Hardwired Pacifism

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 25 2013 @ 3:00pm

While rebutting the argument that women shouldn’t serve in combat roles because “men will instinctively try to protect [them],” Elspeth Reeve uncovers an interesting statistic:

[A] major part of military training is getting men and women to reverse the normal human instinct to, when things blow up all around you, get the hell out of there instead of do the fighting the military paid for. … In addition to the instinct of “not wanting to get shot at,” there’s also the instinct one might call “don’t kill people.” As Scientific American‘s John Horgan explained in 2010, “Surveys of WWII infantrymen carried out by U.S. Army Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall found that only 15 to 20 percent had fired their weapons in combat, even when ordered to do so.” Marshall argued that the average Joe had “an inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man” and would avoid it if at all possible. In On Killing, Dave Grossman, a former Army lieutenant colonel and West Point psychology professor, wrote that Marshall’s findings were backed up by reports from World War I, the Civil War, and other wars.

Update from a reader:

You should note that S.L.A. Marshall’s work remains extremely controversial. Indeed, many would say it has been totally debunked.

Most critically, Marshall’s research has a Michael Bellesilles problem: he badly misrepresented his sources. Specifically, Marshall appears to have greatly exaggerated the amount of data he actually collected, an obviously serious flaw first demonstrated by Professor Roger Spiller of the Army Staff College back in the ’80s, who reviewed Marshall’s papes after his death.

I can’t find a link to Spiller’s original work, but here’s a link [pdf] to a 2003 article by J.W. Chambers of the U.S. Army War College in its journal “Parameters” that summarizes some of the problems with Marshall’s work.

Dave Grossman, of course, has tried mightily to rehabilitate Marshall. Personally I did not find the effort persuasive, especially Grossman’s analysis of purported Civil War data in On Killing. But there’s no need to get into that here; I simply note that the overall issues here remain very much unsettled, while Marshall’s specific “15-20%” claim is extremely suspect.