Combat ‘sensitivity training’

Can’t say I was crazy about the headline, which aside from the awkwardly split infinitive seems to presume aberration as the norm (probably unintentionally). But I found the idea intriguing:

Can soldiers be trained to not become war criminals?

Halfway through a 15 month, high-intensity combat deployment in Iraq,  soldiers were shown videos of ethically dicey situations they might encounter with civilians. The question researchers wanted to answer was: can soldiers who are already suffering enormous amounts of stress — literally fearing for their lives — be trained to stop and think long enough to prevent unethical behavior?

The answer, happily, is yes. In a study published in the Lancet, researchers concluded that a combination of videos and leader-led discussion groups led to “significantly lower rates of unethical conduct of soldiers and greater willingness to report and address misconduct than in those before training.”

From the paper:

For example, reports of unnecessary damage or destruction of private property decreased from 13·6% before training to 5·0% after training, and willingness to report a unit member for mistreatment of a non-combatant increased from 36·0% to 58·9%. Nearly all participants reported that training made it clear how to respond towards non-combatants.

You wouldn’t think “sensitivity training” or its equivalent would work in the highest stress environment on the planet, but apparently it does. One caveat: soldier’s ethical or unethical behavior was self-reported, so it’s possible that soldiers who had the training were simply reporting less of it because they had been made aware that it was wrong. But isn’t that exactly the mechanism by which ethics training works?

Of course, it sort of militates against the training of U.S. soldiers since the Korean War — training in acquiring targets rapidly and firing immediately and accurately (which makes our soldiers deadlier than any since the introduction of firearms, but leads to a lot of PTSD, since it leads to shooting first and thinking about it later).

But with the kinds of conflicts we face these days, it’s more important than ever to be sure to shoot at the right targets — not only morally, but in terms of eventual effectiveness. One of the greatest pitfalls in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is alienating the civilian populace through mistakes.

So while I’m not entirely convinced that such training works, I hope it does. We need soldiers to shoot straight, but they have to be more sure than ever it’s the bad guys they’re shooting at. For their sakes and the sake of the country as well as for the innocent bystanders.

9 thoughts on “Combat ‘sensitivity training’

  1. bud

    But with the kinds of conflicts we face these days, it’s more important than ever to be sure to shoot at the right targets — not only morally, but in terms of eventual effectiveness.

    Oh my GOSH! What a crazy lesson to learn. We need to learn how to “shoot at the right targets”? Brad how can write this stuff without seeing the absurd irony of it all. We’re there to allegedly help these people yet we often end up shooting them. And people wonder why the Iraqis want us gone, as Joe Biden is quickly learning. What exactly is the point of fighting a war in places like Iraq if it’s readily acknowledged that we shoot at the wrong “targets” (Brad speak for human beings) sometimes. The whole thing is one big moral clusterf***. What we need to do is just not put our soldiers into these situations in the first place, period. End of story. To even have this kind of discussion shows how utterly ridiculous our foreign policy has become.

  2. Norm Ivey

    Are you using “Combat” as a verb or an adjective?

    I’m with Bud on this. With all the advances we’ve made in training and technology, can it really be that no one thought to include this type of training before sending young men to war? Enemy combatants, targets, collateral damage, or whatever else we call them, they are still people.

  3. Silence

    Germany, 1943: Allied bombers target Hamburg, killing tens of thousands. February 1945: Allied bombers level 15 square miles of Dresden.
    March 1945: B-29’s firebomb Tokyo, killing 100,000. Eventually, over half of Tokyo is leveled.
    August 6-9 1945: The full force of the Atom is demostrated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing upwards of 200,000 people.
    End Result: Germany and Japan unconditonally surrender. Two of the most martial countries ever to exist become two of the most pacifist nations on earth. No insurgency.

    Fast foward to 2001-present: American armed forces conduct a surgical bombing campaign, focusing on avoiding civilian casualties, targeting only military installations, infrastructure and government facilities. The governments fall, new regimes are established. Civilian casualties, while tragic, are greatly reduced from previous conflicts. A decade long insurgency erupts. While the military was defeated and the government fell, the will of the people to fight was not fully broken.

    War should remain a horrible thing so that we should not use it except in the most extreme cases.

  4. Brad

    Thank you, General Sherman.

    There is indeed a school of thought that war should be terrible, so that we might be more reluctant to take it up. The more we think of “surgical” war, the more we might think of it as salutary for the patient.

    Of course, you had other things at work with the Germans and Japanese…

    One thing that I confess I don’t fully understand about the Japanese surrender… why did it happen? You might think that a stupid question, but my point is that up to that moment, we had every reason to believe that this was a suicidal culture. Kamikazes. Soldiers at Iwo Jima told that it was their duty to die, but not until they had taken 10 Marines with them. Families jumping off of cliffs at Okinawa rather than be conquered by Americans.

    It was the fact that the Japanese would NOT surrender, and that there would be a million U.S. casualties, and far more Japanese casualties, including vast numbers of civilians, if we invaded, that helped lead to the decision to drop the Bomb.

    What I don’t understand is why it worked, given the death-before-dishonor mentality that had been so starkly on display.

    As I recall, it was the emperor humanely overruling the militarists. But I need to read up on that a lot more before I understand it, if I ever do.

  5. bud

    Another school of thought suggests the Russian entry into the war played a big role. They believed that the entire nation might become a part of the Soviet Union and that it was best to surrender (primarily) to the US and hope for the best. Not sure I agree but this isn’t a question with a completely satisfactory answer.

  6. Steven Davis

    “Families jumping off of cliffs at Okinawa rather than be conquered by Americans.”

    Because they were told that Americans would eat them if captured. They were brainwashed no differently than the North Koreans are today. If we ever go to war with North Korea, I don’t see anyway of winning it short of going nuclear.

  7. Brad

    Following up on the above, I thought some of you might be interested in this:

    “About 45,000 residents of the German city of Koblenz, nearly half of the city’s population, are under evacuation orders Sunday following the discovery of what local officials said was one of the largest unexploded bombs ever found, believed to have been dropped by the British Royal Air Force during World War II.”

    Oh, come on, Germans! Let’s not still be going on about who dropped bombs on who…

  8. Nick Nielsen

    The USAF makes leadership training mandatory for all airmen. Part of that training, from Airman Leadership School through the Senior NCO Academy is the Law of Armed Conflict. We also had annual briefings and reviews of the LOAC. The other services have their forms of leadership training and also cover the LOAC in that training and, I suspect, also have annual LOAC briefings. I suspect these classes are a concentrated form of those annual briefings, with more soldier involvement because of the discussion format.

    LOAC training provides guidance for non-combat situations: how to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, conduct during property searches, prisoner interrogation, and so on. Once the bullet start flying, all bets are off: any non-combatant foolish enough to poke his or her head up during a firefight is going to draw fire, probably from both sides.


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