‘OVER here, killing people is like squashing an ant. I mean, you kill somebody and it’s like ‘All right, let’s go get some pizza’.”
That’s an American soldier, Private Steven Green, interviewed in Iraq in 2006.
Green’s words sound shocking but they represent the reality of combat in places such as Iraq: good soldiers kill quickly and dispassionately. Even with modern, high-tech weapons, someone must still pull the trigger.
And that’s not necessarily easy.
A famous World War II study by S. L. A. Marshall shocked military theorists when it suggested that only a minority of American soldiers could bring themselves to fire directly at another human being in combat, even with their own life at risk.
“The average and healthy individual . . . has such an inner . . . resistance towards killing a fellow man,” wrote Marshall, “that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility.”
The Soviet journalist Vasily Grossman noted a similar phenomenon on the Eastern Front. “Sixty per cent of our soldiers haven’t fired a single shot during the war at all,” a commander told him. “We are fighting thanks to heavy machine-guns, battalion mortars and the courage of some individuals.”
Since then, military trainers have developed various techniques to overcome the inherent human resistance to killing.
Most importantly, soldiers such as Private Green now train in realistic simulations of combat so that aiming, firing and seeing the target fall dead becomes a single, almost unconscious, conditioned response. The Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright quotes Sergeant Brad Colbert on his first experience of combat. “It was just like training. I just loaded and fired my weapon from muscle memory. I wasn’t even aware what my hands were doing.”
The muscle memory that allows the soldier to kill without inhibition can be developed during live-fire exercises but increasingly the American military relies on computerised simulations, providing the trainee with a level of realism never before possible.
Such computerisation works so well in breaking down the resistance to killing that some officers suggest that even off-the-shelf combat games can help develop it.
Retired marine Colonel Gary Anderson, former chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, explained to The Washington Post that their exposure to first-person shooter games make today’s soldiers the “new Spartans”.
“Remember the days of the old Sparta, when everything they did was towards war?” he said. “In many ways, the soldiers of this video-game generation have replicated that.”
The same article quotes one Sergeant Sinque Swales on his experience killing an Iraqi with a .50 calibre machine-gun.
“It felt like I was in a big video game,” he recalled. “It didn’t even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!”
As Lieutenant-Colonel Scott Sutton from the technology division at Quantico Marine Base puts it, modern soldiers “feel less inhibited, down in their primal level, pointing their weapons at somebody”.
Such is the context for the American military’s own investments in the video-games industry. Full Spectrum Warrior, for instance, might have been released commercially for PCs and Xboxes but it was designed and developed with the army’s backing as a training tool for urban combat, and a simple cheat code, easily available from the internet, converts the retail version into the simulation used to coach officers.
Playing Full Spectrum Warrior will not, in itself, turn you into a trained killer. Nonetheless, the digitalisation of war still has far-reaching effects.
Consider America’s Army, a video game developed as a recruiting tool by the US military. Freely downloadable online, it claims about 8 million registered players, all enthusiastically gunning down electronic bad guys. The game also features cameos from genuine soldiers who direct players towards the real-world enlistment office and enthuse about actual adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the honour and courage and heroism that await there.
In this way, the digital battlefield fosters remarkably old-fashioned notions of combat as a source of meaning and purpose, even as it transforms killing into an unthinking conditioned response.
It’s no wonder that Steven Green felt so confused.
“I thought killing somebody would be this life-changing experience,” he said. “And then I did it, and I was like, ‘All right, whatever.’ ”
Yet reality is not a video game, and killing a human being is not the same as squashing an ant.
Conditioned reflexes might allow soldiers to open fire without hesitation but they do not provide them with a framework for coming to terms with what they’ve done. The soldiers in Iraq who kill more efficiently than any previous generation are also returning home with extraordinary levels of psychiatric trauma. Already, about 50,000 Iraq veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
As for Private Green, shortly after he talked about how little killing affected him, he was arrested for raping an Iraqi girl and murdering her and her family.
When you’ve finished playing America’s Army, you can turn the program off and walk away. Real violence is different. The tragedy of Iraq encompasses more than those who have been killed. It extends to those who have done the killing: most often young men and women from ordinary backgrounds, who will often be haunted by war for the rest of their lives.