Tag Archives: books

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.”

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The Surveillance State of America harkens back to Nazi Germany

In Chapter 32 of Erik Larson’s book “In the Garden of Beasts” Larson describes the wide spread fear of Nazi surveillance prevalent in Nazi Germany between 1933-1934 – in the years prior to WWII.  A concern for wide spread government surveillance, almost a century ago, is surprising and hauntingly similar to the surveillance state in America today.

Describing the concerns of Nazi surveillance in the American consulate, Larson writes:

“Prevailing wisdom held that Nazi agents had their microphones in telephones to pick up conversations…[William Dodd] (the American ambassador) filled a cardboard box with cotton…and used it to cover his own telephone whenever a conversation in the library shifted to confidential territory.”

The feeling of mass surveillance was common throughout all of Germany too:

“A common story had begun to circulate: One man telephones another and in the course of their conversation happens to ask “How’s uncle Adolf?” Soon afterward the secret police appear at his door and insist the he prove he really has an uncle Adolf and the question is not in fact a coded reference to Hitler…Here was an entire nation…infested with the contagion of an ever present fear.”

Eventually, the paranoia of surveillance became so common Berliners gave it a name:

“In the most casual of circumstances you spoke carefully and paid attention to those around you and in a way you never had before. Berliners came to practice what became known as ‘the German glance’ – a quick look in all directions when encountering a friend or acquaintance on the street.”

History shows that the surveillance state is an unfortunate institution imposed by only the most tyrannical governments. And like in Nazi Germany the United States has created a world-wide “culture of surveillance”.