In Beyond PTSD: The Moral Casualties of War, Part One I argued that the readjustment difficulties suffered by active duty military and veterans because of their experiences in Iraq are not exhausted by references to trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To correctly diagnose and adequately treat our returning servicemen and women, we must appreciate the relevancy of moral values and norms to the war experience and recognize that soldiers suffer not only the effects of trauma – PTSD – but what I termed “moral injuries.”
In this essay, I will argue that moral injuries are primarily the consequence of late adolescents/young adults having undergone the sophisticated psychological and emotional conditioning regimen of basic training/boot camp – being programmed to kill – and then, upon experiencing the horror and insanity – the reality – of war, suffering the realization of the moral gravity of their actions on the battlefield.
Whatever their source and however the process occurs, humankind has accepted and internalized a set of values and norms through which we define ourselves as persons, structure our world, and render our relationship to it, and to other human beings, comprehensible. These values and norms provide the parameters of our being – what I have termed our “moral identity.” Consequently, we now have the need and the means to weigh concrete situations to determine acceptable (right) and unacceptable (wrong) behavior.
One critical moral conviction foundational to the moral identity of most rational human beings can best be described as the principle of respect for persons. Inherent in this moral principle is a recognition that human beings possess unconditional – – intrinsic – – moral value and, consequently, that they must be treated with respect, i.e., as ends in themselves and not only as the means to the ends of other human beings or nations.
A Reluctance to Kill
In his landmark study of the behavior of U.S. soldiers during World War II, General S.L.A. Marshall reported that only fifteen to twenty percent of men in battle – – even those facing immediate threat from the enemy – – actually fired their weapons.[i] Ardant du Picq reported that during the Napoleonic wars, many soldiers “fired almost into the air, without aiming . . . “[ii] Richard Gabriel points out that although the “primitive and warlike” New Guinean tribesmen are excellent marksmen with their bows during hunting, when they go to war, the warriors remove the feathers from their arrows rendering their weapons relatively ineffective keeping casualties low.[iii] Similarly, among many Native American tribes, it brought the warrior more respect and esteem merely to touch the enemy – – count coups – – rather than to kill him. Paddy Griffith’s study of the Civil War battlefield notes that a regiment of soldiers, usually numbering between two hundred and one thousand men, most of whom were adequate, if not expert, marksman, although leveling an incredible volume of fire at an exposed enemy at close distances (twenty to thirty yards), killed or injured only one or two men per minute.[iv] This incredibly low “kill ratio” was not an isolated phenomenon peculiar to the civil war or to a particular level of weapon technology. A study conducted by the British Operational Analysis Establishment in 1986 analyzed more than one hundred nineteenth and twentieth century battles and concluded that the killing potential of the forces engaged in these battles were much greater than the recorded casualty rate achieved. They explained this phenomenon as indicating an “unwillingness” (by the participants) to take part (in the combat) as the main factor.”[v]
Ample evidence exists, therefore, to support the contention that soldiers on the battlefield have, throughout the history of warfare, avoided killing their counterparts if possible. Marshall concludes from his study that,
“It is therefore reasonable to believe that the average and healthy individual – – the man who can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat – – still has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility.”[vi]
Psychologist and former Army Ranger Dave Grossman is more specific. He maintains that there exists in man a natural – – innate – – reluctance toward killing members of one’s own species. He writes,
“ . . . there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.”[vii]
I will interpret the empirical evidence as indicating, at least, that rational men and women have, for whatever the reason, adopted, internalized, and acted upon a standard of behavior that proscribes killing members of one’s own species – – the principle of respect for persons. If, in fact, humankind is biologically predisposed to respond, using violence, to certain external stimuli,[viii] such a predisposition has been effectively offset by the societal mores and ethical values instilled in us (and we have internalized) during childhood.[ix]
Solving the “Problem”: Programming Soldiers Who Will Kill
Human beings, then, are not killers by nature. Political leaders, including our own, whose aim it is to further their political goals through violence, have recognized that this reluctance to kill, this foundational aspect of a human being’s moral identity, jeopardizes their ability to wage war effectively. Consequently, following the Second World War, warrior preparation – basic training/boot camp – was modified to shift its focus from acquainting soldiers with tactics and weaponry to rather sophisticated techniques of value manipulation, moral desensitization, and psychological conditioning, aimed at destroying/overriding the recruits’ moral aversion to killing.
The goals of this modified basic military training are fivefold. First, late adolescents/young adults – – now termed military inductees or recruits – – are, through rigid discipline, ridicule, dehumanization, and intense physical, psychological, and emotional manipulation, pressure, and abuse, reduced to a state of extreme helplessness and vulnerability in order to effect what I term “moral identity disassociation and conversion.” That is, the destruction of their non martial moral identity and its appropriate beliefs, values, loyalties, and attributes of character – kindness, mercy, compassion, consideration, benevolence, forgiveness, charity, sympathy, etc. – in favor of the beliefs, values, loyalties, and attributes of character appropriate to their new identity as warriors – loyalty to comrades, courage, patriotism, obedience, brutality, cruelty, hatred, viciousness, ferocity, inhumanity, ruthlessness, etc.
Second, the reality of combat is such that few men kill or are willing to die for ideology, issues of justice, god or country. What ultimately motivate soldiers to kill and to die in battle are personal honor, self-respect, and their loyalty and accountability to their comrades.[x] Consequently, basic military training seeks the destruction of the recruits’ concept of themselves as individuals[xi] and fosters, instead, a group identity and esprit de corps – a unit cohesion or brotherhood of the warrior. This phenomenon, sociologically termed “grouping” or “crowding,” also allows for the development of a sense of anonymity, a diffusion of responsibility, and group absolution thereby lessening or even eliminating (at least temporarily) a sense of personal responsibility for their actions.[xii] It is, therefore, the recruits’ own vision of themselves as part of a select group of warriors with a proud, noble, and chivalrous tradition – – a dynamic I term the “warrior mythology” – – that effectively enables them to ignore the ethical limits they would normally place upon the use of violence.
Third, while the official military position is that blind obedience is not the goal of warrior preparation (soldiers are morally and legally responsible, at least in theory, to differentiate lawful from unlawful orders and are bound only to obey the former), most sincere and pragmatic military leaders would agree that an immediate response to orders on the battlefield is an absolute necessity.[xiii] Essentially, then, basic military training conditions recruits to respond to orders immediately, automatically, and without question. The old soldier’s adage, “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die, “certainly captures the reality of military discipline.
Fourth, to be successful in battle, recruits must develop “an immediate killing response.” Basic military training, therefore, programs recruits, utilizing a number of clearly Pavlovian stimulus-response exercises, to react automatically and without hesitation to an enemy and kill him. An especially effective technique for developing an immediate killing response has been termed the “quick kill drill.” During this training exercise, recruits are dressed in full combat gear and armed with weapons and live ammunition. Standing in a foxhole, they survey the “enemy held” terrain before them. Periodically, and at various ranges, one or two man-shaped silhouettes of enemy soldiers “threateningly” pop up before them. The recruits must immediately respond by engaging the target – – aiming and shooting, aiming and shooting.[xiv] If the silhouette is struck, it drops backward, just as a living human being would. Recruits who successfully “kill” the enemy – – hit the silhouettes – – are rewarded with praise and medals. Those that are unsuccessful suffer the wrath of the drill instructor, the guilt and shame of letting down their peers, and the possibility of failing to graduate from basic training. Grossman describes this “exercise” in behavioral terms. He writes,
“. . . what is being taught in this environment is the ability to shoot reflexively and instantly and a precise mimicry of the act of killing on the modern battlefield. In behavioral terms, the man shape popping up in the soldier’s field of fire is the “conditioned stimulus,” the immediately engaging of the target is the “target behavior.” “Positive reinforcement” is given in the form of immediate feedback when the target drops if it is hit. In a form of “token economy” these hits are then exchanged for marksmanship badges that usually have some form of privilege or reward (praise, public recognition, three- day passes, and so on) associated with them.”[xv]
Fifth, despite even the most realistic of training and participation in sophisticated tactical exercises that simulate the sights, sounds, and smells of combat, war is inevitably overwhelming and killing another human being an awesome act normally antithetical to ordinary conceptions of morality. The immediate moral impact of such actions may be ameliorated, at least temporarily, through a technique termed “distancing.” Ben Shalit writes
“The nearer and more similar the victim of aggression is, the more we can identify with him, the more involved we are, and the less aggressive will be our behavior toward him.”[xvi]
Consequently, an important goal of basic training is to “create distance” between the warrior and those they must kill by accentuating (and fabricating) the “enemy’s” cultural, racial, ethnic, and moral differences. That is, to instill, in the recruits, an abstract perception of the enemy as evil, demonic, subhuman, nonhuman, and socially inferior. J. Glenn Gray, a philosopher and veteran of World War II writes,
“The typical image of the enemy is conditioned by the need to hate him without limits . . . Most soldiers are able to kill and be killed more easily in warfare if they possess an image of the enemy sufficiently evil to inspire hatred and repugnance.”[xvii]
It is clear, therefore, that since the end of the Second World War, nations have entered a new era of warrior preparation.[xviii] These indoctrination techniques, characterized by profound psychological and value manipulation and conditioning, have proven quite successful indeed, as studies indicate that the percentage of soldiers in battle who fired their weapons at the enemy increased to 55 percent during the Korean War and to 95 percent during Vietnam and Iraq.[xix]
Confronting War’s Existential Reality and a Crumbling Warrior Mythology
Upon completing basic training, most soldiers view themselves as part of a select group of courageous knights with a noble and chivalrous tradition willing (programmed) to kill the demonic agents of evil and selflessly to sacrifice their lives, if need be, for right and justice. With combat, however, as the screams of mutilated and dying comrades quickly replace the sounds of inspiring anthems, and the chaos, insanity, and horror of the battlefield become apparent, comes the realization that however just the goal and righteous the initial intent, “War is destruction and nothing else . . . (it is) cruelty and you cannot refine it.”[xx] Consequently, as the warriors’ mythology begins to crumble, ideology, and the lofty and abstract ideals of chivalry and patriotism become irrelevant, war becomes a struggle for personal survival and revenge. Confronted by this reality and with the realization of having become the agents of senseless and widespread human pain, suffering and death, serious doubts and moral uneasiness arise regarding war’s necessity and justness and of the nobility and righteousness of the warriors’ involvement. Further, as the killing continues and the humanity of those displaced, tortured, injured and killed becomes apparent (“distancing” was an aspect of the now defunct mythology), warriors suffer moral distress and confusion at having violated the deep seated principle of respect for persons so integral to their pre-programming moral identity. Whether this occurs after the fact – after having returned home – or while still in theater, warriors/veterans confront the troubling realization that the “enemy” they are brutally killing (or has killed) is not subhuman or demonic at all but a human being much like himself. Eric Maria Remarque brilliantly portrays a classic example of this troubling epiphany in the epic World War One novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. Paul, the main character, after having impulsively killed an enemy soldier who sought refuge in the bomb crater in which he was hiding, confronts both the humanity of the other and the repugnance of what he had done.
“Comrade, I did not want to kill you . . . But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade . . . Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony – forgive me comrade; how could you be my enemy.“[xxi]
They did not tell Paul or any other warrior of the enemy’s humanity because its part of the mythology, necessary if human beings are to overcome the reluctance to kill and to fight their nation’s wars. However, in many, if not most cases, the deception is revealed, the mythology destroyed, and the warrior is left to confront the anguish and grief that accompany the realization that he has killed “poor devils” just like himself.
It may be true that because of either a previous psychological abnormality[xxii] or some uncanny ability for rationalization and pretense, some soldiers have “enjoyed” a lust for killing with little subsequent remorse or guilt. Many, perhaps most, however, were (and are) profoundly affected by their participation in war. Consider an expanded excerpt of the poem, The Warrior’s Dance (Tai Chi Chuan), cited in Part One, written during the author’s experience in Vietnam.
“I fear I am no longer alien to this horror.I am, I am, I am the horror. I have lost my humanity and have embraced the insanity of war. The monster and I are one. So I dance, the dance of warriors. Amidst decaying corpses and forsaken loved ones, I dance. I have feasted upon their flesh and with their blood have quenched my thirst. The blood of innocents forever stains my soul! The transformation is complete, and I can never return.Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”[xxiii]
I think this poetic expression of a warrior’s perception of self is insightful and common to many who shared his experience. It suggests a recognition of the horrors associated with war, a stoic dismay at having embraced the mythological warrior’s identity, an awareness of having transgressed a more deeply seated sense of self (his non martial moral identity), his perceived culpability for his actions, and his acceptance of the consequent sanctions for his “crimes,” i.e., profound remorse, guilt, and shame. Also indicated is the abandonment, isolation, and alienation from the remainder of the moral community many warriors suffer following their return to a society in which killing is murder and cruelty, brutality, and violence – the behavioral characteristics and values appropriate to the martial identity – are unacceptable. Gerald Linderman describes the experiences of returning civil war soldiers.
“Almost all experienced disorientation in various degrees. Some felt that they had returned from another world or another plane of existence. The rules governing their daily lives changed so abruptly as to require almost overnight adjustments. Killing once again became homicide . . .”[xxiv]
This warrior disorientation, while experienced, to some degree, by veterans returning from all wars, was greatly exacerbated by the modern warriors’ increased ability to kill. It is no wonder, then, that returning warriors are profoundly confused, perceiving themselves adrift between two worlds, the world they recognized as their place of origin – though, now, quite alien – and the world of killing and destruction – of which they now feel a part. Disconnected from their ethical foundations – their frame of reference with which to structure their world – the veterans’ lives became incoherent and their relationship to other human beings, incomprehensible.
Whether we act rightly or wrongly, i.e., according to or in violation of our moral identity, will affect whether we perceive ourselves as true to our personal convictions and to others who share our values and ideals. Moral injuries are, in most cases, an inevitable consequence of the sophisticated manipulation and distortion, during basic training, of the recruits’ moral foundations – their moral identities – and the profound moral confusion and distress they experience as the horror and insanity – the reality – of war becomes apparent and they are confronted by the a realization of the moral gravity of their actions in combat. Moral guilt is, simply speaking, the awareness of having transgressed their moral convictions and the anxiety precipitated by a perceived breakdown of their ethical cohesion – – their integrity – – and an alienation from the moral community. Shame is the loss of self-esteem consequent to a failure to live up to personal and communal expectations.
[i] Marshall, S .L. A., Men Against Fire, (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith Publishing, 1978).[ii] Ardant du Picq, Battle Studies, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Telegraph Press, 1946).[iii] Gabriel, Richard A., No More Heroes: Madness and Psychiatry in War, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1987).[iv] Griffith, Paddy, Battle Tactics of the Civil War, (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989).
[v] Study quoted in Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, New York: Little, Brown, and Co. 1995), p. 16.
[vi] Marshall, S.L.A., Men Against Fire, p.
[vii] Dave Grossman, On Killing, p. 4.
[viii] For an informative and convincing argument against the Freudian/Lorenzian notion of man’s instinctual aggression, see Leonard Berkowitz, “Biological Roots: Are Humans Inherently Violent?
in Psychological Dimensions of War, Betty Glad, ed., (Newbury Park, Calif: Sage Publications, 1990), pp.24-40.
[ix] I realize that my hesitation to make a universal claim regarding the natural condition of humankind, renders my conclusions culturally relative. However, as most modern wars are fought by the armies of “civilized” nations that profess a respect for persons and, consequently, an aversion to gratuitous killing, I am prepared to accept this limitation.
[x] Dyer, Gwynne, War (New York: Crown Publishers, 1985), pp. 102-109.
[xi] Hence recruits are (1) forced to surrender everything associated with their individuality, their clothing, hair, etc., (2) rewarded and punished not on the basis of individual performances but on the basis of group performance, and (3) are drilled incessantly despite the fact that mass formations and movements are no longer relevant to modern warfare.
[xii] For an interesting study of this phenomena, see Zimbardo, P.G., “The Human Choice: Individuation, Reason and Order Versus De- Individuation,” in Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, W. Arnold and D. Levine eds., (Lincoln Press, 1969).
[xiii] Shalit writes, . . . the military system is based on obedience, and one cannot operate in the stressful conditions of war while carrying out discussions and symposia in a democratic way. B. Shalit, The Psychology of conflict and Combat, (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1988), p. 133.
[xiv] Video games are now used quite successfully as a conditioning exercise.
[xv] Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, p. 254. For an interesting discussion of this training exercise from the military perspective, see Olmstead, J.A., The Effects of “Quick Kill” upon Trainee Confidence and Attitudes. Human Resources Research Office Technical Report 68, 1968, USA.
[xvi] B. Shalit, The Psychology of Conflict and Combat, P. 48.
[xvii] J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors, Reflections on Men in Battle, (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), pp. 132-133.
[xviii] While aspects of many of these “training” techniques – demonization of the enemy, for example – were utilized previous to the end of the Second World War, these psychologically manipulative techniques became far more sophisticated, intensive, and the focus of warrior preparation following WWII.
[xix] See Peter Watson, War on the Mind, (London: Hutchinson Press, 1978), pp. 45-65.
[xx] General William Tecumseh Sherman. Quoted in Linderman, Gerald F., Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War, (New York: The Free Press, 1987), p. 211.
[xxi] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1975) p. 223.
[xxii] Swank and Marchand estimate that two percent of those who experience war are what they term “aggressive psychopaths,”i.e., they are exhilarated by killing and feel no guilt or shame for their actions. Swank, R.L., and W.E. Marchand. “Combat Neuroses: Development of Combat Exhaustion,” in Archives of Neurology and Psychology 55, pp. 236-47.
[xxiii] Bica, Camillo “Mac”, War Journals, November 1969.
[xxiv] Linderman, Gerald F., Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War, p. 267.
Camillo “Mac” Bica, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His focus is in Ethics, particularly as it applies to war and warriors. As a veteran recovering from his experiences as a United States Marine Corps Officer during the Vietnam War, he founded, and coordinated for five years, the Veterans Self-Help Initiative, a therapeutic community of veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is a long-time activist for peace and justice, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and a founding member of the Long Island Chapter of Veterans for Peace.