When I was a young subaltern in the army (doing my National Service) I would talk with my company commander about his war experiences. He was in a Highland regiment then and took part in the invasion of France and Germany. He told me how he had shot a German woman at long range. “It was just a bet,” he said “it was a difficult shot. Oh, and I’ve still got her watch. Or, at least my wife has – I gave it to her as a present.”
My disapproval must have showed because he went on to say “You know, when you’re continually killing people you simply have to blunt your feelings. Otherwise you couldn’t be a soldier. But of course, after weeks of that, human life just doesn’t seem important.”
I remembered reading that, in the early centuries of the Church, you were indeed allowed, albeit reluctantly, to be a soldier. But when you came back you had to do penance. It was not that you were guilty but that you were contaminated. True or not, Christians generally took pacifism for granted – the new life of love in Christ was incompatible with killing. They were to develop a taste for it later when the government of the Church was sufficiently well established to be able to overlook Christianity.
I would like to think that, had I taken part in direct military action, I would have regretted every man I killed, and would still be praying for their souls. But would I have felt like that if I had fought my way across Normandy, or had an opportunity to see Belsen after its liberation? And how would I have felt if my lack of aggression led to the death of men I was commanding?
This innate enthusiasm for killing is called the “Schrumpf effect” after a marine sharpshooter who was reported as rejoicing in the number of people killed, and saying of an Iraqi woman caught in the crossfire, “I’m sorry, but the chick was in the way,”
In fact World War II experience tells us that most men will go to some lengths to avoid killing. Men subjected to lengthy combat were likely to suffer from psychiatric symptoms, while those who seemed comfortable with it had “aggressive, psychopathic tendencies”. Some surveys discovered that only 15 to 20 per cent of soldiers fired their weapons when in combat – even when ordered to do so. This so concerned the US authorities that they changed their training in order to increase the killing rate.
Do any of us feel that killing even in wartime is so wicked that we would not do it? Is there a difference between shooting a woman or child directly and killing a score of them by dropping a bomb from a few thousand feet? How do we react to the idea of blanket bombing – Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima? Would any of us argue that we should never use a hydrogen/atomic bomb even if that were the only way of avoiding being bombed in return?