Thursday, May 17, 2007

The making of “killing machines” (1996)

Book Review from the May 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

On Killing. By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Little-Brown.

Wartime killing, what can be and has been learned from it, and how that affects society as a whole, is the subject of Grossman's book On Killing. It is a must read for any who believe that humans are killing machines, only restrained from killing by fear of punishment. Grossman also tangentially addresses both social and anti-social behaviour. Grossman accepts war as a requirement of human society, and provides little insight into solutions, but the value of the book is its presentation of an important facet of human behaviour with a generally scientific approach.

Grossman seems to have had three major points to make when writing this book. The first, and the focus of the first half of the book, is that soldiers have a very strong revulsion for killing. He presents compelling historical evidence from military historians, and their interviews with veterans, to support this claim. Grossman says that some of the evidence is open to question, but overall it offers little room for doubt.

The second point is that US Vietnam veterans have not had the necessary and traditional processes to facilitate the rationalization and acceptance of their killing experiences.

This has left them with a significant rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, manifesting itself as "recurrent and intrusive dreams and recollections", "emotional blunting, social withdrawal, exceptional difficulty or reluctance in initiating or maintaining intimate relationships, and sleep disturbances. These symptoms can in turn lead to . . . alcoholism, divorce and unemployment."

The third is that the techniques which have been used successfully by the military to bypass the human revulsion for killing are now in widespread use on youth.

Grossman explains the factors he believes most influence whether a soldier will kill, and finds predisposition to killing in only about 2 percent of soldiers.

The most startling evidence to many will be that in WW I and II, most soldiers (80-85 percent) did not even fire their guns, because they could not bring themselves to kill even when they were being fired at by the "enemy".

Grossman tells us that the military then developed conditioning techniques, based on the "operant conditioning" pioneered by B.F. Skinner. In the U.S.-Vietnam war, only 5% of US soldiers failed to fire. This evidences the degree to which human beings can be conditioned to do almost anything, and Grossman provides evidence from other studies showing similar results.

Perhaps most frightening is his discussion of using the same conditioning on society in general, and on youths in particular. Grossman argues that this conditioning is now the heart of many violent films and video arcade games. He does not fall into the trap of seeing every killing in film as creating sociopathic viewers. He relates that the U.S. military incorporates (the enemy is bad), and control in its conditioning, so that the soldier has a "justice" (the enemy is bad), and control in its conditioning, so that the soldier has a "reason", and must be told to kill. In the films and video arcade games he criticizes, "justice" is often absent: killing is done for the sake of killing, and there is no control.

Grossman provides evidence to support his contention that this conditioning towards violence is actually having substantial results in U.S. society. Although a correlation between violence on TV, in film, and in video games, and violence in society does not prove causation, Grossman notes: "there comes a point when, in spite of this type of reasoning, we must accept . . . the verdict of 217 correlation studies".

He suggests that the solution to this societal conditioning may be "to censure (not censor) those who exploit violence for profit".

He's pointed to the real problem, but doesn't see it.

Philosopher, heal thyself

From a forthcoming issue of the Socialist Standard

In March the philosopher Julian Baggini published a much commented on book, Welcome to Everytown. A Journey into the English Mind (Granta, £14.99), about the everyday attitudes to life of people in an average English town (in the event, a part of Rotherham). He also writes a regular column in the Skeptic. In the Autumn 2006 issue he gave as an example of "a priori reasoning based on fundamental convictions, rather than empirical reasoning based on the facts of experience" the case of a "utopian socialist (or perhaps anarcho-syndicalist, she wasn't quite sure)" he had met who "was convinced that if we were to abolish money and unshackle people from the oppressive yoke of advanced consumer capitalism, we would all behave well and honourably, doing our all for the common good without concern for personal reward". He went on "for our socialist, her self-evident first principles are that the only fair society is one where wealth is distributed equally, and that human beings are sufficiently virtuous that they would do whatever it took to make such a society function".

He then set out the alleged factual case against this. First, "any faith in the intrinsic goodness of humanity is surely untenable after Auschwitz, Bosnia, Rwanda and the countless other acts of barbarity our species has perpetrated". Second, "people actually pursue their own narrow self-interests and competitive advantage". Third, we can see "the naturalness of hierarchy by looking at the behaviour of our primate cousins". Socialists recognise this as of course the hoary old "human nature objection", a pessimistic view ultimately derived from the Christian dogma that we are all born sinful and depraved which is still a deeply rooted popular prejudice.

We don't know if Baggini's acquaintance actually expressed herself in the terms he sets out or whether he has made her into a straw-woman he can easily knock down. We can broadly go along with her argument even if we wouldn't want to be committed to saying that humans are (to speak like a moral philosopher) intrinsically good or virtuous (and that we'd prefer to talk of distribution according to needs rather than equal distribution). But his objections reveal him to be guilty of precisely what he accuses her of: arguing from an already decided position without taking into account "the facts of experience".

People certainly do pursue what they perceive to be their own interest - and why not, as biological organisms we seek to survive in the best way we can - but is it really the experience of all human societies that their individual members always and only, or even predominantly, pursue "their own narrow self-interests and competitive advantage"? What about the societies where, given the way that society is organised to secure the means of subsistence, people have taken a broader view of their self-interest, seeing this as being served by cooperating with others rather than trying to do them down all the time? In fact, not even capitalism, whose structure encourages unbridled individualism and competition between people, could survive if people didn't also cooperate.

The "facts of experience" are that the various different kinds of society that humans have lived in in the course of their history and pre-history show that our species is capable of a wide variety of different behaviours. This has been confirmed by physical anthropologists and anatomists who have identified the biological features - brain capable of abstract thought, larynx and other organs capable of speech, long period to maturity - that allow "human nature" to be flexible, adaptable. Not infinitely adaptable, but enough to be able to live in a society without money, competition to satisfy material needs, or hierarchy.

It's a nice thought that gorillas, chimps and orangutans are our cousins. They do look a bit like us, but, scientifically, we are a lot more distantly related than that. We do share a common ancestor but that could have been as long ago as 10 million years. After that their ancestors and ours went their separate ways. They ended up as they have, with a relatively restricted range of possible behaviours. In contrast, the homo line evolved into a species without any particular way of surviving in the rest of nature and whose members are capable of adopting a behaviour appropriate for surviving in a wide variety of different environments, both social and physical. Our "primate cousins" didn't. Which is why it is invalid to infer anything about human behaviour from theirs. It is true that we share over 99 percent of genes with them, but that just confirms that the huge difference between them and us as to how we survive in nature is not due to biology but to our ability to adapt.

It was Marx who said that philosophers only interpreted the world. Baggini hasn't even done that here. All he has done is reflect the prejudices of his day.
Adam Buick

Prince Harry and Iraq

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Review of J. Crump's "Hatta Shuzo and Pure Anarchism" (1994)

Book Review from the January 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hatta Shuzo and Pure Anarchism in Interwar Japan. By John Crump. (Macmillan Press)

It is a little known fact, brought out by John Crump in this ridiculously priced new book, that until they were crushed by the militarist State in 1936 there was a small but flourishing anarchist movement in Japan. As elsewhere various currents existed, the main ones being the anarcho-communists and the anarcho-syndicalists.

The anarcho-communists, as their name suggests, were anarchists who were communists in the sense of standing for a society based on common ownership where people would produce goods and services to be taken and used without buying and selling and in accordance with the principle "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs". In other words, they stood more or less for what we call Socialism.

The anarcho-syndicalists, on the other hand, were anarchists who embraced the doctrine of syndicalism. This arose at the turn of the century and taught that what workers should do to end their exploitation was to organise in unions (or syndicats in French, hence syndicalism). Unions were seen as providing the means both of defending workers' interests under capitalism and, once capitalism had been overthrown in a general strike, of administering the new society.

While in other countries anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists co-existed without seeing any fundamental incompatibility between their respective views, this was not the case in Japan. In the 1920s a group of "pure anarchists" emerged determined to rid the anarchist movement of what they regarded as the contamination of syndicalism. Prominent among them was Hatta Shuzo (1886-1934), a former Presbyterian clergyman.

The theme of Crump's book is that Hatta's critique of syndicalism was an important contribution to revolutionary theory. Hatta's criticism was radical. He disagreed with the syndicalist aim of a society and economy run by industrial unions, and he disagreed that the class struggle of workers for higher wages and better conditions could ever lead to a moneyless, stateless society.

A society run by industrial unions, said Hatta, would be a society which would perpetuate the occupational divisions which capitalism imposed on workers. In addition, the relations between the separate union-run industries would have to be regulated either by some central administration, which he claimed would amount to a government and so give rise to a new ruling class (his weakest argument, this), or by some form of commercial transaction even if conducted in labour-time vouchers rather than money as most syndicalists proposed. In other words, a syndicalist society would be a sort of capitalism run by the unions.

Hatta argued that the basic units of an anarchist society could not be industrial unions but only "communes", or local communities where real links of solidarity could exist between people and which would combine agriculture and small-scale industry so as to be able to satisfy all their needs. Hatta evisaged these having to be self-sufficient, but why? He forced himself into arguing this unreasonable and unnecessary position because of his mistaken belief thar any permanent administrative structure beyond local level (such as one that might facilitate local communities having free access to the materials and goods they did''t produce) would provide the basis for a new ruling class. Why should it if everybody had free access to what they needed and those who staffed it had no armed force at their disposal?

As to how he envisaged a communist society coming about, his views were even more wildly wrong than the general strike of the traditional syndicalists. He advocated the so-called "creative violence" of an anarchist minority which would, supposedly, arouse the peasant and worker masses to spontaneously express their "natural anarchism". In other words, he lived up to the popular caricature of anarchists as bomb-throwers. In doing so he overlooked that minority violence can never lead to a free society, only to repression by the existing State or the rule of a new minority. For communism (or socialism) to be established, as Crump points out, the mass of the prople must understand the nature and purpose of the new society. Such democratically-organised majority action, we would add, need not be violent and can use existing political institutions such as the ballot-box and parliament. Who needs violence when you're the majority?
Adam Buick

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