On Killing

What, Death again?

Well, after all, it’s the Halloween season.

This time it’s a book that’s crossed my path, by a professor of ‘Killology’. Title: On Killing.

Frankly, a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t even know what ‘Killology’ was. I’m still not sure that it’s a valid part of the English language. However, David Grossman, retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, is a professor of this subject at Arkansas State University, Jonesboro, U.S.A.

‘Killology’ is the study of the psychology of killing, a matter of obvious interest to those responsible for the armed forces. A little known fact, of much concern to generals, is that without special training, the typical soldier, who may well be willing to sacrifice his life for his country in battle, is generally revolted by the idea of killing a fellow human being. In the heat of battle, only perhaps 15% of the infantry will actually fire their weapons, and many of those shots will be deliberately aimed to miss. As Grossman points out, having soldiers who perform the act of killing so very poorly is like having a literacy rate of 15% among librarians.

Studies of combat in World War II began to reveal this terrible truth, and the Army started developing psychological techniques to deal with this. One technique was to make the act of aiming to kill so instinctive that the shot is fired as an automatic reaction to stimulus. So instead of lying prone and shooting at a ‘bull’s eye’ target, soldiers learned to fire standing in full battle gear in foxholes, shooting at man-shaped targets which popped up in front of them, and fell down when hit, with rewards for the fastest and most successful marksman.

Another technique is to make the act of killing more remote and mechanical. Killing one’s adversary with knife or bayonet, and watching him in his death throes, is a highly traumatic matter. Shooting through a telescopic lens or night vision goggles is much easier. Killing with artillery, or by dropping bombs from a height, is so remote from the target that one can forget that real human beings are being blasted, burned and dismembered as a result of our actions. Result—much more killing with much less psychological stress and reluctance.

A third technique is to create psychological distance—to dehumanize the enemy in our thinking, treating him as a non-person, as Germans treated Jews as non-persons in the Second World War. Alternatively, to paint a picture of the enemy as a pariah and a fiend, to create a sense of moral justification for the lethal force we use against him.

A fourth, is the setting up of a ‘macho’ role model for the impressionable young soldier to follow—the tough and brutal drill sergeant, who breaks down the soldier’s civilized scruples, replacing them with a James Bond ideal of a superman, above the usual rules of morality, ‘licensed to kill’ those whom we have identified as ‘bad guys’, without remorse or compunction.

By the time the Vietnam War was in progress, such techniques had raised the firepower of the infantry up to 95% of potential—most everyone was pulling the trigger when ordered. So we had massacres of men, women and children by the hundred, often completely contrary to the Geneva Convention, as happened at My Lai. Worse than that, though—once the war had ended, the number of veterans of the Vietnam war hounded by psychological problems and post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting in crime, depression, violence, broken marriages and suicide, rose to unheard of heights. It’s likely a much bigger factor in the incredible crime and imprisonment rate in the States than people are willing to admit.

What is more alarming, though, is that any person who watches TV, or plays a violent computer game, is subject to the same kind of conditioning. The ‘macho’ image is everywhere. The remoteness of the computer screen makes emotional detachment from human suffering not only possible, but routine. Moreover, killing, when our reluctance to hurt others is overcome, does produce an emotional ‘high’—followed, for most people by depression and guilt—that easily translates into an addictive urge for more of the same. So develops the market for pornographic and ‘snuff’ films, and fantasies of violence and domination against the weak, that can easily translate into real life actions. Instead of preaching compassion, reason and responsibility, people of all ages, and the young in particular, are tube-fed a steady diet of what Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence”—that concept that, by using force to stamp out evil, the world can be made a non-violent paradise. The theory that Stalin followed, to create the ‘New Soviet Man’ by purges and labour camps. The theory that armies follow, to transform caring and sensitive individuals into killing machines.

This is not idle fancy. Study after study has shown that the introduction of television to a community, with the violence and anti-social behaviours it promotes in its role models, is immediately followed by dramatic rises in the rates of murder and violent crime.

Living in Jonesboro, Grossman was ideally placed to give expert commentary on the school massacres that took place there, and was interviewed many times for TV to account for the strange psychology that would lead a child to run wild in gunning down his schoolmates. What he said was never broadcast—because it brought into question the whole damaging effect of television, and TV programming, on children’s and society’s behaviour.

It’s not only the tobacco industry that has dirty secrets that it doesn’t want the public to know. But the media are better placed than most to keep their secrets to themselves.

– Gemini, November 1999