Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kill Rates

During and directly following World War II, Army psychologists conducted extensive interviews with troops just returned from ground infantry combat operations. Their questions, however, did not pertain to the psychological welfare of the soldier or any difficulties with which he may have been suffering. The question they asked was simple. Did you shoot to kill? The answers they received confirmed years of inexplicable data, frustrating remarks from trainers and officers alike, and truly shook the foundations of military service.

In data that remained consistent through more than 400 interview battalions, merely 15 to 20% of the foot soldiers reported shooting with the express purpose of killing the enemy. The rest either did not fire at all, deliberately missed, or sought out a role that prevented them from facing such a decision (assistant gunner, loader, runner, etc). For whatever reason, they were unable to summon the fortitude to shoot to kill. This disinclination to killing did not even noticeably rise when failing to shoot meant placing oneself, comrades, or even the entire course of the battle in total jeopardy. They were simply unable to complete the act of killing. And those that DID shoot to kill, may have still done so with an habitual reluctance.

In the late 1700s, Prussian tacticians performed a test wherein they instructed a battalion to fire at a 6ft by 100ft piece of paper – representing the tight, rigid ranks of that era. At various ranges, despite their smooth bore muskets, the soldiers did quite well. They scored a 25% hit rate at 225 yards, 40% at 150 yards, and 60% at 75 yards. That figure, quite high given the soldiers’ primitive weaponry and range, was used as the kill rate for a single volley of fire from an infantry battalion. It was remarkably efficient. But battle statistics indicated a pronounced disparity between their kill rate estimates and their actual results. A few years later, two Imperial battalions held their fire as a similar-sized Turkish hoard closed in. At the short range of only thirty paces, the officers of the Imperial battalions ordered their troops fie, confident that the near perfect kill rates at that distance would immediately halt the Turks. In reality, only thirty-two Turks were hit, and both battalions were immediately overwhelmed. Despite showing superb gunnery skills in training, the soldiers had performed abysmally when their lives had actually depended on it. They, like the soldiers in World War II, could not manage the act of firing. It remained innately wrong.

These startling data are the only explanation that at horrific battles from Prussia through the Civil War, entire regiments could face each other at thirty yards and fire freely, yet only lose one to two men per minute. The soldiers, regardless of training and the risk they incurred directly under fire, did not shoot to kill. Thus, seemingly short engagements stretched to hours, or even days. They would face each other at close range and predominantly miss. What was once presumed to be fear, poor gunnery skills, or inferior weaponry was, in fact, human ability to knowingly take the life of another – regardless of his direct threat to the firer’s life (and those around him). The statistics gathered at the end of World War II simply explained what had been puzzled over for centuries. How were they missing? They weren’t aiming. It meant killing, and they largely lacked the desire or the ability to do so.

Since the invention and employment of artillery, the vast majority of combat casualties have fallen as a direct consequence of either artillery, or simply disease. Despite their enormous numbers, the foot soldiers were accomplishing more by looking intimidating than actually dispatching the enemy. This continued through World War II, when aerial bombardment added to the “distant,” highly destructive fire. The further the man firing from the enemy, the more likely he was to fire without hesitation. Years of research have determined the troops with the lowest incidence of nightmare and burning regrets are those from artillery batteries and airmen. In short, they did not see their enemy, quickly overpowering whatever inability they may have had with shooting to kill. They just dropped bombs or fired long range guns. THEY weren’t doing the killing, the rounds were – and at some location too distant for them to see. There was no immediate consequence graphic imagery, of profusion of gore. It was clean, safe, and distant.

Following these studies, the US military began making radical changes to the way in which they trained ground troops. Efforts were intended, primarily, to overcome whatever innate inability a soldier may have with killing the enemy. Their potentially superb hit rates in training in no way commuted to combat power. That, ultimately, would not be known until it was tested. But measures were made to increase the likelihood of combat success.

Israeli troops are trained to fire at close range on melons – which explode violently on being hit. It may seem simple, or perhaps even entertaining, but it serves a purpose: to familiarize the shooter with the graphic act of killing. In Marine Corps boot camp, every order received from the Drill Instructor is followed with the whole platoon screaming, “kill” in unison. On combat courses, loudspeakers loop the sounds of actual combat – heavy gunfire, screaming, and the pleas of the wounded. For hours, recruits crawl under barbed war to this din until they simply no longer hear it. In anti-armor school, Marine students are shown videos of Chechans beheading Russian soldiers. “This is your enemy. This is what they will do to you.” Troops are perpetually exposed to gore and violence for the purpose of providing good reason to hate the enemy. The secondary benefit is that the viewer is less sensitive to bloodshed. It happens on the battlefield, so be prepared for it.

Even terminology has been adjusted to "impersonalize" the enemy: a bad guy is an enemy, a target, a tango, or even a “crunchy.” Since World War II an unprintable list of racial slurs has been applied to Nazis, Japanese, Italians, Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Iraqis, and Afghans. While not officially sanctioned by the military, per se, they are permitted nevertheless.

These measures, in conjunction with a social evolution that once abhorred violence but now enthusiastically enjoys it in books, movies and video games, have greatly improved the shoot-to-kill rates of ground troops. From World War II to Vietnam, these numbers grew from a low 15-20% to a staggering 90-95%. For the first time in recorded history, a unit’s combat killing power was nearly equivalent to that of its range shooting skills. If they could hit a target on a rifle range, most would easily hit an enemy in combat. (While I have seen no data revealing it, I would hypothesize that shoot-to-kill rates in the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts are similar, if not higher than those of the Vietnam War.) Whatever natural inability to kill that once existed had been successfully turned off. Combat effectiveness increased monumentally. A much smaller unit was now capable of performing once-amazing feats in combat.

Curiously, the Vietnam War also marked the unexpected emergence of tremendous psychological dysfunction among combat troops. While such difficulties have always been present in documented conflicts, they were directly attributed to several factors. During World War I, for example, sweeping use of gas warfare panicked, blinded, and immobilized troops, propelling many towards psychological breakdown. Additionally, sustaining innumerable, withering artillery barrages created high incidence of “shell shock.” Between the deafening noise, gore, confusion, and terror, combat psychological problems were almost to be expected. After observation and repeated failures, commanders began cycling troops out of front line combat to reduce the likelihood of mental trauma. The fact is that an astounding 98% of modern ground troops, having operated in continuous combat for 60 days, will show severe signs of combat fatigue (or whatever other term one wishes to use for it). The minute 2% that do not show fatigue are those that exhibit pronounced aggressive, sociopathic tendencies. Better put, combat almost guarantees some degree of psychological strain. Yet throughout, artillerymen and airmen exhibit some of the lowest signs of combat trauma, despite the fact their weaponry accounted for the bulk of those killed on the battlefield. They were not seeing those they killed.

What I have not had answered to my satisfaction is the correlation of these increased shoot-to-kill rates to the increase of psychological dysfunction. In reality, it would be hard to quantify their connection. Too many variables exist, to include social changes, political and public popularity of the conflict itself, age of the combatant, cultural changes in the United States, racial similarity or dissimilarity of the enemy, and even the manner in which both enemies and friends were killed. Nevertheless, trends may be easily identified.

As it stands, a startlingly high number of Vietnam and Gulf veterans have at one time been homeless. They also have exponentially higher suicide rates (as per the VA). Even unemployment rates are above the national average. Though I have not seen statistics to prove it, it is quite likely their incidence of substance abuse is also elevated. What, if any of this, is related to shoot-to-kill rates? Thus far, I can find no answer.

In all fairness, the increased kill rates were an essential improvement to the combat power of the US Armed Forces. Failure to improve them leaves our military behind those of most nations of the world. Indeed, their shoot-to-kill rates are also on the rise. Yet since training in each country varies so tremendously, can perfected training schedules be given all the credit for the change in shoot-to-kill rates, or does this represent a worldwide culture shift towards a general contentment with directly inflicting bodily harm on others?

As for the US military, these improvements enable much smaller numbers to inflict once-unbelievable damage on the enemy. In terms of combat efficiency, it is an extremely productive betterment of the troops involved in ground combat, made all the more impressive by the fact that today’s military is strictly volunteer. But a streamlined fighting force may not have been achieved without dire social consequence. Today’s veterans, as a group, are prone to self-destructive behavior, elevated levels of crime, discontent, and psychological dysfunction. How much of this, we should ask, is the cause of teaching them to kill? And is this a price that we, as a nation, are willing to pay? Killing, at least in part, may be killing the veteran.

Predominant source: Dave Grossman, "On Killing." 1995. Back Bay Books. Boston.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. About twenty years ago I spent a pleasant afternoon talking to a WWII Marine. He told me that many men can take bombardment, artillery shelling, and intense small arms fire, but if you want to know who really wants to fight, watch the faces when the order comes to "Fix bayonets."

  2. OK, you aren't getting feed back on these articles. I think it is the subject material. You still write as well, or better than ever, so if the horse quits running, get off and grab your saddle and look for a different mount. This may be temporary. Maybe there are only so many ways you can call a duck a duck, even if you call it a Mallard. For what it is worth.

  3. It's because you need to go - do - something. Anything. I don't know. Get a part-time job. Meet more of these people at the church. Take up underwater basket weaving. Tour the US. It is definitely subject-related.

    Regarding the article, very well done.

    So...are the Marine vets the worst off psychologically, do you think? Is it due to their "Kill!" training? or to their more combat-oriented duties? or to something else?

  4. I have been out of town and now playing catch up. I am still stuck on Saturday, Feb 21 (I Beg To Differ) and have been emailing back and forth with the James Madison student newspaper journalist, Mr Henriquez, and author of the article, War Studied Abroad.