Long Reads

Peace, War, and Thoughts “On Killing”

Reflections on the theological implications of learning the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society.

I recently read “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society”, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. He is a former American army Ranger and psychology professor, and is currently the director of the Killology Research Group. His work pioneers a realm often left uncharted by academics: the intimate experience of war and killing. His methods fluctuate between reviewing war statistics and drawing psychological evaluations from a series of letters and interviews done with soldiers and veterans, doing his best to build on previous literature on military history. Academic research in history and psychology would be the appropriate means to test many of his claims which, as it is often common in new areas of psychology, escape the limits of rigorous scientific research and thread the blurred line between historical journalism, research, and opinion; researchers are bound to find exciting questions in his book. Given his military experience, I do think his opinion is one worth listening to, and given the pioneering nature of his work, I do not expect it to have the scientific and historical rigor found in already established areas of psychology. Nevertheless, he shows enough scientific rigor to distinguish himself from the early psychoanalytic works that set modern psychology in motion.

Theologians naturally escape rigorous scientific and historical methods: we often begin with personal and communal experiences, myths, and symbols. It is then that we enter in dialogue with the grounded thinking of rigorous sciences and a philosophical critical spirit, to then return to the personal realm and inform people’s experience of life. This is the mindset that led me to read “On Killing”: I know I am an outsider to both the military experience and the overall experience of war. I have lived in peace my whole life and I want to be a pacifist, but I am interested in understanding those who are not, and maybe even change my mind.

Over a century ago, Tolstoy wrote against the military in his book “The Kingdom of God is Within You”, ending the fifth chapter of his book with poignant comments against the state of the European Christian nations of his time. My impression reading his book descriptions is that already in 1894 he saw Europe preparing itself for the Great War, and in many ways wrote in the hopes to avoid it, although he also had just enough cynicism I do not think he would be surprised at the 20th century bloodshed. The argument he proposes is that military service is a contradiction of the Christian doctrine of the brotherhood of all men: first we teach boys to love their enemies and give the other cheek, but later we train them to be ready to kill and butcher their enemies at the command of their authorities. Countless poor men who have no reason to hate poor men in another land, because one powerful ruler decides he has something against another powerful ruler, are made to wear a uniform, forget their individuality,  and become tools of murder, despite believing that all men are a brotherhood under God according to Christ. This contradiction, to Tolstoy, is what explains the abuse of alcohol and opium, among a list of toxic behaviors, among the military and veterans: military life demands that men live against their conscience and reason, and  they need these things in order to avoid thinking about it. Tolstoy believed that realizing this contradiction is what leads so many soldiers to suicide and madness (p. 126-132).

Dave Grossman makes a similar argument to Tolstoy’s, using modern psychology and a record of military history and experiences, without the theology. He argues that humans have a natural resistance to killing other humans, and when exposed to human suffering we have a natural tendency for sympathy. Military progress, therefore, has been a history of learning to undermine the resistance to killing and dehumanizing enemies through aggressive ideology, propaganda, training, conditioning, sharing responsibility, establishing rituals of affirmation, dissociation, avoiding to look at the enemy’s eyes, denying any form of empathy, and maybe above all, developing manners of speech and terminology of war that avoids the use of any words that imply a soldier actually kills other human beings. He understands that bypassing the human resistance to killing is very traumatic, and according to his research, only about 2% of the population, those we consider sociopaths, do not have the natural aversion to killing (p.44, 180). This characteristic is a desired trait in combat, therefore this 2% is naturally successful in the military, if only they manage to submit to authority .

Both Grossman and Tolstoy were soldiers: Grossman had twenty-four years of service by the time he wrote the book (p.xxxii), but never killed anyone. Tolstoy served in a few battles as an artillery soldier, and, from what I can gather, did kill. His direct experience of war and the military in 19th century Russia was surely different than Grossman’s experience and concerns with modern warfare, and maybe this difference can help explain the different conclusions they draw from very similar observations.

Tolstoy’s reading of the gospels reject orthodox Christianity and any sort of “mystical” interpretation, believing Jesus’ teaching was clear, meaning we really need to actually love our actual enemies. Therefore, Tolstoy rejects military service and war, and with it every authority built on violence; to him, acceptance of violence in elaborate theologies that justify war is the evidence of historical Christianity’s deviance from Jesus’ radical but simple teaching.

Grossman does not share the theological concerns of Tolstoy. He speaks of war as a problem to be overcome, yet sometimes a necessary price to pay for freedom. He spends most of his book dissecting the ways armies desensitize and dissociate future soldiers in order to kill other men and women (and children if necessary), highlighting how highly traumatic this process can be, but never really denouncing the authorities’ decision to make war or not. As a well-trained soldier, he trusts his superiors even in the light of the atrocities of war and the numerous PTSD stories he collected; he does not try to convince the reader that war is good, being as neutral as he can while concerning himself only with the soldier’s experience. The rationale behind his efforts is summed in these words: “Success in war and national survival may necessitate killing enemy soldiers in battle. If we accept that we need an army, then we must accept that it has to be as capable of surviving as we can make it. But if society prepares a soldier to overcome his resistance to killing and places him in an environment in which he will kill, then that society has an obligation to deal forthrightly, intelligently, and morally with the result and its repercussions upon the soldier and the society” (p. 287). His driving concern is the effect of killing on soldiers and on the society responsible for these soldiers.

The main focus of his discussion is a comparison between the American Military experience in WWII and their experience in Vietnam: foot soldiers in WWII of every side were largely ineffective, it being evident when observing the amount of ammunition spent and shots fired compared to the number of enemy soldiers killed. Most kills were actually done by artillery, which is far less personal; when they returned, victorious, the allies were celebrated as heroes. Years later under new training using conditioning techniques (like Pavlov’s dog and Skinner’s rats), American soldiers in Vietnam were astoundingly lethal, killing women and child soldiers when necessary; when they returned, defeated, they were condemned by their society. Now Vietnam veterans suffer the highest rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, homelessness and suicide, while a WWII veteran “may tend to medicate himself pretty regularly down at the bar at the American Legion, but like most veterans he will probably continue to function and lead a perfectly healthy life” (p.287). Grossman acknowledges and makes sure to mention the suffering of victims of war whenever it sounds like it is not emphasized enough: the receiving end of the trigger always has it worse regardless of the killer’s own trauma and suffering. Still, as a soldier, his concern rises largely out of empathy towards his brothers-in-arms and veterans. This seems consistent with his mentions throughout the book of how military life creates bonds among soldiers that are often stronger than their bonds with their very wives; several of the soldiers he interviewed told him war stories they had never told their families since they returned home.

Tolstoy shows little sympathy for soldiers, even having been a soldier himself, largely due to his somewhat existentialist view of personal responsibility: reflecting his own experience, he believes one can – and should – reject military service and all forms of violent authority, remaining unstained from the world, dying if necessary. He believes the gospel of the Jesus who was crucified as a political agitator is clear about this. Grossman on the other hand shows a lot of compassion towards soldiers: he sees them as adolescents who sign up to protect their nation but find themselves turned into killing machines ready for command, but that is not a fundamental problem with war, and he thinks it could just be done better. As for the victims, he does not speak for them, silently showing a strong faith in his superior’s decisions.

Until reading this book, I shared Tolstoy’s lack of compassion towards the military. I remember arguing with friends who said the military are the people who make the greatest sacrifice in the name of freedom, to which I would answer that a good soldier is not the one who dies, but the one who kills. Grossman confirms this without question. However, having read “On Killing“, now I see things less black-and-white. On one hand, Grossman does not deal with the theological problems that Tolstoy does. On the other, Tolstoy does not deal with the intricate human ambiguity of choice and circumstance, such that even if his language is surprisingly clear and simple when he points out our social and theological contradictions, he is not inviting, and can often sound accusing.

Grossman’s exposition of military language as systematically dissociating from the act of killing is not exclusive to the military. I cannot recall any discourse on theories of Just War that uses the verb “to kill”, let alone speak of murder, butchering, rape, burning alive, scalping, impaling, maiming, etc. How often are philosophers, theologians, intellectuals and politicians justifying war with hygienized hands, proclaiming military service is good and virtuous, defending values of authority and obedience to an abstract “nation”, without daring to talk about what the word War really means? How many young persons’ lives are lost due to such discourse? Could it be that our weekly drinking of wine that we call blood made us forget that real people’s blood is still shed for human sins whenever we declare and justify war? Is our glorifying of Christ’s suffering purely romantic, detached, unfamiliar with the agony of an actual naked man bleeding out at the city’s gates? Quoting the title of the first chapter of Grossman’s book, are we virgins talking about sex? Ironically, yes; historically that is precisely what most Christian theologians and clergy have done. Still, the question is metaphorical: how can theologians (and this also applies to philosophers) talk about justifying war without openly speaking about its reality and effects in people’s lives? Would honest words make our theologies much harder to swallow?

Much of Grossman’s research validates Tolstoy’s description of how a young man becomes a soldier and the psychological consequences of that process. Tolstoy understood that this is pertinent not only for war but also for the maintenance of authority, through police and other violent forms of law enforcement. Indeed, he affirms that law can only exist by being enforced, and that force is always violent. However, Grossman’s book reminds me that soldiers and policemen are human, too. In their circumstances, in a lot of ways, they do the best they can with what they have. Our churches and politicians, with hygienized hands, bless them in order to ease their consciences. Still, they suffer through their choices – even through their illusion of no choice.

The moral fight against violence would liberate soldiers and the people who embody authority, too, from a life of moral contradiction and psychological suffering. The gun trigger harms both ways, and the way to resist it is by resisting the urge for desensitization. The path of love towards peace must not be a simple opposition against the people who wear the uniforms and wave the banners of authority and violence. It must be the compassionate love that forgives and extends grace while speaking the truth, embracing all the ambiguity of choice, circumstance, responsibility, and mercy.

“For our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against every authority and power in the high places of this present time.”


Bibliography

Grossman, D. (2009). On killing : the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

Tolstoy, L. & Garnett, C. (1984). The kingdom of God is within you : Christianity not as a mystic religion but as a new theory of life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Photo: After receiving a fresh supply of ammunition and water flown in by helicopter, men of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade continue on a jungle ‘Search and Destroy’ patrol in Phuc Tuy Province, Vietnam, June 1966. An armored personnel carrier provides security on the landing zone in the background. (by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

About the author: Lucas Coque is a theology student at McGill University in Montreal, QC. He considers himself an agnostic Christian existentialist, and wishes to make progressive theology accessible outside of academia.

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