Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Story Combat Realism Part 2--The Fearless Elite

I ended my last post with the following statement: "...in writing battles, it should happen sometimes that characters feel overwhelmed and surrender. Or run. Or if they don't, there needs to be something special about them that accounts for how they differ from what is in fact normal for human and nearly-human characters."

One type of "something special" I'm going to discuss in this post. It turns out according the the book On Killing, the biggest stressor human beings face in combat is killing other human beings. The sequel to On Killing, On Combat, actually puts more emphasis on the danger of being killed, but both things haunt the human mind, largely based on the human ability to feel empathy. To feel the suffering of those we humans kill on the one hand--and to witness friends and colleagues being killed on the other, while feeling their pain as they pass on (and then worry that we are next) form the primary causes of battlefield psychological trauma. Natural human empathy does not like to be at war against other human beings.

Statistics derived from World War II but consistent with records from other conflicts indicate that when human beings are locked in close personal combat for a period of around six weeks or more, between 96% and 98% become psychological casualties. What it means to become a psychological casualty I'll talk about in a later post. But what I want to note here is that 2 to 4% do not suffer psychologically at all. This group, this unusual minority, is what I called "The Fearless Elite" in the title above.

"Fearless" is not really the right term. This minority can experience fear (though not all do). But unlike the overwhelming majority of us, they can fight in war without showing any sign of damage to their inner selves. Note that since the fright or surrender reactions are involuntarily triggered by psychological stress, this small minority also seem resistant to throwing up hands in panic or running uncontrollably. They may still feel fear and still surrender or run--but they would do so by choice it seems, because it makes sense at the moment, rather than because of an uncontrollable emotional and mental reaction.

Why is this small minority different? The answers are not completely known, but it seems the group can be divided in rough halves:

Half of this group are immune to the psychological damage of combat because there is something deeply wrong with them--they are psychopaths. Psychopaths, sometimes interchangeably called "sociopaths" (but there is a difference between the two terms), do not feel empathy for other human beings or only feel it in the tiniest amount. Killing someone else is nothing to them and they likewise are much less concerned with their own deaths.

The other half seems to be composed of perfectly normal people, who usually react differently to combat for largely unknown reasons--though being naturally calm and highly resistant to getting stressed out seems related to what makes these people unusual.

Immediately an author of tales should recognize that a lot of writing effort in war stories has been focused on these unusual people. The villains, those who kill and feel nothing for any one--the heroes, who do feel, but are so calm and level-headed they manage to do the right thing even in the worst of scenarios. These are the men of legend and history, these are the Odysseus, the Spartacus, and Audie Murphy figures; the other half represents the Genghis Khans, Ashurbanipals, and Joachim Peipers.

People of this mentality (both halves) tend to be found in higher percentages in elite units, whether this be among King David's mighty men or the US Navy Seals. It might be interesting to write a story about a non-human race where all the soldiers naturally behave as if they were elite. Or where human beings are genetically engineered to fight without remorse or fear. Note that someone who fights without any regrets or fear would be lacking something psychologically--this lack should show somehow in a story. Even if its a lack of an ability to have a good time because of supreme natural calmness.

It might be tempting to say that the 300 Spartans who stood with King Leonidas at Thermopylae were all naturally elite soldiers. But there is no suggestion based on modern scientific evidence that any nation of people have a higher percentage of natural warriors than any other. In fact, the historical record seems to indicate that Spartan courage was the product not of natural affinity for warfare, but of superior "unnatural" training. In fact, in general, while elite units do attract those most suited to their kind of warfare, elite training is the main ingredient in what makes certain military units superior to others.

What kind of training or background makes ordinary human beings (or near-humans) fight as if each one of them were heroes? We'll look at that subject in the next post on this topic.