Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Young Soldiers

Take three young working-class men and put them through state-of-the-art infantry training with the British Army. Next, follow the results to war in Afghanistan. “Young Soldiers”, shown on BBC-3 last night, was a highly-effective recruiting film for the army.

The lads were serious people with visible and caring parent(s), but trapped in dead-end jobs. The first had an older brother who had been a soldier and had gotten himself blown up, losing a leg and part of one hand. The psychological shock eventually surfaced and our new recruit quit.

The second never seemed to get comfortable with fixing his bayonet and shoving it into a wheezing, bleeding simulacrum of a human being: too much imagination, I guess.

The third guy was steadier and seemed to have less “issues”. When told he was assigned to the 1st Rifles, and thereby destined for immediate deployment to Afghanistan he had a wobble but was straightened out by his mum. Footage in theatre confirmed that war is terror interspersed with boredom, but the lad did well as a superlative ‘point man’, the guy who leads the patrol and spots the IEDs lying in wait. At the end of his six months he seemed pleased to be home, and pleased with what he had become.

This was a classical rite of passage, an exemplification of the Jungian archetype of ‘the hero’. The two lads who had left prematurely seemed haunted by their decisions and in the closing scenes they both indicated they’d be reapplying to the army.

There’s an aphorism that ‘the best soldiers are the worst citizens’ and all three boys were good citizens. Many evolutionary psychologists have observed that the transition to agriculture in the Neolithic was accompanied by a ‘domestication’ of the population. Interpersonal aggression, impulsiveness, lack of conscientiousness, lack of empathy were all negatives in a densely-populated sedentary existence where teamwork and preparation were vital.

It seems to take a lot of training to make the average person an effective killer on command but the army can’t just recruit natural-born killers. Most of the time the army is just a complex logistics organisation and it needs its recruits to have those Neolithic personality traits, otherwise it would just be a mob.

I don’t know whether the officers have it easier. Officially the job of the officer is not to kill people directly; it’s to manage his troops in a calm, rational, educated and effective way: another case of Neolithic virtues.

David Pierson, an American army psychologist, recommends a scattering of psychopaths in the combat divisions. They’re a pain in the neck in ordinary command, but invaluable in contact.