One of the last books I read was On Killing, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. While I was reading it, I also watched the movie The Corporation (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0379225/?ref_=nv_sr_1). I didn’t do these things simultaneously, because that is ridiculous, but the book I had on the go at the time of my viewing of The Corporation was On Killing. Glad I cleared that up. Now, what struck me as interesting were the similarities between how Grossman describes a soldier making a kill, and how the film describes how corporations make a buck. I’m not suggesting that corporate profits are the moral equivalent of killing a dude, but hear me out and come to your own conclusions.

The first point that Grossman makes explicitly clear is that the natural urge of human beings is to avoid killing at pretty close to all costs. People would rather risk their own lives and perform non-combative tasks on the frontline (such as carrying ammunition) than fire upon their enemies. He refers to a study done in World War 2 that claimed that only 15-20% of infantry would fire their guns, and made note of many soldiers who proudly told stories of disobeying a kill order and purposefully missing during a firing squad execution, therefore insinuating that even of that minimal percentage, those firing might not even be aiming to kill.

Grossman furthers his point by claiming that this phenomenon of soldiers being unwilling to kill likely permeates the entirety of human history. Even as far back as Alexander the Great, soldiers would rather hack and slash at their opponents, despite the piercing blow being the much more lethal attack. Or the musket, traditionally associated with inaccuracy, when recreated today has a 60% accuracy rate when firing in a range. On the battlefield, the kill ratio was one kill per one hundred bullets fired (or so, my memory is a bit hazy on this statistic, but the gist is there).

So people don’t like killing. It’s not that hard of a concept to accept, really. The kicker is that while the firing rate for World War 2 was 15-20%, while the Vietnam War was going on, there was a firing rate of 90-95%. It’s a bit of a jump. What changed? Well, somebody figured out how to make killing easier.

Conditioning: The biggest change between WW2 and Vietnam was the training of the soldiers. Previously, soldiers were trained with round bulls-eye practice targets on a run-of-the-mill firing range. When trained in conditions of combat (full gear, in trenches, etc.) and firing at lifelike targets (either a silhouette or an image of an enemy combatant), soldiers are more likely to fire at, and kill, their enemy when participating in the real deal. By simulating the conditions of combat, combat itself becomes easier to perform in.

On top of the different types of physical training, soldiers are put through rigorous psychological training to desensitize them towards killing. By having marching songs about death and a barrage of imagery featuring the act of killing, soldiers are able to enter into a mindset where killing and death are the norm. This, again, facilitates committing this otherwise inherently difficult task.

The Demands of Authority: Being directly told to kill greatly increases a person’s likelihood of actually doing so. Having someone yell “fire” will likely cause those with loaded weapons to do so. This isn’t just in war time. Grossman looks at the Milgram experiment where ordinary folks with no training and no violent disposition are told to “electrocute” somebody up until and beyond that person’s death. With the authority of a clipboard and a white lab coat, what the study concluded is that people will straight up murder total strangers if you exert enough believable power over them.

Group Absolution: When in a group of people, such as a machine gun or artillery unit, individuals are more likely to shoot to kill. This occurs for two reasons. The first is that the individual does not want to let his team down. War creates a camaraderie among soldiers that is an incredibly tight bond, and those who have seen combat routinely describe their greatest fear as letting down their friends. This in turn leads to soldiers overcoming their barriers to killing in order to support their comrades. The second reason is the dispersal of guilt among a greater number of individuals. One cannot blame themselves 100% for the actions of several people, and so committing acts that individually would be virtually impossible become possible within a group.

DistanceI’m talking about two kinds of distance. The first is physical distance, and the second is basically all the other kinds. Physical distance means that it is easier to kill people from further away. We’ve been trying to get further away from killing since we started doing it. Clubs and swords to lances and halberds to bows and arrows to guns to artillery to boats and planes, and although Grossman does not mention them in the book, drones, which are pretty close to being as far from killing as you’re going to get. Killing someone with a knife is nigh impossible (to the extent that soldiers would grasp their rifles by the barrel and bludgeon their enemies rather than use the handy dandy bayonet at the end of it), whereas dropping a bomb is as simple as pushing a button.

The second distance(s) are the cultural, moral, and mechanical kinds. Culturally, the less of a person you think your enemy is, the easier it is for you to kill them. Someone from a different culture is alien, and therefore easier to kill, especially when this factor is propagandized to hell. By using slurs, such as Gook, Jap, Kraut, Raghead, Charlie, Jerry, etc. etc. a soldier can differentiate the enemy from a “human being”. By dehumanizing the enemy, the enemy becomes easier to kill. This dehumanization occurs further even with simple euphemisms, such as “engage the target” or “achieve the objective”. The language used allows a system of denial to take place that eases the soldier’s mind.

Moral distance is the enemy is wrong, and I am right. This allows a soldier to see the killing as a justice being done, rather than one person killing another.

Lastly, mechanical distance is seeing a target on a screen, or through a scope, or on a radar, or basically through any equipment that’s not their eyeballs. By putting something between them and their target, a soldier is more easily able to allow themselves to kill.

The Nature of the VictimSoldiers are found to shoot the target that is deemed the most worthwhile kill. Officers, those running machine guns, or whomever the shooter deems the most valuable kill, even something simple like the one guy wearing a helmet, are the most likely targets of a kill-shot.

These are the factors that enable us to kill. Of course, Grossman goes into far more detail than I do, and there are one or two more reasons that an individual might kill (such as those who are just genuinely totally fine with murder), and I would recommend his book if that sort of thing interests you. However, now I’m going to go over this same list again with regards to how corporations are typically run.

Conditioning: The American dream? The glorification of celebrity and wealth? I think everyday citizens are exposed to more conditioning towards the worship of money and wealth than any soldier going through basic training is taught to worship death. We aren’t socialized to want money; we need money. Want a house? You need money. Want an education? Need money. Want a family? Money. Stability? Money. The drive to go out and earn is so strong that those who don’t (or are even unable) are generally considered moral deviants. It is a moral obligation to make money.

Demands of Authority: Corporations are legally obligated to prioritize profits. They are bound to their shareholders. Not just to shareholders, businesses are liable to society, their employees, and their clients (of course not in every instance) to make a profit in order to create wealth. While I wouldn’t really compare a sergeant screaming in a soldier’s ear to shoot to kill to a shareholder’s meeting, the demands of authority to make money at all costs are definitely present.

Group Absolution: While the bond between golf buddies might not be as strong as those bonds created in war, there is definitely an element of camaraderie among the upper echelons of society. They even have their own Burning Man (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohemian_Grove). To think that business deals wouldn’t be influenced by any sort of nepotism would be the height of naivety.

Also, and more importantly, corporations are singular entities built up as legal persons, but are in reality a conglomerate of multiple individuals. These individuals, rarely legally responsible for the actions of their corporation, not only have the other members of the board to share in any guilt, but also the abstract entity of the corporation itself. The individual accountability that is normally associated with an action goes further than mere dispersal, and goes straight into dissolution.

Distance: The top floor, in a corner office. The elite rarely associate with those on the lower levels, or visit the areas where production is being produced. In The Corporation, Michael Moore meets a corporate CEO who had never actually visited the third world country where his product was being manufactured. They even made a TV show about how hilarious it would be if bosses mingled with the lowly peons. I can’t remember what it was called, but it had CEOs flipping burgers or whatever. Undercover Bosses, maybe? That sounds right. The idea of the bosses mingling in the workforce is an entertaining novelty, not a staple of reality.

While I wouldn’t necessarily say there is a moral distance between corporate heads and their underlings, there are definitely cultural and mechanical distances. There are multiple euphemisms for firing employees (letting go, downsizing, etc.), and dehumanizing terms are used to describe people every day: client, home owner, employee, tax payers, etc. These terms, while seemingly benign, objectify people into statistics and units of measurement. (Grossman has “social distance” in his list, and points out that in earlier wars when the upper class made up the officers, they were more adept at killing the peasant infantry, but I feel as though that might as well fall under the umbrella of cultural distance because the premise is the same: “this group of people is worth less than my own group of people.”)

Mechanical distance is fairly straight forward. Most information regarding business comes through on a page where the important information has a decimal and a dollar sign.

The Nature of the Victim: While this factor is a bit more of an assumption on my part, and feel free to take this with a grain of salt, but rather than focusing on the relevancy of the victim as with shooting them, when making money the focus is on the irrelevancy of the victim. The massive amounts of capitalistic exploitation and oppression happen in areas of the world that people in North America really just don’t give a shit about. We have known about child labour and Dickensian work environments for decades now, and I wouldn’t say that things have gotten much better.

These enabling factors show up more than just in making money and in killing people. Bullying is often done in groups, and now with the internet there is a mechanical distance that allows new forms of harassment. Even something like breaking up with a significant other becomes much easier via text message (and cowardly, similar to how early soldiers called the use of the bow and arrow cowardly). What these factors do is deaden the connection that we have with our fellow human beings; they remove the emotions that we might normally feel in a face to face interaction. When applied to capitalism, we see that our culture is run by a system that engages in a conditioned sociopathy. This is not the fault of any individual, and The Corporation makes mention of this when they sit down with a CEO that has his own reservations about the environmental destruction that is taking place. The fault lies in the very structure of the system.

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