Aggression and Violence

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Aggression and Violence. To understand the nature of aggression and violence on the battlefield, it must first be recognized that most participants in close combat are literally “frightened out of their wits.” Once the bullets start flying, most combatants stop thinking with the forebrain (that portion of the brain that makes us human) and start thinking with the midbrain (the primitive portion of our brain, which is indistinguishable from that of an animal).

In conflict situations, this primitive, midbrain processing can be observed in the existence of a powerful resistance to killing one's own kind. Animals with antlers and horns slam together in a relatively harmless head‐to‐head fashion, and piranha fish fight their own kind with flicks of the tail, but against any other species these creatures unleash their horns and teeth without restraint. This is an essential survival mechanism that prevents a species from destroying itself during territorial and mating rituals.

One major modern revelation in the field of military psychology is the observation that such resistance to killing one's own species is also a key factor in human combat. Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall first observed this during his work as an official U.S. Army historian in the Pacific and European theaters of operations in World War II. Based on his postcombat interviews, Marshall concluded in his book Men Against Fire (1946, 1978) that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual riflemen in World War II fired their own weapons at an exposed enemy soldier. Key weapons, such as flamethrowers, were usually fired. Crew‐served weapons, such as machine guns, almost always were fired. And action would increase greatly if a nearby leader demanded that the soldier fire. But when left on their own, the great majority of individual combatants appear to have been unable or unwilling to kill.

Marshall's findings were and have remained controversial. Faced with scholarly concern about a researcher's methodology and conclusions, the scientific method involves replicating the research. In Marshall's case, every available parallel, scholarly study validates his basic findings. Ardant du Picq's surveys of French officers in the 1860s and his observations about ancient battles (Battle Studies, 1946), John Keegan and Richard Holmes's numerous accounts of ineffectual firing throughout history (Soldiers, 1985), Holmes's assessment of Argentine firing rates in the Falklands War (Acts of War, 1985), Paddy Griffith's data on the extraordinarily low firing rate among Napoleonic and American Civil War regiments (Battle Tactics of the American Civil War, 1989), the British army's laser reenactments of historical battles, the FBI's studies of nonfiring rates among law enforcement officers in the 1950s and 1960s, and countless other individual and anecdotal observations, all confirm Marshall's fundamental conclusion that human beings are not, by nature, killers. Indeed, from a psychological perspective, the history of warfare can be viewed as a series of successively more effective tactical and mechanical mechanisms to enable or force combatants to overcome their resistance to killing other human beings, even when defined as the enemy.

By 1946, the U.S. Army had accepted Marshall's conclusions, and the Human Resources Research Office of the U.S. Army subsequently pioneered a revolution in combat training, which eventually replaced firing at targets with deeply ingrained “conditioning,” using realistic, man‐shaped pop‐up targets that fall when hit. Psychologists assert that this kind of powerful “operant conditioning” is the only technique that will reliably influence the primitive, midbrain processing of a frightened human being. Fire drills condition schoolchildren to respond properly even when terrified during a fire. Conditioning in flight simulators enables pilots to respond reflexively to emergency situations even when frightened. And similar application and perfection of basic conditioning techniques increased the rate of fire to approximately 55 percent in Korea and around 95 percent in Vietnam.

Equally high rates of fire resulting from modern conditioning techniques can be seen in Holmes's observation of British firing rates in the Falklands, and FBI data on law enforcement firing rates since the nationwide introduction of modern conditioning techniques in the late 1960s.

The extraordinarily high firing rate resulting from these processes was a key factor in the American ability to claim that the United States never lost a major engagement in Vietnam. But conditioning that overrides such a powerful, innate resistance has enormous potential for psychological backlash. Every warrior society has a “purification ritual” to help the returning warrior deal with his “blood guilt” and to reassure him that what he did in combat was “good.” In primitive tribes, this generally involves ritual bathing, ritual separation (which serves as a cooling‐off and “group therapy” session), and a ceremony embracing the veteran back into the tribe. Modern Western rituals traditionally involve long separation while marching or sailing home, parades, monuments, and the unconditional acceptance of society and family.

In the Vietnam War, this purification ritual was turned on its head. The returning American veteran was attacked and condemned in an unprecedented manner. The traditional horrors of combat were magnified by modern conditioning techniques, and this combined with societal condemnation to create a circumstance that resulted in .5 to 1.5 million cases of Post‐Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Vietnam veterans. The mass incidence of psychiatric disorders among Vietnam veterans resulted in the “discovery” of PTSD, a condition that we now know traditionally occurred as a result of warfare, but never in such quantity.

PTSD seldom results in violent criminal acts, and upon returning to society, the recipient of modern military conditioning is statistically no more likely to engage in violent crime than a nonveteran of the same age. The key safeguard in this process appears to be the deeply ingrained discipline that the combat soldier internalizes with his military training. However, with the advent of interactive “point‐and‐shoot” arcade and video games, there is significant concern that society is aping military conditioning, but without the vital safeguard of discipline. There is strong evidence to indicate that the indiscriminate civilian application of combat conditioning techniques as entertainment may be a factor in worldwide, skyrocketing violent crime rates, including a sevenfold increase in per capita aggravated assaults in America since 1956. Thus, the latest chapter in American military history may be occurring in the city streets.
[See also Combat, Changing Experience of; Combat Trauma; Disciplinary Views of War: Psychology; Psychiatry, Military; Training and Indoctrination.]


Konrad Lorenz , On Aggression, 1963.
John Keegan , The Face of Battle, 1976.
Jim Goodwin , Post‐Traumatic Stress Disorders: A Handbook for Clinicians, 1988.
Dave Grossman , On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, 1995.
Dave Grossman , On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, 8th ed., 1996.
Dave Grossman and and Gloria DeGaetano , Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie, and Video Game Violence, 1999.

Dave Grossman