Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Schrumpf Effect or Why Soldiers Can Learn to Enjoy Killing

An article in Scientific American reveals that at least some soldiers actually enjoy killing, particularly when they're not at much risk of being killed themselves.

The article recalls one,  "Sgt. Eric Schrumpf, a Marine sharpshooter, saying, "We had a great day. We killed a lot of people." Noting that his troop killed an Iraqi woman standing near a militant, Schrumpf adds, "I'm sorry, but the chick was in the way."

Does the apparent satisfaction—call it the Schrumpf effect—that some soldiers take in killing stem primarily from nature or nurture? Nature, claims Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist at Harvard University and an authority on chimpanzees. Wrangham asserts that natural selection embedded in both male humans and chimpanzees—our closest genetic relatives—an innate propensity for "intergroup coalitionary killing" [pdf], in which members of one group attack members of a rival group. Male humans "enjoy the opportunity" to kill others, Wrangham says, especially if they run little risk of being killed themselves.

Several years ago, geneticists at Victoria University in New Zealand linked violent male aggression to a variant of a gene that encodes for the enzyme monoamine oxidase A, which regulates the function of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. According to the researchers, the so-called "warrior gene" is carried by 56 percent of Maori men, who are renowned for being "fearless warriors," and only 34 percent of Caucasian males.

But studies of World War II veterans suggest that very few men are innately bellicose. The psychiatrists Roy Swank and Walter Marchand found that 98 percent of soldiers who endured 60 days of continuous combat suffered psychiatric symptoms, either temporary or permanent. The two out of 100 soldiers who seemed unscathed by prolonged combat displayed "aggressive psychopathic personalities," the psychiatrists reported. In other words, combat didn't drive these men crazy because they were crazy to begin with.

...The reluctance of ordinary men to kill can be overcome by intensified training, direct commands from officers, long-range weapons and propaganda that glorifies the soldier's cause and dehumanizes the enemy. "With the proper conditioning and the proper circumstances, it appears that almost anyone can and will kill," Grossman writes. Many soldiers who kill enemies in battle are initially exhilarated, Grossman says, but later they often feel profound revulsion and remorse, which may transmute into post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments. Indeed, Grossman believes that the troubles experienced by many combat veterans are evidence of a "powerful, innate human resistance toward killing one's own species."

In other words, the Schrumpf effect is usually a product less of nature than of nurture—although "nurture" is an odd term for training that turns ordinary young men into enthusiastic killers.

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