Death’s War of Words


“Without the creation of abstract images of the enemy, and without the depersonalization of the enemy during training, battle would become impossible to sustain. But if the abstract image is overdrawn or depersonalization is stretched into hatred, the restraints on human behavior in war are easily swept aside. If, on the other hand, men reflect too deeply upon the enemy’s common humanity, then they risk being unable to proceed with the task whose aims may be eminently just and legitimate.”
(Richard Holmes, Acts of War, quoted by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his book, On Killing)

Grossman’s book is about the military history of killing the enemy. And his conclusions are fascinating: getting the enemy killed has not been an historically easy thing to do! Soldiers don’t want to kill other soldiers and many, many of them- based on statistics and evidence gathered from all of America’s wars- have shot over the heads of enemies, or not at all.

Empathy is something we, for many years, thought we learned about in civic class or Sunday School. It may have been enhanced in those settings, but it turns out that our brains are wired for empathy- the million year evolution of our species demanded that we cooperate with each other in staying alive. Mirror neurons in our brains allow us to read, to an important extent, the minds and feelings of others. We can then match our actions to theirs, either consciously or, more often, unconsciously. It’s silly and obvious to say but, under normal circumstances, we know what the person near us (sitting beside us, or in our gunsights), we know how that person feels about their own death. We read it in their face and in their body language in exactly the same way, it turns out, that we feel it in our own body. Thus, it is very hard to pull a trigger. And thus, military trainers needed to do something about that.

And what was successfully taught beginning, Grossman documents, in the early stages of the Vietnam War, was a purposeful, dedicated de-humanizing of the enemy. Slopes, Gooks, and other such words were not only used (words like that have always been used in war), but they were institutionalized during the soldiers’ training! It makes it not so hard, at the time, to kill an old Gook, even one that appears harmless. (Those Gooks are up to no good! They’re not like us! They don’t have feelings like we do! They speak mumbo-jumbo. There are too many of them. They’d kill us if they had the chance! Etc., etc., etc.)

The empathy we feel toward another person that prevents us from killing them, is the same empathy that causes us to share food with a stranger who’s hungry, or to support orphanages, etc. We understand, without jabbering about it, that Death is also a big deal to the Other. The only way we can get past that empathy, the military has shown us, is to artificially re-shape the Other into another, lesser image.

And I’m wondering (which is the point of this off-the-path excursion into war) I’m wondering if we haven’t been encouraged by a whole line of people through history to artificially re-shape and re-make our ideas of Death into something other than what they naturally are. Have we been coerced perhaps into fearing Death in ways most of the world’s inhabitants historically have not? Have we become too eager to fight Death without knowing how or when to stop “raging against the dying of the light” as Dylan Thomas wrote?

I wonder if it might be possible to be able to see our present reality from a slightly different angle? Maybe in the final years we should have a greater opportunity to tend, rather than to mend; to move toward hospice rather than the hospital. It sounds cruel what I’m saying, doesn’t it? But I’m saying that these gentle suggestions of mine have made to sound cruel. We have, so many of us, been trained to be good soldiers in the economic battles, right to the end.

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