“Sir, turn up the TV sound
The war has started on the ground
Just love those laser guided bombs
They’re really great for righting wrongs
You hit the target and win the game
From bars 3,000 miles away…”
— Roger Waters, The Bravery of Being Out of Range
In 1914, a new term was coined: Shell Shock. While war had always created psychological trauma, the sheer scale of industrialized slaughter that the Great War introduced created new challenges as the human mind tried to wrap itself around the reality of being essentially caught in a meat grinder from which escape often seemed hopeless.
Throughout that war and the even larger one that followed, more and more instances of an alarming problem occurred. This was that in heavy combat situations, for a variety of reasons, many soldiers did or could not actually fire their weapons. One might think this was fairly uncommon, what with being shot at and all, but by the end of World War II, the problem had climbed to levels that were actually affecting large-scale operations. This seemed to be restricted to infantry, though, and in the world of artillery, air combat, and tanks, it did not prevent victory.
However, in the wake of the second World War, the U.S. military undertook an effort to reduce the rate by making use of new psychological studies such as those done by General S.L.A. Marshall (though his findings have subsequently been disputed). They found that by training recruits to think of enemy combatants as “targets” rather than people, and by implementing other dehumanizing modes of thought, the rate of freezing up declined. By the time of the Vietnam War, the rate had fallen dramatically.
What didn’t go down, though, was Shell Shock. In fact, that increased, and was given a new name: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, from which the veterans of Vietnam and subsequent wars have suffered in greater numbers than their predecessors. One might draw a through-line from the process of dehumanization of the enemy to the inability for the human mind to process the atrocities of war, and many historians have.
Dehumanization does things to the minds of civilians as well. I remember being in a bar when the first volleys of the Iraq War were broadcast on live television, and how excited everyone was. You couldn’t see people in those grainy images, only targets. Had the maimed bodies of Iraqis been as visible as the pretty explosions, I expect the reactions of the viewers would have been different.
Cut to the last push for U.S. intervention in Syria. That time, we DID see the bodies of victims, crying and bleeding. How different the public conversation when we see humans versus targets. Yet how many of the casualties from our drone strikes are ever shown on television? By examining the level of humanization presented, we can determine what those presenting it want us to feel.
This is illustrated by the responses to school shootings in predominantly white areas. For shootings in minority neighborhoods, we get numbers, maybe names. In Parkland, we got full interviews, and of course our reaction is more personal. That could be our kid. “Our” being code for the assumptive majority, which of course is dwindling mathematically, if not culturally.
Taking this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, one might assume that the near-constant exposure to images of children running terrified from gunmen would elicit a mass emotional response that would affect those running for the votes of their constituents.
That this is not the case should tell us something. In all corners of our political discourse, the key missing element is empathy. Why? Because we have been told that those on the other side of the fence are not real Americans. It happens on left and right, although it must be said that the right is far better at organizing on that front, thus their continued dominance in government. When we do not fully believe that someone is equal to us, we care less about their fate.
Nobody knows this better than our current chief executive. When he calls immigrants “animals,” he is giving a psychological cue: When you see these people suffering, remember that they are not people. It really doesn’t take much to activate that node in the human mind. Slavery existed for centuries because we are easily convinced that we are intrinsically better than others. I’ve been guilty of it myself. If someone shot a Nazi, my first reaction would probably be laughter, before I put the event in moral context. None of us are immune.
Unfortunately, it seems that our reaction to too much empathetic stimuli has been, as the military’s was, to winnow down our definition of who is worth empathizing with. Whose shoes we can put ourselves into without it hurting too much. In a world of seven billion people, with stories of suffering streaming in hourly, it’s an understandable self-defense mechanism. Like the soldiers in the Great War, we are accosted by too much stimuli at too high a rate. Unlike them, we have the luxury of shutting off our processors and simply focusing on what we choose. And each switch thus flipped makes us less human.
How many more people will die in the coming years because too many of us decided not to choose them as beneficiaries of our concern? Far more than should be acceptable to a society that declares itself civilized.
“There’s a teacher showing how to shield
A weapon made for battlefields
There’s a trigger, and anyone can pull it
There’s a look inside a child’s eyes
When they don’t trust the world outside
And their innocence flies from them like a bullet
There is a country where some people say that
That is just the price you pay for freedom
But I am calling bullshit…”
— Heather Maloney, How Many More