FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Psychology of Killing

There will one day spring from the brain of science a machine or force so fearful in its potentialities, so absolutely terrifying, that even man, the fighter, who will dare torture and death in order to inflict torture and death, will be appalled, and so abandon war forever.

-Thomas A. Edison

War is a progressive concept.

Not sociologically, but in the sense that what began as an “art” has evolved through direct and indirect absorption of advances in peripheral disciplines (e.g., chemical and nuclear energy and health and medicine) into a separate “discipline” that is studied in its own right. Nonetheless, the elements of science–ballistics, ordnance engineering, propellant source , mechanical engineering, electronics and nanotechnology–focus more on the generally incremental development of weapons and support systems than on analyzing the implications for fighting formations and tactics of more effective weaponry.

(There are many who contend that success or failure in battle arguably is as much the result of one commander’s superior or inferior imagination and ability to integrate the essential elements of mission, enemy, terrain, troops available, and training in formulating and implementing a battle plan.)

Modern “conventional” war–as well as the possibility of nuclear war–complicates armed conflict because the fighting systems cannot simply be plucked off a shelf at a moment’s notice. Those who engage in or favor a “war footing” thus are forever seeking new materials, new combinations of known materials, or new variations in fabricating instruments that can kill and destroy efficiently.

Contrast the huge amount of resources devoted to modern weapons development with the historically resource-starved and thus limited (or even totally ignored) study of the psyche’s rational and emotional “switches” inhibit or propel extreme behavior in groups who are allowed or who have seized an opportunity to rampage through towns and villages in a manner comparable to the “hordes” of recorded history.

While obviously incomplete and invariably written from the perspective of the winner, oral traditions and the earliest chronicles detail numerous instances when the “hordes” of “barbarians” on far-ranging conquests engaged in the frenzied slaughter of entire populations–acts that today would be considered war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The history of warfare–at least the history of the development of the means of warfare–has been to increase the “separation distance” between the combatants more or less in the manner described below.

In pre-historic times, hunter-gatherers with longer, more muscular arms and legs or who were more agile had “natural” advantages insofar as they could catch, hold, and crush others, whether animals for food or humans. The answer to raw muscle was to combine muscle power with ordinary objects such as stones and pieces of trees that could be hurled to have the desired effect of injuring or killing.

The natural progression of applied experience also led to the realization that weaponry was indiscriminate: whenever used–whether held or hurled–injury or death ensued for whatever was struck, whether intentionally or by accident, friend or foe, human or animal. By the 4th millennium BCE, when human activity was being captured in the earliest chronicles, not only had war been “born,” it was a mature endeavor often involving hundreds if not thousands of individuals.

It invariably was most hazardous to the ground infantry that often participated against their will. Bat battles were won or lost when masses of men in tight, shoulder-to-shoulder formations crashed into one another. Whatever they were called–Greek hoplites organized into phalanxes of heavy infantry carrying the elongated spear and heavy interlocking shields or the more mobile Roman legions that relied on the short sword once inside the line of spearheads.

The first effective weapon that distanced opponents was the throwing spear or javelin. Accounts of battles sometimes hyperbolically claimed that the numbers of missiles were such that they threatened to blot out the sun. There were drawbacks, however; there was no energy “multiplier”–the spear’s flight distance depended on the muscular energy transferred from the thrower’s arm to the spear shaft; the weight of the missile (which depended on the wood selected for the shaft; and the terrain elevation of the target vis-à-vis the thrower’s, elevation. In modern times using high technology, the current men’s distance rev for throwing the javelin is 323 feet which the mark for women is 235 feet. In war, with the swirl of battle, with the objective of wounding or killing the enemy is paramount; such distances would never be reached. Moreover, the spear throwers either would have to fall back to get the next missile or go into action carrying more than one.

Bows, unlike spears, multiplied the muscular strength exerted by the archer, with the “factor” depending on the type and condition of the wood and the wood used for the arrow. The real revolution in the bow-and-arrow was the English long bow. While t the period authorities provide no uniform data, the consensus is that the bows were made from yew wood, were between five and six feet long (the continental bow measured no more than four feet, and could be fired with enough force to travel 18-240 yards and still penetrate the target. A trained archer could fire 12 to15 arrows in a minute ­leading one source to refer to the longbow as the machine gun of the Black Prince.

At the same time as the longbow came into its own on the field of battle, gunpowder was introduced into Western Europe. This was the real revolution, for this involved not just the transfer or multiplication of stored muscular energy. When ignited, the materials that constituted the gunpowder underwent a chemical transformation that unleashed energy in destructive quantities never seen before.

From this point forward, the march of war technology was toward ever more powerful but controlled chemical interactions that theoretically permitted warfare to be conducted without those firing the weapons actually seeing each other. The power of nuclear energy release for warfighting similarly was a quantum leap forward–and as fundamentally revolutionary as gunpowder was to muscle power

Many erudite observers have concluded that this separation between the attacker and the attacked has so de-personalized war that it is now easier for leaders to go to war and for those doing the fighting to kill without remorse. From 15,000 feet in the sky and five or ten miles distance, a pilot only has targets to strike. Precision guided fire-and-forget missiles used against an armored force psychologically translates into a number of tanks destroyed, not the number of people killed in the destroyed tanks.

Moreover, when the attacker employs weapons such as cluster munitions which can be detonated days or weeks or months later by unwary civilians, those killed are completely unknown to the attackers.

Perhaps high technology does depersonalize warfighting. But it is equally apparent that the human race in the 21st century has not evolved psychologically beyond our pre-historic ancestors in discerning–let alone understanding — the conditions and the “triggers” of “close-quarters” combat to the death.

In the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, in Rwanda in 1994, in Kenya in 2008, eyewitness accounts describe a shocking, absolutely chilling blood-lust that surfaced when mobs rampaged through towns and parts of towns inhabited by “them” It seemed to take hold even when the target had been in the community for years, often having raised a family with no apparent animosity from neighbors.

Some will say that this simply proves that the way to reduce gun violence is to not let the mentally unbalanced have weapons, for it is not the weapon that kills but the people who get a gun illegally or legally when they should be denied ownership. Yes, more effort needs to go into diagnosing and treating those suffering mental stress and illness–a population that is growing in this country because of Afghanistan and Iraq–with additional constraints that would make it more difficult to obtain weapons. But we are also learning that mental disturbance can be undetected for years until something snaps. If there are fewer weapons in the community, when the “snap” occurs the victim will have fewer opportunities to obtain a firearm.

But the eyewitness accounts suggest that in two of the three situations described, much of the killing was done not with firearms but with knives and machetes. A bullet or a piece of shrapnel can kill and leave only a small amount of blood; to hack an individual to death requires getting very close and invariably splatters blood widely–which in some descriptions seems to increase the frenzy of that or a subsequent attack.

Which leaves us with two psychological states:

the coldness of a rational, calculated, uninvolved, unemotional and therefore inhuman response to killing other humans

the emotionally driven, irrational, highly unstable frenzy that, requiring discharge, attacks whatever is different (and therefore “dangerous”).

Neither is good. But how to deal with the second is becoming more and more the challenge.

Col. DAN SMITH is a retired U.S. Army colonel and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at dan@fcnl.org.

 

 

 

 

More articles by:
July 19, 2018
Rajai R. Masri
The West’s Potential Symbiotic Contributions to Freeing a Closed Muslim Mind
Jennifer Matsui
The Blue Pill Presidency
Ryan LaMothe
The Moral and Spiritual Bankruptcy of White Evangelicals
Paul Tritschler
Negative Capability: a Force for Change?
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: ‘Social Dialogue’ Reform Frustrations
Rev. William Alberts
A Well-Kept United Methodist Church Secret
Raouf Halaby
Joseph Harsch, Robert Fisk, Franklin Lamb: Three of the Very Best
George Ochenski
He Speaks From Experience: Max Baucus on “Squandered Leadership”
Ted Rall
Right Now, It Looks Like Trump Will Win in 2020
David Swanson
The Intelligence Community Is Neither
Andrew Moss
Chaos or Community in Immigration Policy
Kim Scipes
Where Do We Go From Here? How Do We Get There?
July 18, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
Politics and Psychiatry: the Cost of the Trauma Cover-Up
Frank Stricker
The Crummy Good Economy and the New Serfdom
Linda Ford
Red Fawn Fallis and the Felony of Being Attacked by Cops
David Mattson
Entrusting Grizzlies to a Basket of Deplorables?
Stephen F. Eisenman
Want Gun Control? Arm the Left (It Worked Before)
CJ Hopkins
Trump’s Treasonous Traitor Summit or: How Liberals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New McCarthyism
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: Repression, Austerity and Worker Militancy
Dan Corjescu
The USA and Russia: Two Sides of the Same Criminal Corporate Coin
The Hudson Report
How Argentina Got the Biggest Loan in the History of the IMF
Kenn Orphan
You Call This Treason?
Max Parry
Ukraine’s Anti-Roma Pogroms Ignored as Russia is Blamed for Global Far Right Resurgence
Ed Meek
Acts of Resistance
July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science, Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Binoy Kampmark
Helsinki Theatrics: Trump Meets Putin
Patrick Bond
BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail