After two years off, I am working once again as a teaching assistant for Dr. Amy Laura Hall at Duke Divinity school – this time for her class on War and the Christian Tradition. The class is bringing together some of my longest held interests, and as usual when “precepting” (teaching assistants at Duke are called preceptors), the class is stimulating more insights than I have time to record.
Right now, the class is reading Dave Grossman’s book On Killing. I am adding it to my short mental list of books everyone should read. Grossman has been a soldier, historian, psychologist, and teacher – and he brings together a great deal of research with his own personal experience in this book. The theme of the book is that most people – up to 98% of soldiers – are not capable of remorseless killing even in battle. Like most other species, humans have a great deal of innate resistance to killing another of their own species. When face to face with a perceived enemy, we would rather run away, or stand our ground and try to scare them, or demonstrate how unthreatening we are, or simply disarm / disable them than we would kill them. So much of military history is the history of a handful of people trying to figure out how to get another group of people to kill a third group of people, when they aren’t all that interested in doing so.
Grossman notes a number of ways that this inclination can be overcome – by dehumanizing the “enemy,” by diffusing responsibility (sharing responsibility with a group, or being commanded to kill in the moment by a nearby respected leader), by increasing the distance (ideally so you don’t even see the person you are killing, or at least not their face)… but even these measures are not enough, and so modern military practice has been to practice – to make training as realistic as possible, so that a soldier will go into “auto-pilot” in the moment of killing. Some soldiers have been so well programmed that they go into a sort of dissociative state – where they relive the experience of their training exercises, and don’t realize that it was all real until after they have stopped shooting.
It was after World War II that the need for this kind of training was realized – and by the time of the Vietnam war, it was fully in force. The firing rate was extraordinarily high in Vietnam compared to World War II – a jump from about 20% to closer to 90%.
One of the things that made Vietnam different from prior U.S. wars was the sudden shift in public opinion from support to large scale protests. Furthermore, returning veterans appear to have been at the forefront of this uncommon and rapid disaffection with the war. Which makes me wonder – the Pacific war was horrible – why didn’t returning veterans put an end to that war? The Civil War was horrible – why not that war? War is, in general, horrible. How can any war continue without veterans returning from the front putting an end to it?
It has been said that one of the biggest problems with Vietnam was how unclear it was why we should be fighting there. However, this was one of the great flare ups in the Cold War – domino theory (the idea that a single nation falling to communism would trigger a wave of nations falling, until finally the U.S. was itself at risk) had been convincingly sold to the American people. The Cuban missile crisis (1962) was still fresh in everyone’s minds when the first ground troops were sent to Vietnam (1965).
So I’m wondering about this anti-war movement – a movement that included the active participation of Vietnam veterans… were these veterans who in World War II would have fired over the heads of their enemies – or might not have fired their guns at all? Were these men whose resistance to killing had been overcome?
Because here is the problem with overcoming someone’s resistance to killing – you can make someone kill, but you can’t make them ok with it afterwards. Increasing kill rates means increasing the number of people haunted by having killed. It means overcoming the natural resistance of people whose own brains probably know best how well they will handle the trauma of seeing someone die knowing that they themselves are responsible for that person’s death. It means not caring what a young man wants to do, but instead reshaping him so that he does something that he would never do without being programmed. Which is the word brainwashers use to refer to brainwashing, not incidentally.
So I am wondering, when people complain that we won every battle in Vietnam but lost the war – when they say that it was the shift in public opinion that lost the war in Vietnam – who exactly should we hold responsible for that? Privileged students and dope-smoking hippies? Or the very military commanders who decided to try to “improve” war – to change it from an already miserable experience to an even worse experience for even more people? Perhaps these soldiers who were rendered incapable of resisting to killing in battle could cope only by reclaiming their agency – by resisting when they had returned to the States.
I can’t say for sure – I’m not even done reading the book, so maybe Grossman addresses some of these issues. But it seems to me that it has not been established that conditioning young men to kill provides any real gain in outcome (such as bringing a conflict to an end more quickly) – and neither has the subsequent loss (the emotional fall out from having killed against one’s natural inclination) been given sufficient attention. What does it mean to ask thousands of people in every generation to live with a horror of themselves and what they have done?
For me, the aims of the military could not be more clearly opposed to the demands of Christian love – no distance between myself and my enemy is too great for God to overcome, nor can I forget at any distance that every other human being is God’s own beloved child no less than my own self.
But for American Christians who still are immersed in the potent conflation of God and country that is (not exclusively, but especially) a remnant of the Cold War – can we agree on our love for the young men and women who serve as U.S. soldiers? And can we agree that conditioning them to become more efficient killers over the resistance of their own minds may be damaging to them in the long term? And if so, can we agree that maybe we need to reconsider just how important killing is to us as a nation?
May God have mercy on us, and forgive us.