Stephen McGinty: Giving thanks that killing is easy

Bin Laden's death is the result of training which has had to breed empathy out from soldiers, writes Stephen McGinty

FOR God and country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo." These are the words that the commander of Seal Team Six shouted into his helmet microphone to confirm the killing of Osama bin Laden. Listening on a live audio feed at a secure room at the CIA headquarters at Langley, the director Leon Panetta translated the news for President Barack Obama and the senior staff waiting in the situation room of the White House with the words: "Geronimo EKIA": enemy killed in action. For a new generation of men, this will be their "embassy siege" moment.

Ever since 1980, with the live footage of black clad men abseiling, down the white-columned frontage of the Iranian Embassy in London with intent to dispatch the armed terrorists inside with extreme prejudice, men of a certain age, (roughly 15-40) have been fascinated with the secret world of the special forces. A friend said this week: "I know its macho bullshit, but I can't get enough of reading about this raid."

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I don't know about you, but with each new piece of information, a scene or line of dialogue, or this week's bin Laden videos, I edit them into the "movie" rolling inside my head. I can specifically see the body of bin Laden being tipped into the water from the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, with a massive Stars and Stripes fluttering in the sea-breeze. Then there are those incredible photographs taken from inside the situation room of Hillary Clinton with her hand to her mouth, while the rest of the men look on with faces of stone. It's a pity she has since felt it necessary to state that she may have been stifling a sneeze, rather than admit to her emotions, as if to do so would be a diminution of her role.

While the Embassy siege first alerted the wider world to the SAS, it was the release of Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab in 1993 that expanded the modern reader's interest in the covert. Since then, there has been a spate of books, most recently Task Force Black by Mark Urban, which details the British special forces missions in Iraq, and multi-million-selling video games such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honour that allow players to skulk on rooftops and rappel down lines on missions to despatch the enemy. To ensure the factual accuracy of the games, for instance how long it takes to empty a clip, the games designers hire former special forces soldiers as military advisors. In the dark of the living room, with the sound turned up, it's easy for the modern man-child to imagine himself easily capable of pulling the trigger, but it is a testament to our common humanity that killing is much harder than we previously imagined. The fact is that Seal Team Six are the result of what has been described as the "warrior renaissance", for the military has learned more about how to enable killing since the Second World War than in all the previous 5,000 years of warfare.

During the Second World War only 2 per cent of frontline infantry soldiers were capable of pulling the trigger on the enemy. After extensive research among infantry soldiers, the US General SL Marshall discovered in 1947 that only 25 per cent fired their gun in the direction of the enemy, while the number who deliberately aimed to kill was as low as 2 per cent. At first, he believed the data to be flawed, then the US Air Force discovered that in aerial combat, as opposed to bombing missions, just 1 per cent of pilots were responsible for 50 per cent of confirmed kills. When military historians peered into the past, they found evidence that the vast majority of soldiers were reluctant to kill. Many of the rifles found at Gettysburg were loaded, but unfired. The Prussian army discovered that while aiming at a paper target a battalion had an accuracy rate of 60 per cent, but when the same 1,000 soldiers came face to face with the enemy at a shorter distance, they killed just three men.

So who was responsible for the tens of millions of war dead? It was the mechanised slaughter of tanks, field guns and aerial bombardment, death at a distance, complemented by the remarkable industry of that 2 per cent willing to pull the trigger. One per cent were identified by the military as sociopaths, resistant to human empathy, the emotion that prevented their comrades from pulling the trigger. The other 1 per cent were, curiously, motivated not by hate, but love. In June 1944, Sergeant Major Stan Hollis charged two German machinegun posts and threw a grenade through the slits, because he said he could not bear to see the men under his command in such mortal danger.

A radical change in the training of soldiers was introduced after the Second World War. While side branches experimented with the use of LSD, only to discover it destroyed the aggressive instinct, the key to the modern training of soldiers, and which raised the rate from 2 per cent in the Second World War to 95 per cent in the Falklands was the work of BF Skinner, a Harvard psychologist, who published a book called The Behaviour of Organisms in 1938 and concocted the idea of operant conditioning, that a combination of repetition and desensitisation can, with time, overcome the mind's natural response. Instead of shooting at a bull's eyes, soldiers trained with human sized targets and, over time, the training became more and more authentic until, today, US soldiers go through an extensive period at Camp Lejune where they embark on military operations in urban terrain. Their weapons use "simunition", loaded with paint, and they shoot at live targets. While initial runs through the course will see soldiers' heart rate rise as high as 250 beats per minute, it rapidly falls as the body and mind becomes enured to the task at hand. The developed fore-brain is shut down and the primitive mid-brain is more easily accessible.

The bitter irony is that now the armies of the world are excellent, compared to their predecessors in the Second World War, at making soldiers kill, however its success rate with allowing them to accept the consequences of killing is a quite different matter.

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Not that the unnamed warrior from Seal Team Six who pulled the trigger on bin Laden will have any sleepless nights, unless they are triggered by the constant applause of a grateful nation, but it is something the X-Box groupies should keep firmly in mind.

When it comes to killing, I often think of a line from Clint Eastwood in the western Unforgiven in which he said: "It's a hell of a thing killing a man. You take all he's got and all he's ever gonna have." It can also, on rare occasions like this one, be a great thing. As George Orwell said, we sleep safer in our beds because "rough men walk in the night prepared to do violence in our name".