Saturday, May 17, 2008

Thou Shall Not Kill

When I was about ten years old my grandfather introduced me to a BB gun. He gave me this long lecture on the rules and dangers about using guns before I could shoot this "toy" gun. He took me out and we spent some time shooting cans as targets. I would say about a half hour later a bird flew onto a telephone line. He motioned to me to line up a aim for it. I went and did it. I hesitated since I knew I would only get one shot, but my aim was true. Down the black bird came. My grandfather was shocked since he did not seriously think I would hit it.

I was really excited about it and wanted to tell my mom and grandma about how good my aim was. Later that evening I started to feel really bad about what I had done. I knew it was an animal, and a lot of what I ate was taken from dead animals. Still, something really bothered me about taking the life of something that way. It had not done anything to me, and I deprived it of living out its life.

When it comes to humans killing other humans there are two parts to it like what I described above, but obviously at a much higher level morally speaking. One is actually being able to do whatever is physically necessary to take the life out of another human. Be it pulling a trigger, pushing a button, using a weapon, striking someone, etc. Then the second part of it is living with what one has done. This is usually described as "having a conscience" which is the guilt one has to live with over doing the act.

One would think that those two issues are easy to overcome due to all the violence one sees on television and in movies. In fact, most of the population seems to think that it is very easy to become a professional soldier that can deal death to anyone at a moment's notice. This is not the case.

Just about everything I am going to say now comes from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. When I read this book much of it came as a relief to me. Everyone has bouts of anger, frustration, and to some extent violence in them, but it seems like in the everyday news, TV, and movies this is the norm regarding humans. This book was rather helpful in helping understand some issues we seem to understand intuitively about ourselves and morality.

Grossman starts out with showing there is a lot of posturing done in fighting and war. This is almost always harmless and is like sticking the chest out to intimidate. Someone may fire a weapon with no intention of causing injury only to scare off the individual from fighting. This is part of the bluff. If it continues then it becomes a case of fight or flight. If the fight occurs then is usually ends in submission and is usually never to the death.

Grossman goes through a lot of examples in military history and shows that up to the Vietnam War only about 15-20% of all soldiers on the front lines actually took part in the actual fighting. Most of the other soldiers could not do it and found ways to support the 15-20% group. He spends most of the book leading to why Vietnam was different, and this had to do with the training the soldiers received. Up until Vietnam one drilled by firing at targets, but once we entered the 1960's new ways were created to have human like targets used to desensitize soldiers so they shot at these new targets instinctively. Then the rate of soldiers actively fighting using their weapons became over 80%. The tragedy became that they could actually do the physical technique of killing, but the conscience and guilt of it became a lot more problematic.

He shows that the average soldier can only handle about 60 days of combat. This is about 98% of all soldiers. There is the 2% that has the aggressive psychopath personality. That 2% does not mean they have the mentality of a serial killer, but just means they have either learned to overcome these feelings of conscience or are born that way. For the 98%, they will eventually hit fatigue, become confused, hysterical, obsessive, or develop other personality disorders.

The biggest fear a soldier has is letting down his fellow soldiers. What I have read about Audie Murphy was much like this. He was haunted not by those he killed, but those fellow soldiers that he knew killed on the battlefield. The thing that is interesting that Grossman states is it is not uncommon for someone rather he die himself than kill a fellow human being. Self-preservation is not as important as we may think in this area. The thought of seeing the pain on someone's face when you pull a gun and shoot can be really tramatic. It is really difficult to deny someone's humanity; there is something in us that tells us this is wrong. This is why I am convinced that if someone like Osama Bin Laden was found and locked in a room with someone with a weapon who lost a love one on 9/11/01 he would probably come out of the encounter alive. A good portion of the population, no matter how evil a person is, could not do the act of killing no matter how justified it maybe.

Grossman covers a lot of other areas I have not mentioned. Enemies must be dehumanized by showing they are inferior forms of life, that there has been a great evil to be morally avenged, etc. An emotional distance must be created. He shows that there are degrees to the "easiness" of killing depending on the range. That would be from dropping bombs from planes, to artillery, to grenade range. In those cases you do not see the faces of your enemy. On the other hand at closer ranges this changes. With guns all the way to hand to hand combat it becomes more certain of who is responsibly with the killing. He points out that shooting someone in the back is much easier to do that from the front. Seeing someone's eyes (the window to the soul) changes things dramatically.

One final thing in his chapter on atrocities is that most know that it is not a good idea to kill POW's. This is because you want to encourage the enemy in surrendering. Otherwise they will fight until the death because they know they have little to live for. This is why it is important to give your enemies a sense of hope and not treat them so badly. That is what I take out of this in that you want to give them a way out rather than force them into a corner where they have little hope and just want to fight more.

I wanted to bring this issue up as a reminder about the realities of violence. It is not an easy thing to do, and when it is done causes a lot of grief. This is something that is a part of human nature. It is the same for us as for anyone in the past. Keep this in mind when you watch a movie or when I am talking about some old west gunfighter.

Grossman, D., On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Little, Brown and Co.: 1995.