The Science of Evil
I’ve gotten some pushback in the comments for citing S.L.A. Marshall’s findings on how many soldiers actually fired on the enemy during World War II.
Marshall came up with an improbably low figure — perhaps around 15-20%. Many soldiers never fired, deliberately fired over the heads of the enemy, or just busied themselves on other tasks (fetching supplies, rescuing comrades, delivering messages), or so he claimed.
The implication of Marshall’s work, of course, that taking another human life really is horrible, and that ordinary people may find it very hard to do.
Was he right? Frankly, I’m not sure. Some studies do corroborate his work. Others cast doubt on it. His methodology wasn’t nearly as strict as one would have liked. So I admit that don’t really know. It’s not a hill, as they say, that I’m willing to die on.
Instead, let’s posit for a moment that Marshall was completely wrong. Let’s suppose that war is just a part of human nature. As we all know, most people are highly obedient to authority anyway, so in the end, maybe killing is pretty easy, at least under the right conditions. Cue Philip Zimbardo, and Stanley Milgram, and Christopher R. Browning, and ponder for a moment that humans may in fact be rat bastards. At the very least we are able to prompt them in that direction with the right outside stimuli. It’s a view for which I have great sympathy. Indeed, I even once invited Zimbardo to speak at the Cato Institute, which he did.
Would the military be more right, then, to adopt training techniques that are designed to dehumanize the enemy? Does dismissing Marshall’s work in favor of the Zimbardo/Milgram/Browning model of personal decisionmaking render dehumanization morally better? As the modern-day Thoreau noted, the right response to a study showing that 20% of men will use deadly fire on strangers is most emphatically not to go to work on the other 80%.
It’s also possible, even if Marshall is not correct on his numbers, that voluntary non-firers are still an important component of any military engagement. And Z/M/B may have a point as well; the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Dehumanize the enemy, and more people will shoot. Make them seem like real, ordinary people, and fewer will.
This seems thoroughly plausible to me, even if some dead guy did make up a bunch of numbers way back when. It’s also presumably plausible to the U.S. Armed Forces, because they train their recruits on just this assumption.
If all of this is correct, then the decision of whether or not to fire is based, on the margin, on one’s evaluation of the basic humanity of one’s enemy. In such a world, it behooves us to appear humane to our enemies. Next time, they could be the ones not shooting.
So… What could we do to appear more humane? Without, of course, actually being more humane. That’s for chumps.