Exploding Veterans

October 30th, 2002  |  Published in Uncategorized

Sgt Stryker has a bit about the latest “shooter run amok” story to make the news, lamenting the bad rap the military will get because the murderer involved was a Gulf War veteran:

“If past experience is any guide, we might hear some dingbats, who don’t know the military from a hole in the ground, go on and on about how the military “turns” people into cold-blooded killers. The fact that most American killers have been able to kill in cold blood without the benefit of military experience doesn’t seem to occur to these folks, who assume that everyone in America is hunky-dorey until the dreaded Miltary gets its hands on them. Here’s a clue, folks: America is a very whacked country to begin with. The military doesn’t “turn” people into anything. Most of the time, it takes fucked up individuals that American society has produced and gives them the opportunity to express their deviancy in a very legal, governmentally-sanctioned manner. The military cannot turn you into a murdering savage – you have to have the propensity for such behavior to begin with. ”

Well, someone who says “everyone in America is hunky-dorey until the dreaded Miltary gets its hands on them” would probably qualify as a “dingbat,” but I’m puzzled by what seems to be an assertion that the training/indoctrination process that begins with basic training and continues throughout the career of military personnel has no role in adjusting individual propensity toward mayhem.

Sometimes that indoctrination is flatly silly. I remember how stupid I felt standing around in the squad bay in basic training yelling “Blood! Blood! Blood! Drill Sergeant! Blood makes the green grass grow!”, and I once had to do pushups once because my cries of “Kill! Kill! Kill!” while I stabbed a rubber tire weren’t lusty enough. But I also remember spending three days of harassment from drill sergeants in signal school because I protested my company’s daily dose of baby-killing cadences, which seemed to advocate not so much doing your job on the battlefield as they did wandering around your own neighborhood dealing death and destruction:

“You go to your local playground, where all the kiddies play
You pull out your Uzi, and you begin to spray!
Left right left right left right we kill!
Left right left right left right we will! “You go to your local church, where people go to pray
You press the switch on your claymore
And blow them all away!
Left right left right left right we kill!
Left right left right left right we will! “You go to your local mall, where people go to shop
You pull out your ka-bar,
And you begin to chop!
Left right left right left right we kill!
Left right left right left right we will!”

I think I’ve forgotten several choruses, because it got us from the barracks to the parade grounds, which was a pretty good march.

My resistance to that cadence earned me an invitation to leave the service (I declined and went on to earn my jump wings, among other awards), but not before a bizarre interview with a drill sergeant who asked me why I wouldn’t be willing to kill the children of our enemies and a slightly more dire threat that if I ended up in another drill sergeant’s unit in combat, he’d shoot me in the head so he wouldn’t have to worry about me failing to “do my job,” which, apparently, would have involved slaughter in the aisles of the local Barnes & Noble.

If I were to stop here, this would be a pointless plaint that the Army (or at least some of its drill sergeants) were mean to me, and it would be fair to say that I don’t seem to understand the need for an essential core of brutality on the battlefield. But I do understand this, and it’s hardly a secret that desensitization is a necessary component of military training: I knew it when I enlisted, and accepted it as part of the bargain. Don’t take my word for it, though:

“During World War II, US Army Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall had a team of researchers study what soldiers did in battle. For the first time in history, they asked individual soldiers what they did in battle. They discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier. That is the reality of the battlefield. Only a small percentage of soldiers are able and willing to participate. Men are willing to die; they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation, but they are not willing to kill. It is a phenomenal insight into human nature, but when the military became aware of that, they systematically went about the process of trying to fix this “problem.” From the military perspective, a 15 percent firing rate among riflemen is like a 15 percent literacy rate among librarians. And fix it the military did. By the Korean War, around 55 percent of the soldiers were willing to fire to kill. And by Vietnam, the rate rose to over 90 percent.”

That excerpt is from a longer article on the nature of violence in broader American culture by Lt. Col. (Ret) David Grossman, who people will disagree with less or more to the extent they believe violent media and video games are cathartic or desensitizing. LTC Grossman’s conclusions are often in dispute, but his key work, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society is reportedly required reading at West Point, where he was an instructor, and seems to enjoy general regard as essential to our understanding of what happens to our soldiers as they’re trained and perform their duty.

Of basic training, the cornerstone of the military indoctrination process, he has this to say:

“Brutalization and desensitization are what happen at boot camp. From the moment you step off the bus you are physically and verbally abused: countless pushups, endless hours at attention or running with heavy loads, while carefully trained professionals take turns screaming at you. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked and dressed alike, losing all individuality. This brutalization is designed to break down your existing mores and norms, and to accept a new set of values that embrace destruction, violence, and death as a way of life. In the end, you are desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival skill in your brutal new world.”

The ugliest part of this is that in a society where the need for a standing military and the periodic necessity for going to war are accepted, training a soldier for anything less than devotion to efficient and reflexive killing is a horrible disservice to both the soldier and his comrades who, finding themselves on the battlefield, are involved in a zero sum game that will confer no reward for retaining their humanity amidst the carnage.

So where’s that leave us with SGT Stryker’s concerns that uninformed commentators will lay every act of random violence on the part of a veteran at the feet of the military?

First, the point that someone who engages in the massacre of professors over failing grades is probably unstable in a way the military didn’t “cause” is fair. Reflexively assuming that veterans are collectively unstable and dangerous is, indeed, unfair.

What’s not unfair, though, is admitting that one key point of “soldierization” (as the Army likes to call it) is erosion of the individual’s resistance to doing violence to others. If someone wants to argue that point’s essential truth, there’s no point in continuing the discussion: the military isn’t running a Boy Scout camp, it’s teaching people to wage war effectively.

LTC Grossman’s work, and each incident of an ex-soldier engaging in a brutal rampage, challenge us to ask what happens to people once our country is done with them as soldiers (and people it has trained to kill). While I attended six months of periodic classes on going out into the civilian world as my enlistment drew to a close, my instructors in those classes were less concerned with my attitudes toward other humans than they were teaching me not to say “hooah” in a job interview. One morning I was helping out with the last minute details of handing over my operations office to my successor, the next morning I was a civilian again.

For my part, I feel confident that I’ll never go on a killing rampage, or even start a fist fight. On the other hand, it’s impossible for me to deny that any opinion or belief I hold about the necessity for violence must be forever qualified with the knowledge that I handed a chunk of myself over to our military for four years with, my resistance to baby-killing cadences aside, no qualification. The military might not turn people into murderous lunatics, but it certainly loosens the compunction against mayhem the already unstable individual suffers from. We owe it to veterans to consider the ultimate impact of their training and ask whether we can do better once we’re through with them.

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