For this lecture, please watch this interview with Dave Grossman on YouTube.
While violence is prevalent throughout the animal kingdom, monkeys and apes are some of the only creatures that can rotate their shoulders above their heads as we can, useful for swinging through trees as well as using tools. This means that they, like us, are the only creatures that can throw things like rocks and club things with sticks. Oddly, these are the two major bodily motions of baseball, the “American pastime”.
There are three major groups of apes, gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees. Gorillas kill child gorillas, but they never rape other gorillas. Orangutans never kill child orangutans, but they rape other orangutans all the time. Our direct ancestor is the chimpanzee, which comes in two major sub-species. Bonobo chimps, the smaller group, are quite non-violent and solve all social issues with sex. The main group of chimps, our direct relatives, do all the kinds of violence known to human kind. Once again, like every ethical issue we examine, the issue is older than humanity.
Violence, like sex, was a part of life since childhood in the beginning. As Grossman says, in Victorian England sex became something shameful and best kept out of sight, and similarly with the butcher and refrigeration violence became something out of sight. Consider David Foster Wallace’s FX Porn article about T2 and Jurassic park. Sex and killing are specialized spectacles, quite unrealistic and pieced together with bad dialogue. Interestingly, serial killers and aggressive personality types often start and practice by killing animals, which used to be something everyone had to do. These are disassociating fantasies.
In the ancient world cosmology picture of the world, sacrifice and dismemberment play a major part in the creation of the world. To eat, one must kill livestock. Similarly, sacrifice was seen as giving food and thanks back in balance and exchange. The cosmos was thought of as a great sacrifice in which the All is carved up for everyone’s use and consumption. Thus, one should carve up animals and humans and give them back to be fair. Evolutionary psychologists theorize that the human brain evolved primarily for developing social relations as well as tool use. Much of our minds are taken up by figuring out who has been good and fair and who has been bad a cheating us. Thus, it would make sense that humanity considered their relationship with the world to be social and reciprocal.
Consider the scepter of the king. Often in early cultural art we see the king holding a stick that symbolizes his authority. It has been suggested that this is the king as judge, jury and executioner. If you do something stupid, you get hit with the stick. How hard you get hit depends on what you did. The Egyptian Pharaohs have crossing stick and hook, ‘rod and staff’ from the psalm, in crossed arms, signifying that the king has power over life and death, which cross over into one another as intertwined.
Society became complexified and highly specialized. We now have specialized individuals who kill animals, who cook meat, who order acts of aggression, and who carry out the orders. As Grossman says, this specialization has made violence unnatural and fantastic, like sex.
Consider now that the US spends more on war than anyone has ever in all of world history. The US Military has been one of the biggest funders of science (physics, mathematics, psychology) in history. In the selection from Addicted To War that I gave you, it says that over 50% of the American government’s budget and our taxes go to US Military. In spite of this, most Americans are disconnected from the military and the wars America has continuously been fighting since the time of the Civil War. Since that time, for the last 150 years, America has not gone without a war for more than 35 years.
Writing in 1995, Lt. Col. Grossman of the US Marines says that there has never been a book on killing or dealing with killing from the individual perspective until now. As an officer and psychologist of the US Marine Corps, Grossman tells us many things that are surprising but trustworthy about the capability of individuals and groups to be violent.
The overall message of the book is quite positive. We all have violent thoughts, but very few humans will be violent, no matter what culture or ethnicity or gender. Normally, there is a “safety catch”, like the safety on a gun, in the human mind that prevents us from being violent. However, in certain situations with particular factors, most everyone becomes capable of violence.
2% of the population have an aggressive personality, potentially psychosis. These individuals are often, Grossman says, drafted into the hardcore units, the marine spearhead squads dropped behind enemy lines or the frontal advance groups, in most cultures, including the Marines. Regardless of whether one is of the 98% or the aggressive 2%, violence is a kick at first but then psychological problems set in that are difficult for the individual. Those with an aggressive personality are more capably of being violent than others. Within this 2% is a small minority, a small percent of the 2%, who are genuine sociopaths, who hurt others to feel emotion.
The overall message is: though human beings are constantly getting themselves into violent situations, there are no human beings who find violence easy or simply justifiable. They pose this way to seem tough, but as Grossman says violence is about impressing the enemy and making them submit much more than it is about the killing. The killing is always in the service of something else, such as staying alive or defending the group. Grossman, as a psychologist, is convinced that post traumatic stress disorder is natural and most will carry it silently their whole lives, afraid of what others will say or say about them if they question the things they did for the highest ideals. He says that countless marines have broken down and sobbed in his office, ashamed that they feel terrible for doing what they were ordered to do, and confused as to why they feel ashamed for what they believe is defending their country’s safety.
There is a balance that is quite brutal in the head. We can pretend like others don’t matter to us, but only for awhile. Grossman says that the one who takes life cheapens his own life, in his own head, and argues this point well. Our minds are formed to make reciprocal relationships, and when you kill the enemy you know that the enemy will want to kill you in retribution.
Grossman starts off from a pragmatic, military point of view. He argues that we have every reason to believe that most humans who have been involved with war have not tried to kill anyone the whole time they are “fighting”. He notes studies that say that WWI and II troops would routinely fire over the heads of the enemy. He says that he and others in the military examined these studies, and the military celebrated a 95% firing rate in Vietnam, although he later tells us the factors that make this seem much better for the military than it really was. There were 50,000 rounds fired per US kill in Vietnam. One of the reasons that there was such a high firing rate is because of poor visibility in the jungle.
Grossman argues that, in all cultures and times, the majority of soldiers were posturing in war, doing everything to make the enemy back down, cease fighting and submit. Before guerrilla war became the norm, this is the beating of the drums and the war chants, the clashing of shields. Grossman says we see nonlethal fighting with one’s own species in piranhas, rattlesnakes, and the whole animal kingdom. Alexander the Great only lost 700 men in 20 years of war. This is quite similar to Hegel’s idea of the master/slave dialectic reversed. Seeking submission is intuitive, the first and preferred option.
American media is quite gifted with the myth of the easy kill, for both the hero and villain. We believe, and Grossman argues are convinced by much fictional media, that there are bad guys who kill and simply feel no remorse, and good guys who kill the bad guys and feel no remorse because it was the right thing to do.
Good examples include Schwarzenegger’s performance in the 80s action movie Commando, acting like a complete sociopath, in one scene dangling a villain over a cliff before dropping him, and then telling his partner, “I let him go” as a terrible joke. This myth, like the propaganda last week, is a “cultural conspiracy”, a conspiracy of silence according to Grossman. It’s not what it says that’s the lie, but what remains unsaid. What this myth conceals is there is a far greater chance of being a psychological casualty of conflict then there are of being killed or wounded. 60 days of continuous combat without rest means 98% rate of psychological casualties. This is why we keep ‘green zones’ away from fighting and maintain distance from targets.
Is this killing or being subjected to combat? Grossman argues that Britain and Germany bombed each other’s cities in WWII, the first massive bombardments of history (now our specialty, setting the bar in Vietnam, then Gulf War, now War in Iraq). The theory was that the civilian population would go into traumatic shell shock, that everyone would be quickly converted to psychological casualties, but this turned out surprisingly to not be the case.
It turns out that, unless one feels that one has done something to warrant being killed, one bunkers down and does not suffer post traumatic stress disorder. Depression sets in, but not PTSD. Prison guards in the cities DO suffer from PTSD during bombings, but NOT the prisoners of war they guard This shows us the balance of self and other in the head. One compulsively sets the world up as THIS perspective vs. OTHERS, and one sets the others up as one sets up the self in the head. This means that when one knows that the other will feel JUSTIFIED in killing, one becomes conflicted with oneself. Consider that recon patrols behind enemy lines don’t suffer PTSD like hard core (2%) marine spearhead units that are dropped behind lines to sew death and confusion. If one is in the enemies home turf, but not killing, one does not feel like the justifiably killable target that one does if one is killing the enemy. Consider that killing someone in their home is much more traumatic and justifiable than killing someone in one’s own home.
So: What factors increase or decrease the justification and the enabling of violence? This is what Grossman and the US Military have been studying intensely. Grossman tells us many surprising things openly that are done to help US troops kill easier with less consequence.
Killing with a knife is much harder than killing with a 20 foot pike, and killing with an automatic weapon is far easier because one does not feel the other’s body at all. Grossman says there is propaganda value of showing the enemy with fixed bayonets, as it suggests that the enemy is evil enough to stab others up close. Medium to long range is the easiest kill. The farther away, the less PTSD. The more equipment mediating the kill, the easier it is. Bomber pilots feel little to no PTSD. Grossman says ‘Nintendo Warfare’ in first Gulf War is intentional use of night vision goggles and TV screens in tanks, which lessens the PTSD (one would think the purpose was to take the enemy in the dark, but not so). This is similar to the infamous psychology experiment of Milgram, in which a scientist tells randomly selected individuals to shock someone they can hear in another room, with most individuals being capable of following orders and shocking the other as long as they are instructed to do so by a scientist as an authority figure.
The less one sees eyes and faces, the easier it is to kill. This is why the executioner is hooded along with the executed. Both lessen the feeling of PTSD for the executioner. Apes and humans have an impulse to attack when the other turns and runs. This is why if one is caught or kidnapped, the FBI trains people to always look the captor in the eyes as much as possible, and try to take off any helmet or hat (or hood). This is also why marines are taught to kill with a kidney strike from behind, to avoid being seen as well as avoid looking the enemy in the face.
Many have said that intolerance and racism are used actively as distancing mechanisms in the culture of the military, making it easier to kill. The less one’s enemy is like oneself, the easier it is to justify killing. This is why it is fundamental to say the other ‘does not share one’s values’.
This is a sort of absolution by distance, but it does deserve particular attention and Grossman gives it special attention. Officers are often separated from killing, which is done by soldiers under their command. The officer orders the aggression, the troops carry it out. The officer can feel distanced from the act because they themselves did not kill or see the kill, and the troops can feel distance from the intent and plan to kill because they did not decide to kill or order the kill. Interestingly, the farther the authority is away from the troops, the less the authority is effective, BUT the farther away the authority the easier it is to do the ordering. Consider that most officers go to college and through the ROTC programs on campus, while most soldiers do not go to college or enter the military seeking eventual support with college. This creates a social class gap between the officers and soldiers, as college is largely what separates the lower class from the middle and upper class.
The more one is firing into the brush with many others, the more one is unsure that one is killing a particular target oneself, and the more one can justify killing in the name of preventing one’s own group from being killed. In firing squads, often only one person has a bullet, and the others have blanks and are told this to ease the actions. In defending the home (being amongst one’s group and the group turf) one feels justified in killing in a way that is reversed when one is on enemy soil, as mentioned.
Stages of Killing
1) Combat High (exhilaration & euphoria
2) Remorse (move from positive to swing negative)
3) Rationalization (wrestling with the contradiction of positive/negative, self/other)
Both soldiers and gang members find themselves having nightmares where those who have been killed come back to haunt them and ask them “Why?”. It is as if killing a being does not kill the presence, that the negated presence comes back. This is likely why people believe in ghosts across all cultures. The ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi argued that one should only believe things that are confirmed by many people, which is how we know that ghosts are real. He also argued that there is a utilitarian benefit to believing in ghosts, as the belief keeps many from killing others. One feels one is still indebted to beings long gone if one was involved in their disappearance. Consider the literary examples of the ghost of Jacob Marley in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Tale, as well as The Telltale Heart of Edgar Allen Poe. Grossman notes that for HR Bush, the surge in popularity for the Gulf War which then fell off shows this cycle as a social process of these stages as well as something experienced by the individual.