On Killing, Panjwai, and the nature of war

by John MacBeath Watkins

An army sergeant posted to Panwai, Afghanistan, is alleged to be responsible for a rampage killing 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children.

He is a father of two, whose stateside base was Joint Base Lewis-McChord, not far from where I live. McChord Air Force Base, not then joined to Fort Lewis, was the last place my late father was stationed at before he retired.

Lately, Fort Lewis-McChord has been in the news for a couple reasons -- one, the trial for the infamous "kill team" murderers who, stationed in Afghanistan from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, decided to kill innocent civilians who they were supposed to be protecting. The other reason was the scandal of Madigan Army Hospital, located on the base, changing the post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis on about 300 soldiers, blocking them from getting treatment.

I mention that because of this: http://abcnews.go.com/International/us-soldiers-alleged-deadly-rampage-taliban-vow-revenge/story?id=15900289#.T16UX3nA6x2

The Army staff sergeant who allegedly went on a rampage and killed 16 Afghans as they slept in their homes had a traumatic brain injury at one point and had problems at home after his last deployment, officials told ABC News.
But the soldier, who is based at Fort Lewis in Washington, was considered fit for combat duty and deployed to Afghanistan in December, officials said.

It was also the home base for Iraq war veteran Benjamin Colton Barnes, who allegedly killed a ranger at Mount Ranier National Park before dying of hypothermia while being sought be the police, and had been the base for "Beltway Sniper" John Allen Muhammad, who killed 10 people in the vicinity of Washington D.C. and was executed in 2009.

Now, Joint Base Lewis-McChord is a huge base, and some of the people stationed there are bound to commit crimes, so I'm a little skeptical of the notion that the problem is that Lewis-McChord is uniquely dysfunctional. Far more likely, its relationship to these troubled individuals and their atrocities is related to the military in general.

As we discussed in this post, there was a time when only a few soldiers were really shooting at the enemy. The problem is addressed at length in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's brilliant book, On Killing.

He recounts that Army historian S.L.A. Marshall, who interviewed troops after some of the major battles in World War II, discovered that only 15-20 percent of the soldiers were actually shooting at the enemy.

The army, horrified by this discovery, started working on changing the way it trained soldiers, so that instead of shooting at round, stationary targets, man-shaped targets popped up and they shot those. It's not so different from the form of video games called the first-person shooter, so many recruits now come to the army partially trained.

This change in training was so successful that by Viet Nam, something like 90 percent of the soldiers were shooting at the enemy.

But I have to wonder, did disinhibiting soldiers about killing contribute to the My Lai massacre? And does this training actually win wars?

In Viet Nam, we waged war as if it were a form of pest control (yep, mam, you've got Viet Cong in your attic. We'll set some traps and get rid of them for you, should be gone in a few weeks.)

But war isn't pest control, and killing the enemy is not the object of war, it is only a means to an end. And when you kill the wrong people, it is a means that may make the end impossible. After all, if war were pest control, the industrialized slaughter of soldiers in World War I would have resulted in a quick resolution to the conflict, because soldiers were dying at a record pace.

War is a political conflict with a political end. As Carl von Clausewitz noted, war is "an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will." Does killing people's children make them more inclined to do your will?

And what is the relationship between this focus on killing and atrocities such as the one in Panjwai?

Grossman, in On Killing, recounts the advice of a World War I German veteran to his nephew going into the army in World War II: Do your duty and then surrender to the first American you meet.

Being the force to which people are willing to surrender seems more likely to shorten wars than being the force that kills more people. It is a lesson we've been slow to learn, with tragic results.

Of course, as an Air Force brat, my life has been touched by the military. My father served in B-17s in World War II, at a time when the attrition rate among heavy bomber crewmen who finished a 30-mission tour, as my father did, was 70 percent. He served in Korea as well, but when he served in Viet Nam, he chose to leave bombers, where he had achieved rank and distinction, and fly in military air transports.

He would probably have been safer dropping bombs from 50,000 feet than he was flying into places like Khe Shan and A Shau. But as Grossman pointed out in On Killing, the psychological stress of war is greatest not when soldiers are in danger, but when they must kill another human being. Dad, of course, had never played a fist-person shooter, and probably would have been appalled by them. After all, he belonged to the Greatest Generation -- the one where only 15-20 percent of the soldiers could bring themselves to shoot at the enemy.