance to killing other people. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.
Indeed, the study of killing by military scientists, historians, and psychologists gives us good reason to feel optimistic about human ture, for it reveals that almost all of us are overwhelmingly reluctant to kill a member of our own species, under just about any circumstance.
Yet this understanding has also propelled armies to develop sophisticated methods for overcoming our inte aversion to killing, and, as a result, we have seen a sharp increase in the magnitude and frequency of post-traumatic response among combat veterans. Because human beings are astonishingly resilient, most soldiers who return from war will be fine. But some will need help coping with memories of violence. When those soldiers return from war — especially an unpopular one like Iraq — society faces formidable moral and mental health challenges in caring for and re-integrating its veterans.’
Grossman then cites other studies like the one of 19th-century French officer and military theorist Ardant du Picq in the 1860s, who discovered that most soldiers tended to fire harmlessly into the air ‘simply for the sake of firing’. Grossman believes that ‘such intentiol miss can be a very subtle form of disobedience. When faced with living, breathing opponents instead of a target, a significant majority of the soldiers revert to a posturing mode in which they fire over the enemy’s heads’.
To overcome human resistance to killing, military authorities nowadays conduct ‘psychological warfare on their own troops’. They do it by desensitizing their soldiers, ‘manufacturing contempt’ for the enemy, conditioning them to shoot as reflex action, and instilling other denial mechanisms. The idea is to make soldiers think of the opponent ‘as a mere target and not as a human being’.
But soldiers pay a heavy cost after they return home. Grossman refers to studies on Vietm and Iraq war veterans, showing amongst them significant increases in suicides, drug use, alcoholism, joblessness, marital problems and divorce, heart diseases and a host of physical and mental traumas.
Dave Grossman makes a call to scientists, soldiers and other experts to speak up and challenge the popular myth that human beings are ‘tural born killers’. “We may never understand the ture of the force in humankind that causes us to strongly resist killing fellow human beings, but we can be thankful for it. And although military leaders responsible for winning a war may be distressed by this force, as a species we can view it with pride. It is there, it is strong, and it gives us cause to believe that there may just be hope for humankind after all,” he concludes in his stirring essay.