Our Own Kind
Attitudes, Perceptions and Contradictions
S. Leon Felkins
it comes to killing of our own kind, we humans are most peculiar
compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. In addition to the
animal instincts that may drive us to kill, we are saddled with
a multitude of restrictions and incentives deriving from law,
customs, religion, and propaganda. This results in some confusing
activity that I think is worthy of some discussion. While the
subject of killing has some interesting twists in all aspects
of our culture, I will limit my exposition here to the war time
situation as that is the only time ordinary humans have the obligation
or opportunity to kill in any significant quantity.
Soldier's Attitude Towards Killing
of the killing of human beings by human beings are scarce with even
less interest shown by the public or the media. Probably the best
source of information on this subject is the book by Lt. Col. Dave
Grossman, On Killing, and the associated web site, "Killology
Research Group." I would encourage any of you that are interested
in this subject to take a look at that book and the articles at
the web site.
to Col. Grossman, ordinary soldiers are reluctant to personally
and individually kill the enemy. He quotes the statistic
that in World War II, only about 15-20% of American soldiers actually
fired their weapons at the enemy. Similarly, in both the Civil War
and World War I, there are indications that most non-professional
soldiers elected to not actually try to kill the enemy. In fact,
Grossman claims, ordinary humans experience a high stress level
when put in the situation of having to kill other humans at close
range which results in high degree of psychological trauma. It should
be pointed out that of those who do their best to try to kill the
enemy, there are many who kill for pleasure rather than just duty.
Hopefully, those that get pleasure from killing are the professional
soldiers and not employees of the Postal Service.
things have considerably corrected this situation to the point where
most modern soldiers do, in fact, try to kill. One is the imbedding
of the modern individual, from childhood, in a sea of violence in
the form of movies, television and games, where killing humans is
as routine as swatting a fly. The other is that the military has
changed its training program to more effectively create a "killing
machine" from the clueless civilian recruit.
the time the Vietnam conflict came along, the conditioning programs
(the military training as well as the unintended consequence of
massive exposure to violent films and games throughout their young
lives) was so successful that the percentage of soldiers that fired
at the enemy had risen to 95% (see page 250 of Grossman's book).
emphasized killing by individuals for killing by a group is another
matter all together.
Is Easier If You Are Part of a Group
have written a number of articles on the peculiarities of actions
by a group compared to actions by an individual; see "The
Social Dilemmas". The anonymity provided by membership in a
group provides both the opportunity to do things that society might
frown upon (e.g., activities of the KKK) and to avoid doing things
that are dangerous to the individual but society would be better
for it (e.g. the Kitty
Genovese case where a group did not act to help when she was
being raped and killed).
his book, Col. Grossman discusses the group effect extensively.
A quote from the book, attributed to Konrad Lorenz, sums it up nicely:
"man is not a killer, but the group is." A couple of reasons for
this is that; 1) the group provides anonymity (every individual
can make a good case that it probably wasn't his fault) and 2) the
group provides very strong peer pressure on an individual
accountability to do his part and not cut and run.
you happen to be part of a group (involved with a "crew-served"
weapon, crew of a bomber, etc.) and you are also quite distant from
your enemy, the killing even gets easier.
From Forty Thousand Feet or 500 Miles Away
Bill Maher got in trouble by saying that the terrorists who flew
the planes into the World Trade Center were not cowards. On the
other hand, as far as we Americans go, he said "We
have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000
miles away. That's cowardly."
it is or is not cowardly, I will leave for others to judge but I
do want to comment on the strangeness of our attitudes.
strategists have a trade-off between close-in fighting and lobbing
from 500 miles away or from 40,000 feet. Distance bombing has
a probability of causing hundreds of civilian casualties. But the
political reality is that losing just a few American soldiers results
in a far higher price to pay than the loss of thousands of innocent
civilians civilians that are guilty of doing nothing more
than occupying the wrong spot on this earth at the wrong time.
there is another aspect of this trade-off that is even more interesting
in examination. Human beings seem to have no problem causing a massive
amount of suffering, death, and destruction as long as they
can't see it. Give a soldier a gun, a bayonet, a flame thrower,
a grenade, and most will get a bit squeamish about using these tools
face to face with the enemy or, even worse, civilians.
put the same soldier in a control room on a ship, plane, or land
facility, and tell him all he has to do is press that button and
thousands of pounds of destructive force and fire will be on its
way to some target, with some probability of actually hitting. This
soldier, in general, will give little thought as to what this missile
will do when it reaches the conclusion of its flight. It might destroy
a building, it might kill a few enemy soldiers, or it might mangle
a few innocent citizens.
seems that humans lack the power to imagine what these destructive
devices will do. Bodies will be torn asunder, women and children
may receive burns that will cause unimaginable suffering for months
or years, or some may lay under rubble suffering from wounds and
broken bones for days while they slowly die. Apparently, the long-distance
bombers and artillery men have not the means to visualize this
or they shut it out of their minds intentionally.
is wrong with us that we can't visualize and see this destruction
and suffering in the same way we would see it if we were in hand
to hand combat? We certainly have no problem imagining horror when
we read a book or go to a movie. Why can't we see horror when we
launch a missile of destruction?
says that when the soldier is close-in and his senses are exposed
to the death, mutilation, and destruction directly, he is subjected
to emotional pressures such as revulsion toward the destruction
and compassion for the target victims. Whereas, for the long-distance-bomb
soldier it is strictly an intellectual exercise and it is not very
difficult to convince himself that nobody got hurt or if they did,
there was little or no suffering.
us go back to the killing of innocent civilians for just a moment:
does it really matter? Apparently not to a large percentage of our
Damage: The Killing of "Insignificant" Civilians To Achieve a Political
will not hear this discussed on the evening news, but there is a
real trade-off between high-tech warfare and civilian casualties
(the nonsensical term "collateral damage" is preferred by the military
and the whipped-dog media). As I pointed out above, by using 200
mile guided bombs we can be pretty damn certain that we will have
almost zero casualties on our side, but civilian casualties on the
enemy's side are likely to be high. On the other hand, if we
were willing to suffer some military casualties we could use close-in
fire-power, and with on-the-ground troops we could insure that there
were almost no civilian casualties on the enemy's side. Of course,
there are many other operations of war that cause civilian death
us look at a few representative cases.
say Manuel Noriega, Panama's leader a few years ago, was a brutal
thug and was heavily in the drug trade. Others say he had gotten
too cocky and no longer took orders from the CIA. Whatever the
reason, President Bush (Senior) decided he wanted him off of
his seat of power and in a prison here in the US. It was up
to Dick Cheney to figure out a way to pull that off.
careful examination of the Posse Comitatus act convinced the
Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, he could legally go after
Noreiga. I quote from the Joint Chief's of Staff history document,
on 20 December Cheney approved modification of DOD Directive
5525.5 to state: "With regard to military actions outside the
territorial jurisdiction of the United States, however, the
Secretary of Defense or the Deputy Secretary of Defense will
consider for approval, on a case by case basis, requests for
exceptions to the policy restrictions against direct assistance
by military personnel to execute the laws. Such requests for
exceptions to policy outside the territorial jurisdiction of
the United States should be made only when there are compelling
and extraordinary circumstances to justify them."
Secretary Cheney issued a memo making JUST CAUSE such an exception:
"Consistent with...Revised DOD Directive 5525.5...I approve
assistance by the United States Armed Forces in the apprehension
of Manuel Noriega of Panama." This action authorized the use
of federal troops to assist US law enforcement officers in apprehending
Noriega who was under federal indictment for alleged drug trafficking
cable TV channel, WorldLinkTV,
has shown, a few times, a video documentary of the invasion, Panama
Deception, winner of the 1993 "Best Documentary Feature"
Academy Award. One of the key points brought out in this video
is the participation of the American media in the propaganda effort
to impress on the public that this activity was legal, justified,
and minimally dangerous to the American soldiers involved. To
this end, all of the major news channels concentrated on reporting
of the fact that there were very few casualties to the Americans.
The deaths (the number of deaths are alleged to be anywhere from
about 250 to 5,000 depending on who's counting) and destruction
to the civilians of Panama went unreported. It was as if the American
public had no interest, whatever, in civilian casualties.
incident strongly confirms the attitude of the press and the public
toward civilian casualties is that any count is acceptable as
a price to pay for bringing an individual that has been
declared to be a criminal and/or an enemy to "justice."
This was done; Noreiga now sits in a specially built prison and
as many as 5,000 citizens in Panama paid with their lives. This
poses a most puzzling philosophical and ethical question: "Are
the lives of ordinary citizens so insignificant compared to the
life of the sought after criminal that an unlimited number may
be terminated?" Does our civilian police force becoming
more and more militarized every day have the same attitude?
Was this the principle that was applied at the Branch Davidian
Massacre? Were they just trying to arrest Koresh and the women
and children were simply "collateral damage"?
same question is appropriate for the actions of our government
in Iraq and Cuba. The American government's policy there is
that the civilian population will be made to suffer by trade
embargo such that thousands die of hunger and disease to induce
them to overthrow their leaders, Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro,
respectively (strangely a different policy is being used in
Afghanistan there we are providing food to the
civilians. Go figure). The logic is incredibly puzzling. We
do not want to kill these leaders but instead will kill thousands
of innocent but what is assumed to be insignificant
human beings to achieve the goal of causing the leader to step
down. Why are the lives of these apparently cruel and despicable
leaders more precious than the lives of mass of unknown, faceless
military/political policy of taking the lives of hundreds of civilians,
using long distance bombing, to avoid the loss of even a few American
soldiers in close-in fighting is expensive, ineffective and immoral.
In fact, according to Col. Grossman in his article, "Immoral
and Soon to be Illegal," this type of warfare will follow the
precedent set for land mines and be banned in the near future by
most of the civilized world. I have my doubts that that will happen,
for there are other pressures involved such as the powerful influence
of the weapons manufacturers to sell expensive, highly technical,
weapons. Nevertheless, the taking of innocent civilian lives is
highly immoral and cruel and does not present the US in a very good
light to the rest of the world.
the American military has solved its problem of getting our soldiers
to actually shoot at the enemy by use of "conditioning" and
"desensitization." The percentage that fire at the enemy has gone
from 15-20% in World War II to 95% in the Vietnam war. But, at what
cost? When these civilian soldiers come back home is there a switch
somewhere that will turn all that programming off? Ask Timothy McVeigh
the next time you see him.
soldiers feel little compassion or remorse for the victims of long-distance
bombing is a subject that needs far more research for it has several
puzzling aspects related to the cognitive and emotional functions
of the mind. It would appear that the ordinary soldier's repulsion
to killing is an emotional response rather than an intellectual
decision. Nevertheless it is the cause of many cases of soldier's
any case, while I am not a fan of Bill Maher, his very "politically
incorrect" remarks of September 17 are at least partially correct.
There is no doubt more accurate descriptions you could apply to
the terrorists than to call them cowards. As far as our lobbing
intelligent bombs from hundreds of miles away or from 40,000 feet,
I would just say that this is not a military action but a political
and economic strategy.
Felkins [send him mail]
is a retired former military officer, college professor, and computer
systems engineer. He is now an activist in the fight for the reform
of the forfeiture laws now plaguing the US and the world. He is
presently serving as the Executive Director of F.E.A.R.,
the forfeiture reform group. In addition, he maintains a web page
on Political Philosophy, "A
Rational Life" and another on the history of politics, "The