The Human Condition: On killing

The nature of man is interesting. Ultimately, I think we are, by instinct, selfish. The only thing that keeps us from our natural inclinations of selfishness is our humanity – our unique ability to recognize morality and consciously apply “goodness”.

But all of our instincts aren’t bad. For example, in “On Killing” Lt. Col. Dave Grossman argues that, even in war, it is against man’s natural instinct to kill his fellow human. In fact, throughout history men have desperately avoided killing each other – even at the potential expense of their own lives.

“Note the nature of such a ‘conspiracy to miss’. Without a word being spoken, every soldier who was obliged and trained to fire reverted…even more remarkable…is the fact that a significant number of soldiers in combat elect not even to fire over then enemy’s head, but instead do not fire at all…”

Grossman recounts incidents of non-fighters in the civil war:

“…after the Battle of Gettysburg, 27,574 muskets were recovered…of these nearly 90% (24,000) were loaded. Twelve thousand of these loaded muskets were found to be loaded more than once and six thousand had from three to ten rounds loaded in the barrel. One weapon had been loaded twenty-three times…The obvious answer is that most soldiers were not trying to kill the enemy.”

Of course, as humans, we have the unique ability to overcome our natural instincts. Sometimes for good, but also for bad. One such example is the military’s training techniques to “condition” soldiers to kill.

“The history of warfare can be seen as a history of increasingly more effective mechanism for enabling conditioned men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human being…The [military’s] training methods increased the firing rate from 15% to 90% [and] are referred to as ‘programming’ or ‘conditioning’ [the soldiers]”

Maybe life is a constant struggle between good and bad. A battle to avoid our natural inclinations for evil and to embrace our predispositions to do good. As such, even the most conditioned soldier reveals his humanity:

“I can remember whispering foolishly, ‘I’m sorry’ and then just throwing up…I threw up all over myself. [Killing] was a betrayal of what I’d been taught since a child.”


2 thoughts on “The Human Condition: On killing

  1. philebersole

    Atticus, I agree with your conclusion – that killing is repugnant to normal human beings not under threat. Even in hunting deer, there is something called “buck fever” which makes it hard for some first-time hunters to pull the trigger.

    But I think these Civil War soldiers who loaded their muskets several times without firing were probably in the grip of panic, and couldn’t think straight. The complex set of steps needed to load and fire a musket might be hard to remember if you were under high stress. At least, I think that if I were in that situation, I would be more influenced by stress than by a desire to preserve the life of some unknown trooper on the other side.

    I have read Civil War history and grew up near the Antietam Battlefield, where Union and Confederate soldiers faced each other at point-blank range and kept killing each other until the ground was so littered with bodies that it was said you could cross a field afterward without having your feet touch ground.

    On the other hand, I have read that some of the soldiers in Nevada who guide the flying killer drones over Afghanistan and Pakistan suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. They see the daily lives of the Afghan and Pakistani villagers, and feel they have got to know them. Then it is hard to have to kill one of them in cold blood, even in cases where the target is obviously an enemy combatant.

    That same person might be ready to fight instinctively if fighting to save their own life. It’s complicated.

    1. Atticus C. Post author

      I think you would enjoy the book I referenced in the article. The author discusses a lot of the topics you mentioned about including the kill rate in the civil war, the effects of distance and killing, and much more. I think many of his conclusions are disputable, but very interesting to think about.


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