The Disposition to Kill in a Combat Zone

I am a faculty member in the psychology department and the community counseling program at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. I’ve taught courses in Death and Dying, and I teach a grad course on Loss, Grief and Counseling. I also served as a medic in the U.S. Air Force from 1969 to 1973, during the Vietnam Conflict. I’ve served in a variety of healthcare settings as a clinician; and I am extensively trained to heal, not kill. And this seems to fit with my predisposition.

Reading an editorial by a former Marine officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan prompted me to produce this article. His editorial appears in today’s New York Times edition, and is titled How We Learned to Kill. It is composed by Timothy Kudo.

In his editorial, he cites the work of Colonel Dave Grossman, a marine officer and psychologist. According to Grossman, the following factors play a crucial role in “learning to kill”:

  • the demands of authority
  • group absolution
  • combatant’s predisposition
  • proximity/distance to the target
  • target “attractiveness”

So, killing is the polar opposite of my professional training and experience. Here is my understanding of how it occurs in a combat situation. I’ve not viewed, nor will I, the much-heralded American Sniper movie.

One of the paradigms I teach my students, is what I refer to as, the “deconstruction of a self or selves”. I outline these five stages: invalidations, devaluations, dehumanizations, mortification (a concept from sociologist, Erving Goffman).

I view mortification as a “psychosocial death”. And the end stage is homicide. I suggest that under the enormous stressors in a combat zone, this process occurs quite rapidly; and it is absolutely necessary for individual and group survival. During basic and advanced infantry training, some priming to kill is instilled.

In a previous Brain Blogger article, I discussed the survival necessity of aggression; and I outlined six sub-types of human aggression: predatory, antipredatory, impulsive, defensive, affiliative, and dominant. I believe that these are also vital ingredients to homicide. In Vietnam, the ability to deconstruct the “enemy” and to act upon aggression is also necessary.

Another factor that is highly connected to killing is the combatant’s predisposition, or what psychologists refer to as personality. In humans, personality shows itself early and is called “temperament”. Temperament is considered genetic imprinting. However, life experiences contribute heavily to personality; and personality shows itself around age three, and is dynamically impacted until about age 30; then becomes relatively fixed. Personality is the consistent part of how we think, feel, and act.

So I teach students about what I refer to as “global personality orientations”, which consists of prosocial, asocial, and antisocial dispositions. I propose that is it more difficult for prosocials to kill than antisocials. Nevertheless, given the aforementioned dynamics, killing occurs.

And finally, I am struck by Capt. Kudo’s reflection of the killing of “innocents”. He talks about the exhilaration and celebration of enemy killings. However, the reaction to killing civilians is far more sobering. In fact, during the Vietnam and Iraq wars, civilian casualties and deaths are much higher than those of combatants on both sides. Consider the massive casualties of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

I’ve conducted psychotherapy with Vietnam veterans. They most often struggle with having killed “innocents” than enemy combatants. I deeply respect all of my comrades who served and still serve in active war zones. As a clinician, I’ve gained a much greater understanding of war dynamics. And, I suspect, that I would be capable of taking lives within this particular context.

Image via Syda Productions / Shutterstock.

Richard Kensinger, MSW

Richard Kensinger, MSW, has over forty years of clinical experience in behavioral healthcare as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and faculty member in the Psychology Department, Mount Aloysius College. He has also taught at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. He is also a lover of "football", known in the USA as soccer. He is currently associated for over 30 years with youth "football", 26 as a referee.
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