Deadly At A Distance

Behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley notes “a surprising problem for military leaders in times of war: soldiers in battle find it relatively easy to shoot at someone a great distance away, but have a much more difficult time shooting an enemy standing right in front of them”:

George Orwell described his own reluctance to shoot during the Spanish Civil War. “At this moment,” he wrote, “a man, presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top of the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting at him. It is true that I am a poor shot and unlikely to hit a running man at a hundred yards. … Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists,’ but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.”

Orwell is far from alone.

Interviews with US soldiers in World War II found that only 15 to 20 percent were able to discharge their weapons at the enemy in close firefights. Even when they did shoot, soldiers found it hard to hit their human targets. In the US Civil War, muskets were capable of hitting a pie plate at 70 yards and soldiers could typically reload anywhere from four to five times per minute. Theoretically, a regiment of 200 soldiers firing at a wall of enemy soldiers 100 feet wide should be able to kill 120 on the first volley. And yet the kill rate during the Civil War was closer to one to two men per minute, with the average distance of engagement being only 30 yards. Battles raged on for hours because the men just couldn’t bring themselves to kill one another once they could see the whites of their enemy’s eyes.