Unlearning How to Not Kill

Added on by PS Cat02.

I was reading an essay by Penny Coleman (Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War) and was especially intrigued by this section describing the psychological 'conditioning' of soldiers:

Since World War II, our military has sought and found any number of ways to override the values and belief systems recruits have absorbed from their families, schools, communities and religions. Using the principles of operant conditioning, the military has found ways to reprogram their human software, overriding those characteristics that are inconvenient in a military context, most particularly the inherent resistance human beings have to killing others of their own species. "Modern combat training conditions soldiers to act reflexively to stimuli," says Lt. Col. Peter Kilner, a professor of philosophy and ethics at West Point, "and this maximizes soldiers' lethality, but it does so by bypassing their moral autonomy. Soldiers are conditioned to act without considering the moral repercussions of their actions; they are enabled to kill without making the conscious decision to do so. If they are unable to justify to themselves the fact that they killed another human being, they will likely — and understandably — suffer enormous guilt. This guilt manifests itself as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it has damaged the lives of thousands of men who performed their duty in combat."

By military standards, operant conditioning has been highly effective. It's enabled American soldiers to kill more often and more efficiently, and that ability continues to exact a terrible toll on those we have designated as the "enemy." But the toll on the troops themselves is also tragic. Even when troops struggle honorably with the difference between a protected person and a permissible target (and I believe that the vast majority do so struggle, though the distinction is one I find both ethically and humanely problematic) in war "shit happens." When soldiers are witness to overwhelming horror, or because of a reflexive accident, an illegitimate order, or because multiple deployments have thoroughly distorted their perceptions, or simply because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time — those are the moments that will continue to haunt them, the memories they will not be able to forgive or forget, and the stuff of posttraumatic stress injuries.

I've been thinking about this all day. Seems to me that when human beings are in their childhood-stage, the adults around them try to teach them things like how to treat each other nicely, how to discern right from wrong, how to think about the consequences of their actions, and other good stuff like that. But doesn't this curriculum for soldiers - this 'operant conditioning' that teaches barely-adult human beings how to bypass the moral autonomy they (hopefully) developed as children - seem like exactly the opposite of good 'child rearing'?

I don't get it. If human beings think warring is so necessary, why not just avoid the possibility of confusion, horror, and trauma by training children (i.e., potential soldiers) to be killers from the start? I mean, don't get me wrong, I'd rather do away with war altogether, but since most people won't even allow themselves to seriously explore that as a possibility, perhaps it just makes more sense to speed things along a bit by not cultivating any goodness that's only going to be have to be destroyed later.

At the very least, all of us cats will be saved the hassle of having to figure out if that human being coming towards us is going to be kind or try to hurt us.

~ pinky

[ addition: Sorry, I forgot to post the link to Ms. Coleman's essay from which I quoted: http://www.alternet.org/story/72956/ ]