Distance from the Victim

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

There is a powerful resistance in most individuals to killing their fellow human beings, David Grossman (On Killing) argues, but it can be overcome through a number of factors, including distance from the victim.

Grossman starts with physical distance:

To fight from a distance is instinctive in man. From the first day he has worked to this end, and he continues to do so.
— Ardant du Picq

The physical distance between the actual aggressor and the victim was created in Milgram’s studies by placing a barrier between the subject and the individual he was shocking. This same process can be generalized to and observed in historical combat circumstances, as portrayed in Figure 3. John Keegan in The Face of Battle notes that “only a fraction of one percent of all wounds” at the Battle of the Somme in World War I were inflicted with edged weapons — and most of those in the back. Interviews and research reveal countless incidents in which combatants confronted with an enemy soldier at close range did not fire, but when faced with an enemy who could be attacked with a hand grenade, or who could be engaged at medium range or long range, the incidence of nonfiring behavior goes down significantly. At the greatest range, among high-altitude bombers or artillery crews, incidents of refusal to fire are extraordinarily rare.

Units with a history and tradition of close-combat, hand-to-hand killing inspire special dread and fear in an enemy by capitalizing upon this natural aversion to the “hate” manifested in this determination to engage in close-range interpersonal aggression. The British Gurkha battalions have been historically effective at this (as can be seen in the Argentineans’ dread of them during the Falklands War), but any unit that puts a measure of faith in the bayonet has grasped a little of the natural dread with which an enemy responds to the possibility of facing an opponent determined to come within “skewering range.”

What these units (or at least their leaders) must understand is that actual “skewering” almost never happens; but the powerful human revulsion to the threat of such activity, when confronted with superior posturing represented by a willingness or at least a reputation for participation in close-range killing, has a devastating effect upon the enemy’s morale. This powerful revulsion to being killed with cold steel could be observed when mutinous Indian soldiers captured during the Sepoy Mutiny “begged for the bullet,” pleading to be executed with a rifle shot rather than the bayonet.

The combination of closeness with uncertainty (especially at night) helps explain why flank and rear attacks shatter the enemy’s will to fight. The assumption that the enemy is very close raises the level of uncertainty. This closeness and uncertainty combine and conspire with the darkness’ lack of mutual surveillance in such a manner as to erode and destroy the enemy’s will to fight.

Emotional distance also matters:

Combat at close quarters does not exist. At close quarters occurs the ancient carnage when one force strikes the other in the back.
— Ardant du Picq

One of the more interesting processes to occur in the area of emotional distance is the psychological leverage gained by not having to see the victim’s face. Israeli research has determined that hooded hostages and blindfolded kidnapping victims have a significantly greater chance of being killed by their captors. This demonstrates the difficulty associated with killing an individual whose face you can see, even when that individual represents a significant threat by being able to later identify you in court.

This same enabling process explains why Nazi, communist, and gangland executions are traditionally conducted with a bullet in the back of the head, and individuals being executed by hanging or firing squad are traditionally blindfolded or hooded. Not having to look at the face of the victim provides a form of psychological distance which enables the execution party and assists in their subsequent denial and/or rationalization and acceptance of having killed a fellow human being.

In combat the enabling value of psychological distance can be observed in the fact that casualty rates increase significantly after the enemy forces have turned their backs and begin to flee. Clausewitz and du Picq both expound at length on the fact that the vast majority of casualties in historical battles were inflicted upon the losing side during the pursuit that followed the victory. In this vein du Picq holds out the example of Alexander the great, whose forces, during all his years of warfare, lost fewer than 700 men “to the sword.” They suffered so few casualties simply because they never lost a battle and therefore had to endure only the very minor casualties inflicted by reluctant combatants in close combat and never had to suffer the very significant losses associated with being pursued by a victorious enemy.

The killing during the pursuit has also traditionally been conducted by cavalry, chariot, or tank units, and these have their own form of psychological distance, which enables their killing activity. In combat a good horseman becomes one with his mount and is transformed into a remarkable new species. He is no longer a man, but is instead a ten-foot tall, half-ton, four-legged, centaur-like “pseudospecies” that has no hesitation to slay the lesser creatures that scurry about beneath him — especially if these lesser beings are being pursued and have their backs turned.

Emotional distance also includes:

  • Cultural distance, such as racial and ethnic differences, which permits the killer to dehumanize the victim.
  • Moral distance, which takes into consideration the kind of intense belief in moral superiority and vengeful/vigilante actions associated with many civil wars.
  • Social distance, which considers the impact of a lifetime of practice in thinking of a particular class as less than human in a socially stratified environment.
  • Mechanical distance, which includes the sterile “Nintendo Game” unreality of killing through a TV screen, a thermal sight, a sniper sight, or some other kind of mechanical buffer that permits the killer to deny the humanity of his victim.


  1. Bert E. says:

    The trench raid from the era of WW1 was certainly close quarters combat. An institutionalized aspect of the Great War, close quarters weapons preferred. Trench knife, club, grenade, handgun [.455 Webley], shotgun, etc. Even oriental style martial arts techniques used on occasion by those soldiers that had experience in overseas colonies.

  2. Handle says:

    Looks like Cochran’s with me on this one. Hesitation with regards to killing the enemy is a myth.

  3. Toddy Cat says:

    My Dad served as a combat infantryman for a year in the European Theatre in WWII. I heard lots of stories from him, a few of which did not reflect particularly well on some of the men he served with, but I never heard him say anything about soldiers not firing in combat (he was an NCO, and was supposed to notice things like that). He also witnessed hand-to-hand combat. He’s gone now, and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I really doubt that he would have agreed with the Grossman/Marshall thesis.

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