U.S. Military Learning to Get Soldiers to Kill on Reflex, Drop Moral Reasoning

Posted: October 20, 2008 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

From WIP, emphasis mine:

The ethical dilemma that anchors the film is blatantly stated in the first few minutes – “At some point, every soldier has to face the question: Will I be able to kill another human being in combat?” Until recent wars most soldiers were not willing to kill; during WWII the military found that 75 percent of combat soldiers did not fire at the enemy when given the opportunity. “Reflexive fire training” – a technique now taught during basic training wherein firing a weapon becomes second nature – has increased firing rates to almost 90 percent.

A quick reaction may save a soldier’s life, but it can also mean that killing becomes so intuitive that a soldier may not clearly evaluate the situation before firing. Major Peter Kilner, a West Point professor of ethics who was recently deployed to Iraq and will serve in Afghanistan this winter, questions the implications of this training practice. “When you train them reflexively, they learn to make those decisions much more quickly, but the price of that is they’re not thinking through the great moral decision of killing another human being,” he says.

The rest of the piece focuses on conscientious objectors, all of whom need our support in the faith.  If you are a member of the military and need help getting out or registering as a conscientious objector, I’d suggest taking a look at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors and the Center on Conscience and War.

  1. Greg says:

    I saw the PBS POV special over the weekend. Did you catch it?

  2. stuperb says:

    That is very frightening.

    I do wonder when the reflexive shooting strategy began, and whether it reflects our military’s own unease with the wars they’ve been asked to wage.

  3. dcrowe says:

    Greg: Nope, missed it. How was it?

    Stuperb (I never get over the awesomeness of that handle, by the way): I’m not sure. Awareness of this training, though, should induce some kind of break with cultural admonitions for the current generation to “live up to” the example of the “Greatest Generation” via military service. It’s a whole different animal. That’s a 300 percent increase in the proportional number of combat veterans that have killed people. I don’t think we have a good idea of what that means yet in terms of damage to the soldiers involved.

  4. dcrowe says:

    Sorry, I should have been more precise: a 300 percent increase in the number of people that pull the trigger.

  5. Greg says:

    dcrowe: I thought it was well done and I learned quite a bit. Most interesting was an Army Officer/Professor whose “Moral” arguments for the use of lethal force to defend the weak are now being taught to more and more incoming recruits. He cited the parable of the good Samaritan and then changed the scenario to the Samaritan walking up on the scene “in progress” as oppossed to afterword. A bogus way to use (not use!) scripture but at least their was dialoge on the subject.
    A far cry from most shows/programs on TV.

  6. Greg says:

    I meant to say the Quoted Army Officer, Pete Kilner.

  7. stuperb says:

    dcrowe, I like your perspective. “That’s a 300 percent increase in the proportional number of combat veterans that have killed people. I don’t think we have a good idea of what that means yet in terms of damage to the soldiers involved.”

    Exactly. We all know what it means to the victims of the strategy, but it will be a while before we know what the dehumanizing effect on the soldiers will be.

    We’ve already seen a huge jump in the suicide rates, and a lot of anecdotal evidence about PTSD.

    It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to fight a war among civilians, where there is no bright line that distinguishes the “good guys” from the bad ones. It’s awful and I keep our soldiers in my prayers, daily.

  8. Sporkmaster says:

    But there is more to this then just what is said. Before we deploy we attend classes on force escalation to make sure that when you do have to shoot that every possible alternative has been tired. Also I was having a conversation with on guy in my unit and he was talking about how you get asked two questions over every detail the incident. It is not something we take lightly.

  9. dcrowe says:


    Hello again!

    I don’t think most people take it lightly. But, the force escalation classes aside, it seems like there has to be something that accounts for that huge increase in numbers of soldiers firing their weapons. From the outside, it seems like some aspect of the training pushes troops to fire more readily (and that’s the argument being made in the article). I know this isn’t a fair question really, since you’ve not experienced the training that led to the lower firing rates (if that’s the actual cause), but what do you think accounts for the increase?

    My concern isn’t that it’s taken lightly; it’s actually the opposite. My concern is that troops who sure as heck won’t take it lightly when the dust settles fire their weapons more often, and they’ll have to live with that experience their whole lives.

    How are you doing today?

  10. Sporkmaster says:

    Each case where people have fired is different, and will have to be judged if that was the correct choice. Some cases are like one in Afghanistan where there was a suicide bomber went off and one guy went to help a Afghanistan police officer. But it turns out that the same police officer was wearing a bomb vest, and after the solider backed off the guy when to reach for the bomb to activate it when the solider shot him. That would be a case of where lethal force was justified because the lives of those around him where in danger. Others where people have shot anything that moves without confirming the target are the one that people go to jail for. That is why Backwater (now changed to Ix) is in hot water because of stuff like that. I am think not about the numbers as a problem but rather then lethal force was used correctly. Because you can have 100 times where people shot that did it correctly against 10 times where it was not. The numbers would not be the big concern, against was it the right choice. That is why I am not sure what the main concern is over raw numbers, unless they are saying that the majority of those numbers are saying that the soldiers are being reckless and trigger happy.

    But that is just it, in combat all you have is a few seconds to make a choice that you will have to live with the rest of your life. That is why most people will not talk about it unless you yourself have been in a similar situation. But war is a traumatic experience. That is something that is just unavoidable. Also even if you do not kill anyone, you can still be affected by the lose of friends. Masses casualty events are something that will also affect people. I have been in one, my self that treated a Iraqi army convoy that was hit. Some of the people there looked to be in the 18-22 range. Some bad stuff.

    The reason that I bring that into play because just like in combat, the things that you do or do not do in medical care will affect if they live or die. That is something that people have to live with the rest of there lives. Regardless of the source it is how people cope and if , they seek help. That is often the main thing that determines they leave it behind them or not.

  11. Sporkmaster says:

    Things are ok, just been busy doing random things.

  12. Sporkmaster says:

    Also a cartoon that fits the subject.


  13. dcrowe says:

    The numbers would not be the big concern, against was it the right choice. That is why I am not sure what the main concern is over raw numbers, unless they are saying that the majority of those numbers are saying that the soldiers are being reckless and trigger happy.

    I reject one of your premises here: that firing a weapon could ever be a “right choice,” for any reason.

    Please keep in mind: the concern expressed in the above post is not about troops being “trigger happy” or “reckless.” That would imply a bad conscious decision on the part of the troops that fire their weapons. The concern is that reflexive fire training forms a reflex (a reflex by definition is an involuntary response to a stimulus) that causes those that have been through the training to fire a weapon without making a rational decision, and that those reflexive actions could account for the increase in fire rates.

    I cannot imagine walking up on the scene that you described above. From a couple of comments you’ve made, I gather you’re a medic or something similar?

  14. Sporkmaster says:

    But always remember that it is easier to say what would have been the right choice after something happens rather then during. This is where the major disagreement is. Because as it stands right now, those in the military are expected to be able to defend themselves and other around them by being able to return accurate fire. The only person that is not expected to fire back is the Chaplain. But the Chaplain’s assistant does carry a weapon and expected to fire back if both are in danger. I know that COs in the past served as medics because the medic was seen as a non-combatant, and thus went into combat unarmed. But that has changed because stopping the enemies fire is critical in being able to reach the injured.

    I disagree with that because your assuming that reflexive fire training teaches to act in impulse rather the observation. The goal of reflexive fire that once a target is confirmed hostile(AKA being targeted with a weapon) , that you able to react to defend yourself and your team. I would be more worried if people where trained just kill on command without determining if it is needed.

    Here is a video of a reflexive fire range.


    Here is a example;

    There was this one route that was constantly being troubled with IEDs and people taking pop shots at IA and US forces. The IA said that they had seen someone firing shot off the back of a white pickup truck. So as evening feel someone decided to take a few shots at us. One of the gunners in the truck said that they say a white truck racing away, but as luck would have it there was another white truck there that was spotted by another gunner. So now we have two questionable targets and unable to confirm if which one did the firing or not at all. Long story short we held fire because we where not able to ID a shooter. We where ready to fire at a moments notice upon having a positive id. The goal of reflexive fire is bring ready to fire, not always fire right away.

    Also on the subject of ROE, once the fighting has stopped, you treated the most wounded first, even if it means treating the people that just shot at your or in a few cases shot you.

    Yep I am the medic for my unit and for the most part things have been ok, just the typical injures here and there.

    This is how the mascal went down;

    “(Mass causality) Those are the last words anyone medical personal wants to hear and that is what I woken up to at 1:30 this morning. It seems that there had been a IED attack and multiple incoming injured and a requests was sent out for additional medic and CLS. I was there in less then 15 min.

    There was a weird calm in the receiving area where we waited for the ambulances to come from the Hel Pad. I was put in charge of the priority/walking wounded. It turns out that these where Iraqi Army personal that where doing patrols with out the benefit of all the anti-IED electronics, some of them ride around in nothing but a F-150 Pickup truck. Some of them where as young as 21-20.

    I ended up helping a total of two people, one just need new bandages and observation. The second one was moderate shrapnel wounds to the upper right torso, not going above the neck line. He also hand a open fracture on his lower leg but it was not protruding out side the skin. We monitored and gave him one litter of virgin normal saline as opposed to the first one that had morphine. We wanted to stick the right arm too but all his veins where blown so we could not use them.

    His major issue was that he was getting poor /no circulation to his injured leg and it was getting cool to the touch, this is with a thermal blanket on so he should not be getting colder. The PA made the call to send him to a higher level of care. While we where waiting for his ride we cleaned off the blood and tried to get as much of the shrapnel out of his body as we could. He also got a free tetanus shot on the house.

    I was told that everything was under control and I could go back to my unit around 2:30 or so. I then woke up at 5:20 to do my 11th mission which I just got back from . I think it is safe to say that I am a bit tired. Just want to thanks for all the well wishes, I have plenty of photos but I am having trouble uploading them because of our internet.. Talk to everyone later.”

  15. dcrowe says:


    As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts and personal experiences. I think they add a lot to the conversation.

    Help me out here. I’m reading more about reflexive fire training, and I’m not seeing what you describe when you say:

    I disagree with that because your assuming that reflexive fire training teaches to act in impulse rather the observation. The goal of reflexive fire that once a target is confirmed hostile(AKA being targeted with a weapon) , that you able to react to defend yourself and your team.

    Can you point me to some detailed articles about the training? Aside from articles like the one I quoted above (which, for the record, include quotes from concerned military folks who do not agree with my anti-violence stance in general but expressed concerns specifically about this kind of training), the articles generally a) praise the training without addressing the points I’m concerned about or b) mimic the article I’ve quoted above.

    But I think I’m still not making my point as clear as I should, based on your above comment. The concern is not whether firing the gun is the right decision. I believe, based on the life and teachings of Jesus, that all shots fired are bad shots fired and that there can be no justification–even self-defense, national interest, etc.–for killing a human being. That’s not the concern addressed in the above post. My specific concern is that prior to implementation of reflexive fire, people’s natural aversion to killing held down the percentage of troops who actually fired their weapons to a much lower level, and reflexive fire training is cited as thing that made the difference. Inflicting violence damages the violent person too, and my concern is that more and more people, because of this kind of training, are damaging themselves as well as others by firing their guns at humans.

  16. Sporkmaster says:

    I do not have any manuals on hand but this is how reflexive fire works from the time that I have spent the range. You have your shooters in a single line with a safety solider behind each shooter. The line will listen to the range control NCO for directions. They can be told to turn left, right, march forward. The range control will give a warning command “Ready” then “target up” to which the line will turn to face the target in a controlled manner and fire two shots and lower their weapons on the command of “down”. The only time that the weapon is take off safe to semi is when the “target up” command is given. The range is also taking into account that the targets have been confirmed hostile. You can see some of that in the video that I showed you.

    I disagree that using force will always be wrong and one thing that you have to consider is that the US military is trained to fight and win wars. I know that you disagree with that but saying that “ all shots are bad shots” is unacceptable given what the army purpose to fight wars. To me the article is suggesting that the US military is training people to violate the Geneva Convention about the rules that govern warfare. But if it is the case that the article is against the reflexive fire ranges because it teaches people how to fight in combat, then any and all military training would be considered wrong. Something that I doubt would have as much support as if it where to say it is just this type of training that is wrong.

    War is going to be traumatic regardless if one is actively involved or not. I am sure that even the people in non-violent movements have issues when facing violence. It really comes down to it that there will be traumatic experiences waiting around every corner no matter what you do. For example the mascal that was part of was small, I cannot imagine if it was something like this;


    I found some ROE statements but they are the older ones. The newer ones have more detail to it, but the spirit is the same.


  17. dcrowe says:

    Found something:

    By 1946, the US Army had accepted Marshall’s conclusions, and the Human Resources Research Office of the US Army subsequently pioneered a revolution in combat training, which eventually replaced firing at targets with deeply ingrained conditioning, using realistic, man-shaped pop-up targets that fall when hit. Psychologists assert that this kind of powerful operant conditioning is the only technique that will reliably influence the primitive, midbrain processing of a frightened human being. Fire drills condition schoolchildren to respond properly even when terrified during a fire. Conditioning in flight simulators enables pilots to respond reflexively to emergency situations even when frightened. And similar application and perfection of basic conditioning techniques increased the rate of fire to approximately 55 percent in Korea and around 95 percent in Vietnam.

    Read the whole article…it’s good. In fact, this whole site is pretty good: http://www.killology.com/article_agress&viol.htm

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