A perhaps little known fact: in the olden days of war, people were way more reluctant to actually shoot at each other. In fact, only 15 to 20% of soldiers from the Civil War through WWII could bring themselves to raise a gun and actually point it at a fellow human being.

Then the military strategists got on board.

Here are a couple of articles on the sophisticated psychological training developed by the U.S. military to break soldiers down and enable them to go against the natural human instinct NOT to kill.

The first is entitled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.”
The second is called “Hope on the Battlefield.”

An excerpt from ““Hope on the Battlefield,” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman:

“Indeed, the study of killing by military scientists, historians, and psychologists gives us good reason to feel optimistic about human nature, for it reveals that almost all of us are overwhelmingly reluctant to kill a member of our own species, under just about any circumstance.

Yet this understanding has also propelled armies to develop sophisticated methods for overcoming our innate aversion to killing, and, as a result, we have seen a sharp increase in the magnitude and frequency of post-traumatic response among combat veterans. Because human beings are astonishingly resilient, most soldiers who return from war will be fine. But some will need help coping with memories of violence. When those soldiers return from war—especially an unpopular one like Iraq—society faces formidable moral and mental health challenges in caring for and re-integrating its veterans….

Manufactured contempt

Since World War II, a new era has quietly dawned in modern warfare: an era of psychological warfare, conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one’s own troops. The triad of methods used to enable men to overcome their innate resistance to killing includes desensitization, classical and operant conditioning, and denial defense mechanisms.

Authors such as Gwynne Dyer and Richard Holmes have traced the development of bootcamp glorification of killing. They’ve found it was almost unheard of in World War I, rare in World War II, increasingly present in Korea, and thoroughly institutionalized in Vietnam. “The language used in [marine training camp] Parris Island to describe the joys of killing people,” writes Dyer, helps “desensitize [marines] to the suffering of an ‘enemy,’ and at the same time they are being indoctrinated in the most explicit fashion (as previous generations were not) with the notion that their purpose is not just to be brave or to fight well; it is to kill people.”

But desensitization by itself is probably not sufficient to overcome the average individual’s deep-seated resistance to killing. Indeed, this desensitization process is almost a smoke screen for conditioning, which is the most important aspect of modern training. Instead of lying prone on a grassy field calmly shooting at a bull’s-eye target, for example, the modern soldier spends many hours standing in a foxhole, with full combat equipment draped about his body. At periodic intervals one or two man-shaped targets will pop up in front of him, and the soldier must shoot the target.

In addition to traditional marksmanship, soldiers are learning to shoot reflexively and instantly, while mimicking the act of killing. In behavioral terms, the man shape popping up in the soldier’s field of fire is the “conditioned stimulus.” On special occasions, even more realistic and complex targets are used, many of them filled with red paint or catsup, which provide instant and positive reinforcement when the target is hit. In this and other training exercises, every aspect of killing on the battlefield is rehearsed, visualized, and conditioned.

By the time a soldier does kill in combat, he has rehearsed the process so many times that he is able to, at one level, deny to himself that he is actually killing another human being” [italics mine].

More returning soldiers now die from suicide than they do in active combat.


  1. Who's going to take away his license to kill?

  2. Kinda wishy-washy: so this is not in any way to be anti-soldier. So are you pro-soldier? What, they shouldn't be persecuted for killing, it isn't their personal responsibility for killing? Let's give women who had abortions medals too! Why is abortion more of a hot button than war? Instead of fretting and writing about unborn embryos, write about all the children who are suffering? Until every homeless person has a place to sleep and food to eat, just stop about tooting the Church's horn about the wrongs of abortions. Just stop.

    1. Hi there Sunshine, I write often of my consternation over the tendency within the Church to speak out against abortion, but to remain silent on war. I write often about the fact that violence always leads to more violence, on the evils and sorrows of war, on the fact that life doesn't begin at conception and end at birth, and on the inconsistency of saving "our" unborn children and the wholesale murder of "their" children who have been born. I write often on the fact that Christ laid down his life not in the course of perpetrating violence, but INSTEAD of perpetrating violence.

      That opens me to criticism, sarcasm, and unfairness, as your comment attests. I get to observe how my own heart, nervous system, and wounded psyche react to that kind of uninformed, knee-jerk reaction. And I get to continue to agonize about what it means to be a peace-maker. Again and again, I come back to Madeleine L'Engle: “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

      So, yes, absolutely I am pro-soldier, just as I am pro-post abortive women, In fact, having had three abortions myself, it was a sacred honor to speak last Friday night at a fundraiser for Guadalupe Pregnancy Services in Rosemead, California. They help the baby by helping the mother, an approach I wholesale approve. I think we're called to abhor violence and to love both our soldier and their soldier; to abhor violence and to love all children and all mothers.

      I invite you to explore the three years' worth of posts on my blog. "The Lie of Christian War" might be a place to start.

      And in the coming weeks may we continue to contemplate a God so big he consented to come into the world as an already-in-exile baby….

    2. Heather,
      I greatly appreciate your response. Prior to that, I got another response, which I would like to share with you.
      I live in San Francisco. As I got off the bus yesterday afternoon at market and van ness, I crossed the street at the exact moment a long parade of people. There was no way to avoid becoming part of the procession. At first, I cursed my bad luck and bad timing, now the street closed and no bus would come to take me. Then, I looked up at the sky, listened to the drumming and thought: This is the way I am going. A woman next to me told me this was for Our Lady of Guadalupe, then she pulled on my arm and said: See her! See her! We looked behind us and there was the statue on a truck. My eyes filled with tears and my head filled with Hail Mary. I continued with them to St. Mary's, which was their destination. Although I had seen this icon of Mary many times, I was not familiar with its significance. I learned a lot when I looked it up, not the least of which was that she is a symbol of the pro-life movement.
      Mea culpa, mea culpa, Heather.
      From my personal perspective, I see the politicalization of this issue as somewhat of a propaganda tool. While I completely respect the Church's position, I feel we are being used to throw more attention than necessary, to align us with right wing politics, and to be looked upon as judgemental, rather than merciful. With all due respect, let's champion the sisters who line up outside of military recruitment offices. I think it is going after the weak and the vulnerable, yet another way to shame women. Much harder for people to challenge their fathers, their brothers, their countries. To face personal attack because they aren't patriotic. In short, to fight war, we risk attack. The War Machine is vastly more personally risky an opponent. Later in the day, at mass, walking to the altar for communion, I was behind a man with a fighter jet on his jacket and military patches, obviously proud and unashamed of his veteran status.
      In conclusion, this is the road I am on. It is painful, it is confusing, but it is also splendidly glorious and magnificently divine. Also, I have broken all ten commandments. All ten.
      Peace be with you.

    3. I'm totally with you! I SHARE your opposition to the politicization of abortion! I'm just saying you perhaps haven't read enough of my blog and books to know this, and to know how frequently I have written on just this subject, and that's why your comment stung.

      We are all walking that painful confusing road, where the edges never quite match up, together. I love the image of the bus, the long parade of people, the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe…
      I hear you with the breaking of all ten of the commandments–me, too…blessings to you and to all those you love in the Bay Area…