“The Psychology of Killing” by Colonel Dan Smith

Close In or Far Away?
The Psychology of Killing

    There will one day spring from the brain of science a machine or force so fearful in its potentialities, so absolutely terrifying, that even man, the fighter, who will dare torture and death in order to inflict torture and death, will be appalled, and so abandon war forever.

    -Thomas A. Edison

War is a progressive concept.
Not sociologically, but in the sense that what began as an "art" has evolved through direct and indirect absorption of advances in peripheral disciplines (e.g., chemical and nuclear energy and health and medicine) into a separate "discipline" that is studied in its own right. Nonetheless, the elements of science — ballistics, ordnance engineering, propellant source, mechanical engineering, electronics and nanotechnology — focus more on the generally incremental development of weapons and support systems than on analyzing the implications for fighting formations and tactics of more effective weaponry.

(There are many who contend that success or failure in battle arguably is as much the result of one commander’s superior or inferior imagination and ability to integrate the essential elements of mission, enemy, terrain, troops available, and training in formulating and implementing a battle plan.)

Modern "conventional" war — as well as the possibility of nuclear war — complicates armed conflict because the fighting systems cannot simply be plucked off a shelf at a moment’s notice. Those who engage in or favor a "war footing" thus are forever seeking new materials, new combinations of known materials, or new variations in fabricating instruments that can kill and destroy efficiently.

Contrast the huge amount of resources devoted to modern weapons development with the historically resource-starved and thus limited (or even totally ignored) study of the psyche’s rational and emotional "switches" inhibit or propel extreme behavior in groups who are allowed or who have seized an opportunity to rampage through towns and villages in a manner comparable to the "hordes" of recorded history.

While obviously incomplete and invariably written from the perspective of the winner, oral traditions and the earliest chronicles detail numerous instances when the "hordes" of "barbarians" on far-ranging conquests engaged in the frenzied slaughter of entire populations–acts that today would be considered war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The history of warfare — at least the history of the development of the means of warfare — has been to increase the "separation distance" between the combatants more or less in the manner described below.

In pre-historic times, hunter-gatherers with longer, more muscular arms and legs or who were more agile had "natural" advantages insofar as they could catch, hold, and crush others, whether animals for food or humans. The answer to raw muscle was to combine muscle power with ordinary objects such as stones and pieces of trees that could be hurled to have the desired effect of injuring or killing.

The natural progression of applied experience also led to the realization that weaponry was indiscriminate: whenever used — whether held or hurled — injury or death ensued for whatever was struck, whether intentionally or by accident, friend or foe, human or animal. By the 4th millennium BCE, when human activity was being captured in the earliest chronicles, not only had war been "born," it was a mature endeavor often involving hundreds if not thousands of individuals.

It invariably was most hazardous to the ground infantry that often participated against their will. Bat battles were won or lost when masses of men in tight, shoulder-to-shoulder formations crashed into one another — whatever they were called.  Greek hoplites organized into phalanxes of heavy infantry carrying the elongated spear and heavy interlocking shields while the more mobile Roman legions relied on the short sword once inside the line of spearheads.

The first effective weapon that distanced opponents was the throwing spear or javelin. Accounts of battles sometimes hyperbolically claimed that the numbers of missiles were such that they threatened to blot out the sun. There were drawbacks, however; there was no energy "multiplier" — the spear’s flight distance depended on the muscular energy transferred from the thrower’s arm to the spear shaft; the weight of the missile (which depended on the wood selected for the shaft; and the terrain elevation of the target vis-à-vis the thrower’s, elevation. In modern times using high technology, the current men’s distance record for throwing the javelin is 323 feet while the mark for women is 235 feet. In war, with the swirl of battle, the objective of wounding or killing the enemy is paramount; such distances would never be reached. Moreover, the spear throwers either would have to fall back to get the next missile or go into action carrying more than one.

Bows, unlike spears, multiplied the muscular strength exerted by the archer, with the "factor" depending on the type and condition of the wood and the wood used for the arrow. The real revolution in the bow-and-arrow was the English long bow. While the period authorities provide no uniform data, the consensus is that the bows were made from yew wood, were between five and six feet long (the continental bow measured no more than four feet), and could be fired with enough force to travel 180-240 yards and still penetrate the target. A trained archer could fire 12 to 15 arrows in a minute, leading one source to refer to the longbow as the machine gun of the Black Prince.

At the same time as the longbow came into its own on the field of battle, gunpowder was introduced into Western Europe. This was the real revolution, for this involved not just the transfer or multiplication of stored muscular energy. When ignited, the materials that constituted the gunpowder underwent a chemical transformation that unleashed energy in destructive quantities never seen before.

From this point forward, the march of war technology was toward ever more powerful but controlled chemical interactions that theoretically permitted warfare to be conducted without those firing the weapons actually seeing each other. The power of nuclear energy release for warfighting similarly was a quantum leap forward — and as fundamentally revolutionary as gunpowder was to muscle power

Many erudite observers have concluded that this separation between the attacker and the attacked has so de-personalized war that it is now easier for leaders to go to war and for those doing the fighting to kill without remorse. From 15,000 feet in the sky and five or ten miles distance, a pilot only has targets to strike. Precision guided fire-and-forget missiles used against an armored force psychologically translates into a number of tanks destroyed, not the number of people killed in the destroyed tanks.

Moreover, when the attacker employs weapons such as cluster munitions which can be detonated days or weeks or months later by unwary civilians, those killed are completely unknown to the attackers.

Perhaps high technology does depersonalize warfighting. But it is equally apparent that the human race in the 21st century has not evolved psychologically beyond our pre-historic ancestors in discerning — let alone understanding — the conditions and the "triggers" of "close-quarters" combat to the death.

In the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, in Rwanda in 1994, in Kenya in 2008, eyewitness accounts describe a shocking, absolutely chilling blood-lust that surfaced when mobs rampaged through towns and parts of towns inhabited by "them".  It seemed to take hold even when the target had been in the community for years, often having raised a family with no apparent animosity from neighbors.

Some will say that this simply proves that the way to reduce gun violence is to not let the mentally unbalanced have weapons, for it is not the weapon that kills but the people who get a gun illegally or legally when they should be denied ownership. Yes, more effort needs to go into diagnosing and treating those suffering mental stress and illness–a population that is growing in this country because of Afghanistan and Iraq–with additional constraints that would make it more difficult to obtain weapons. But we are also learning that mental disturbance can be undetected for years until something snaps. If there are fewer weapons in the community, when the "snap" occurs the victim will have fewer opportunities to obtain a firearm.

But the eyewitness accounts suggest that in two of the three situations described, much of the killing was done not with firearms but with knives and machetes. A bullet or a piece of shrapnel can kill and leave only a small amount of blood; to hack an individual to death requires getting very close and invariably splatters blood widely–which in some descriptions seems to increase the frenzy of that or a subsequent attack.

Which leaves us with two psychological states:

    — the coldness of a rational, calculated, uninvolved, unemotional and therefore inhuman response to killing other humans

    — the emotionally driven, irrational, highly unstable frenzy that, requiring discharge, attacks whatever is different (and therefore "dangerous").

Neither is good. But how to deal with the second is becoming more and more the challenge.

Col. Dan Smith is a retired U.S. Army colonel and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at dan@fcnl.org.  His blog is http://quakerscolonel.blogspot.com .

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17 Responses to “The Psychology of Killing” by Colonel Dan Smith

  1. The “Pursuit of Power” by William McNeil published in 1984 as part of a triology including the impact of pandemics on human history nicely covers the last 1000 evolution of weaponary and why the choices to fund that evolution occur. But this seems a new theme, what is in the psychology of man that triggers destruction. Freud is really substantially repudiated at this point and modern brain chemistry is still evolving by leaps and bounds. Perhaps pills that trigger destructive urges or resist them will be developed but robotics seems to also require policing if rendering death and destruction to civil populations is to be prohibited. Proliferation issues are very complicated and require patience and skill. Destruction with weaponary is much simpler. It remains to be seen whether mankind will evolve or destroy himself by his own inventions.

  2. The “Pursuit of Power” by William McNeil published in 1984 as part of a triology including the impact of pandemics on human history nicely covers the last 1000 years evolution of weaponary and why the choices to fund that evolution occur. But this seems a new theme, what is in the psychology of man that triggers destruction. Freud is really substantially repudiated at this point and modern brain chemistry is still evolving by leaps and bounds. Perhaps pills that trigger destructive urges or resist them will be developed but robotics seems to also require policing if rendering death and destruction to civil populations is to be prohibited. Proliferation issues are very complicated and require patience and skill. Destruction with weaponary is much simpler. It remains to be seen whether mankind will evolve or destroy himself by his own inventions.

  3. JohnH says:

    I would argue that the cold, rational killer operating at a distance has become an enormous problem: Bush/Cheney flirting with nuking Iran.
    Col. Smith gets to the heart of humanity. Humans’ basic instincts tell them not to harm others. The impulse to avoid harm can also be found in rhesus monkeys, who
    go hungry rather than pull a chain that delivers food to them and a shock
    to another monkey.
    However, that instinct is overcome once the target is put at a distance, either psychologically or physically. Modern, mechanized war is perfect for creating distance. And so the “civilized Western” public abhors Palestinian suicide bombers, who must operate in close. At the same time it is largely indifferent to Israeli air attacks which cause far greater death and destruction. The same is true of American indifference about air attacks on Iraqi populations. The information is all there, but most of us don’t seek it out from the veterans who have actually seen it all.
    It also explains how Americans can allow their President to go to war without justification and preside over the deaths of hundreds of thousands. It’s all so remote from us.

  4. vicenzo says:

    Well done.
    I just want to take a moment to thank you for keeping high standards on your blog.
    There are several site I would normally read (Larry Johnson’s page being the foremost one that comes to mind) that I find myself unable to stomach these days, due to the high volume of election-related screeching taking the place of the core competencies and subjects that are the author’s strong suit.
    A small thing, sure, but frankly it says a lot about the kind of shop you run.

  5. Babak Makkinejad says:

    This reminds me of a long poem of Rumi on the behavior of Imam Ali on the battlefield. When Imam Ali defeated an opponent and was about to kill him, the fellow spit on him. Ali then walked away to calm himself so as not to kill in anger and for the satisfaction of his own ego but, rather to kill for God.
    I think Col. Smith is discounting the physical joys of war and blood-lust that is available in the battle field. That joy is also part of human nature.

  6. Curious says:

    you are asking the question backward. It is not that what is the psychology of killing/pre-historic what not. But quite the opposite, is modern effort to prevent war/conflict successful?
    Consider during New Orleans Katrina situation. People are quite readily killing each other by the hundred. Ordinary people.
    I would argue, we are not as civilized as you think. It doesn’t take much to turn US into rwanda, where people start killing each other en masse.
    Some creeping sample: minutemen(self appointed border vigilante) , gay killing, ethnically motivated killing, etc are all alive and well.
    If a political party in the US decide to ramp up ethnic strife, it will take less than a year using full force of mass media and state apparatus to create situation like Rwanda.
    If the economic collapses -10-20%, add media rhetoric, high unemployment, weapons, drugs. We’ll be all set.
    Add military deployment to solve civil disorder, we have the typical beginning of military losing legitimacy in the eyes of public.
    It doesn’t take much to bring a country into its knee and create civil chaos.
    even you will be quite happy to kill fellow citizen in a hurry.

  7. Walrus says:

    Col. Lang, I’m afraid I’m going to go off on a tangent here.
    I think Col. Smith has completely lost the plot – mindless hot blooded violence has always been, and continues to be, one of the defining characteristics of humanity.
    Or to put it another way, the veneer of civilisation is very very thin.
    I fail to understand what he is complaining about.
    I am sick of reading posts by military or former military people (present company accepted) who try and define “The Problem” using the mechanistic reasoning they were taught in the military.
    Not that they aren’t well intentioned people trying to do good, but they seem to lack the intellectual tools and life experiences to comprehend what they think they are talking about. You can see this best on a website called “Smallwars Journal” where various military folk try to analyze the Iraq war and counterinsurgency to death.
    Col. Smith is embarking on a pointless quest, since both states he is talking about have been analyzed to death by thinkers for centuries. Perhaps Col. Smith should find a copy of “The Ik” – which documents from an anthropogical point of view, the downward spiral of a starving African tribe.
    Cold blooded killing and inhuman behaviour is a natural state that can be easily induced, as the Nazis, and now the Bush Administration have comprehensively demonstrated.
    At least two clinical experiments have also demonstrated this:
    The Stanford Prison Experiment (http://www.prisonexp.org/faq.htm)
    And of course there was the Milgram Experiment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment)
    People brought up in secular humanist democratic traditions can easily do inhuman acts.
    Frankly Col. Lang, after a week without food, and with a little misgovernment thrown in, I would expect that an American city would look exactly like Rwanda.

  8. DeLudendwarf says:

    I never cease to be amazed when I drop by to read here.
    Great write.
    I’ll drop this link on the training of Close-In Organized Killers. It’s a good read too.

  9. Old Bogus says:

    I came into combat arms kinda by accident. I was a “chemical laboratory specialist” whose MOS was unusable in Viet Nam. In frustration, I volunteered to be a helicopter door gunner (The repo depot at LBJ had sent me to the 1st Aviation Brigade to get rid of me; I’da been more useful in a POL company, I later learnt.). I was assigned to a “slick” with some very minimal training and off I went.
    But this experience gave me some insight into human nature in war zones. And outside them. Much of our company was black but the crew chief I related to best insisted they were “niggers” as were the 5th Dimension singing group. Other than his bigotry toward blacks (only), we got along fine being both slightly insane and asking for the hairiest assignments.
    Then one of our “slick” gunners managed to get into the gun platoon. After an heated engagement, he came around bragging about how “his” gunship had a confirmed kill of a VC with like 20 holes in him. My crew chief and I were both appalled at his getting a woody over this.
    My liberal sensibilities still boggle at the dehumanization US soldiers employ to make killing another human OK. Every war employs slang terms to make the opposition less like us.
    I still recall my one “personal” engagement of known combatants in a fire fight in the A Shau Valley. Unfortunately an M-60 isn’t an accurate sniper weapon. At least one non-combatant suffered from my response to three muzzle flashes as our aircraft made an unscheduled landing. I still worry if a guy, possibly enduring forced labor, died or ended up in the NVA A Shau MASH unit so I could silence three riflemen who had nothing to do with our problem. They did quit shooting . . .

  10. isamu says:

    “The real revolution in the bow-and-arrow was the English long bow.”
    LOL, eurocentrism.
    Because crossbows and recurved composite bows didn’t change anything.

  11. rjj says:

    Walrus, wrt “The Ik”.
    Do you mean “The Mountain People” by Colin Turnbull?

  12. Walrus says:

    rjj: Spot On! Looking for my copy now. His earlier work on the Congo pygmies was “The Forest People” which is a more uplifting read than the trials of the Ik.

  13. rjj says:

    To hell with uplift. I think the Ik have more to tell us about ourselves than the Forest people.

  14. rjj says:

    uh oh, hope that didn’t need one of those smiley things.
    I liked them both, but the Ik stayed with me.

  15. mike says:

    It is time to bring back swords and espontoons. Or…if you want to kill people from 15,000 feet above, then replace the pilots with robots.

  16. DeLudendwarf,
    Thanks so much for linking to Jim Webb’s article.
    Whenever I hear arguments that women can’t handle combat, I think of the interviews of Soviet women on the Thames Television series “The World at War” (narrated by Larry Olivier). Many Soviet women faught for the “motherland” all the way to Berlin as foot soldiers. I think the close-in, up front units were all-woman whereas behind the lines units, such as anti-aircraft batteries, were integrated.
    There could be different cultural issues that mean we cannot translate Soviet successes from over 50 years ago into our own forces. Plus, Soviet Russia was in dire straights – they needed every able-bodied person to fight.
    All I’m saying is that we should always view these things with an open mind as much as possible. Women *can* fight as the Soviets showed. But what conditions existed to allow them to be successful, and do those conditions apply to us and our culture?

  17. Sidney O. Smith III says:

    Great insights from Col. Smith as he describes the two psychological states.
    If I may speculate…perhaps the greatest danger to the world is when the two psychological states merge or, alternatively, if the second psychological state leads to the first.
    The second psychological state may characterize the very intense,primal, and emotional swirl that surrounds racial or ethnic violence and it perhaps is triggered in part from collective memory. Because of technological advances, it is very easy today for a tribal, ethnic, or racial group to segue to the first psychological state, which is more premeditated.
    So how does a group segue from the second to the first psychological state? Sometimes it can be done behind the veneer of validating racial violence in the name of “religion”.
    The race experience is very intoxicating and powerful. It emboldens and empowers. It conveniently divides the world into the chosen and the unchosen. But it is not the same as the religious experience, at least from what I have read. And in the historical catalogue of man made catastrophes, the race or ethnic experience masking as the religious experience has produced some of the most horrific suffering ever known.
    So, as an example, it wouldn’t surprise me if Dr. Strangelove, as an ethnic nationalist, would read Psalm 149 to legitimate pressing the “launch” buttons. He or she (ah, to be gender neutral!) would assure the people that it would lead to the euphoria of Psalm 150 — a messianic era — when in reality it is a racial experience that will only lead to Planet of the Apes.
    Of course, if not Psalm 149, then all the world’s religions are replete with passages that would lead to the same “euphoria” of unleashing weapons of mass destruction. It is a universal phenomena.
    So the progression would go something like this: second psychological state, first psychological state, launch. 2-1-0.
    A neoconservative (Christian or Jewish) may read this comment, point a finger, and accuse me of being a “devil’s advocate”. Perhaps I am, but I’d probably respond that he unconsciously just articulated the “esoteric” office of Strauss.

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