Tuesday 21 April 2020

Natural born killers

I was down on the Waterford coast a couple of weeks ago when travel was still allowed but social distancing was all the rage. Talking to the neighbour over the hedge, I asked how his 12 y.o. boy was coping with physical isolation. Not a bother on him, Bob, we've got 5G wired to the house and the chap is up in his room driving a T-34 tank and killing Nazi storm-troopers. I'd have been the same, although the cannon shooting was all in my head with sound effects 50+ years ago. Maybe it's learned, maybe it's innate for young fellers to but as I observed a few years ago, there's a lot of surrogate violence about. My source G was disconcerted to hear one of her barely teenaged sons explaining Grand Theft Auto to a pal "Naa, you have to throw the whore out of the car-door as you go round the corner . . .". A week later I was back home in the mountains and a neighbouring Dad had a similar story about his own 18 y.o. chap. "It's like they are recruiting for the army, a whole generation of boys (and girls) are being taught how to pull the trigger on another human being".  Naaah, I replied, it's only the SAS that wants to recruit psychopaths. Regular squaddies just need to know how to polish their boots and march to cadence.

And it's not true that young men people do actually find it easy to kill each other. There's a section on the topic in Robert Sapolsky's book Behave [prev]. Actually you don't need to go further than The Blob, because there are strong hints of this reluctance in the study of Trolleology in which punters are invited to choose how many people will die under the wheels of a run-away train carriage. Most normal people are able to throw a switch and kill one to save five but only a minority carry the logic to conclusions and claim they'd willingly heave a fat chap over a bridge parapet to achieve the same utilitarian end point. And even those people, like me, who assert that logic would overcome any emotional responses, would probably baulk at actually seizing someone by the lapels and heave-ho. Not least: hmmmm, that dude is bigger than me.

Sapolsky's final chapter is War and Peace in which he looks at human capacity for actual and ritualised violence. Reflecting on the ubiquity of CCTV cameras, he cites an analysis of soccer hooligans frame-by-frame as they trade hoots and chest-beating with fans of The Other Side. Only a tiny fraction of the participants are even pretending to trade punches, the rest are surging about making a noise and sheltering behind each other as bottles and coins rain in from Over There.

If you want a brilliant example of the discrepancy between young men's capacity for pretend violence compared to meting out some actual blows, then get Rashomon out of your video closet. This early film by Akira "Seven Samurai" Kurosawa is a minute investigation of the nature of truth. An incident happens in a forest between a samurai, his wife and a bandit. The story is unpacked later in a ruined temple by the several witnesses. The samurai and the bandit have a fight in which both, according to their own "big me up" testimony, behaved with decision and courage. But an independent witness reports that the fighting cocks spent at least as much time trashing about the bushes with their eyes closed in terror as actually getting to get in some on-target hits. Chest-beating is all very well but if the other bloke has a sword, you might get hurt and we are programmed from young to avoid pain. [Exec Summary Rashomon in 9 mins].

Sapolsky cites On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman for another telling example of having a cudgel but not taking it up. After the Battle of Gettysburg, 27,500 single-load muskets were recovered from the field. 24,000 = 90% of them had not been fired but still had powder and ball loaded. Half of these loaded guns had been loaded more than once and one had 23 musket balls choking up the barrel. In the fog of war, the poor squaddies couldn't remember if they'd loaded their gun, and in case would rather [re]load their weapon than actually point it at another man and pull the trigger. And most of the time they were just trying to get out of way of the incommming. Like in Rashomon, many of the heroes were made afterwards from the survivors recycling their own memories until they got to be able to live with them.

And what about PTSD, is that the cumulative load of being scared shitless day and night for months on end? Seemingly not: squaddies in the USAF drone patrol unit suffer as much mental damage as boys with guns deployed in Helmand Province in Afgo but more than medics on the ground in those dusty killing fields. The drone pilots are totally safe as they watch their computer screen in a bunker outside Reno, Nevada but they get to see the results of their actions bleeding out and turning cold in the night-vision camera shots on the VDU a foot from their eyes. Normal people are psychologically damaged by that experience.

In sum, neighbour, I don't think your son will have the chops to become a psycho-killer not matter what his score is on Call of Duty.

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