An unsentimental education


In his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War, former West Point psychology professor Dave Grossman claims that ‘the vast majority of combatants throughout history, at the moment of truth when they could and should kill the enemy, have found themselves unable to kill.’

The available evidence seems a little too patchy to establish this proposition.

Nevertheless it is true — nobody has bothered seriously to argue otherwise — that musket fire during the nineteenth century, and lines of riflemen during the Second World War, did not produce anywhere near the technically feasible number of lethal hits per minute.

This, Grossman contends, was because individual infantrymen often could not bring themselves to kill a fellow human, preferring to fire harmlessly into the air, over the heads of their enemies, or refusing to expend ammunition altogether:

The simple fact is that when faced with a living, breathing opponent instead of a target, a significant majority of the soldiers revert to a posturing mode in which they fire over their enemy’s heads…

[Generations] of soldiers appear to have either intentionally or instinctively outwitted the powers that be by simply exercising the soldier’s right to miss…

Secretly, quietly, at the moment of decision… these soldiers found themselves to be unable to kill their fellow man.

Some, unable to fire at all, pretended to shoot; others busied themselves with non-lethal tasks like loading weapons or gathering ammunition. An instinctive aversion to inflicting death on others limited casualty rates even on densely-packed battlefields like Gettysburg.

It evidenced, he says, a psychological force ‘stronger than drill, stronger than peer pressure, even stronger than the self-preservation instinct.’

To overcome soldiers’ ‘inner resistance to firing their weapon in combat’, armed forces had long ago introduced battlefield supervision and direction by squad leaders and platoon sergeants. To the coercive presence of superiors was added mutual surveillance by peers, group-loaded and crew-fired artillery, etc. Above all, after the Second World War, firing rates were raised by more effective combat training.

Grossman describes the brutalization and desensitization to violence of recruits during US Army and Marine Corps basic training (boot camp), and the mix of classic and operant conditioning involved in more realistic weapons-and-marksmanship drills (e.g. shooting from foxholes or behind cover, changing visual stimuli from bullseyes to pop-up human sillhouettes, 3-D moulded plastic, photo targets that fell down when hit, firing paint projectiles at live targets, filling balloons with red paint to mimic blood, and so on).

The new training regimens involved more realistic simulation of combat alongside repeated, stimulus-response conditioning to allow reliable elicitation of the desired behaviour (i.e. firing on the enemy). Tasks were trained ‘to automaticity (i.e. so that they could be performed with little or no active cognitive control).’

These techniques ensured that soldiers would execute lethal actions even under the immense physical stress of battle, when information processing slowed and motor skills degenerated.

Grossman claims that, by the time of the US war in Vietnam, firing rates had increased to around 95%. Among these soldiers and marines, resistance to killing had been broken.

sprezzatura of lethality had been achieved.

Likely combat scenarios have changed with the geopolitical weather.

For Washington’s twenty-first century Drang nach Osten (a.k.a the War on Terror) the task to be simulated now includes occupying the densely populated megacities of energy-rich regions like Southwest Asia, the Niger Delta, Central Asia and Northeast Africa. This, as Dick Cheney said in 1999, is ‘where the prize ultimately lies.’

Simulating today’s battlespace for combat training thus may require construction of a replica mini-city.

The conditions of urban warfare, counterinsurgency and occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq are simulated at the US Army’s Joint Readiness and Training Center at Fort Polk in Louisiana. For the sake of realism, soldiers playing the enemy wear beards and costumes. Other role players are recruited from among the local civilian population, including immigrants from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The smell of dead bodies is reproduced by burying days-old meat and bones. Scenario villages and ‘in-theatre facades’ are constructed from shipping containers, interior and exterior sets are dressed, and trauma moulage (wound makeup) is applied with ‘film-production realism.’

At “Chicago”, the IDF’s model Palestinian city in the Negev, the smell of rotting corpses is also recreated. Props staff from the Israeli National Theatre dress soldiers as Palestinians; cardboard cutouts of these figures pop up as targets during live-fire exercises.

The US training facility at Zussman Village, near Fort Knox in Kentucky, is described by the private company that designed, engineered and installed the pyrotechnics:

One of the most realistic urban combat training facilities in the U.S. is located right here in Kentucky. Zussman Village in Ft. Knox, Ky. encompasses 30 acres and is home to some of the most devious and realistic urban warfare scenarios that the Army’s top personnel can concoct. Deafening explosions that rattle your body, gun toting guerillas, the odor of raw sewage, the chaos and confusion of civilians on the street, burning buildings and large, fiery explosions all await those soldiers who train at Zussman Village.

The genesis of Zussman Village can be traced back to 1988 when Major General Tom Tait identified the need the train the armored force in an urban setting. A group of Vietnam veterans were charged with the task of creating design guidelines for how the site would look and operate.

“There were a lot of meetings and a lot of scribbling on bar napkins involved,” chuckled Andy Andrews, Zussman Village Range Manager. “We reviewed all the urban combat scenarios that our units have faced in the past. Everything from World War II to Somalia. We also learned a lot from British forces and their dealings in Northern Ireland, Lebanon and Syria. It was extremely important that our MOUT site (military operations in urban terrain) be as realistic as possible. We wanted it to be dirty and nasty — the way war really is.”

One of the realities of war and urban combat, as witnessed currently in Iraq, is unexpected explosions and lingering fires. Andy Andrews envisioned exploding gas stations, burning buildings and burning cars. The goal is to produce a realistic, highly stressful situation that teaches troops how to navigate a hostile, urban landscape. Zussman Village is currently the only MOUT site to incorporate pyrotechnics into training scenarios.

“One of the reasons why the fire effects are so crucial is that most of our military operations are conducted at night,” said Andrews. “When an explosion occurs and a soldier is wearing night vision goggles, his vision goes blank. Soldiers need to learn how to react to this type of situation and also to resist the urge to have his concentration lapse. It’s just human nature to take that second to stare at a fire or explosion, but in combat, soldiers need to react quickly to their changing surroundings.”


“Hollywood has nothing on us,” said Daniel Hawkins, Zussman Village Systems Engineer. “Whatever scenario you can imagine, we can create here. We’ve paid attention to the smallest detail — everything from our sewer ‘smell-o-vision’ to fully furnished hotel rooms. We also have several rigged ‘surprises’ like blowing up the bridge, knocking down a utility pole or springing a dummy from behind furniture in a building. While this is a very interesting and exciting to work, we all understand the greater purpose. This is not just a paycheck, we all believe in what we do here. We want to scare the soldier here, so he’ll be more careful over there in combat.”

Zussman Village cost $15 million to complete and this includes 20 concrete-block buildings with varying levels of simulated damage, a junkyard, soccer field, an open air market, church/mosque, cemetery, gas station, electrical substation, train tracks and bridge. The site continues to expand and offer new challenges.

Field training, especially with artillery, is expensive. Aside from these physical re-creations of cities, combat training thus increasingly involves electronic simulation of urban environments.

The US Army’s Warfighter Training Alliance, led by military contractor Raytheon, now integrates three kinds of training: Live, Virtual (‘immersive’ simulations, operated by Computer Sciences Corporation) and Constructive (game-driven simulations, administered by General Dynamics).

The purpose of the latter two is not, as commonly is made out, to school a new generation of ‘wired warriors’ in the ways of ‘network-centric warfare’ or ‘remote-control battles.’ The truth is less glamorous and more mundane.

The trainees are frontline infantry; games and simulations are merely an efficient means for each to receive the same perceptual signals, perform the same neural and motor activity, and undergo the same reinforcement learning as in live exercises.

Just as with live training, repeated exposure to the sensory inputs involved in killing (photorealistic vision of gruesome deaths, directed audio including ‘human distress noise’, scent machines, haptic feedback, wind, heat, and motor control over the action) increases the user’s tolerance for and mastery of the act itself.

The Joint Fires and Effects Training System, at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, is made up of three virtual environments: urban terrain, open terrain and air support. One task of its creators was to ‘create believable and evocative insurgent behaviours for observation and interaction’, with a ‘high level of fidelity in munitions effects.’

Army News describes it thus:

A 15-foot-high, 30-foot-wide projection screen plays out the battle, as the soldiers react to the changing scenarios and “virtual humans” use artificial intelligence to counteract. From their perspective, the crew is fighting for their lives — only here they will get the opportunity to live and learn from their mistakes.

“They’ve got to be immersed,” said Maj. Gen. Michael D. Maples, Fort Sill commanding general and chief of the field artillery. “In this kind of environment where you use a combination of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, you can give… all of those sounds, those sights, those feelings of being in combat, so they sense the same things.”


He said that training universal observers and battle staff in fires and effects capabilities and doctrine is vital to reducing the amount of time between identifying a target and delivering fires.”I would say we’ve really got to look at ‘sensor to effects’ solutions,” Maples said. “You’ve got to minimize the amount of time from the when you see the target… until you produce the effects on the target. So we’ve got to have that whole linkage put together, and it’s a pretty complex business. This is not easy. It has to be trained.”

The urban training scenario (which focuses on ‘force protection’, close-quarter combat and decision-making for a small unit) sees the trainee positioned near a highway intersection, playground, garage, wedding party, outdoor market, ‘IED vehicle’ and ‘insurgent staging area’:

[A] computer-generated city is projected on the wall in front of the trainee, while other soldiers’ images (virtual humans) are projected on the wall to the left of the trainee. The trainee interacts with the virtual soldiers as a team during the exercise. The trainee acts as a universal observer, working through target-related issues and calling for fire.

Users may also perform house-to-house searches in small units, clearing housing and buildings.

This product, created by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), has received some attention for using what it described as ‘the creative talents of Hollywood and the game industry’ plus ‘movie-industry effects’ to mix simulation with ‘story-driven content’. The ICT was established in 1999 as a defence-affiliated research lab following a report published in 1997 as ‘Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense’.

This blog’s next post will look at some of those links.


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One Response to “An unsentimental education”

  1. Common dreams « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] Churls Gone Wild Some churls are bigger than others « An unsentimental education […]

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