Just Wondering: Do men like killing other men?

Just Wondering: Do men like killing other men?

by John-Henry Hill, M.D., Ph.D.

August 22, 2017


Unlike most of my essays, I did NO in-depth research – actually very little research at all – – for what is written below. It is based on personal experiences, recollections of articles I read years ago, and just plain hunches. Take it for what it is worth.


A few nights ago I watched the film, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” (2009) with Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges. It was not my first time watching this well-written and well-acted comedy, but the premise on which U.S. Army officer Jeff Bridges creates his non-violent “psych-ops” training group for the Army is rather interesting. When ambushed in combat in Vietnam, Bridges notices that all of his troops are firing high into the tree tops, instead of at the enemy lying on the ground. Oddly enough, the enemy troops appear to be firing far too high also. As the senior officer setting an example, Bridges stands up and promptly gets shot in the chest. While in the hospital, Bridges has a “revelation” that people do NOT truly want to kill each other – and if he could train his troops to harness this “non-violent energy” and re-direct it toward the enemy, then killing might be avoided on both sides: neither side would want to kill their opponent. Sounds a bit “goofy”, but the U.S. Army has had several such programs – and probably still does!

When swords, knives, axes, etc. were the primary instruments of combat, the fighting was “up close and personal” – hand-to-hand and very bloody. From the time of Alexander the Great to the early-1700’s, the army that won a battle killed off ALL the enemy soldiers (who had not fled earlier).  Prisoners were very rarely taken – usually for ransom. You fought because if you did NOT, you were either killed OR your lord would throw you off your tenant farm.  If you won, the spoils of war scattered on the battlefield were there for the picking. – and you kept your tenant farm. But this type of combat was close-quarter, kill-or-be-killed. Period.

With the advent of “kill-at-a-distance” weapons, such as smoothbore and later rifled muskets and cannon, war and combat changed dramatically. You could kill the enemy without even seeing him; or being within miles of him (in the case of artillery). Combat was no longer “up close and personal”. Instead, with few exceptions it was sterile and impersonal. And with the introduction of fully-automatic weapons (e.g., heavy and light machine guns as during World War I), you did not even need to aim the weapon – you simply moved the weapon back and forth laterally to more efficiently cover your “field of fire”. Several machine guns with over-lapping “fields of fire” would stop almost any infantry assault. During a typical World War I battle (often lasting months) hundreds of millions of rifle/machine gun cartridges would be fired.

However, if this was true, why was only a relatively small percentage of casualties caused by bullet wounds from rifles and machine guns? Even the bayonet often resulted in more casualties – but that is digressing back into “up close and personal” combat. In fact, we know from research performed during and after major modern wars that most soldiers (60-70%) in combat were killed or wounded by shrapnel – from artillery, bombs, hand-grenades, etc. In fact, excluding disease, the casualty rate from such “kill-at-a-distance” weapons such as artillery, etc. was approximately 65-70%, regardless of the war or era when fought.

My first impression is that the Jeff Bridges character came to the wrong conclusion. As a long-time shooter (paper targets and combat style), hunter and some-time shooting range supervisor, I know from experience that a shooter under little or no stress will usually align his front and rear sights properly – the tops of both sights should be level (on the same plane). This is called a “sight picture”. Obtaining a proper “sight picture” is one of the many skills that a good shooter consciously practices. However, add some stress (e.g., “speed shooting”; “combat-style shooting”) of a formal competition and, for all but the most experienced shooters, an odd thing happens. The novice or non-expert shooter, in his haste to sight in on the target, will misalign his sights, most often concentrating his vision on the front sight and thereby elevating that front sight above level (above the plane) of the rear sight. The result is that the barrel is pointed slightly upwards, so the weapon will shoot high. Police and soldiers are trained to aim for “center mass”: the lower chest. Such training is fine, but in split-second, real-life armed confrontations I KNOW that occasionally I personally, other long-time shooters and even police officers sometimes misalign the sights just slightly as described above. Consequently, under very limited time restraints and severe stress I will aim for the upper or mid-abdomen, with the bullets usually hitting my opponent’s “center mass” (mid-chest) – where that “opponent” is a paper target or a life-size mannequin. In short, my initial conclusion is that stress-induced misalignment of the rifle’s sights was a greater factor in the high percentage of “misses” in combat, rather than the average soldier truly not wanting to kill another human being.

It was reported (unverified) that Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the first battlefield commanders to test to accuracy of his troops firing their muskets, as well as his artillery. One, must remember that these muskets were smooth-bore (had no rifling – twisting grooves inside the barrel – to make the bullet spin like a gyroscope and thereby stabilize it.) The bullet was a spherical lead ball, so even if the musket barrels had “rifling”, the round lead balls would not have been imparted with this gyroscopic force from spinning.  In addition his soldiers used flint-locks in with the gunpowder literally ignited in the shooter’s face, so that shooters often “took aim”, then looked aside when pulling the trigger. Finally, the black gun powder created a huge amount of smoke from one musket. From thousands of muskets fired at once, it created shield of impenetrable smoke due to which the second line of shooters often could not even see their opponents, much less take aim at a specific soldier. Thus, we will concentrate on the first shot fired. It is generally accepted that the maximum effective killing range of a smooth-bore musket shooting a round lead ball was 100 yards or less. To hit a man at more than 100 yards was more luck than skill.

Napoleon wondered why during actual combat the first line of soldiers to fire – unhindered by the heavy gunpowder smoke – caused so few casualties (up to 10%); and subsequent ranks caused even fewer (probably due to the heavy smoke). He set up what I will call the “white banner best”. A white banner was strung across a field and a line of a hundred soldiers, at a distance of about 100 yards, would shoot at it simultaneously. Then, after the smoke cleared, the next group of soldiers shot, and so on. After (let’s say, because there is no record I could find) 1,000 soldiers had fired, Napoleon simply counted the number of holes in the banner. The results surprised him: over 85% of the soldiers had hit the banner. I would suggest that the great difference in “hits” between testing and actual combat was due to the fear and stress of combat; and the resulting misalignment of the musket’s sights.

I would presume that the British, Prussian, Austrian and other armies conducted similar tests; and got similar results. Whatever the cause, it was clear that troops firing muskets in combat were not very effective. Their use of volley fire (an entire row of soldiers lined up and firing at precisely the same moment) was intended to panic the enemy; then they would charge at the enemy to get close enough to use the bayonet – the individual soldier’s primary killing weapon.  It would become standard practice for such armies to fire two to three volleys of muskets, then to charge the enemy through the extremely dense smoke with “fixed bayonets”.

Only with the invention of rifled barrel and the conical bullet (“minie’ ball), along with a firing “cap” (percussion cap) – as used during the American Civil War – were these tactics abandoned, as such rifles were easily accurate to 500 yards of more.

We are still left with the unanswered question: Do men like to kill other men?  During World War II the historian S.L.A. Marshall studied this issue (American soldiers only) and wrote, “The thing is simply this, that out of an average of one hundred men along the line of fire during an encounter, only fifteen men on average (15%) would take ANY part with their weapons. This was true whether the action was spread over a day, or two days, or three.” Marshall’s findings were the same for both the Pacific and European theaters of war. The majority (around 85%) of American soldiers in World War II would NOT fire their weapons at the enemy, under ANY circumstances. Of those few who would fire (the 15%), less than half would take careful aim – the remainder just shot in the general direction of the enemy”. The result is less than 7.5% of American soldiers in a combat situation would fire their weapons at the enemy, taking careful aim –– an extremely significant reduction in firepower of a combat unit. Marshall stressed that the cause was the Christian injunction against killing. Most American soldiers simply refused to kill other human beings. (S.L.A. Marshall, “Men Against Fire”; (New York, 1947); P 57 and Chapter 5 generally)

 But what about soldiers from other cultures? And were Marshall’s figures unique to World War II era American combat soldiers?  Given the massive dehumanization of both German and Japanese people via the extensive American and British propaganda, it is hard to imagine any significant change in Americans’ attitudes towards killing another person today, compared to World War II.

Perhaps Bridges’ character’s “revelation” that people do NOT truly want to kill other human beings is correct after all.


On a personal note: In my lifetime I have shot only one person – an armed robber (pistol) who demanded my wallet and medical bag as I walked at night to my car in a parking lot some distance from the hospital. Going against my training, I did NOT aim for “center mass” (chest) – instead I purposely shot him in the upper, lateral (outer) thigh (where there are no major blood vessels, bones or other important structures). I disarmed him, placed a tourniquet on his thigh, bandaged the actual wound, then left.

I also told him that: a.) the doctors who park in this distant lot seldom carry much cash; b.) no doctor carries any drugs in his medical bag; c.) almost every doctor (and nurse) I knew carried a concealed pistol.


“Odds and Ends” Notes:

When “hand-to-hand”: swords —thus, killing a necessity

Note: in battles American Indians “counted coup” rather than killing.

With distance-kill weapons: sterile and impersonal – and far less bloody to the gunner of an artillery piece.

Bow and arrow: used both as a short-range and long-range weapon. (Young Lakota –  aka, Sioux – Indian boys used to practice by shooting an arrow through a small hoop tossed into the air. By his early teens a popular Lakota male contest among friends was killing crickets as they jumped with arrows shot from a bow.) Longer, more powerful bows – made using a different curing process for the wood – could shoot an arrow hundreds of yards. When used en masse, the effect was similar to artillery.

Flintlock muskets – the flash and smoke; Round ball   – 100 yards max inaccurately


“exploding shells” –à enormous amounts shrapnel (small lead balls, plus the iron casing of the shell) rains          down on soldiers

“high-explosive shell” –à explode on contact; less shrapnel, but blows things to bits

“Cannister” —-à large shotgun (literally a can-shaped container filled with small lead balls)

“Grape-shot” – larger lead balls within a can-shaped container

“solid shot” –à penetration of heavy structures (e.g., walls); also would tear off a leg if hit

The “rifled” barrel (twisting grooves cut inside the barrel) with conical minie-ball, 400-500 yards extremely accurately

Pistols/rifles (rifled, smokeless powder)

“Sight-picture”: shooters, hunters and soldiers are trained to aim their rifle/pistol’s front and rear sights to place the “sight-picture” on the target’s center. This skill may sound easy to master, but any well-trained shooter knows that acquiring this skill takes enormous repetition. And even a highly skilled shooter, especially when excited, will sometimes fire his weapon with an incorrect sight-picture. In most cases the shooter raises the level of the front sight slightly HIGHER that the level of the rear sight. The result is that he will shoot high, either hitting the target higher up than intended or shooting over the target.

WW-1:   no greater effect that was caused by development, than “heavy artillery”. Artillery weapons were substantial cannons that had the ability to fire explosive rounds against enemy positions and lines, which caused a lot of damage to men, landscape, and equipment. During World War 1, these heavy artillery became much more technologically advanced, hence were used by different empires and colonies in many situations/ battles. The newly developed artillery was more accurate, mobile (wheels were incorporated) and were much more powerful. Exploding shells and shrapnel fired from heavy artillery killed more soldiers than any other weapon used in the First World War and Second World War. During the battle of the Somme (1916), 1.8 million heavy artillery shells were fired at German lines throughout one single week.

Not often mentioned by authors writing about combat is the fact that an artillery shell (or a component thereof) need NOT hit you to wound or kill you.  First, even if you were in “fox hole”, trench, or deep bunker, the explosion of a large shell would generate a “shock wave” of compressed air which travels at hundreds of miles per hour. This high-speed blast of air could inflate one’s lungs so that they literally burst inside the chest. Second, the “shock wave” hitting the body could cause severe and often fatal internal damage. Third, artillery induced such extreme fear in soldiers because: a.) the massive and gruesome destruction of a soldier’s body; b.) no adequate protection that would ensure his safety – even a deep bunker – could possibly be built for the average soldier or officer; c.) the randomness of where they fell and exploded. When not on the attack, a soldier could find or build protection/shelter (“defilade”) against being shot by a rifle. But artillery and even mortar shells, etc. were different – there was “no hiding”. And you never knew when “your time was up”: a year from now, a week from now, a minute from now, a second from now.

This extreme fear, when it resulted in mental and physical incapacitation, was called “shell shock” – the SOUND of the name itself conveys a sense of the condition. “Shell Shock” (During World War II the Army “sanitized” this condition, calling it “battle fatigue”. And for the Vietnam War and later wars, the condition was called “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD) – as if the euphemisms used for the condition somehow altered the condition itself.)

Even a solid-shot artillery shell could kill without touching the soldier. A vivid example, as told by First Lieutenant Frank Haskell, General Hancock’s aide at Gettysburg, was a Union soldier lying on his stomach behind a small rock for shelter. One solid shot had already hit this rock, but the soldier was unharmed so it appeared that this soldier’s selection of defilade was not unwise. However, moments later another solid shot fired from a Confederate cannon landed just in front of the rock, then continued boring into the Earth. Hancock’s aide Haskell noticed that the man did not move after that. Upon closer inspection, the aide discovered the soldier was dead. How? The transmission of vibrations from the solid shot up through the ground and into the man’s body (lying on his stomach) was sufficient to cause fatal internal damage.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++ END OF ESSAY +++++++++++++++++++++++++++


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