Training and Combat

The task of turning civilians into combat soldiers is not an easy one; young men and women are not trained from childhood to risk their lives for an abstract cause that they may not understand, or that they perceive as having no effect on them personally. Discipline and obedience to orders, even when they are counter to one's natural impulses and upbringing, are, however, crucial in preparing people for battle. Propaganda, in which the enemy is depicted as barbaric and evil and one's own country as noble and virtuous, contributes to the conditioning of both members of the military and the civilian population for the sacrifices of war.

Although learning to do what one is told without question and entering into combat when ordered to do so often demands the suppression of one's natural and acquired survival tendencies, the need to be accepted by one's comrades and the reluctance to let them down helps soldiers to deal with their fears (Stouffer, Suchman, DeVinney, Star, & Williams, 1949). Furthermore, when war is still viewed as a winnable game, it can be exciting to young men of limited experience and ajoie de vivre. Soldiers on the battlefield often experience a keen sense of excitement, of living on the edge. Time appears to collapse, and one lives only for the moment.

I felt an overwhelming elation. It was not so much that one had left the firing line as that one had been in it. ... Full of wretchedness and suspense as the last few days have been, I have enjoyed them. They have been intensely interesting. They have been wonderfully inspiring. (Holmes, 1985, p. 148)

However, witnessing the maiming and sudden deaths of other human beings, and being forced to endure miserable living conditions for days on end can be quite unnerving and depressing.

I was looking straight at him as the bullet struck him and was profoundly affected by the remembrance of his face, though at the time I hardly thought of it. He was alive, and then he was dead, and there was nothing human left in him. He fell with a neat round hole in his forehead and the back of his head blown off. (Holmes, 1985, p. 176)

As a way of divorcing themselves from the reality of their situation, even combat-hardened veterans may come to exist in a kind of dreamy, unreal state, frozen in time, like robots going through their paces and intent only on eliminating, neutralizing, taking out, or wasting an impersonalized enemy (Holmes, 1985). Some soldiers become so caught up in the process that they take extreme chances, thereby sacrificing themselves for their comrades. In addition, in many military engagements, not only the enemy gets "whacked" or "zapped" but also soldiers on one's own side. As was true in both the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War, accidents and so-called "friendly fire" can kill and wound soldiers on both sides of a battle.

Meanwhile, on the home front, the civilian population may or may not provide moral and psychological support for the efforts of their armed forces. Due in some measure to the success of government propaganda and the greater clarity of the reasons for fighting during World War 11, the civilian populations in countries on both sides were highly supportive of the efforts of their military forces. However, such was not the case with a large segment of the American population that was opposed to the Vietnam War. American soldiers who returned from Vietnam were not greeted by parades and glory. In fact, rather than being honored as heroes, they often found themselves vilified as "murderers" and "baby-killers." Incidents such as the napalm bombing of Vietnamese civilians and the My Lai Massacre increased the intensity of disapproval of the war and all who fought in it. In addition, during the Vietnam War, the murder rate in the United States increased by 42%, compared with an increase of only 11% in Canada—a noncombatant country. According to Archer and Gartner (1983, pp. 1639-1640), "What all wars have in common is the unmistakable moral lesson that homicide is an acceptable, or even praiseworthy, means of the attainment of certain ends." Thus, the legitimization of violence in war can lead to an increased tendency to resort to violence at home.

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