US Military's Modern Training to Kill

     The book The Beginner's Guide to Mathematica Version 4 (Cambridge University Press, 2000) has the following dialog between its authors Jerry Glynn and Theodore Gray, in its chapter 71, Will it rot my students' brains if they use other educational software?:
     "Jerry: How about some specific examples. So far this is sounding like a pretty categorical attack on the competition by someone with a vested interest in one particular product."
     "Theo: Let's start with something I'm sure most people would agree has little educational value, the video game. We'll discuss later how video games are related to educational software.
     "To understand the effects of video games, one needs to go back to debriefings conducted by the U.S. Army after WWII. Interviewing soldiers returning from battle, researchers discovered a very disturbing fact. A significant number of soldiers had been face to face with an enemy soldier, rifle in hand, enemy in their sights, gun not jammed, and had not fired. Something deep in their being, some sort of innate humanity, had prevented them from actually pulling the trigger.
     "Needless to say, this was very disturbing to the military. They began a research effort to figure out what to do about this problem. They discovered that in the heat of battle, under the incredible physical and psychological stress of being faced with another human being you were supposed to kill, the higher mental functions were largely absent. Under such conditions, the mind reverts to much simpler modes of operation, to deeply wired, almost instinctive behaviors. In other words, no amount of target practice at bullseye targets and classroom lectures about how you're supposed to kill the enemy had much effect when it counted.
     "Over the following decades and wars, the Army learned that the way to get soldiers to reliably pull the trigger was to use very basic, repetitive operant conditioning, along the lines of standard behaviorist theory. Now, behaviorism provides a very poor model for how humans act in everyday life, but it turns out to be a pretty good model for how humans act when they are under stress and have to act quickly, and are responding primarily to fear. Under stress, fearful people do what they have been conditioned to do.
     "The Army's solution was to replace dry target practice with realistic training grounds, complete with pop-up targets, loud noises, smoke, stress, the works. The goal was to condition the soldiers: if it moves, shoot it now, don't think about it. Repetition, repetition, repetition: Target pops up, you shoot. Target pops up, you shoot. Do that often enough, and, research shows, next time you see something pop up, you are more likely to shoot it, even if it's a real human in a real battle. This is not just a theory, it is documented by exit interviews from soldiers in later wars: The Army got what it wanted. (What armies do, and how that is similar to video games, is forcefully presented in the book On Killing by David Grossman, a former military officer (Little, Brown, 1995)).
     "Now, what does this have to do with video games? The answer should be obvious by now to anyone who's ever seen one. The whole point is, if it moves, shoot it. Again and again and again."
     The book On Killing says, on the back cover:
     "The good news is that the vast majority of soldiers are loath to kill in battle. Unfortunately, modern armies, using Pavlovian and operant conditioning, have developed sophisticated ways of overcoming this instinctive aversion. The psychological cost for soldiers, as witnessed by the increase in post-traumatic stress, is devastating. The psychological cost for the rest of us is even more so: contemporary civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army's conditioning techniques and, according to Grossman's controversial thesis, is responsible for our rising rate of murder, especially among the young.
     "On Killing is an important study of the techniques the military uses to overcome the powerful reluctance to kill, and of how killing affects the soldier, and of the societal implications of escalating violence."
     "A former army Ranger and paratrooper, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman taught psychology at West Point and is currently the Professor of Military Science at Arkansas State University."


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