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The Fog of War Insights
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The Fog of War

April 12, 2024 731

I must say from the outset that I’m one of the fortunate generations in the UK who never had to take part in any military activities. Older boys at my school joined the combined cadet force, learning to march and use rifles, so that they would become officers when they were called up. But it was by then clear that I would never have to join a military force.  When I visited the FBI training center at Quantico as a British ‘offender profiler,’ a famous FBI profiler there, Robert Ressler, could not believe that I had never even held a firearm. Like most of my peers, friends, and colleagues, I am profoundly ignorant of what it means, or feels like, to be in a battle or work out the strategies and tactics for fighting a war.

Consequently, I look on the details of military activity being carried out around the world that are hourly shown on our screens with a mixture of horror and incredibility. What are the soldiers doing and how can they put themselves into such implacable harm? But most challenging of all how can there be rules to follow in carrying out these most atavistic and inhumane of human endeavours?

I know, from what I have read of the training of soldiers and fictional representations, that getting soldiers willing, and able to kill is a crucial part of the training process. The psychological aspect of this is to reduce each soldier to an order-following, unchallenging automaton and to reduce the enemy to devils incarnate. Less than human. I still remember an elderly family member telling me about, having signed up in WWI by lying about his age, his horror when his platoon took their first German prisoners. To his shock, he found them to be nervous teenagers like himself — not the monsters he’d been led to believe. That experience knocked the fight out of him.

In Gaza, Israelis know, or at least are told, that Hamas fighters believe that death in their battles with Israel is a privilege that will send them straight to heaven. Hamas have also made clear that its mission is to totally destroy Israel. This turns Hamas into a fearful monster, non-humans, who must be destroyed at all costs. In that context, soldiers who have been trained to respond without question, must often be on a trip-wire level of sensitivity — shooting before they have time to think about the consequences, whether they are in the battlefield directly or operating drones from a distance.

There is plenty of research to show that under stress, engrained habits surface, attention narrows, and logical decisions are more difficult to make. The complex communication systems that an extended army has to use must also make room for errors to increase. There are many examples in earlier wars of artillery firing on their own front-line troops because they did not get appropriate information in time. I remember one person who I happened to know who served in the British army in the first Gulf War telling me the experience there was fine as long as they could keep away from the Americans, who were too ready to shoot and ask questions later.

A not unusual, tragic incident was the accidental killing of the famous composer Anton Webern by a US soldier in September 1945.  Having fled to Salzburg, one evening Webern had just stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. There was still a lot of tension in the city, with the encroaching Russian army not far away. So, it is possible to understand a trigger-sensitive soldier mistaking in the dark what he thought was a dangerous enemy.

What is remarkable is the way human beings, ever since the oaths of chivalry and before, have tried to reduce the unwanted impact of war. The rules of war, established in various Geneva conventions over the last century, are an amazing, salutary, profoundly honorable attempt to impose some form of civilisation on the most uncivilized of activities. They try to limit the unwanted consequences of actions that are, in their very nature, inhuman. But they are logical, civil rules that are agreed by men (almost invariably) sitting around mahogany tables in grand rooms, hoping that the fog of war will not override them. They are attempts to control the basest emotions of people, often confused and uncertain, or uncaring of, whether their lives are at immediate risk. 

These rules are so readily overridden by feelings and heightened emotions, anger, and the need for retribution. It is well established that if young children are brutalized, experiencing violence against themselves and others from an early age, they often grow up with a ‘short fuse.’ They are ready to instantly use violence as the first and major response to any insult or threat. Could it be that some nations and communities, drawing on a history of being treated as less than human, can act like these beaten children?

None of these considerations exonerate, in any way, the killing of thousands of people, including aid workers, or the kidnapping of non-combatants.

But it may help to make sense of how these unprecedented atrocities can occur even with modern military technology and awareness of the Rules of War.

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

View all posts by David Canter

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