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The Training Of Soldiers

By John Scales Avery

18 October, 2012

Within individual countries, murder is rightly considered to be the worst of crimes. But the institution of war tries to convince us that if a soldier murders someone from another country, whom the politicians have designated as an “enemy”, it is no longer a crime, no longer a violation of the common bonds of humanity. It is “heroic”.

In their hearts, soldiers know that this is nonsense. Murder is always murder. The men, women and children who are supposed to be the “enemy”, are just ordinary people, with whom the soldier really has no quarrel. Therefore when the training of soldiers wears off a little, so that they realize what they have done, they have to see themselves as murderers, and many commit suicide.

A recent article in the journal “Epidemiology” pointed out a startling statistic: for every American soldier killed in combat this year, 25 will commit suicide. The article also quotes the Department of Veterans Affairs, which says that 18 veterans commit suicide every day.

Obviously, the training of soldiers must overwrite fundamental ethical principles. This training must make a soldier abandon his or her individual conscience and sense of responsibility. It must turn the soldier from a compassionate human being into an automaton, a killing machine. How is this accomplished? Through erosion of of the soldier's self-respect. Through the endless repetition of senseless rituals where obedience is paramount and from which rational thought and conscience are banished.

In his book on fanaticism, The True Believer (1951), the American author Eric Hoffer gives the following description of the factors promoting self-sacrifice:

“To ripen a person for self-sacrifice, he must be stripped of his individual identity. He must cease to be George, Hans, Ivan or Tado - a human atom with an existence bounded by birth and death. The most drastic way to achieve this end is by the complete assimilation of the individual into a collective body. The fully assimilated individual does not see himself and others as human beings. When asked who he is, his automatic response is that he is a German, a Russian, a Japanese, a Christian, a Muslim, a member of a certain tribe or family. He has no purpose, worth or destiny apart from his collective body, and as long as that body lives, he cannot really die. ...

“The effacement of individual separateness must be thorough. In every act, however trivial, the individual must, by some ritual, associate himself with the congregation, the tribe, the party, etcetera. His joys and sorrows, his pride and confidence must spring from the fortunes and capacities of the group, rather than from his individual prospects or abilities. Above all, he must never feel alone. Though stranded on a desert island, he must feel that he is under the eyes of the group. To be cast out from the group must be equivalent to being cut off from life.

“This is undoubtedly a primitive state of being, and its most perfect examples are found among primitive tribes. Mass movements strive to approximate this primitive perfection, and we are not imagining things when the anti-individualist bias of contemporary mass movements strikes us as being a throwback to the primitive.”

The conditioning of a soldier in a modern army follows the pattern described in Eric Hoffer’s book. The soldier’s training aims at abolishing his sense of individual separateness, individual responsibility, and moral judgment. It is filled with rituals, such as saluting, by which the soldier identifies with his tribe-like army group. His uniform also helps to strip him of his individual identity and to assimilate him into the group. The result of this psychological conditioning is that the soldier’s mind reverts to a primitive state. He surrenders his moral responsibility, and when the politicians tell him to kill, he kills.

Suggestions for further reading

1. Matt Wood, “Crunching the Numbers on the Rate of Suicide Among Veterans”, Epidemiology, April 27, (2012).

2. Eric Hoffer, “The True Believer”, Harper and Row, (1951).

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm



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