“Hanoi Jane” Fonda is claiming that ever since Vietnam, U.S. troops have been trained to commit atrocities against innocent civilians as a matter of military policy.
“Starting with the Vietnam War we began training soldiers differently,” the anti-American actress says in an email to the Washington Post.
Fonda claims she learned of the policy switch in “secret meetings” she had with military psychologists “who were really worried about what was happening to our combat personnel.”
One doctor, she insists, told her U.S. troops had been deliberately trained to be “killing machines.”
“This began,” Fonda maintained, “because the military discovered that in World War II and Korea, [U.S.] soldiers weren’t killing enough.”
“So they changed training procedures” to teach troops how to commit atrocities.
Still, the anti-war gadfly cautions, it’s important not to blame the soldiers themselves for carrying out war crimes.
Recalling the “Winter Soldier” hearings that she and John Kerry staged in 1971, Fonda lamented: “When you put young people into an atrocity-producing situation where enemy and civilian are commingled, where the ‘other side’ is dehumanized, we cannot be surprised.”
Anti-war vets now returning from Iraq, Fonda cautioned, should be listened to instead of being dismissed as “unpatriotic.”
“We have not learned the lessons of Vietnam,” she declared.
If you look at the trackbacks to Malkin’s post about Fonda, a lot of bloggers are pretty enraged at her Winter-Soldier-redux remarks. And rightly so; I count myself among them. But it’s no surprise that Fonda is singing the same old song, and trying to tie Iraq into Vietnam. I’ve already given my opinion on Fonda, here; so she’s not really the subject of this post. The subject of this post is the substance of her remarks.
Because, strange as it may seem, Fonda is actually correct–at least, about part of what she’s claiming. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially in the hands of Jane Fonda, and she draws the entirely wrong conclusions from that element of truth in her remarks.
What is she correct about? Well, she’s got this portion right: U.S. troops have been deliberately trained to be more automatic and focused about killing.
And, just as Fonda claims, “this began, because the military discovered that in World War II and Korea, [U.S.] soldiers weren’t killing enough.”
And indeed, they “changed training procedures” to correct that flaw.
But that’s where Jane parts company with the truth. She believes that this change is what led to atrocities in Vietnam. In fact, she’s got the thing quite backwards.
It’s certainly true that the phrase “killing machines” is a chilling one. But training members of the military to be more efficient and automatic at what they do is actually designed to make them more effective in a combat situation, to reduce psychological stress, and therefore to make atrocities less frequent, rather than more.
To understand this one must study the psychology of killing in war, a subject that until recently has been somewhat taboo (it’s certainly not anything I, as a psych major back in the 60s, heard anything about).
But, just as Fonda states, it was discovered during WWII that:
…according to the military historian S.L.A. Marshall, as many as 80 percent of the American infantrymen he interviewed failed to fire their weapons in combat. Marshall attributed the low ”fire ratio” to a mixture of poor training and a natural reluctance to kill. Even though his methodology has come under attack — critics say his numbers are exaggerated — his premise is generally accepted, and his book, ”Men Against Fire,” is read throughout the military establishment. After it was published in 1947, the military revamped its training to make G.I.’s more comfortable firing at humans; soldiers shot at targets shaped like people rather than at bull’s-eyes, for example. Today, Special Forces units make their training as realistic as possible, using pop-up targets with human faces, and setting off smoke bombs and small explosions to simulate the battlefield experience.
Dave Grossman, who spoke to me about ”the bulletproof mind,” has written about the hidden logic behind military training. In his controversial book ”On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” he writes: ”It is entirely possible that no one intentionally sat down to use operant conditioning or behavior modification techniques to train soldiers in this area. But from the standpoint of a psychologist who is also a historian and a career soldier, it has become increasingly obvious to me that this is exactly what has been achieved.” …
Indeed, Special Forces officers openly discuss the use of ”stress inoculation” — in which they are exposed to heartbeat-racing drills that raise their threshold for staying calm. It doesn’t mean Special Forces soldiers are immune to stress or the mistakes that stress causes, but it takes a lot more to rattle one of them than an old-time draftee….
Special Forces soldiers may develop cold-blooded reflexes, but they are also trained to know when not to kill. Targets that pop up during shooting drills include women and children who are not supposed to be shot. Being able to remain steady in combat doesn’t just mean you will be a quick draw; it also means that you will do a better job of deciding when to hold your fire. As Grossman writes of the calibration of aggression: ”This is a delicate and dangerous process. Too much, and you end up with a My Lai. . . . Too little, and your soldiers will be defeated and killed by someone who is more aggressively disposed.” Colonel King put it like this: ”Our guys have got to be confident in their ability to use lethal force. But they’ve got to be principled enough to know when not to use it. We’re not training pirates.”
Exactly how does one train soldiers to be effective and yet principled killers? Operant conditioning is part of it. The goal of this process of accustoming military members to killing in wartime is to reduce their psychological and physical stress/fear, in order to avoid panic. And why is this so important? Because it’s this stress/panic reaction (as well as a number of other factors, to be discussed in a moment) that can lead to the commission of atrocities in war.
The training, as described by the aforementioned Colonel Dave Grossman (an expert in the field), is as follows:
Many people think killing is a natural act, but Col. Grossman argues that it isn’t. He discusses how new and innovative pop up targets, video-based firearms training simulators, and Simunition®-based training are used to facilitate overcoming this innate resistance. These devices are then combined with high repetition to condition a correct response even in the face of fear….
Sometimes, a deadly force encounter explodes without warning, or a fight can be so fast and furious that there is no time to think about which technique to use and how best to employ it. To survive, you must do what needs to be done – now. In order to react reflexively, yet responsibly, and continue to fight no matter how impaired, you must have a set of conditioned responses ingrained into your mind.
Range training must be repetitive. When a pop up target of a bad guy appears (stimulus), you shoot (response). Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, and then a pop up target of a man holding a cell phone appears, you don’t shoot. The more realistic the target is, the better….
Realistic settings and situations, combined with live fire training using Simunition rounds will dramatically elevate your adrenaline to replicate how a real situation feels. The more you engage in this kind of training, the lower your heart rate gets as you become “inoculated” against combat, just as a vaccination will inoculate against a disease.
Stress is part of battle, and can never be eliminated. But too much stress leads to combat fatigue and ineffectiveness, and can also lead to atrocities. Therefore anything that reduces it is likely to reduce atrocities, not encourage them.
In this article there is a very lengthy discussion of the ways in which stress can lead to both casualties and to violations of the rules of war–that is, atrocities and war crimes. Here’s a very brief summary:
Examples of misconduct stress behaviors range from minor breaches of unit orders or regulations to serious violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and perhaps the Law of Land Warfare. As misconduct stress behaviors, they are most likely to occur in poorly trained, undisciplined soldiers. However, they can also be committed by good, even heroic, soldiers under extreme combat stress.
The most famous example of combat stress being a contributing factor in the commission of atrocities was, of course, My Lai in Vietnam. My Lai was an occurrence with many elements that came together on one terrible day to cause a true war crime (in the following, I’ve taken the information mostly from this article, which is part of a military training course. Also, by the way, nothing in the rest of this post should be construed as an excuse for atrocities in general nor of Mai Lai in particular; it’s offered as an explanation only).
Some of the non-stress factors leading to My Lai were part of the Vietnam War itself: the emphasis on body counts, for example; confusing, complex, and poorly understood rules of engagement; the one-year rotation making for lack of cohesive and experienced units.
Enemy tactics were another factor implicated in the mindset that led to My Lai (some of this may sound familiar to those who’ve followed the current “war on terror”):
The Viet Cong conducted a guerrilla war that can best be described as “clutching the people to their breast.” They disguised themselves as civilians, hid amongst civilians, often fortified villages (with noncombatants being the vast majority of the population), and even used civilians of all ages and both sexes (little children, women, and old men, included) for logistical support, intelligence, and to plant mines and booby traps. There was widespread belief among American soldiers that the Viet Cong would use the type of civilians mentioned above to throw grenades. An expert on the Vietnamese army remarked that “the Vietnamese communists erased entirely the line between military and civilian by ruling out the notion of noncombatant.”
One could say that these strategies on the part of the Viet Cong seemed almost designed to call forth atrocities on the part of the Americans, if possible–and if one said that, one would probably be correct:
A member of the Viet Cong would later confirm that: “Children were trained to throw grenades, not only for the terror factor, but so the government or American soldiers would have to shoot them. Then the Americans feel very ashamed. And they blame themselves and call their soldiers war criminals.” It was not rare for small children to wave an American patrol into a booby trap or minefield. Additionally, the Viet Cong would use women and children as lethal ploys or ruses to lead Americans into deadly ambushes. Female Viet Congs were just as effective as their male counterparts, especially in sniper fire. In other words, the civilians were not exactly sitting out the war. American servicemen soon grew wary and suspicious of all Vietnamese.
Yet another huge factor was the terrible stress that C Company in particular, the unit involved in My Lai, had been under:
C Co. was fully deployed in Vietnam by the second week of December 1967. Task Force Barker was activated on 1 January 1968 to take over military operations in the Quang Ngai Province (a province that is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Viet Cong). C Co.’s first casualty comes from a booby trap on 28 January 1968. The following month, on 25 February 1968, C Co. walked into a minefield. CPT Medina kept his head and, after three died and twelve suffered serious injuries, managed to lead his soldiers out. The soldiers of C Co. blamed the Vietnamese villagers nearby who failed to warn them of the minefield and booby traps.
1LT Calley, who had just returned from leave, saw the helicopters transporting the dead and wounded. 1LT Calley also noticed that, from that point on, the attitude of his soldiers toward Vietnamese children had changed — they no longer gave them candy, and kicked them away. According to one account, 1LT Calley could hardly restrain his satisfaction when he said “Well, I told you so.” Prior to the minefield incident, Task Force Barker had failed on two separate attempts to trap the 48th LF Bn in the Quang Ngai Province. During the second attempt, A Co. came under heavy automatic and mortar fire coming from My Lai 4., the second time in a month that Task Force Barker had encountered resistance from around the hamlet of My Lai. Its company commander is among the fifteen wounded, five other soldiers died.
After the minefield incident, C Co.’s esprit de cops and morale sagged and eventually vanished. They went down to 105 soldiers. To make matters even worse, on 14 March 1968, SGT George Cox, an NCO well liked and respected by the soldiers of C Co., an NCO with a reputation for looking after his soldiers, was killed by a booby trap while on patrol. Since arriving in Vietnam three months earlier, C Co. had suffered twenty-eight casualties, including five killed. All the casualties were caused by mines, booby traps, and snipers.
It takes little imagination to see that C Co. had been undergoing terrible psychological and physical stress–being blown up by mines and booby traps without ever getting a chance to fight back and engage the unseen and mysterious enemy, or to defend themselves. And, since in their minds they had reason to suspect the villagers were cooperative–or even instrumental–in the setting of those booby traps and mines, the stage was set for the massacre, which represented not a disciplined and cohesive force of trained fighting men, but an explosion of frustration and rage by a group that was highly stressed and poorly prepared for what they faced, as well as subject to weak and inadequate leadership.
The idea that training the military to be more automatic in its responses and less stressed in combat is hard to accept; it seems so cold and brutal. But, once understood, I think it’s clear that courses working towards that end, such as Grossman’s, actually lead away from more My Lais, not towards them.