Breaking ranks – the soldiers who refuse to fight

HOW many soldiers refuse to aim their guns at an enemy? Quite a few it seems.

General Samuel Marshall, the chief US combat historian during World War II, shocked military chiefs with his findings that, in an average infantry company during that war, only one in four soldiers actually fired their weapons while in contact with the enemy. About 75 per cent could not bear firing on another human being.

Marshall found that fear of killing, rather than the fear of being killed, was the most common cause of “battle failure” in the individual.

Marshall’s research methods have been questioned by some military analysts, but his broad conclusion is still accepted: soldiers often simply won’t shoot.

Research into killing ratios of other wars, including the US Civil War, has supported his claims. One historian wrote that at the great 1863 battle of Gettysburg, 27,000 muskets were left on field of battle and 90 per cent were unfired.

Psychologist Lt. Col. Dave Grossman,a former US Army Ranger and paratrooper, said there was a “the simple and demonstrable fact that there is, within most men and women, an intense resistance to killing other people. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it”.

“Thus the evidence shows that the vast majority of combatants throughout history, at the moment of truth when they could and should kill the enemy, have found themselves to be “conscientious objectors”—yet there seems to be a conspiracy of silence on this subject,” he said.

The truth of the phenomenon has forced armies to develop sophisticated methods for overcoming our innate aversion to killing.

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22 thoughts on “Breaking ranks – the soldiers who refuse to fight

  1. When people fought hand to hand with pikes or swords, they were put in the position of defending themselves. Trench warfare was different, with an amount of separation. My father used to talk about the camaraderie between opposing sides in the trenches in WWI. But WWII turned much of it impersonal, with the dropping of bombs on people you couldn’t even see. Automatic weapons fired in sprays were like a mock up war game too.

    Yet despite the sophisticated methods for overcoming our innate aversion to killing, there are still so many returning from war who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, often not from the stress of risking their own lives, but from the stress of what they had to do to others.

    An added stress is the realisation that so often it was all for nothing.

    Love might seem ineffective when turning evil aside, change might seem too slow, and lives will be sacrificed. But I believe the loss will be less than when aggression is answered with aggression, and when love succeeds the results last longer.

    My opinion only, of course!

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    • Love? Who knows, homosaps having been so screwed up for so long.
      But the aversion to killing (except for a few valid reasons) is a strong instinct in animals generally, and particularly so in the more social species.

      Exceptions which prove the rule aside, The Image of God (or creatures perverted by said Image) are the only animals which kill for politics, religion, sport or just plain fun.
      ….or for no reason at all.
      And the ONLY species that makes a habit of torture in any of myriad forms.
      It begins with cute little children ripping the wings of flies or seeing how well the kitten can breathe underwater.

      We truly are all Cain’s children.

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      • I ripped the wings off blowflies once Dabs, when I was about 3 or 4, for my fly circus. I still remember; I was so proud of my circus. I put some dirt in a shoebox, and some miniture toys so as the flies would have something to play with, and then I played with my miniture circus for days. 🙂

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    • Ardrey makes the same point about killing from a distance (“But WWII turned much of it impersonal, with the dropping of bombs on people you couldn’t even see. Automatic weapons fired in sprays were like a mock up war game too.”) about the advent of the bow and arrow.

      An animal which had developed a killer instinct as it’s main main survival tool suddenly found it could reach out beyond survival needs, and couldn’t help exercising it’s power. It’s where our arms fixation began. He also puts most human progress down to the fixation.

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    • I believe that if you hate someone enough you can kill them.

      At one stage in my life I truly hated Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein, enough to want them dead. Could I have pulled the trigger? Yes, back then I could have.

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      • BTW, it’s me Dom, Monica…..you know, the one who can’t even watch the news or read about cruelty to people and animals anymore. Does that mean I was once evil? No, I don’t think so. I just think that a lot of us really do not know what we are capable of until……..

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      • Hi Monica

        Some people deserve to die. The problem is who decides that and on what criteria. Saddam was just a puppet of the US. So if you think he should be killed also those giving him chemical weapons and pulling his string should be killed.

        According to a 1994 Senate report, private American suppliers, licensed by the U.S. Department of Commerce, exported a witch’s brew of biological and chemical materials to Iraq from 1985 through 1989.

        http://www.progressive.org/node/1866

        The US wanted Iran to fall at any cost.

        http://www.iranchamber.com/history/articles/arming_iraq.php

        A swat team should just hit the white house and arrest the lot of them.

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      • Yes Dom,

        I find the hypocrisy of it all so very shocking. And to think that they truly believe God blesses their actions and country. I think not!

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      • Another telling ~ if minor ~ example of the aversion to meting out death is saying “some people deserve to die” rather than ‘some people deserve to be killed’.
        One wouldn’t say the chook he needed dead for his dinner was going to ‘die’; it was about to be ‘killed’.

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    • Hatred :- “I believe that if you hate someone enough you can kill them.”, is just another uniquely human motivator, of course.

      Just as well we’re created in god’s image: otherwise we’d have no excuse at all.

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    • ….except that the only reason for the existence of an army is to kill people ~ and when they’re not killing they’re threatening to kill: and as often as not their own people.
      It’s what armies do.

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      • A deterrent to what? Some other army killing them?
        And how do they ‘deter’? By killing them first or better.
        I had this same argument with my brother, who was a Big Banana in the military until he retired.

        After months of wrangling his final comment was to the effect that ‘Just as well we had the armies to stop Hitler.’
        …and my final comment was that ‘Without armies to support him Hitler would still be selling primitive water-colours to make a living.

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      • We can all link hands and hold placards saying no in invasion allowed but it is not going to cut it. This world is not paradise, it is a test and we act accordingly to that.

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    • Hey Dom

      To seek out and close with the enemy to kill or capture him to seize ground and repel attack weather by day or night regardless of season weather or terrain.

      That’s the stated role of the infantry. Killing people is kinda part of their job description.

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      • Yes during war. What is their role during peace which would be hopefully most of the time ?

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      • During peace they train. There are no other roles for the infantry that’s what they do.

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      • I recall an Australian Army peace keeping force was deployed on some Pacific island, was very effective, and received much praise. Personel were unarmed.

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  2. We have found a similar conclusion within the Warsaw Pact armies of the Cold War. The difference was that these armies were often composed of conscripted soldiers who did not have time to overcome their aversion to killing, or battle experience.

    And the same goes for the Western Armies. You put a bunch of soldiers who have just completed their basic training in the front lines and you have this sort of problems. What this study did not show conclusively was what happens when you have professional soldiers or career soldiers being put in combat situations. The statistics are very much different.

    Please remember that Gettisburg, the American Civil War, World War One and Two, were all fought with armies composed of people who were drafted in the forces for the duration of the war, not necessarily career soldiers. Hence this sort of unwillingness to shoot.

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    • I’m sure you are right, Davinci. Exceptions would be the many young men who in times of peace join the armed foresfor employment and training benefits, and then are dismayed if they’re deployed to a war zone.

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      • That too. Except I remember seeing a documentary about a woman soldier who was deployed to Iraq during the first gulf war. She said that she only joined the US Marine reserves, thought she was getting some easy money, and that going to Iraq had never entered her mind. So I wonder if the situation that these studies describe is worse for women than men.

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