Is anyone ever truly prepared to kill?
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The military has hired both to help improve training and recommend changes to military culture.Skip to next paragraph
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The military's responsibility to respond is great, Grossman says, because of the way combat has been transformed since World War II. Interviews by a US Army historian during that war showed that only 15 to 20 percent of infantrymen in the European and Pacific theaters chose to fire at the enemy when they were under fire. Resistance to killing was strong.
Whether because of religious and moral teachings or what he terms "a powerful, innate human resistance toward killing one's own species," soldiers' apparent willingness to die rather than kill stunned military officials.
To overcome that resistance, the military revamped its training to program soldiers, through psychological conditioning, to make shooting reflexive. The techniques were applied with "tremendous success," Grossman says, raising the firing rate to 55 percent in the Korean conflict and 95 percent in Vietnam. But little thought, he adds, went to the aftereffects of overriding the soldiers' natural inclinations.
Shay also flags concerns about combat leadership, citing instances when soldiers have been treated unfairly, lacked necessary equipment, been asked to do things they considered wrong, or seen questionable behavior rewarded. These are all experiences he includes under the heading of "the betrayal of what is right." People don't have to be injured by their wartime experience, he adds, but that requires "assuring them cohesion in their units; expert and ethical leadership; and highly realistic training for what they have to do."
The first responsibility of leadership and the public, many say, is not to put the country's sons and daughters at risk unless going to war is essential.
If it is, then they need help sorting through the issues. Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a retired Navy chaplain, calls for "spiritual force protection."
"We have a responsibility to understand the dangers war poses to the humanity of our people and do all we can to protect them, to develop 'moral muscle,' " he says.
In "The Code of the Warrior," his course at the Naval Academy, Dr. French focuses on moral distinctions - the historical legacy of the warrior and rules of war, and how to be alert to crossing the boundaries, as occurred at Abu Ghraib prison.
"It has been very well documented that there is a close connection between severe combat stress and the sense of having crossed moral lines," she says.
While the military academies offer officers some ethical training, the rank and file learn mostly from their commanders. Recent training Grossman has provided to Marine battalions heading to Iraq included distinguishing between killing and murder.
"Many have 'Thou shalt not kill' in the back of their minds, and think they've broken a profoundly moral law," he says. Grossman helps them see that the Judeo-Christian ethos generally accepts the idea that killing can be justified at times, and he emphasizes the importance of close adherence to the rules of engagement.
But there are gray areas, particularly in urban conflict, where it is not always clear whether to shoot, says Paul Rieckhoff of the Army National Guard, who led a platoon through combat patrols, raids, and ambushes in Baghdad until February of this year.
During one operation, "a female truck driver dropped us off and was guarding the truck when a kid about 10 years old came around the corner and started shooting at her," he says. "What does she do - shoot him or get shot?"
Vital to the health of soldiers is what happens after each combat experience. It's essential to have "after-action reviews," many say, in which units sort through experiences that were disturbing to them. These may include killing, or seeing their comrades or innocent civilians killed. "The worst thing is to not think about it. You can't not think about something for a lifetime," Grossman says.