Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Dan Baum on the Psychological Costs of Training Our Soldiers to Kill

In July of 2004, when the Iraq war was still fairly new, the New Yorker magazine published a piece by Dan Baum entitled "The Price of Valor" with the subtitle, "We train our soldiers to kill for us. Afterward, they're on their own". Drawing on the experiences of veterans of that war, and contextualizing it with S.L.A. Marsshall's controversial World War Two research on the apparent reluctance of soldiers over time to kill in combat, Baum asked some good questions about the psychological and spiritual costs of war. Five years later, it's an article that deserves to be re-read. MP+

Here's an excerpt:

A regular soldier can serve years in the Army and hardly ever hear the word “kill” outside bayonet practice, a vestigial relic of the days before the use of assault rifles. (No American soldier has participated in an organized bayonet charge since the Korean War.) Army manuals and drill sergeants speak of “suppressing enemy fire,” “engaging targets,” and “attritting” the enemy. “We attempt to instill reaction,” said Captain Tim Dunnigan, who trains infantry in the woods of Fort Benning, Georgia. “Hear a pop, hit the ground, return fire. Act instinctually.” Captain Jason Kostal, a twenty-eight-year-old former commander at Fort Benning’s sniper school, says that, even in a unit whose motto is “One Shot One Kill,” explicit discussion of the subject is avoided. “We don’t talk about ‘Engage this person,’ ‘Engage this guy.’ It’s always ‘Engage that target,’ ” he said. “You’re not thinking, I wonder if that guy has three kids.”

In his West Point classes, Peter Kilner found what he called “an institutional resistance” to the topic. “I don’t think people saw it as a great problem, as I do, so it hasn’t been integrated into the curriculum,” he said. When “60 Minutes” approached Kilner in 2002, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, he recalled an Army public-affairs officer telling him, “On the verge of war, we don’t need to be talking about this upsetting thing.” Colonel Thomas Burke, the director of mental-health policy for the Defense Department, told me that young soldiers shouldn’t be burdened with moral questions during training. As far as killing is concerned, he said, “Trying to get too deeply into it, I don’t know how much good it would do.”

Read the whole article here.

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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