Training for war

“Military planners operate on the basis of military expediency, and individual soldiers are trained to operate on the basis of unquestioning obedience to their military superiors…In the realm of copybook distinctions it may be a simple matter to divide the bombing of a city into separate acts of willed destruction of a war production plant and unwilled (though fully known and foreseen) destruction of thousands of innocent noncombatants. But it demands too much to believe that the man who loosed the bombs availed himself of such convenient moral schizophrenia—or that he saw any need for doing so. Our intensive military-training programs are designed to free men from the necessity of making such calculations by establishing in them as nearly automatic systems of stimulus-response patterns as possible. As far as the victims of his acts are concerned, our bomber friend had been rigorously trained to think of them either as purely expendable units or in terms of hatred or fear-inducing stereotypes which makes those victims fully deserving of their fate…

The military-training program is crucial here, in that it may be seen as a set of social controls designed to subject the individual trainee to a process of systematic depersonalization in the interest of increased military efficiency. The self-image of the morally responsible person vanishes and is replaced by a new orientation, in which the individual sees himself as an agent of destructive force completely responsive to the decisions and directives of his military superiors. This new “self-image”—and the awareness that his enemy counterpart has undergone the same change—makes it possible for him to assume the role of professional killer and to perform acts which, under other circumstances, he would have found unthinkable. How else could he bridge the gap between the friendly repairman and the soldier spraying fiery death upon his screaming victims, between the playful collegian and the aviator lowering a blanket of death upon a flame-rimmed city? Certainly not by coldly rational calculations of good and evil effects. The secret lies in conditioning and not in conviction. The depersonalized agent sees no alternative; like Pilate, he washes his hands of all responsibility, leaving that to those who made the decisions and issued the orders. It also helps if he can be conditioned to regard the objects of his kill as similarly depersonalized agents—as the abstraction he knows simply as “enemy”—not as men with bodies that bleed and burn, with families and friends to mourn them, with loves and hopes and fears like his own. Once this level of conditioning is achieved, all things are possible. Men will follow orders to “take no prisoners”; or, having already taken them, to “deliver them to Paris, and be back in ten minutes.” It becomes possible for them to liquidate innocent hostages in reprisal for a guerilla raid without suffering too many troubling qualms of conscience. In a very real sense, atrocities are the hallmark of the perfectly accomplished military-training program, for they represent the ultimate of obedience to military discipline.

Fortunately, the “ideal” is rarely achieved, despite the total mobilizing of psychological talent and resources. But it is achieved often enough—or, even when the finished product falls short of that ideal, the partial success is sufficient—to justify firm theological condemnation of that violation of God’s proudest creation which such depersonalization and dehumanization represent.

A very specific example, which again is in no sense hypothetical, may be in order here. A few years ago, a network radio program devoted a Sunday to on-the-scene interviews at one of the nation’s basic training centers. One such interview featured the instructor charged with the task of training the young recruits in the use of the bayonet. He complained that he encountered a great deal of resistance from the trainees, who were naturally repelled by the idea of plunging this weapon into the vitals of a living human being. But he had solved his pedagogical problem in a rather ingenious fashion. Experience had shown that this initial resistance faded away if the men were induced to imitate the roars and snarls of wild beasts as they charged the training dummy. To conclude the interview, a microphone was attached to the dummy so that the listening public might be entertained by the sound of the recruits as they growled and ripped away at their mock victim. This, one assumes, is the much-praised “making of men” that only recently was recommended by one of our leading bishops as the solution to the problem of juvenile delinquency. Perhaps the use of this technique [for solving the juvenile delinquency problem] is not widespread. But, widespread or not, this “making of men into beast” is thoroughly in keeping with the demands of modern war.”

Dr. Gordon Zahn, from his book War, Conscience, and Dissent


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