Snipers. Now there’s an interesting lot. They aren’t like the average warfighter. A lot of warfighters, the guys in the regular infantry squads, they get to say about killing that, “It was either him or me,” or “I did what I had to do,” or even, “I did it for my friends.” They killed in hot blood, when the situation was severe and their options were limited, where engaging in fierce fighting was what was needed to be done. Not snipers. Snipers are interesting because they are the definition of “cold blooded killers.” They will be the guys who crawled miles through a jungle, with pests and reptiles crawling alongside them, through swamp water and ant hills, so that they could reach a lookout, a room, or some vantage point that they create a hide and wait. They may wait for days for their opportunity to do what they have patiently and painstakingly worked to do – to kill someone.
We say cold blooded, not because there is something inherently wrong with what a sniper does. They possess all of their mental faculties and have put in the time and training to do a very specific job within the military community. When they do it well, they are less an action figure, and more a patient and methodical master of a craft, slowly and adeptly moving their hands to action. They are cold blooded, only when juxtaposed with someone who is hot blooded, or reacting to a situation with violence of action. They are cold blooded because they are only acting, making all the choices and being 100% responsible for the death of another human individual.
One would think that that level of precision and sense of purpose in the act of killing would be hindered by the human condition and the natural response to empathize with other individuals, but it doesn’t and according to some research, shouldn’t.
Wanting someone to die, and even being willing to do the job doesn’t make one a psychopath. There are many people on this planet Earth that I would want to no longer be on it, but that doesn’t make me a psychopath. An example, the night bin Laden was killed, I broke down. For a few minutes I openly sobbed on my wife’s shoulder as the news continued on behind us. My life was fundamentally changed by this man, and because he was finally dead, I rejoiced at how many people would live because he was now dead and the hope that he would take his despotic brand of fundamentalist Islam with him. To say I was a psychopath because I wanted him dead is in radical contradiction to me breaking down for the lives of those who would live with him being gone.
The simple fact is that within good warfighters, this contradiction isn’t a contradiction at all. It is a natural desire to see good done, with the option of good through violence not being off the table. And yes, good through violence is a very real thing. Have you ever met a Nazi? Not one of these pansy poser white supremacist skinhead nazis, but a real member of the Einsatzgruppen Nazi death squads? No, cuz there was a bunch of them running around not too long ago? Your mother may have said that violence never solved anything, but violence solved Nazism, where diplomacy would have ensured that Nazi Germany still existed today, propagating their philosophy out into the world for the better part of the last century. Let that one boil around for a while.
Military people get that. They get that the truly violent are only overcome by righteous violence. When they join a moral force, in service of a moral nation, recruited from moral stock, they join with the understanding that some people just need to die for the world to be a better place. That said, they are also the first to ask if violence is necessary, understanding greater than anyone the costs involved.
That said, you need an extremely ethical and rational human being to be a good warrior. You don’t need a robot. This is true on more than one level.
The first is that you don’t win a war by being a killer. Simply put, you don’t. Hollywood and Call of Duty have convinced us that warfare is about being individuals possessing individual lethality, and making every soldier able to line up and beat every other soldier on the other side in one on one combat with the one possessing the greatest average of manliness or emotional detachment being the one on the winning side. This isn’t realistic because it places too much emphasis on how much a single person can contribute to the fight. Combat is a team sport. If you don’t understand the concepts of suppressive fire, fire and maneuver, and overlapping fields of fire, you won’t survive long in the modern battlefield. Modern combat units are eight to thirteen men moving and acting as close to one as training allows, with all thirteen attempting to kill one guy, until they move on to the next, and the next, and the next, so that eventually, rather than one great American soldier killing five guys before being picked off, eight guys kill dozens without ever losing a single one. It requires incredible empathy to operate as a part of a team and I wouldn’t want a psychopath one of mine. Simply put, individualism is a derogatory adjective in the military for the love of one’s self rather than care for the members of the unit. It doesn’t matter that he might kill really easily. Modern warriors need people who will have their backs.
Second, warfighting requires a great deal of rationality to be a warrior, and there is evidence that psychopaths are not often rational people. Research has been done on what happens when one damages the part of the brain responsible for empathy. People were able to perform certain tasks perfectly well, but when it came to testing rationality, they would often come to incredibly bad judgements. This isn’t saying they only made immoral choices. They made legitimately bad choices. What this led researchers to believe was that our emotions are a necessary part of us making rational decisions. This being a close analog to a psychopath in combat, I believe that not only would a psychopath be a terrible member of a team of combatants, but also a danger to himself.
All that to say, while there are many warfighters who display psychopathic tendencies, this is much more a failure of psychology to accurately identify the nature of the warrior mindset, and the suggestion that it might be a good idea is a failure of the popular media to educate civilians both on the nature of psychopathy and on what is required of being a warrior.
In his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Paul Bloom makes several cases for why empathy is often a crutch to people actually doing the right thing. The context of the book is about cognitive psychology and politics, but makes the case that people often come to the wrong decision about what is best for large numbers of people because they put themselves too much in the shoes of another individual. In politics we might fail to end a particular social policy proven to be damaging to society because such an action would hurt one particular person who is benefited by it. In the same way, we would dismiss the need to kill in war because we too greatly empathize with the enemy soldier who is to be killed, or even knowing that war will kill innocents. However, looking out to the world we don’t even need to remember Nazi Germany to find people who needed to die, and which war was a necessary act. A look at the Islamic State will prove a rich target environment for people in need of removal from the human condition.
This question, of if we should use psychopaths to do the job, however, shows that we as a society have lost touch with this reality. We can’t even imagine a rational person able to kill or the need of it. Call it a luxury of a happy and healthy society, but it does symbolize a brokenness within us, that we place so much empathy in the enemy combatant, that we are unable to do what must be done to save the lives of others he will one day harm. We have castrated ourselves from the ability to end despotic regimes, and we are no longer capable of inflicting harm to do good. To me, this is something we need to get back, the ability to appreciate that harm must be levied against the harmful, but that that harm must be delivered by morally functioning and righteous individuals. A person who is mentally broken, simply will not do.
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