My Turn: Pondering the advances we have made in warfare

For the Monitor
Published: 6/6/2021 10:00:15 AM

Over Memorial Day weekend, I grieved for my fellow brothers and sisters killed in Vietnam and cried over the pain surviving vets still endure – something I observed firsthand working for nine years at Vet Centers, a part of the Veterans Administration.

As a therapist working with veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), who had fought in wars from WWII up to the present, one reoccurring theme was guilt, and one significant source of that guilt came from killing another human being. Maybe not so much when they first got home but over time, accumulating like dry leaves from a shedding tree.

There is good evidence that there is a universal aversion to taking the life of another of our own kind. According to a study done by Colonel S.L.A. Marshall during WWII, “only about fifteen percent of American rifleman in combat had fired at the enemy.” His conclusion, “Fear of killing, rather than fear of being killed, was the most common cause of battle failure in the individual.”

I wrote about this phenomenon in the Concord Monitor back in 2004, connecting this study to my own experience as a therapist. I had one patient, a heavy machine gunner in WWII, who fought all across Europe into Germany, ending up being one of the few survivors from his original unit. Remarkably, he was able to live with all that. What he couldn’t handle were the many German soldiers he had killed. Any connection to death, even driving by a cemetery, would trigger memories of killing, causing him to break down in racking sobs.

Because it is not in our nature to kill another human being, the military, from time immemorial, has worked to dehumanize “the enemy,” to make them appear less than human. Now, based on Marshall’s study, the military went a step further and started training recruits to visualize “massing fire” on inanimate objects because “the average firer will have less resistance to firing on a house or tree than upon a human being.”

As Dan Baum writes in The New Yorker, “Once the Army put his notions into practice, they bore spectacular results. By the time of the Vietnam War, according to internal Army estimates, as many as ninety per cent of soldiers were shooting back. And some were paying a price.”

By turning flesh-and-blood human beings into inanimate objects, the military increased the enemy kill rate. But, in doing so, it increased the likelihood of PTSD in the shooter. In a round-about way, I have arrived at the real subject of this essay: how modern warfare has re-framed the enemy from a living person into an object, and now is working to further sanitize killing by turning the enemy soldier into a flickering video image on a computer screen.

As David Ignatius announced in a recent Washington Post column, “Welcome to the rapidly advancing world of autonomous weapons – the cheap, highly effective systems that are revolutionizing militaries around the world. He predicts “wars of the future may look like video games, as soldiers at computers control faraway swarms” of drones and robots.

While it feels like playing a video game, the death and the destruction on the ground will be devastatingly real. Regrettably, these advances will make future wars more likely because they promise to increase enemy casualties while reducing those on the home team.

The notion that future combat will resemble a game tripped a circuit in my brain, still grieving in the aftermath of Memorial Day. If wars in the future will look like video games, then, damn it, why not make them video games! It makes perfect sense. Antagonist countries could compete in a World Series of War played on gaming platforms.

We have a precedent for this with the Olympic games, which originated in ancient Greece. According to Wikipedia, “During the celebration of the games, an Olympic Truce was enacted so that athletes could travel from their cities to the games in safety. The prizes for the victors were olive leaf wreaths or crowns. The games became a political tool used by city-states to assert dominance over their rivals.⁠

Let’s go back to the future by granting all combatants safe passage by initiating a new, worldwide Olympics based on killing pixels, not people. With the threat of nuclear war looming, it’s time to start thinking outside the box to avoid being prematurely buried in one.

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. His blog can be found online at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)




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