Killing Our Own Kind

Attitudes, Perceptions and Contradictions

By S. Leon Felkins
October 22, 2001

When it comes to killing of our own kind, we humans are most peculiar compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. In addition to the animal instincts that may drive us to kill, we are saddled with a multitude of restrictions and incentives deriving from law, customs, religion, and propaganda. This results in some confusing activity that I think is worthy of some discussion. While the subject of killing has some interesting twists in all aspects of our culture, I will limit my exposition here to the war time situation as that is the only time ordinary humans have the obligation or opportunity to kill in any significant quantity.

The Soldier's Attitude Towards Killing

Studies of the killing of human beings by human beings are scarce with even less interest shown by the public or the media. Probably the best source of information on this subject is the book by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing, and the associated web site, "Killology Research Group". I would encourage any of you that are interested in this subject to take a look at that book and the articles at the web site.

According to Col. Grossman, ordinary soldiers are reluctant to personally and individually kill the enemy. He quotes the statistic that in World War II, only about 15-20% of American soldiers actually fired their weapons at the enemy. Similarly, in both the Civil War and World War I, there are indications that most non-professional soldiers elected to not actually try to kill the enemy. In fact, Grossman claims, ordinary humans experience a high stress level when put in the situation of having to kill other humans at close range which results in high degree of psychological trauma. It should be pointed out that of those who do their best to try to kill the enemy, there are many who kill for pleasure rather than just duty. Hopefully, those that get pleasure from killing are the professional soldiers and not employees of the Postal Service.

Two things have considerably corrected this situation to the point where most modern soldiers do, in fact, try to kill. One is the imbedding of the modern individual, from childhood, in a sea of violence in the form of movies, television and games, where killing humans is as routine as swatting a fly. The other is that the military has changed its training program to more effectively create a "killing machine" from the clueless civilian recruit.

By the time the Vietnam conflict came along, the conditioning programs (the military training as well as the unintended consequence of massive exposure to violent films and games throughout their young lives) was so successful that the percentage of soldiers that fired at the enemy had risen to 95% (see page 250 of Grossman's book).

I emphasized killing by individuals for killing by a group is another matter all together.

Killing is easier if you are part of a group

I have written a number of articles on the peculiarities of actions by a group compared to actions by an individual; see "The Social Dilemmas". The anonymity provided by membership in a group provides both the opportunity to do things that society might frown upon (e.g., activities of the KKK) and to avoid doing things that are dangerous to the individual but society would be better for it (e.g. the Kitty Genovese case where a group did not act to help when she was being raped and killed).

In his book, Col. Grossman discusses the group effect extensively. A quote from the book, attributed to Konrad Lorenz, sums it up nicely: "man is not a killer, but the group is". A couple of reasons for this is that; 1) the group provides anonymity (every individual can make a good case that it probably wasn't his fault) and 2) the group provides very strong peer pressure on an individual -- accountability -- to do his part and not cut and run.

If you happen to be part of a group (involved with a "crew-served" weapon, crew of a bomber, etc.) and you are also quite distant from your enemy, the killing even gets easier.

Bombs from Forty Thousand Feet or 500 miles away

Recently Bill Maher got in trouble by saying that the terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center were not cowards. On the other hand, as far as we Americans go, he said "We have been the cowards -- lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly."

Whether it is or is not cowardly, I will leave for others to judge but I do want to comment on the strangeness of our attitudes.

Military strategists have a trade-off between close-in fighting and lobbing bombs from 500 miles away or from 40,000 feet. Distance bombing has a probability of causing hundreds of civilian casualties. But the political reality is that losing just a few American soldiers results in a far higher price to pay than the loss of thousands of innocent civilians -- civilians that are guilty of doing nothing more than occupying the wrong spot on this earth at the wrong time.

But there is another aspect of this trade-off that is even more interesting in examination. Human beings seem to have no problem causing a massive amount of suffering, death and destruction -- as long as they can't see it. Give a soldier a gun, a bayonet, a flame thrower, a grenade, and most will get a bit squeamish about using these tools face to face with the enemy or, even worse, innocent civilians.

Now put the same soldier in a control room on a ship, plane, or land facility, and tell him all he has to do is press that button and thousands of pounds of destructive force and fire will be on its way to some target, with some probability of actually hitting. This soldier, in general, will give little thought as to what this missile will do when it reaches the conclusion of its flight. It might destroy a building, it might kill a few enemy soldiers, or it might mangle a few innocent citizens.

It seems that humans lack the power to imagine what these destructive devices will do. Bodies will be torn asunder, women and children may receive burns that will cause unimaginable suffering for months or years, or some may lay under rubble suffering from wounds and broken bones for days while they slowly die. Apparently, the long distance bombers and artillery men have not the means to visualize this -- or they shut it out of their minds intentionally.

What is wrong with us that we can't visualize and see this destruction and suffering in the same way we would see it if we were in hand to hand combat? We certainly have no problem imagining horror when we read a book or go to a movie. Why can't we see horror when we launch a missile of destruction?

Grossman says that when the soldier is close-in and his senses are exposed to the death, mutilation, and destruction directly, he is subjected to emotional pressures such as revulsion toward the destruction and compassion for the target victims. Whereas, for the long-distance-bomb soldier it is strictly an intellectual exercise and it is not very difficult to convince himself that nobody got hurt or if they did, there was little or no suffering.

Let us go back to the killing of innocent civilians for just a moment: does it really matter? Apparently not to a large percentage of our population.

Collateral Damage: The Killing of "Insignificant" Civilians to Achieve a Political Objective

You will not hear this discussed on the evening news, but there is a real trade-off between high-tech warfare and civilian casualties (the nonsensical term "collateral damage" is preferred by the military and the whipped dog media). As I pointed out above, by using 200 mile guided bombs we can be pretty damn certain that we will have almost zero casualties on our side, but civilian casualties on the enemy's side is likely to be very high. On the other hand, if we were willing to suffer some military casualties we could use close-in fire-power, and with on-the-ground troops we could insure that there were almost no civilian casualties on the enemy's side. Of course, there are many other operations of war that cause civilian death and destruction.

Let us look at a few representative cases.


The military/political policy of taking the lives of hundreds of civilians, using long distance bombing, to avoid the loss of even a few American soldiers in close-in fighting is expensive, ineffective and immoral. In fact, according to Col. Grossman in his article, "Immoral and Soon to be Illegal", this type of warfare will follow the precedent set for land mines and be banned in the near future by most of the civilized world. I have my doubts that that will happen for there are other pressures involved such as the powerful influence of the weapons manufacturers to sell expensive, highly technical, weapons. Nevertheless, the taking of innocent civilian lives is highly immoral and cruel and does not present the US in a very good light to the rest of the world.

Apparently the American military has solved its problem of getting our soldiers to actually shoot at the enemy by use of "conditioning" and "desensitization". The percentage that fire at the enemy has gone from 15-20% in World War II to 95% in the Vietnam war. But, at what cost we should ask? When these civilian soldiers come back home is there a switch somewhere that will turn all that programming off? Ask Timothy McVeigh the next time you see him.

That soldiers feel little compassion or remorse for the victims of long distance bombing is a subject that needs far more research for it has several puzzling aspects related to the cognitive and emotional functions of the mind. It would appear that the ordinary soldier's repulsion to killing is an emotional response rather than an intellectual decision. Nevertheless it is the cause of many cases of soldier's trauma.

In any case, while I am not a fan of Bill Maher, his very "politically incorrect" remarks of September 17 are at least partially correct. There are no doubt more accurate descriptions you could apply to the terrorists than to call them cowards. As far as our lobbing intelligent bombs from hundreds of miles away or from 40,000 feet, I would just say that this action is not a military but a political and economic strategy.

S. Leon Felkins, Major, US Army (Ret)

Mr. Felkins is a retired former military officer, college professor, and computer systems engineer. He is now an activist in the fight for the reform of the forfeiture laws now plaguing the US and the world. He is presently serving as the Executive Director of F.E.A.R., the forfeiture reform group. In addition, he maintains a web page on Political Philosophy, "A Rational Life" and another on the history of politics, "The Political Almanac". Email is welcome.