I read a really compelling article on the Huffington Post last week. It was written by two former infantry officers in the Marines, each of whom served in Afghanistan. Here’s a point that has stuck in my head:
General S.L.A Marshall’s history of World War II showed that less than 20 percent of American soldiers fired on the enemy in combat. By Vietnam, that rate reached 95 percent. Our Marines in Afghanistan approached 100 percent.
The article goes on to explain that the military has changed the way it trains soldiers. You remember targets shaped like bulls-eyes? Those are gone now. They moved to human silhouette targets, then to three-dimensional body shapes that slump over when hit, and then the troops start hunting and shooting each other with paint balls. The authors’ point is that when you turn the training into a sport where you get a mental reward for each kill, you become desensitized to the act.
This article made a very clear tie from this point to how violent video games have performed the same desensitization in some of our youth. The same psychological tactics used by our military to teach people to kill are those tactics any kid can learn when they pick up a video game controller. That ought to scare the hell out of us.
One of the things I keep coming back to about this piece of writing is this:
All of this has drastically lowered our resistance to killing when necessary, and yet even after all of our exposure to violence, we aren’t unhinged psychopaths. Marines are ethical warriors, because an equally important aspect of our training is to learn about restraint. This comes through discussions, through readings, through heartfelt and emotional talks about what it means to kill someone. It all ties back to our core values of Honor, Courage and Commitment.
Yes, the military does work to balance ethics with this training. I’m certain that those are some very interesting sessions, and I’d be intrigued to hear the discussion. I think I’d learn a lot. But I don’t think the military takes an adequate last step before discharging our veterans to return to civilian life. Three hundred and eleven of our troops died in combat in 2012; 349 active-duty troops committed suicide. More American soldiers killed themselves than were killed in combat. Our own program is more lethal to our troops than the enemy is. Then there are violent crimes committed by a very small (but significant) portion of veterans with PTSD. Here are a few notable incidents:
Almost all the articles you read are sure to note that not all veterans have PTSD. Lots of people have PTSD who aren’t veterans. But when the Department of Veteran’s Affairs own studies (see The Guardian UK link above) state that between 27-30% of veterans returning from combat have PTSD, we need to look at how to treat it. Learning to kill via desensitization may be highly effective training, but it comes with some pretty dreadful costs. What do we unleash on the citizens of the countries we occupy? What are we doing to our service people?