Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — where brute reality & instinct collide head-on with morality & military professionalism ]



I’ve been taking various MOOCs recently — online courses from places like the University of Leiden, the START program at the University of Maryland, and Princeton, on topics relating to counter-terrorism and warfare. In some cases, I have been TA-ing these courses, and I’ve offered to write a FAQ for the folks at Leiden on religious aspects of their terrorism course. Most recently, in a Princeton course on “paradoxes of war” I have been finding myself writing some short essay-style summaries of my thinking on various topics, supplemented with appropriate source materials, and thought I’d post some of them here for commentary and further refinement.

Here’s the first, responding to some posts on the incident where a group of US videotaped themselves urinating on Taliban corpses — an issue in which brute reality and instinct collide head-on with morality and military professionalism.


I have read through this thread with interest, appreciating the various voices raised and at the same time wishing that more of the available research was more widely known.

Several scholars have studied the realities of “dehumanization” and written about it, and what they have to say can usefully support some of our own thoughts about the matter, and in some cases challenge us to look deeper into war and its effects.

We might start our considerations from the work of Brigadier General S. L. A Marshall, official historian of the European theater in World War II for the US Army. As a 2012 Guardian article put it:

Marshall’s astonishing contention, debated vigorously ever since, was that about 75% of second world war combat troops were unable to fire their weapons on the enemy. Guns were discharged, but they would be deliberately aimed over the heads of the enemy. The vast majority of soldiers couldn’t actually kill. And, in the midst of combat, they became de facto conscientious objectors.

Indeed, in his 1947 book Men Against Fire: the problem of Battle Command, Marshall argued:

It is therefore reasonable to believe that the average and healthy individual — the man who can endure the mental and physical stress of combat — still has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility.

That’s the scholarly basis for holding that soldiers don’t “naturally” want to kill their enemies, even when under fire. It is entirely possible to disagree with Marshall, but to do so effectively requires more than a simple opinion: it requires research.

This would be a horribly long piece if I jammed everything I want to say into one post, particularly since the conversation had already covered so much ground by the time I came across it — so I’ll break here, and follow up shortly with more pieces of the puzzle as I see it.


Let’s pick up the thread where I left off in a previous post about General Marshall’s finding that humans tend to avoid killing one another, even in time of war.

Sebastian Junger, who hung out for the better part of a year with troops in one of the most heavily contested parts of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, describing what he saw there in the book War and the film Restrepo, which he directed. Junger commented not so long ago in the Washington Post:

I can’t imagine that there was a time in human history when enemy dead were not desecrated. Achilles dragged Hector around the walls of Troy from the back of a chariot because he was so enraged by Hector’s killing of his best friend. Three millennia later, Somali fighters dragged a U.S. soldier through the streets of Mogadishu after shooting down a Black Hawk helicopter and killing 17 other Americans …. Clearly, the impulse to desecrate the enemy comes from a very dark and primal place in the human psyche. Once in a while, those impulses are going to break through.


They are very clear about the fact that society trains them to kill, orders them to kill and then balks at anything that suggests they have dehumanized the enemy they have killed.

But of course they have dehumanized the enemy—otherwise they would have to face the enormous guilt and anguish of killing other human beings …. It doesn’t work …, but it gets them through the moment; it gets them through the rest of the patrol.

That’s the evidence from the front lines — in a war still winding down as we speak — for the practical necessity of dehumanizing the enemy.

Next up: the psychological impact.


Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former Ranger who has taught psychology at West Point, agrees with Marshall that we humans tend to be averse to killing one another, and with Sebastian Junger on the necessity of desensitization in time of battle:

During the Vietnam era millions of American adolescents were conditioned to engage in an act against which they had a powerful resistance. This conditioning is a necessary part of allowing a soldier to succeed and survive in the environment where society has placed him.

In his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War, he explores how the US has responded to such findings as Grossman’s, by a “triad of methods used to enable men to overcome their innate resistance to killing” including “desensitization, classical and operant conditioning, and denial defense mechanisms”.

He then goes on to point out the moral obligation these simple facts place on those who send sons and daughters, wives and husbands, fathers and mothers into harm’s way:

But if society prepares a soldier to overcome his resistance to killing and places him in an environment in which he will kill, then that society has an obligation to deal forthrightly, intelligently, and morally with the psychological repercussions upon the soldier and the society. Largely through an ignorance of the processes and implications involved, this did not happen for Vietnam veterans — a mistake we risk making again as the war in Iraq becomes increasingly deadly and unpopular.


But what are the “processes and implications involved”?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is neither a battle-hardened soldier like Marshall and Grossman, nor a war correspondent like Junger — but he cuts to the point where there’s a potential disconnect between life “up range” and the realities “back home” when he says:

when we dehumanize someone, whether you like it or not, in that process you are dehumanized. A person is a person through other persons. If we want to enhance our personhood, one of the best ways of doing it is enhancing the personhood of the other.

And he’s right, it seems.

Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, author of the book Achilles In Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, found that dehumanizing the enemy during the Vietnam war caused psychological damage to American troops:

Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against subhuman vermin “has no honor.” This in true even in victory; in defeat, the dishonoring makes life unendurable.

So that’s the impact of killing an enemy you have dehumanized — and the moral situation we need to reckon with when we send others into the line of fire on our behalf.

Perhaps now it is time to take a closer and less dehumanized look at our enemies.


On which point I’ll have more to say in an uncoming post