2007-08-02

Soldiers who don't shoot, and those who do

There's a fascinating article over at Economistsview about how often soldiers in battle actually fire their weapons at the enemy. It's written by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in the context of the Iraq war. I'll just quote a few lines and comment:
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.”...
So in a battle situation - at least during Marshall's WW2 study - only 15-20% of soldiers would actually fire their weapons at the enemy. Why would that be?
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.
So, the argument basically is (and this from a US Army officer) that there is an innate "morality" within us that prevents most of us from deliberately killing another person - even in war. Yet while Grossman states that this information (which was corroborated by other studies during WW2, WW1 and even in the 19th century) was ignored by mainstream psychology and academia, one organisation did decide to do something about it:
But (these studies) were very much taken to heart by the U.S. Army, and a number of training measures were instituted as a result of Marshall’s suggestions. According to studies by the U.S. military, these changes resulted in a firing rate of 55 percent in Korea and 90 to 95 percent in Vietnam. Some modern soldiers use the disparity between the firing rates of World War II and Vietnam to claim that S.L.A. Marshall had to be wrong, for the average military leader has a hard time believing that any significant body of his soldiers will not do its job in combat. But these doubters don’t give sufficient credit to the revolutionary corrective measures and training methods introduced over the past half century.
So, in order to increase the effectiveness of their troops in the field and to increase the fire rate, what did they do?
Since World War II, a new era has quietly dawned in modern warfare: an era of psychological warfare, conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one’s own troops. The triad of methods used to enable men to overcome their innate resistance to killing includes desensitization, classical and operant conditioning, and denial defense mechanisms.

Authors such as Gwynne Dyer and Richard Holmes have traced the development of boot-camp glorification of killing. They’ve found it was almost unheard of in World War I, rare in World War II, increasingly present in Korea, and thoroughly institutionalized in Vietnam. ...

But desensitization by itself is probably not sufficient to overcome the average individual’s deep-seated resistance to killing. Indeed, this desensitization process is almost a smoke screen for conditioning, which is the most important aspect of modern training. Instead of lying prone on a grassy field calmly shooting at a bull’s-eye target, for example, the modern soldier spends many hours standing in a foxhole, with full combat equipment draped about his body. At periodic intervals one or two man-shaped targets will pop up in front of him, and the soldier must shoot the target.
And I thought that "boot camp" was something that all soldiers went through! No, according to this US Army officer, it was only after WW2 that a harsh "boot camp" was used to shape recruits into automatic killing machines. So how has this changed troop effectiveness?
The success of this conditioning and desensitization is obvious and undeniable. In many circumstances highly trained modern soldiers have fought poorly trained guerilla forces, and the tendency of poorly prepared forces to instinctively engage in posturing mechanisms (such as firing high) has given significant advantage to the more highly trained force. We can see the discrepancy in dozens of modern conflicts, including in Somalia, where 18 trapped U.S. troops killed an estimated 364 Somali fighters, and in Iraq, where small numbers of U.S. troops have inflicted terrible losses on insurgents. Though we might be quick to credit technology for American deadliness, keep in mind that the lopsided casualty rates apply even in situations of close, small arms combat, where the technological gap between opposing forces is not a decisive factor.
But that's not the only thing that has changed:
The ability to increase the firing rate, though, comes with a hidden cost. Severe psychological trauma becomes a distinct possibility when military training overrides safeguards against killing: In a war when 95 percent of soldiers fired their weapons at the enemy, it should come as no surprise that between 18 and 54 percent of the 2.8 million military personnel who served in Vietnam suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder—far higher than in previous wars.
So what are the effects on veterans?
It’s important to note that, contrary to stereotype, numerous studies have demonstrated that there is not any distinguishable threat of violence to society from returning veterans. Statistically there is no greater a population of violent criminals among veterans than there is among non-veterans. What the epidemic of PTSD among Vietnam vets has caused is a significant increase in suicides, drug use, alcoholism, and divorce.
Let me just point out here at the finish that, while I hate war, I am not a pacifist. I think that there is a thing as a "just war" when the threat is clear and obvious and no other choice is left but to use the military. But I also know that war has a cost. With WW2 veterans, at least they came back home knowing that they fought in a just war - even if they did have PTSD to contend with. But this war in Iraq - which I do not think was justified in any way - has sent ordinary American (and British and Australian) fighting men into situations that many will continue to suffer for the rest of their lives.

I only have one problem - if the number of soldiers firing was so low during WW2 and is so high now, why did WW2 have so many casualties and why did wars like Vietnam and the two Iraq wars have so few in comparison?


1 comment:

Ron Lankshear said...

Another "SNAP" I was just posting something similar on my blog when yours popped up. Mine is on Custer's Last Stand. and one site thinks the Cavalry lost because the troopers did not shoot to kill. That site also contains statistics on rate of fire etc

Re WW2 I read once that a million rounds were fired for each death.
I would have thought that it was not so much that they did not fire their weapons BUT they did not aim to kill.

Actually the WW1&2 British rifle the 303 Lee Enfield required concentration to fire. if you do not have it tucked into your shoulder correctly - the "kick" could break your shoulder.

The American M1 Garrand as gas operated had less of that problem but was not enormously accurate. But it's rate of fire was awesome for those days. I recall "The Band of Brothers" series. A GI reaches the top of a crest and there is a field of Germans with Mauser rifles similar to the British rifle. GI starts firing and Germans are going down in numbers and then the guy's platoon get to top of crest also.

For Korea weapons were similar to WW2 but for Vietnam the USA had the new stuff - hardly any kick etc etc - so the rate of fire must increase. A friend of mine was there as a USAF ground observer - he was shouted at in the middle of a fire fight "start shooting" he replied "I am on the radio and I am staying down this foxhole"

I just cannot imagine having someone in my sights and pulling the trigger. And I used to be a good shot with 303 and Bren Gun. The Sten gun was impossibe...