Is aggression part of our human nature? Are we born killers? Socialists don’t think so. Nor, as it so happens, does Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a military psychologist who claims to have invented a new science called “killology”.
In his book On Killing, Grossman shows that without special conditioning almost all of us are extremely loath to kill anyone. For the “masters of war” (as folk singer Julie Felix called them) this is a big problem. Brigadier General Marshall found that only 15-20 percent of American foot soldiers in World War II ever fired their rifles (and some of those deliberately missed). Similar results have been obtained for the American Civil War and World War I.
We have powerful inhibitions against killing our own kind, and these inhibitions remain strong even when we are under direct threat of being killed ourselves. Trauma in war veterans is rooted mainly in feelings of guilt at having killed. Medics and others who though constantly exposed to the danger of death are not required to kill rarely suffer trauma.
How then did so many people manage to get killed in these wars?
Well, a tiny minority (2 percent) did enjoy killing and made a vastly disproportionate contribution to the body count. Also, inhibitions are much weaker when due to distance or for some other reason you can’t see your victim’s face. Where weapons are operated by teamwork, social pressure comes into play and the sense of personal responsibility is diffused. Finally, a soldier will generally kill if an officer is right behind him yelling: “Kill him, for Godsake, kill him!”
Training to kill
In response to Marshall’s study, the US armed forces developed more realistic and psychologically intrusive training methods. During physical exercise new soldiers chanted: “Kill, kill, kill, kill!” Instead of aiming at the bullseye on a geometrical target, they learned marksmanship by shooting at human-shaped silhouettes. And they were forced, by means of specially designed head and eyelid clamps, to watch many hours of gory war films that desensitised them to the sight of carnage.
The new conditioning methods were effective. The proportion of soldiers who fired their rifles soared to 50 percent in the Korean War and 90 percent or higher in Vietnam. At last soldiers were made to act like efficient killing machines. Of course, they were not really machines. As human beings they paid for their “improved performance” in intensified trauma.
Today’s young people are also being conditioned to kill by watching increasingly violent films and television programming. Most dangerous of all are interactive video games that simulate armed combat. Using the same methods as in military training, they inculcate the practical skills as well as the psychological response mechanisms needed for efficient killing.
Training to sell
I was struck by one of the reader’s reviews of On Killing at the Amazon site. The reviewer, a sales manager, comments that his profession has a problem that closely resembles the generals’ problem of soldiers who are reluctant to kill. Many of us, it appears, are not just insufficiently aggressive to kill people. We even aren’t aggressive enough to clinch a sale!
Perhaps, the reviewer muses, the same methods that work so well on soldiers could be adapted for use in the field of sales. The mind conjures up an image of squads of uniformed salespeople at boot camp, chanting “Sell, sell, sell, sell!” as they run.
The literature on training sales personnel discusses a dire condition called Inhibited Social Contact Initiating Syndrome or (more narrowly) Sales Call Reluctance. This syndrome, we learn, affects over a quarter of salespeople. They have negative thoughts and emotions that inhibit them from trying hard enough to sell things. Companies can test job applicants to screen out those prone to the malady by purchasing a “diagnostic” questionnaire (110 questions).
The emotions that inhibit sales workers from performing well are of various types – at least twelve, according to “behavioural scientist” George W. Dudley, author of The Psychology of Sales Call Reluctance. Many, for instance, feel embarrassed to solicit sales from individuals of higher social status than themselves.
The main problem, however, is lack of aggression. People feel “distress, fear and anxiety” at the mere thought of seeming “pushy”.
Imposing your will
Sales coach Paula Crutchley has a confession to make: “When I first started in business, I sometimes felt overly concerned about the feelings of others.” (Shame on you, Paula!) View the initial sales contact as building a relationship, she advises. “This point of view will make the process easier on your soul.” Although she has learned not to be “overly” sensitive or considerate, her soul is still giving her trouble.
Her colleague Tom Crouser expresses a tougher outlook. Here is his comment on the “toxic condition” of “yielding to others”: “Children are taught that it’s rude to impose your will on anyone. But selling is all about imposing your will on others.” Being a manager, he adds, is also all about imposing your will on others.
The soldier, the salesperson and the manager do indeed share a common plight. They are required by their bosses to dominate others. However, it is not their own will that they impose, but rather the will of those who dominate them and others through them. In order to impose this alien will, they must constantly suppress their own. The clash between this inner will and the insecurely internalised will of the boss causes them agonising inner conflict and confusion. The class struggle rages within their souls.