Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Only a few soldiers do most of the fighting, David Grossman (On Killing) notes, and it seems to be in their nature:

Swank and Marchand’s World War II study noted the existence of 2 percent of combat soldiers who are predisposed to be “aggressive psychopaths” and apparently do not experience the normal resistance to killing or the resultant psychiatric casualties associated with extended periods of combat. The negative connotation associated with the term “psychopath” or its modern equivalent, “sociopath,” is inappropriate here, since this behavior is a generally desirable one for soldiers in combat, but there does seem to be some foundation for a belief that a very small percentage of all combatants are doing a tremendously disproportionate amount of the killing.


The presence of aggression, combined with the absence of empathy, results in sociopathy. The presence of aggression, combined with the presence of empathy, results in an individual completely different from the sociopath.

One veteran I interviewed told me that he thought of most of the world as sheep: gentle, decent, kindly creatures who are essentially incapable of true aggression. In this veteran’s mind there is another human subspecies (of which he was a member) that is a kind of dog: faithful, vigilant creatures who are very much capable of aggression when circumstances require. But, according to his model, there are wolves (sociopaths) and packs of wild dogs (gangs and aggressive armies) abroad in the land, and the sheepdogs (the soldiers and policemen of the world) are environmentally and biologically predisposed to be the ones who confront these predators.


Some may think of them as sheepdogs, and that is a good analogy, but I prefer another term, another analogy. There is a model, an “archetype,” which, according to Jung, exists deep in the “collective unconscious” — an inherited, unconscious reservoir of images derived from our ancestors’ universal experiences and shared by the whole human race. These powerful archetypes can drive us by channeling our libidinal energy. They include such Jungian concepts as the mother, the wise old man, and the hero. I think that Jung might refer to these people as heroes not as sheepdogs.

According to Gwynne Dyer (War), United States Air Force research concerning aggressive killing behavior determined that 1 percent of USAF fighter pilots in World War II did nearly 40 percent of the air-to-air killing, and the majority of their pilots never even tried to shoot anyone down. This 1 percent of World War II fighter pilots, Swank and Marchand’s 2 percent, Griffith’s low Napoleonic and Civil War killing rates, and Marshall’s low World War II firing rates can all be at least partially explained if only a small percentage of these combatants were actually willing to actively kill the enemy in these combat situations. Call them sociopaths, sheepdogs, or heroes as you please, but they exist, they are a distinct minority, and in time of war our nation needs them desperately.


  1. Alrenous says:

    Gwynne Dyer misinterprets the numbers. A power law is what you should naively expect. Since a power law is what we see, we haven’t learned much until we do the numbers in particular. We have to work out which power law we expect and compare it to which one we see.

    E.g. perhaps most pilots almost never saw combat due to being at rest when combat was available, just by chance. The details matter a lot.

    Psychopaths make spectacularly poor soldiers, as they combine cowardice with recklessness. The typical psychopath’s impulsiveness will have them flee the front lines whenever they think they can, in the moment, get away with it. They’ll abandon their comrades at the drop of a hat. They will then shamelessly try to weasel out of punishment. The reckless disregard for social consequences makes it almost impossible to control them. Similarly the psycho will abandon overwatch positions to ambush individual enemies – soldier or otherwise.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Gwynne Dyer probably did not expect to find a power law, but even if we do expect one, we need to explain its nature. What factors cause some to becomes heroes while most remain zeros?

    Also, I think the term psychopath is a product of its time. But what do you call people who aren’t bothered by war and killing, while everyone around them is?

  3. I think what Alrenous is getting at is that “psychopath/sociopath” is a term for a specific mental disorder that doesn’t fit the set of observations we’re talking about. What we need is a term for those who aren’t bothered by killing and violence, but for some reason(s) other than a lack of human social instincts, as is the case in sociopaths.

  4. A Boy and His Dog says:

    Heroes or, as Heraclitus called them, Warriors. This 100:1 breakdown seems to hold true for other areas of business and life, not just on the battlefield. Some people get things done — those are the ones you want on your side.

  5. AYY says:

    As I recall Marshall’s statement about the low killing rates in WW2 has been debunked. Can’t find a link right now.

  6. Slovenian Guest says:

    Yes, the Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, the law of the vital few and the principle of factor sparsity, it states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

  7. Eggo says:

    I believe it’s come out in recent years that the counts of every nation’s top aces were vastly exaggerated for various reasons, so there’s that to consider.

  8. Toddy Cat says:

    Didn’t the U.S. Army Air Force use gun camera film to confirm kills? Certainly that wouldn’t be infallible, but it would put you in the right ball park.

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