We have this tragic misperception that humanity is predisposed to violence.
The truth is that humanity is predisposed to peace. The default position for humanity is that of conscientious objector to war and violence.
In our work at the Center on Conscience & War, this is proven to us daily, through our individual conscientious objectors. Science has proven it, too. This tendency for cooperation over competition is evident in daily life: on an average day, most people will witness countless acts of cooperation, kindness, and humanity towards one another, and not one act of violence or competition. And most of it is so commonplace, we barely even notice it. We take our nonviolence for granted.
And so does the news. What makes the news is violence, not cooperation. Particularly, on our local news programs, the top stories are the ones that depict street crimes and “home invasions.” Seeing this interpersonal violence, I am convinced, leads us to believe that people are predisposed to acting violently toward one another. We all make decisions based on patterns we observe, and if the patterns we observe are highlighting violence, we are going to decide that humanity is violent.
How does this relate to war? If we believe that violence among humans is natural, we will believe that war is inevitable.
But violence is not natural. Our conscience tells us killing another human being is wrong. And it is the military that knows this better than anyone.
The military has taken notice that, over time, and through the history of war, the vast majority of individuals refuse to shoot to kill. That means, instead of firing directly at an “enemy,” soldiers (used here to cover all members of the Armed Forces: soldiers, Marines, airmen and women, and sailors) would fire their weapons away from their “targets,” or pretend to shoot. One investigation found — and these studies have been replicated — that in World War I only about 5% of people shot to kill; in World War II, about 15% of people shot to kill. By the US war in Vietnam, the rate at which soldiers were shooting to kill was found to be 90%. Today, that number could be even higher.
What happened? Training evolved to meet the military’s goals.
There is a science of teaching soldiers to kill and it is called killology. It is the science of circumventing the conscience.
In order to get an otherwise psychologically healthy individual to kill, US military training has been developed to bypass the conscience and have the act of killing – the act of firing one’s weapon with the intent to kill — become reflexive.
Our conscience knows that taking another human life is wrong. We don’t want to do it; we know that it is the worst possible thing we could do. So the training has been developed to teach a soldier to kill without thinking, without filtering through the conscience.
When we take the time to think – to filter through the conscience — we make better decisions. And in the case of war and killing, the vast majority of us already have decided.
In fact, 99% of us have decided by default that we will not chose to kill. The military comprises less than 1% of the total US population. When you add veterans to that number, it still only creeps up to 7%, and some of them, of course, had been drafted; they didn’t volunteer to join the military. And did volunteers join the military with a desire to kill, or for some other purpose?
In my experience, talking as I do to members of the military everyday, people that volunteer hold a sincere desire to serve and protect and to do something bigger than themselves. We call it “the service,” after all. The people who join the military are some of the most beautiful, selfless, and loving people you could know. Sure, there are some cynical and self-serving reasons we could suggest for why people join the military, and there are real accounts of skinheads and other racists who were enlisting during the US invasion of Iraq, but that’s not the rule. By and large, today’s 1% joined the military out of a deep love and affection for humanity, not because they want to be killers.
And they suffer consequences for the same reasons. It is the same love for humanity and desire to serve, I believe, that causes them to experience deep trauma once their conscience processes the results of what they’ve done, the deaths and the pain they’ve been a part of. Military training dulls the conscience, but not forever. Very likely, the conscience is going to come back. We all can relate to that just through our normal experiences of life. If we have an argument with someone we love and don’t handle ourselves well, it nags at us. Our conscience tells us we’ve done something wrong.
Now, put that on the scale a million times greater: killing someone or failing to prevent an egregious act in war. Even being trained to kill can and does cause trauma because it is so foreign from what our instincts tell us is right. This trauma, these wounds to the soul – moral injuries – are caused by transgressions against the conscience.
Hundreds of thousands of veterans are struggling with this trauma, which is different than the trauma that is experienced by a rape survivor or a hijack survivor. It’s not characterized by the hyper-vigilance or fear for one’s life that we see in those cases. Moral injury is an inner conflict. The Marines did a study in 2011 that revealed that much of the trauma the service members were experiencing was about guilt and betrayal of conscience.
So, is humanity predisposed to violence? I don’t think so. We’ve allowed ourselves to be deceived by not only the military industrial complex, which profits from war, of course, but also by all the major pillars of our society: our government, our schools, our media, and even our churches. They all tell us that violence is human nature. Even the peace movement falls victim to this myth. We think, “people who join the military are different from me. They can kill. I can’t kill.” Well, what I’ve learned, and what the evidence shows is that they can’t kill either – not without consequences.
Remember, veterans make up just 7% of the population, yet they represent 20% of the suicides in this country. That’s a very telling and shameful number.
So what’s a soldier of conscience to do? Too often, soldiers in crisis believe they have only two choices: violate their conscience or violate their orders. Of the two, violating their orders is a piece of cake. Maybe they’ll get court martialed, go to jail, get busted down in rank, lose some pay. Maybe they’ll get kicked out with a bad discharge. That’s finite, that’s measurable, it’s manageable by most people.
But the violation of the conscience? We are just beginning to understand its consequences, and they can be immeasurable.
It’s important that people know there is a third option: conscientious objection — a legal pathway through which one can apply for discharge by affirming our natural predisposition for peace, by affirming the power of conscience.
Beverly Bell, Natalie Miller, and Emily Simmons helped with this article.
Maria Santelli is Executive Director of the Center on Conscience & War, a 75-year old organization founded to provide technical and community support to conscientious objectors to war. Based in Washington, D.C., Santelli has been working for peace and justice since 1996.