Posts Tagged ‘military psychology’

Learning to see like Maya: brutalizing the audience

December 17, 2012

Criticism has been voiced of the new film Zero Dark Thirty for its apparently lengthy and vivid depiction of torture.

A character is strung up by a rope, waterboarded, dragged around by a dog collar and stuffed into a cramped box in an attempt to extract information concerning a terrorist network. The viewer witnesses ‘animal-like howls of anguish’ and ‘unintentional defecation.’

Such scenes are part of a familiar revenge narrative in which the good guy’s (and audience’s) righteous motivation is established in the early scenes and the baddie is eliminated, exhilaratingly and bloodily, at the end.

A fan of the movie describes it approvingly:

[CIA counter-terrorism officer] Maya (Jessica Chastain), looks on — it seems to be her first “enhanced” interrogation. We see [tortured detainee] Amar’s treatment through her eyes, and though she appears troubled at first by what she’s witnessing she’s also fighting off any feelings of revulsion. “I’m fine,” she says, in response to doubts from the more seasoned interrogator who is running the show. During a subsequent torture scene, Maya is left alone with Amar. He begs her for mercy; she tells him, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” Now we know for sure that she has steeled herself to be cold and hard—that she’s consumed with tracking down Osama Bin Laden and is willing to do whatever it takes to find the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks (which have been evoked hauntingly during the movie’s opening moments).

When Amar is led around by a dog collar and then finally, horribly stuffed into a tiny wooden box, we recoil at this treatment and feel Amar’s pain—but we also feel Maya’s sense of urgency. At the end of the interrogation scenes, I felt shaken but not morally repulsed, because the movie had successfully led me to adopt, if only temporarily, Maya’s point of view: This treatment is a legitimate way of securing information vital to U.S. interests.

Critics have deplored this as ‘endorsement’ of torture.

In response, some Democrat bloggers, posing as sophisticated aesthetes, have accused such critics of Zhdanovite philistinism, of ‘aesthetic Stalinism’ and of behaviour befitting ‘Bill Donoghue and the Catholic League’. (Nobody yet has applied the ‘moral panic’ label, whose use I described here.)

These bloggers identify themselves as liberals who would never support torture but who know how to appreciate a good film when they see one.

Meanwhile, according to film critics, the ‘morality brigade’ has failed to appreciate how the film’s hero is portrayed as ‘morally compromised’. The torture scenes are ‘squalid, vivid and brutally protracted’, and they generate a ‘horrible sense of complicity’ among the audience ‘when we realize we want the guy they’re interrogating to spill the beans and get it over with’:

There can’t be much question that the filmmakers mean this to be distressing and tarnishing, not something to cheer for.

Another film critic, seeking to rebut the pro-torture accusation, solemnly declares: ‘fleeting shots of Maya clenching her jaw, crossing her arms, and looking away, should leave no doubt as to where the filmmakers stand on the issue.’

Whether a film openly ‘endorses’ torture, or whether it styles itself as a Funny Games-type ‘critical examination’ of cinematic and real-world violence, is not irrelevant.

(Of course, in making Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a former ‘embedded’ reporter who wrote The Hurt Locker, were granted ‘top-level access’ to White House, Defense Department, and CIA sources, as well as assistance from a commander of the Navy SEAL team that executed Osama bin Laden. Pentagon officials described their wish to ‘shape the story’ of the film, and expressed their satisfaction that Bigelow and Boal were using ‘White House-approved talking points’.)

To focus on this question is, however, to miss the deeper point.

What does it mean when world-weary film critics accuse Glenn Greenwald of interpretive incompetence, of failing to evaluate the torture scenes using aesthetic criteria rather than judging them on political or good-taste grounds?

When watched by a ‘naive’ or novice viewer, ‘graphically intense’ on-screen violence elicits a stress response. Activation of the HPA axis leads to increased heart rate, galvanic skin response, dilated pupils, uncontrolled breathing, and sometimes trembling, clenching, nausea and other physiological symptoms of arousal.

Attending to such unfamiliar and unpleasant symptoms (and to associated emotions) makes demands upon the viewer’s scarce cognitive resources and thereby distracts him from the film. (Put differently but equivalently, focusing on the non-violent aspects of the film requires effort rather than happening automatically.)

With the experienced viewer, who has become accustomed to doses of cinematic violence, this stress response is inhibited. Rather than triggering anxiety or overwhelming distress, such visual and auditory cues (gaping wounds, blood, screams) generate a manageable kind of excitement, heightened attention or amusement.

Familiarity thus allows what is known as perceptual fluency – in which ‘easy’ processing, born of repeated exposure, enables a favourable affective response to a presented stimulus.

The positive evaluative judgements of film critics are underpinned by their familiarity with the visual material and the consequent ease with which they process it. Repeated exposure facilitates liking of a stimulus, generating a positive appraisal of what initially may have been neutral or even aversive. (Thus the manipulation of consumers by advertisers pursuing brand recognition: familiarity enhances product preference.)

Indeed, viewers of mainstream films, TV and video games undergo a kind of stress inoculation. Having been exposed repeatedly to doses of horrific brutality, and having become habituated to them, the cinematic adept or initiate is imparted with a newly found tolerance during subsequent encounters. He or she gradually acquires resilience – an attenuated stress response – because it’s all been seen before.

This adaptation to aversive stressors also describes the kind of ‘hardening’ undergone by the character Maya. What initially are novel and unpleasant stimuli (the sights, sounds and smells of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’) rapidly become familiar, and she can ‘steel herself  to be cold and hard’ (although developing this sort of emotional resilience in its recruits is something imparted by training and by self-selection of Washington’s military death squads and CIA torturers).

To be capable of appreciating films that expose viewers to realistic violence, audiences and critics must (like Maya) have ‘steeled’ themselves.

Only once this state has been reached, i.e. after they have been brutalized by repeated exposure, can viewers appreciate what they are seeing on other levels or derive pleasure from it. Thereafter violence can be enjoyed in several ways.

What is required from the audience of a Quentin Tarantino film is self-conscious savviness: getting the allusion, generic reference or cinematic in-joke. (This is what allows such films to function as a signal of the audience’s quality – acquiring competence, being able to appreciate them, requires a costly investment of time, effort or money that cannot easily be faked. Self-congratulation is one of the rewards of such films.)

Violent ‘anti-violence’ films such as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and ‘deconstructed’ shooter games such as Spec Ops: The Line, which hope to ‘implicate’ the viewer or player, also demand a ‘competent’ audience, i.e. one that can appreciate it on the ‘right level’, get the message or appreciate the style without being distracted by their repugnance or feeling too sick to watch. (Haneke has said that his ‘ideal scene’ would impel members of an audience to look away because they are ‘panicking’.)

And, viewed with enough aesthetic distance, Zero Dark Thirty‘s ‘squalid, vivid and brutally protracted’ torture scenes, its ‘morally compromised’ protagonist, the blood, bestial howls and involuntary defecation, and the ‘horrible sense of complicity’ generated among its audience, can be understood, like The Hurt Locker, as some sort of nuanced critical statement on ‘the moral, psychological and even spiritual price’ of war, the ‘sacrifices and costs of keeping America safe.’

In other words, the aesthetic and commercial ambitions of these films depend upon, just as the films themselves help create, an enormous oversupply of media violence. The latter produces ‘literate’ viewers of the required sort.

This desensitization of audiences has broader social correlates and consequences. By brutalizing consumers of media and entertainment products, it is helping to encourage a shift in social norms, internalized preferences and individual tastes.

Increasingly, perpetrating lethal violence or enjoying it for entertainment purposes does not lead to ostracism or sanction, but is positively rewarded (c.f. Bigelow and Boal’s reverence for the armed forces, the CIA and the ‘American triumph, both heroic and nonpartisan’, of killing Bin Laden).

Over time, this mix of incentives and cultural influences is causing a shift in the population distribution of attitudes to violence and the psychological traits needed to undertake it.

For the average person, this general shift is scarcely observable: it merely makes the median viewer more resilient (i.e. less prone to negative emotional states) when horrific violence appears on the movie screen.

But a rightward shift in the tolerance for violence will also increase the number of people at the sparsely inhabited tail (i.e. the extreme upper range) of the population distribution: those psychological outliers with the capacity to kill people and undertake torture while remaining composed, emotionally stable and task-oriented.

This outcome is functional for the US ruling elite, which for the past two decades has advanced its strategic objectives through belligerence and lethal violence. The state leadership’s policy of military aggression is facilitated by population-wide habituation to violence.

The likes of Bigelow and Boal are thus participating in a war drive. So too are the countless film critics, writers, bloggers, academics and paid ideologues whose own set of professional incentives leads them to apologize for her work and other products like it.

Tarantino, of course, has always disclaimed any extra-aesthetic relevance for the torture and sadism shown in his films. They are just movies. Few have bothered to challenge this line over the past two decades, even as sinister musings on torture by Alan Dershowitz became publicly acceptable fodder for ‘liberal’ editorial columns, and the creative efforts of John Yoo were taken on as policy by the US Justice Department.

Now, with his Django Unchained due to be released one week after Zero Dark Thirty, will its torture scenes be judged worth of comment? Will critics note the resemblance of Tarantino’s various sadists to Bigelow’s interrogators (and to the real-life versions working in Bagram, Cairo, the West Bank, the basements of Mogadishu, etc.)?

If so, will this be thought to mean anything, or will any such suggestion be dismissed as embarrassingly unsophisticated?

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Rewarding and pleasurable

March 4, 2012

Where ‘moral panic’ is invoked to deter criticism of some aspect of the existing state of affairs, deeply apologetic attitudes can often be found lurking.

Behind the critical pose — reproachful of popular risk perceptions, derisive of the quackery and hysteria promoted by commercial TV, talk radio and tabloid press — lies a Panglossianism based on special-group interests or career ambition.

Three of the figures quoted in a previous post — Steven Pinker, Christopher J. Ferguson and Robert Corn-Revere — lent their credentials as amici curiae on the side of the Entertainment Merchants Association during the US Supreme Court case which decided the fate of a Californian law restricting sale of violent video games to minors.

Ferguson’s generally complacent, uncritical attitude towards the providers of media entertainment goods is evident throughout his many publications. Most attack the supposed ‘exaggerations’ of psychologists and pediatricians who use media-effects theory and social-learning theory to suggest that watching TV or playing video games may lead to behaviour modification.

This includes taking the shallowest industry PR at face value.

In an article that considers whether depiction of violence or sex in TV advertisements ‘may produce deleterious effects on adult and child viewers’, Ferguson and his co-authors offer the following:

A theoretical framework for understanding the effectiveness of television advertised [sic] is worth discussion. This paper endorses a model of understanding advertising and marketing in which their influence is more informative than behavior changing per se. In other words, advertising’s power is not in making people buy things they do not already have an inclination to buy, but rather in  directing people toward  specific brands. The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines marketing as

‘‘Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large’’ (AMA, 2007).

For example, a person is unlikely to buy cola unless they have tasted it or something similar in the past and enjoyed it. Advertising makes that cola enjoying person more inclined to choose a brand they identify with such as Coke or Pepsi, and eschew lesser known, potentially cheaper brands. Advertising, then, does not create massive behavior change, or shape people’s core personality or beliefs. It does nudge people in the direction of particular product brands the result of which can be windfall profits for those brands (see Kotler & Keller, 2009). Even relatively new products must appeal largely to existing consumer needs or wants.

Elsewhere he has sought to absolve media images of extremely thin women of their hypothesized causal role, via the internalization of impossible ideals and promotion of body dissatisfaction, in the etiology of eating disorders. Instead he has pointed the finger at sexual selection and between-peer female competition for mates: ‘body dissatisfaction is conceived as an often functional response to a woman’s perceived bodily shortcomings.’

Ferguson also has used evolution of the Pleistocene brain in the ancestral environment, etc. to explain the popularity of hyper-violent video games.

This leads him, like Pinker, to pronounce on the violent proclivities of people living before (or without) the domestication of plants and animals, and to sneer at the lily-livered weaklings who have renounced their ancestral birthright:

Much of the discussion of aggression in the social sciences began with an assumption that aggression is an inherently bad thing, both for the individual as well as for society as large… However, aggressiveness may also have positive benefits and indeed be evolutionarily adaptive, particularly in moderate amounts. Moderate aggressiveness may aid us in defending ourselves and our family, standing up for our beliefs, seeking high-status positions in society, developing leadership, excelling in sports and many careers, enduring hardships, etc. These are behaviors that increase social status and reproductive success. Indeed, some scholars have recognized that aggressiveness, particularly when allowed to be defined broadly, may have more positive qualities than negative…

The observation that aggression is an evolutionary adaptation which provides a selective advantage to those individuals who possess a moderate level of the trait is at odds with much of the lingo and dogma of social science across the latter 20th century. Historically it had been assumed that aggression and violence were learned behaviors, shaped largely by environmental influences including family and peers, but also media effects. Increasingly, evidence has demonstrated that this tabula rasa (i.e. blank slate) view of aggression has been mistaken and that there are strong genetic roots to aggressive and violent behaviour…

Humans, perhaps like many other creatures, find violent acts to be intrinsically rewarding and pleasurable. There are exceptions to this, of course (and perhaps those exceptions go on to become social scientists wedded to tabula rasa views of aggression), however there is little argument that violent media, and violent video games are overwhelmingly popular.

With this, the mocking of anti-violence thinkers as moral-panicking girlie men, we have something a little worse than mere business advocacy or industry shilling. Ferguson is helping, advertently or not, to encourage a contemporary shift in social norms. In the new equilibrium, a taste for extreme violence (and its enjoyment for entertainment purposes) isn’t to be met (as it was in the old) with ostracism, sanction, shunning or disapproval. It isn’t maladaptive: we are ‘natural born killers.’

Increasingly, individuals with a preference for violence are to be tolerated and lauded.

It’s unclear whether this shift in norms is an accident or a project. Perhaps, as the economist James T. Hamilton has suggested, the oversupply of media violence is a ‘blind’ aggregate effect of individual firms acting singly in pursuit of their own ends. Or maybe there is coordinated collective action under way, with some people acting jointly in pursuit of definite political goals (deliberately fostering a remaking of preferences to support greater tolerance for violence).

If this sounds implausible or absurd, we should consider the motives behind what Australian historian Marilyn Lake recently described as the ‘relentless militarisation of Australian history’, with federal and state governments ‘actively fostering’ pro-war attitudes. As Lake describes, this effort includes a ‘mass education program’ including the ‘systematic distribution’ of curriculum materials to all primary and secondary school students.

The right stuff

December 30, 2011

In a Washington Post feature article (‘Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing’), Greg Miller writes that ‘no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.’

I’ve discussed this fact before and considered what the drastic expansion of executive power reveals about the policy objectives of the US elite and its allies. There’s more to think about, though.

Use of remotely-piloted aircraft (as well as cruise missiles and manned gunships) for weapons delivery requires the presence, midway along the ‘kill chain‘ between sensor and shooter, of human operators and analysts.

These people must watch, with sustained attention, live video feeds or surveillance imagery of death and destruction as human targets are found, tracked and exterminated with high-explosive anti-armour (blast and fragment) munitions.

In other words, Washington’s global death program entails the existence of an extraordinary sort of workforce.

Members must be able to withstand both prolonged and acute exposure to horribly unpleasant stimuli while maintaining vigilance and task-specific focus and without experiencing the kind of negative emotional states or overwhelming affective responses that lead to performance degradation (e.g. failure to determine whether a target has been successfully ‘neutralized’ or merely incapacitated, inability to discriminate between the remains of targets and those of bystanders or non-humans, unwillingness to detect subsequent targets, etc.).

One method people use ordinarily to cope with distress is avoidance: diverting attention from the source of aversion as a way to alleviate anxiety. This is impossible for the drone operator, whose job description requires him never to look away.

Wayne Chappelle and Kent McDonald at the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine in Ohio have undertaken studies, using surveys, tests and peer reports, into the personality traits and behavioural dispositions, as well as the cognitive and psychomotor skills, needed by successful operators of unmanned weapons-deploying aircraft and their sensors.

Among other things, this has involved rating participants along the Big Five personality dimensions (openness, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness and neuroticism) and comparing results to those from the civilian population and the aircrew of manned gunships. (Other recent papers can be found here, here and here).

UAV crew members unsurprisingly must possess all the usual traits: self-confidence, assertiveness, excitement-seeking, internal locus of control, a high degree of intrinsic motivation, etc.

But given their specific combat role, the final attribute in the Big Five domains – emotional stability or composure in the face of induced transient stress – becomes especially important if personnel are to perform successfully and avoid burnout or impaired performance. (Predator/Reaper and AC-130 gunship operators both score lowest, relative to the general population, on neuroticism.)

According to McDonald and Chappelle, those who adapted to the ‘operational environment’ displayed ’emotional stamina’, lack of vulnerability to negative mood states, were ‘tough-minded’ and not prone to distress. They found that ‘higher than average levels of  resilience to stress (or other negative emotional states), need for excitement-seeking, and compartmentalization of emotions are required to adapt to the operational demands’:

According to SOs [sensor operators], the deployment of weapons also requires well-developed skills for compartmentalizing their emotions.

The rigors of training and operational demands of the RPA [remotely-piloted aircraft] platform (e.g., targeting and destruction of enemy assets, taking the lives of enemy combatants, as well as surveillance of battle damage) can be emotionally taxing.

SMEs [subject-matter experts, i.e. superiors] reported the ability to compartmentalize the emotional rigors of one’s job in order to conserve emotional reserves when returning home from work or interacting with others outside the military installation can be an important trait for long term stability.

It is well-known that resilience to stress and emotional difficulties (often known has psychological hardiness) is considered a core attribute of those within high risk military occupations.

Furthermore, some airmen may emotionally struggle with their role in the killing of enemy combatants.

Interviews with SMEs reported a small number of incidences (i.e., four to five) of SOs voicing their discomfort with their duties and/or requesting to leave the career field after their role in the deployment of weapons. They reported such SOs performed their surveillance and reconnaissance duties well, but emotionally struggled with their role in taking the lives of others, regardless of the threat enemy combatants posed to U.S. and allied forces.

SMEs reported such SOs experienced significant internal conflict with their role, and that such a conflict did not become apparent until the SO was faced with a real-life situation or fully educated about the nature of their combat-related duties.

It is important to ensure that airmen selected for RPA SO duties are fully aware of, and understand, their role in the targeting and destruction of enemy combatants and assets prior to entry into training. It is likely that some SO candidates will decline the opportunity to pursue such duties once they fully understand their role in precision strike operations.

In other words, remote operators of weapons-deploying aircraft must be unusual people, many of them several standard deviations from the population mean on various personality dimensions.

The most important of these dimensions is neuroticism and its components: susceptibility to sadness, regret and depressed mood. If they feel at all queasy, guilt-ridden or troubled when observing burnt and mangled corpses, they must manage to suppress such feelings and get on with the job without any noticeable decrement in performance or distraction from task engagement.

In seeking to retain incumbents and find suitable recruits to work as happy killers, Washington’s expanding assassination program thus must fish in shallow waters for rare species (certainly including sociopaths) displaying the desired personality traits.

One way of achieving sufficient numbers at the extremes (i.e. tails) of a distribution is to shift the population mean for the trait in question. If the average person becomes less prone to a negative affective response upon witnessing scenes of extreme violence and destruction, then the ‘less neurotic’ types will be more stoic still, and their numbers more plentiful than otherwise.

Similarly, such a population-wide shift would raise the stress threshold beyond which task demands (such as remote killing) were experienced by operators as unfamiliar, unbearable and exceeding the operator’s capacity to cope.

Finally, an increase in the median voter’s ability to withstand the sights and sounds of extreme violence, without lapsing into appalled paralysis or low moods, would presumably increase public tolerance for large-scale killing, by those at the extremes, in pursuit of elite objectives.

How might this be achieved?

Applicants with the desirable traits and states obviously self-select for the job. But the above quotation shows that candidate recruitment isn’t perfectly reliable.

In such cases, and generally, affective response and emotional disposition can also be modified and reinforced by training. People from the University of Central Florida psychology department (Mustapha Mouloua, Peter HancockEduardo SalasDeborah Billings, James Szalma, etc.) have explored how stress-exposure or stress-resiliency training can “harden” personnel who must use UAVs in combat, so that their ability to acquire and engage targets is not overwhelmed by emotional and physiological response.

The basic technique works via graduated-intensity exposure to battlefield stressors and realistic perceptual cues, including through high-fidelity simulation and games. The trainee is habituated to environmental cues that initially were aversive and debilitating, thus becoming ‘inoculated’ against combat stress.

Similarly, by exposing the general population to an unceasing barrage of (imagery of) extreme violence (e.g. by allowing it to saturate popular entertainment), one may presumably shift in a convenient direction the population distribution of relevant dispositions and attitudes, bestowing an everyday familiarity (sanitized, to be sure) and tolerability on what is pursued in secret.

This, too, I’ve discussed in greater detail in another post.

Becoming stress hardened through training and through entertainment

August 24, 2011

Christopher J. Ferguson is a young associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M. For the most part, his published work has been devoted to defence of violent video games and other visual media.

He contests the research findings of disciplinary colleagues that such games desensitize users to violence, attach rewards to aggression and increase their players’ propensity for violent behaviour.

The disparity in the balance of scholarly opinion has demanded from him great feats of argumentative and publishing energy.

Eleven of his papers were cited, and his signature attached to the list of amici curiae (who also included figures like Todd Gitlin and Steven Pinker), in the pro-games-association brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court before its recent decision on a Californian law restricting sales to minors (Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association).

I have no great taste for comment on Ferguson’s work; to each his chosen niche.

But the following astonishing remark, which he delivered earlier this year, was a little too much to ignore:

Another common urban legend is that the US military uses video games to desensitize soldiers so that they will kill more reliably…

Never mind that the US Army has denied these claims (video games are used for vehicle and team training and decision making and even recruitment, but not desensitization) or that police organizations use similar simulations to reduce impulsive “bad” shootings.

Nor does it seem to matter that today’s youth, consuming far greater amounts of violent games than any past generation possibly could, are the least violent youth in 40 years.

The sound byte is repeated often, presumably because of its emotional appeal.

Elsewhere he has scorned what he calls ‘the false notion that the military uses video games to desensitize soldiers to killing (they do use simulators for visual scanning and reaction time and vehicle training, but they seem more effective in reducing accidental shootings than anything else).’

Ferguson teaches a subject called Psychology of War at a military college, so his remarks (games as the path to purity of arms!) cannot plausibly be explained by ignorance.

More importantly, Ferguson undertook his doctoral research at the University of Central Florida, a member of the Team Orlando collaborative alliance of defence contractors, branches of the armed forces, DoD agencies, and scholars in the fields of simulation, training and human performace.

The motto of Team Orlando is improving human performance through simulation. The psychology department at UCF, with its Institute for Simulation and Training, is heavily involved in this project. A departmental laboratory is sponsored by the Office for Naval Research (ONR).

Ferguson surely is familiar with the work of faculty members such as Eduardo Salas, Peter Hancock, Clint A. Bowers and Janis Cannon-Bowers, and perhaps that of their regular co-author James Driskell, researcher from the Florida Maxima Corporation.

These scholars and their grad students  Ferguson must know this, too  have devoted themselves to exploring how the operational training of combat soldiers can best ‘moderate the performance effects of stressors’.

In other words, they investigate how training can reduce the decrement in proficiency (of e.g. shoot/no-shoot decisions and marksmanship) caused by the acute stress of the ‘battlefield environment’.

And this goal, their advice runs, is best achieved through ‘arousal habituation’, i.e. desensitization to the violence that troops are expected to undertake.

Training delivered via simulation, games and virtual environments is a big part of this.

Clarke Lethin from the ONR, technical manager of the Future Immersive Training Environment, has described the purpose of his simulator. It involves delivery of  ‘sensory overload’, to inoculate the instructee against combat stress, then to ‘determine if Marines have a diminished stress reaction… during follow-up exposures.’

The newfound ‘resilience’ acquired during pre-deployment training helps to increase the lethality of personnel in operational situations, preventing them from freezing in combat.

The UCF psychologists have described how stress reactions (trembling, feelings of anxiety, increased heart rate, sweating, laboured breathing, decreased fine motor skills and other physiological symptoms of extreme arousal), especially novel and unfamiliar ones, present ‘off-task stimuli’. These distract the soldier or marine from task-relevant details, and increase demands on his or her attentional resources.

Assuming that attentional resources are finite and must be allocated between competing uses, they explain, a higher ‘cognitive load’ can impair task performance. The symptoms of acute stress (auditory blocking, tunnel vision, rigidity, nausea, etc.) can entirely prevent execution of the task.

They describe, finally, how stress can cause loss of both motivation and ‘team perspective.’ A U.S. Army field manual (22-51, 1994) and an ADF research paper each detail a range of symptoms by which combat stress renders soldiers ‘ineffective as members of combat units’, from failure to engage the enemy (‘combat refusal’) to shirking, panic running and malingering.

Numerous contemporary studies (as well as the work of Zahava Solomon with IDF veterans of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and earlier wars) have shown that the best predictor of suffering ‘combat stress reactions’, PTSD or other mental-health problems is a soldier’s having witnessed persons being wounded or killed, along with having engaged in direct combat during which they discharged their weapon; killing an enemy combatant or civilian; seeing, smelling or handling dead or decomposing bodies; and seeing fellow soldiers or friends dead or maimed.

(As is well known, Himmler discovered that the killing efficiency of his Einsatzgruppen was limited by the debilitating stress reactions suffered by those troops who performed mass executions by shooting. This fact apparently motivated the switch to using gas vans and later gas chambers to undertake the Vernichtungskrieg).

Yet current US military combat operations are highly dependent on kill/capture missions, remotely-directed assassinations and ‘irregular warfare’ (so-called stability operations, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency).

These programs have recently been described approvingly by John Nagl, a West Point alumnus with close ties to the Obama administration and a hand in writing the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, as an ‘almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.’

See also the recent warning in The Australian newspaper of ‘the enormous personal price’ paid by special forces soldiers and their families as they faced repeated deployment and ‘a much more aggressive and assertive role.’ According to one former special forces officer: ‘Some 600 guys have done most of the killing in the past 10 years. That’s a terrible burden to place on a small number of soldiers and they keep getting rotated back.’

If this killing machine is to operate effectively, it must overcome the emotional and physiological barriers erected by the human nervous system and the wider culture against the killing of conspecifics.

Therefore the pre-eminent training objective, pace Ferguson, is to ensure that troops ‘will kill more reliably’, that lethal behaviour can be elicited and executed properly even when, for most people, this would produce overwhelming and debilitating stress reactions.

The relationship between arousal and combat performance is commonly modelled as an inverted U-shaped function. Peak performance is reached and maintained when the soldier is neither too inhibited (hypostress) nor too excited (hyperstress), and falls away either side of this middle ground.

‘Positive stress’ helps to ‘motivate’ the warfighter, and this may be elicited by stoking a sense of gamesmanship or eliteness. But UCF’s Peter Hancock warns that stress increments above a ‘tolerance threshold’ lead to catastrophic performance breakdown (he cites as an example Marshall’s WW2 report of many soldiers’ failure to fire weapons in combat).

Training should therefore aim to raise the maximal stress load that an individual can bear before he is overwhelmed. This is known as stress hardening or resilience training; both terms are semantically indistinct from desensitization.

The UCF psychology team, and many other researchers into military psychology, have stated that the degree of hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation, during exposure to stressful environments and activities, depends on the soldier’s prior experience of relevant procedures and familiarity with the perceptions involved.

Habitual and graduated exposure to novel and aversive stimuli during repeated skills-acquisition drills, before deployment to combat theatres, allows ‘inoculation’ against stress. (There is evidence that special-forces personnel can tolerate higher levels of acute and chronic stress than can general infantry troops.)

They have therefore recommended ‘overlearning’, allowing acquisition and retention of sensorimotor skills (e.g. shooting), and their maintenance in high-stress environments, so they can be executed ‘automatically’ without the warfighter’s needing to explicitly devote attentional resources.

Rehearsal, they have explained, in training settings that closely approximate the operational situation, builds a repertoire of ‘routinised’, familiar actions that are rapidly accessible, with the desired response triggered when driven by the relevant environmental cues or patterns.

For this purpose, they have explained that games and battlefield simulations can replace time spent on live firing and gunnery ranges. Bowers, in an address at this year’s GameTech conference in Florida, explained how games allowed increase in the ‘fidelity of traumatic cues’ that are ‘likely to be encountered in the operational setting.’

The Pentagon’s main provider of video target walls for simulating dismounted-infantry operations and special-operations close combat (e.g. target acquisition and house clearing), explains the innovative worth of its ‘realistic virtual targets’. The latter open up ‘a whole new realm of training by replacing antiquated static targetry, as traditionally found in a CQB [close-quarters battle] training environment, with large, immersive target walls displaying projected images of life-size, full-motion moving targets’ which ‘mimic the life-like movements and reactions to that of real humans.’ Its publicity brochure notes that ‘skeleton and organs can be viewed to show severity of wound.’

Such a system is used to project targets and the avatars of participants in mixed-reality close-combat exercises at USMC Camp Pendleton. The Director of the Battle Simulations Centre there, Tom Buscemi, has explained that the Infantry Immersion Trainer is ‘designed to inoculate deploying Marines with the sights, sounds, and smells of a gun battle… We’ve had people go into shock. We’ve had people completely stunned.’

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, marvelled that the trainer used simulation to help ‘all of our conventional forces…to have more special forces attributes.’

The latter has been a key objective since a December 2008 Pentagon directive recognised irregular operations to be ‘as strategically important as traditional warfare.’ The training of general-purpose infantry was henceforth to assume a new focus on the ‘grim skills’ of ‘close combat, where intimate killing is the norm’, according to CENTCOM Commander James Mattis.

How this instruction was to proceed was the topic of an Irregular Warfare Training Symposium, hosted by the University of Central Florida during September 2009, its tagline being The Future of Small Unit Excellence in Immersive Cognitive Training. Participants agreed on the need to develop ‘supporting technology: an immersive, high-stress, near-real decision-making capability that is scalable, infinitely repeatable and unique.’

In games, simulations and virtual environments, UCF and other military-training researchers have found, aversive and novel stressors (unpleasant noises such as screaming or engine sounds, the visual and olfactory stimuli of death and destruction, heat, haptic feedback of fired weaponry, etc.) can be replicated with high fidelity, at low cost and allowing high-frequency repetition.

Trainees can be attached to real-time sensors, and undergo post-drill tests, to measure their eye-blink duration, respiration rate, palmar sweating, salivary alpha-amylase (a proxy for noradrenaline), cortisol and blood-glucose levels (to measure activation of endocrine response), body temperature, heart rate and skin conductance.

Monitoring these indicators of autonomic nervous-system activity allows instructors to check their key concern: the ‘ability to induce and modulate high stress.’

A 2002 report into ‘cognitive readiness’ undertaken for the DoD noted:

[One] would predict that performance under emotionally arousing combat conditions would be improved by training under identical, or at least similar, arousing conditions…

In the past, technology and ethical constraints have acted to limit the degree to which training evokes the strong emotions associated with combat. Some have claimed that immersive simulation technology (i.e., simulations that involve multiple sensory modes — sounds and smells as well as visual stimuli) has the ability to evoke strong emotions…

It remains to be seen, however, whether the emotions evoked in immersive simulation are similar in quality and intensity to those experienced in combat.

This 2005 report, prepared for DARPA following a three-year study, compared the subsequent performance in live combat exercises of subjects who had previously trained, using laptops or head-mounted displays, in ‘virtual shoot houses’ and simulated Iraqi villages, with that of a control group who had not used the virtual-world trainers before entering the real shoot house or village.

Along with other improved performance metrics, the first group was found to have exhibited superior stress management, ‘combat breathing’ and arousal-control techniques. The control group, on the other hand, exhibited some behaviour characteristic of confusion and panic, e.g. taking cover behind propane tanks when under fire.

The report concluded regarding the three-wall CAVE projection: ‘The life-size dimensions and projection must be impacting the synthesis of information. Furthermore, participants of the [immersive virtual trainer] group commented that once in the real shoothouse, they felt as though they had “already been there.”’

The authors concluded that training delivery by these means would allow associative learning (i.e. use of cues to elicit the desired behaviour) and help instructors ‘automate a response through repetition.’

The authors of that report  Mark and Brenda Wiederhold, whose Virtual Reality Medical Centre is a recipient of ONR project funding  expanded elsewhere on the worth of simulated environment in desensitizing and ‘stress hardening’ trainees:

Deployed personnel must often perform in extremely stressful environments, and optimum performance under such conditions requires effective management of physiological, psychological and emotional responses to stimuli. An acute stress reaction (ASR) or combat and operational stress reaction (COSR) can occur during exposure to exceptionally stressful events like those encountered in combat, resulting in extreme sympathetic nervous system arousal and impaired performance…

During VR-enhanced preventative SIT [stress-inoculation training], military personnel “experience” highly stressful situations in a virtual environment while being physiologically monitored. Repeated exposure enables personnel to gradually become desensitized to stimuli that may initially elicit such strong physiological arousal that performance is impeded (i.e., “freezing in the line of fire”) …

Naval research has also concluded that stress-exposure training in ‘virtual environments’ decreases the trainee’s physiological response to stress and thus mitigates the adverse performance effects of stress on aviators.

UCF faculty member Peter Hancock, on the other hand, argued in a paper for the journal Military Psychology that high-fidelity simulations were not necessary for effective combat training.

When the elements of a game are present, part of the physical fidelity or reproduced realness of a simulated environment may be sacrificed while immersion itself still remains at an optimal level for training effectiveness. Thus, personal computer (PC)-based gaming tools can be highly effective training tools.

Experiments were conducted ‘supplementing an OTS [off-the-shelf, i.e. commercial entertainment] infantry game training session with an intense and vivid video depiction of a front-line infantry battle’ (15 minutes of realistic and ‘graphically intense war scenes from the beach invasion portion of the movie Saving Private Ryan‘).

Instructors were able to induce in their subjects ‘increased arousal via movie-like special effects’. Compared to a control group who watched a ‘non-stimulating’ black-and-white clip of actual documentary footage from the Normandy landing, individuals whose ‘were exposed to realistic warlike stress images and reacted with positive arousal… effectively retained training and had higher performance scores overall.’

Writing in 2004, he concluded: ‘With recent world events, it is evident that PC-based game training combined with effective supplementary stress might be used to assist rapid-deployment troops who will face immediate immersion in real-world conditions.’

And what of the visual-attention proficiency that Ferguson mentions?

Such skills (which underlie e.g. shooting accuracy, friend-or-foe discrimination) are known to degrade with stress. The US Army Research Laboratory suggests the capacity of video games to improve visual focus, enhancing the ability of troops to filter out distracting information and attend selectively to task-relevant stimuli (i.e. enemy targets) in combat environments, is explained by stress habituation.

Experiments reveal participants trained to play first-person shooter video games featuring ‘intense battlefield violence’ perform better at subsequent attentional-focus and object-tracking exercises than those trained to play similar games with the combat violence removed.

The same physiological measures of arousal and autonomic nervous system activation (skin conductivity, heart rate, etc.) show that violent video games played for entertainment purposes have a similar effect. Their users become habituated and gradually develop tolerance for stimuli (e.g. footage of real-life stabbings) and activities that initially provoke a stress response.

This fact suggests that violent visual-entertainment products (some computer and console-based games, as well as films and TV programmes) may inadvertently function like stress-exposure training for their audience and users.

For combat and marksmanship training, the goal of imparting ‘resilience’ is to increase the survival and lethality of troops. This is of course not the point of entertainment products, where the only concern besides the commercial one is the usual pride of producers in their work.

But these products seem nonetheless to involve a similar brutalization or ‘hardening’. They arouse their audiences and users and then gradually lower the latter’s affective and physiological responses to extreme violence. Violence thereafter can be appreciated on higher cognitive planes: as satiric, intriguing, comic, food for thought, artfully presented, exhilirating, etc.

This will be an unpalatable conclusion for anyone fond of such products or with a professional interest in their continued good standing, production, sale and use. But it simply isn’t honest to deny the antecedent proposition (i.e. that combat training uses games/simulation to desensitize instructees) in order safely to reject the consequent.