Every day the headlines are plagues with stories of violence—murder, abuse, assault, rebellion, armed conflict, war. Such violence has becomes so deeply entrenched in our society that it takes a truly extraordinary act to so much as stir the general populations attention. It has become almost matter of fact: human commit violent acts against each other. The question is why do we kill our own kind?
It’s the age-old question: are human beings inherently good or evil? Are we the product of the society in which we live or are we predisposed to certain actions based on our genetic coding? Nature vs. Nurture.
Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War, argues that while humans are perfectly capable of killing another specifies (the majority of human beings are meat eaters), when it comes the killing their own kind, the act of killing can be deeply traumatizing to the individual. While his book has been criticized for being flawed in many aspects, this particular argument does provide support for the nurture side of the debate; that humans are not genetically programed to kill one another and, in fact, are resistant to such an action. If this is true, if humans are not inherently violent, where does such violent action originate? How does so much violent conflict exist in a world where humans are resist to the very act of killing?
In attempting to reconcile this dichotomy there are three important factors that taken into consideration: the disjuncture between the civilian actors in the military and the soldiers, the military’s culture of obedience, and evolution of weaponry throughout military history
Civilian-Military Relations: Those at the top of military command are not members of the military. In the United States, the President is the head of the military, the Commander in Chief; however, he, himself, is a civilian. While some Presidents have had military experience, serving in various ranks and units in their country’s military, others have no such experience. Of those Presidents who do have experience, some have never seen combat or been to the front lines. Without having such and experience, there remains a disjuncture between the President who is giving the ultimate order to launch an attack or invade a country and the soldiers who carry out this order. This top down structure allows a the Commander in Chief to see military engagement as an abstract notion while simultaneously disengaging them from the personal nature of the act of killing via the their physical and/or command distance for the act.
Military’s Culture of Obedience: When one thinks of the military, the first image that comes to mind is its ridged structure: soldiers marching uniformly at their superior’s command. The relationship between a solider and his/her superiors is not simply one of respect; it is one of legal obligation. Failure to comply with the orders of a superior can result in military reprimand and/or criminal indictment. The military places a high degree of value on the obedience of its members. This is not only for the creation of a highly functioning military unit, but also for the psychological refuge of the soldiers. When a soldier kills another human being, they can take refuge in the fact that they were following orders and not acting on their own accord. Thus, the culture of obedience actually provides a mechanism to mitigate to psychological impact that results from killing another.
Military Weaponry: In the medieval times knights fought face to face with soldiers in extremely close proximity to one another. Put plainly, they could look in the eyes to the opposing solider before they killed them. Then came the development of the arrow that allowed the soldiers to be further away from their victims; then cannons, armed boats/planes, missiles, bombs, and now drones. With each new development in military weaponry, the physical distance between the soldier and his or her victims is increase. Today, a drone operator can sit at base in the United States and press a button that launches a strike in Pakistan some 7,500 miles (12,300 km) away. While some studies have shown that the psychological impact on drone operators is greater than aircraft pilots because drone operators have a very clear view of their victim, this does not negate the fact the tactics themselves have developed in such a why as to place the greatest degree of distance between the soldiers and the victim.
If, then, we are to take a human’s aversion to killing as valid, is must follow that the existence/continuation of armed conflict is the result of the adaptation of the military to address this psychological phenomena. But, this then leaves us with an obvious question: If we are willing to go to so much effort to override a human’s aversion to killing, wouldn’t our time be better spent changing our tactics? Rather than working against this natural aversion, should we not attempt to work with it and seek non-violent conflict resolution mechanisms? The biggest problem here is that violence begets violence. In order to have a world system of non-violent warfare (oxymoronic by nature) each state would need to buy into the system and summarily eliminate all violence means of combat. Unfortunately this does not seem feasible in today’s world, but it might be something to aspire towards.
Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law in post-conflict countries. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @joleneh340