Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Hate And War

The other night I watched a National Geographic documentary called The Truth About Killing. Now this show was presented by Grub Smith, a pretty low-profile presenter on Bravo (lad TV) and an ex-FHM (lad mag) writer, so I wouldn't take it too seriously. However there were some revealing moments. Apparently, officers' observations during World War II lead to a realisation that soldiers were very unwilling to shoot at their enemy. The Allies may have been fighting the evil Nazis, but Tommy was pointing his gun at a fellow human being called Fritz, or whatever, and the natural inclination to not take human life kicked in. This programme was a study of how modern armies turn their soldiers into effective killing machines.

It is believed that only 15 - 20% of Allied infantry soldiers actually fired at their enemy during WWII and that only around 2% of these 15 - 20% ever killed anyone. Of course the vast majority of casualties were caused by artillery and bombing from the air, which was also how territory was subsequently captured. Also, it's worth noting that most infantry inflicted deaths were when the army on the offensive shot at their retreating enemy; i.e. the enemy in flight, on open ground with their backs to the attacker. This is historically a feature of all battles and was again in evidence, for example, when Saddam's conscript army was annihilated fleeing Kuwait in 1991. Despite what Hollywood movies portray, it goes against all our instincts to shoot/kill someone staring us in the face, even those we have been conditioned to believe are an enemy. This is not cowardice - these soldiers risk their own lives in the face of enemy fire and would risk life or limb for a fallen comrade.

So professional armies needed to up the effective shooting rate of their troopsso that, today, soldiers are so well conditioned that killing an enemy becomes not only instinctive but virtually reflexive (hence the need to cover up or simply ignore the numbers of deaths of innocent people in today's Iraq at the hands of US troops. They're not being murdered, they're in the wrong place at the wrong time and become the victims of reflex actions from highly conditioned troops in a war zone). The problem with this "improvement" in soldiers' effectiveness is that incidences of post-combat psychiatric problems among soldiers are on the increase. Britain lost 256 soldiers during the Falklands War, yet it's suggested that a higher number of veterans have since commited suicide (conservative estimates are approx. 150 suicides).

Now it would be churlish to finger Post-Traumatic Stress (and the trauma of the memory of taking another life) as the sole cause of all these suicides, yet veterans are undoubtedly suffering more than they did before. War is not a matter of attrition the way it once was, it is more so about manoeuvre and this is a much more up close and personal method of fighting. These men, and now women, who fight today, undoubtedly are putting a huge strain on their mental well-being. Lip service is paid to the sacrifices made by soldiers. But surely it is just that - lip service. Listening to middle-Englander men in their late 40s describing the nightmares and flashbacks of hand-to-hand fighting with Argentinian conscripts in the South Atlantic less than 25 years ago was both troubling and emotionally moving...
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