Why you should care
Because shooting to kill isn’t as easy as Hollywood makes it look.
Being an ace fighter pilot in World War I was by most accounts pretty good, as soldiers’ experiences went in that conflict. Men were lauded in the press, had the sex appeal that went with a pilot’s wings, and ate, slept and lived better than most of their comrades in the trenches. For many, it was the life that drew them to taking on a new, uncertain kind of warfare in the clouds. But with René Fonck, France’s highest-scoring flying ace during the war, you get the sense he really just liked killing.
“I put my bullets into the target as if I placed them there by hand,” he boasted in his memoirs. Fonck was credited with 75 kills over the course of the war, but if you believed his squadronmates, it was more like over a hundred — more than the famed Red Baron. He was very good at what he did, and what he did didn’t keep him up at night.
Fonck’s language and glorifying tone sound a lot like Chris Kyle, the notorious soldier subject of American Sniper. The two were both elite soldiers who killed at long range — but contrary to their fame, their stories are relatively rare. Most soldiers — and police — aren’t automatically wired to kill people. In fact,
fewer than 25 percent of American soldiers in World War II shot to kill.
This incredible, counterintuitive reality came to light just after the war. U.S. Army researcher S. L. A. Marshall spent months collecting interviews with soldiers. One of the basic questions he asked pushed men to reveal how far they’d carried out one of soldiers’ most basic duties: Did you ever aim and fire your weapon with the intent to kill?
Overwhelmingly, the soldiers he interviewed — representative of the estimated one million American soldiers who saw serious combat in World War II — said no.
Marshall’s methods have come under scrutiny since he published that controversial figure in 1947. But his research had an enormous impact on military training after World War II — and, by extension, how American soldiers and police learn to kill. By the time of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military had sharply changed its training tack to condition soldiers to shoot first, think second. According to Col. Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, this broke down people’s natural inhibitions to killing. By Vietnam’s end, he says, more than 90 percent of soldiers said they’d shot to kill.
Most people have powerful natural psychological inhibitions to killing. The kind of training needed to break these down requires a few key ingredients — namely, lots of repetition, dehumanization of the enemy and encouragement to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s this kind of training that not only gives soldiers broader scope to kill in a war zone, but also increases the likelihood of police brutality.
Dr. Laurence Miller, a Florida-based police psychologist and law-enforcement educator, says that poor training and education mixed with aggressiveness are prime factors into a police officer firing a gun. “Officers who feel that their training and experience have given them a broad toolbox of nonviolent de-escalation strategies are least likely to use force as a first response,” he explains. Regardless of training, the impulse not to kill is still strong — 85 percent of American police killed on duty in 2015 never discharged their weapons, according to an FBI statement released this year.
Learning to kill is a vicious cycle. Training designed to eliminate natural psychological defenses to killing also takes its toll on the person firing the gun. Lack of institutional mental health support, Miller adds, makes distressed police officers more likely to use deadly force. The same is true for soldiers. Hollywood’s focus on elite warriors, from flying aces to Chris Kyle, often skips over the obvious: For the vast majority of people, even those who never see heavy combat, killing-oriented training is deeply traumatic.
It raises a real, if peacenik-sounding, question: If three-quarters of us can’t kill on command, what’s the point of fighting at all?