The Price of Overcoming the Resistance to Killing

Warrior Science Group

Lt Col David Grossman has given OfficerResource.com permission to reprint some of his work. This is the third and final of three articles we are posting now of his on the psychological effects of combat. -Xiphos


“Psychological Effects of Combat”


The Price of Overcoming

the Resistance to Killing


The extraordinarily high firing rate resulting from modern conditioning processes was a key factor in America’s ability to claim that US ground forces never lost a major engagement in Vietnam. But conditioning that overrides such a powerful, innate resistance carries with it enormous potential for psychological backlash. Every warrior society has a “purification ritual” to help returning warriors deal with their “blood guilt” and to reassure them that what they did in combat was “good.” Features of the ritual are a “group therapy” session and a ceremony embracing the veteran back into the tribe. Modern Western rituals traditionally involve long periods while marching or sailing home, parades, monuments, and unconditional acceptance from society and family.

Table I outlines some of the key factors in the killing experience rationalization and acceptance processes, using the example of US troops in Vietnam as a case study of an extreme circumstance in which the purification rituals broke down. For example, combatants do not do what they do in combat for medals: they are motivated largely by a concern for their comrades, but after the battle, medals serve as a kind of “Get Out of Jail Free Card”: a powerful talisman that proclaims to them and to others that what the combatant did was honorable and acceptable. Although medals were issued after Vietnam, the social environment was such that veterans could not wear the medals or their uniforms in public. Similarly, the young combatant needs the presence of mature, older comrades to seek guidance and support from, but in Vietnam, especially in the peak years of the war, the average age of the combatant was probably less than during any other war in US history. Other key factors unique to the American experience in Vietnam include the absence of any truly safe, secure area in-country. Also, the individual replacement system hampered bonding and ensured that soldiers often arrived and left as strangers. The use of aircraft to immediately return veterans to America left soldiers without the usual cool-down, group therapy period, which has been experienced for thousands of years as veterans sailed or marched home.

TABLE 1 Killing Experience Rationalization and Acceptance Processes: A Comparative Study

Process
Past Wars
Vietnam
Praise from peers and superiors (medals, citations)
Yes
Yes (not worn)
The presence of mature, older comrades
Yes
No (Reduced)
Circumstances limiting civilian kills/atrocities
Yes
No (Reduced)
Rear lines and safe areas
Yes
No
Presence of close, trusted friends throughout the war
Yes
No
Cool-down period with comrades while returning home
Yes
No
Knowledge of victory, gain and accomplishments
Yes
No
Parades and monuments
Yes
No (Delayed)
Reunions and continued commo with comrades after the war
Yes
No
Acceptance and praise from friends, family, and society
Yes
No (Mixed)
Support to veteran from religious and political systems
Yes
No (Mixed)


For America’s Vietnam veterans the purification ritual was largely denied, and a host of studies have demonstrated that one of the the most significant causal factors in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the lack of support structure after the traumatic event, which in this case occurred when the returning veteran was attacked and condemned in an unprecedented manner. The traditional horrors of combat were magnified by modern conditioning techniques, combining the nature of the war with an unprecedented degree of societal condemnation. This created a circumstance of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among the 3.5 million US veterans of Southeast Asia. Estimations are between 0.5 and 1.5 million cases, although the results of these studies vary greatly. This mass incidence of psychiatric disorders among Vietnam veterans resulted in the “discovery” of PTSD, a condition that we now know has always occurred as a result of warfare, but never before in this quantity. Armies around the world have integrated these lessons from Vietnam, and in Britain’s Falklands War, Israel’s 1982 Lebanon incursion, and in the US’s Gulf War the lessons of Vietnam and the need for the purification ritual have been closely and carefully considered and applied. In the former U.S.S.R.’s Afghanistan War this need was again ignored, and the resulting social turmoil was a one of the factors that eventually led to the collapse of that nation. Indeed, the Weinberger Doctrine, later referred to as the Powell Doctrine, which holds that the United States will not engage in a war without strong societal support, is a reflection of the tragic lessons learned from the psychological effects of combat in Vietnam.

PTSD is a psychological disorder resulting from a traumatic event. PTSD manifests itself in persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event, numbing of emotional responsiveness, and persistent symptoms of increased arousal, resulting in clinically significant distress or impairment in social and occupational functioning. There is often a long delay between the traumatic event and the manifestation of PTSD. Among Vietnam veterans in the United States, PTSD has been strongly linked with greatly increased divorce rates, increased incidence of alcohol and drug abuse, and increased suicide rates. Indeed, Veterans Administration data indicate that, as of 1996, three times more Vietnam veterans have died from suicide after the war than died from enemy action during the war, and this number is increasing every year.

But PTSD seldom results in violent criminal acts, and US Bureau of Justice Statistics research indicates that veterans, including Vietnam veterans, are statistically less likely to be incarcerated than a nonveteran of the same age. The key safeguard in this process appears to be the deeply ingrained discipline which the soldier internalizes with military training. However, with the advent of interactive “point-and-shoot” arcade and video games there is significant concern that society is aping military conditioning without the vital safeguard of discipline. There is strong evidence to indicate that the indiscriminate civilian application of combat conditioning techniques as entertainment may be a key factor in worldwide, skyrocketing violent crime rates, including a sevenfold increase in per capita aggravated assaults in America since 1956. Thus, the psychological effects of combat can increasingly be observed on the streets of nations around the world.

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