The Psychology of Killing "Close In"
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.
One of the characteristics of weapons development has been the increasing size of the gap between opposing forces that could be bridged by the new weapons. 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” that turns otherwise rational groups into blood-frenzied mobs eager to fight to the death in “close-quarters” combat.
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.
Which leaves us with two dangerous psychological states:
the coldness of a rational, calculated, uninvolved, unemotional and therefore inhuman response to killing other humans; or
the emotionally driven, irrational, highly unstable frenzy that, requiring discharge, attacks whatever is different (and therefore “dangerous”).
In itself, it is scary enough to impel us all to work harder for peace.