1990s >> 1996 >> no-1101-may-1996

Book Reviews: ‘On Killing’, & ‘The USSR – The Velvet Counter-Revolution’

The making of “killing machines”

On Killing. By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Little-Brown.

Wartime killing, what can be and has been learned from it, and how that affects society as a whole, is the subject of Grossman’s book On Killing. It is a must read for any who believe that humans are killing machines, only restrained from killing by fear of punishment. Grossman also tangentially addresses both social and anti-social behaviour. Grossman accepts war as a requirement of human society, and provides little insight into solutions, but the value of the book is its presentation of an important facet of human behaviour with a generally scientific approach.

Grossman seems to have had three major points to make when writing this book. The first, and the focus of the first half of the book, is that soldiers have a very strong revulsion for killing. He presents compelling historical evidence from military historians, and their interviews with veterans, to support this claim. Grossman says that some of the evidence is open to question, but overall it offers little room for doubt.

The second point is that US Vietnam veterans have not had the necessary and traditional processes to facilitate the rationalization and acceptance of their killing experiences.

This has left them with a significant rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, manifesting itself as “recurrent and intrusive dreams and recollections”, “emotional blunting, social withdrawal, exceptional difficulty or reluctance in initiating or maintaining intimate relationships, and sleep disturbances. These symptoms can in turn lead to … alcoholism, divorce and unemployment.”

The third is that the techniques which have been used successfully by the military to bypass the human revulsion for killing are now in widespread use on youth.

Grossman explains the factors he believes most influence whether a soldier will kill, and finds predisposition to killing in only about 2 percent of soldiers.

The most startling evidence to many will be that in WW I and II, most soldiers (80-85 percent) did not even fire their guns, because they could not bring themselves to kill even when they were being fired at by the “enemy”.

Grossman tells us that the military then developed conditioning techniques, based on the “operant conditioning” pioneered by B.F. Skinner. In the U.S.-Vietnam war, only 5% of US soldiers failed to fire. This evidences the degree to which human beings can be conditioned to do almost anything, and Grossman provides evidence from other studies showing similar results.

Perhaps most frightening is his discussion of using the same conditioning on society in general, and on youths in particular. Grossman argues that this conditioning is now the heart of many violent films and video arcade games. He does not fall into the trap of seeing every killing in film as creating sociopathic viewers. He relates that the U.S. military incorporates “justice” (the enemy is bad), and control in its conditioning, so that the soldier has a “reason”, and must be told to kill. In the films and video arcade games he criticizes, “justice” is often absent: killing is done for the sake of killing, and there is no control.

Grossman provides evidence to support his contention that this conditioning towards violence is actually having substantial results in U.S. society. Although a correlation between violence on TV, in film, and in video games, and violence in society does not prove causation, Grossman notes: “there comes a point when, in spite of this type of reasoning, we must accept … the verdict of 217 correlation studies”.

He suggests that the solution to this societal conditioning may be “to censure (not censor) those who exploit violence for profit”.

He’s pointed to the real problem, but doesn’t see it.


Twisting and turning

L’URSS et la contre-révolution de velours. By Ludo Martens. EPO, Brussels.

Normally we would let the dead bury the dead. And this book (“The USSR: The Velvet Counter-Revolution”) clearly comes into this category, written as it is by someone -the leader of a Maoist party in Belgium- who believes that Stalin was a Great Man and Trotsky a Hitlerite agent. But it reveals an interesting twist to the argument over the nature of the social system in Russia when the Communist Party was in power there.

In the course of their disputes with the rulers of Russia, the rulers of China (Mao) and of Albania (Enver Hodja) came to characterise Russia as “state capitalist”. This was largely name-calling but Mao and Hodja got their State ideologists to work it up into some kind of theory; which, in Martens’s words, went like this:

“In the Soviet Union, Khrushchev’s coup d’Etat marked the capture of power by a new big-bourgeoisie, made up of the high officials of the Party and State, who de facto own the means of production and who appropriate the surplus value created by the workers. The Soviet State is a collective capitalist”.

As it happened, this description of who the Russian ruling class were and how they owned the means of production and exploited the workers was substantially correct, except why did this suddenly come to apply only in 1953 when Khrushchev took over after Stalin died? Since the political and economic structure was the same, if it applied to Russia under Khrushchev it ought logically to apply to Russia under Stalin too. Indeed, it ought logically to apply as well to China under Mao and Albania under Hodja.

As we pointed out at the time, in characterising Russia as capitalist the Maoists were more advanced than the Trotskyists who still clung to the absurd view that Russia was some sort of “workers state” . However, in so doing they were also underlining their own defence of the Chinese and Albanian regimes which of course were also examples of state capitalism.

And this is what happened. After the so-called Cultural Revolution some ex-Red Guards came to apply the same analysis to China under Mao. Others went further and applied it to Russia under Stalin. As Martens describes it from his point of view:

“The whole French New Right, of the “former-Maoist-New-Philospher” type, started from the analysis of the restoration of capitalism under Khrushchev to then discover that the “bases” of this restoration had already been laid by Stalin”.

Some went even further, such as Michael Volslensky in his book The Nomenklatura (recommended reading, incidentally, for anyone wanting to understand the ancien régime in Russia) whose views Martens quotes as the final proof that the new class/state capitalist analysis of Russia was wrong and should be abandoned:

“Neither the Leninist party nor its core has ever been the vanguard or even a simple part of the working class . . . In the event of the revolution they were preparing being victorious, this small group would automatically become an organisation of professional leaders. It is thus that Lenin created the embryo of a new ruling class”.

Mao, Stalin and Lenin as advocates and practitioners of state capitalism, this is where the theory Mao and Hodja patronised in the 1960s and 70s led! This has proved too much for today’s Maoist remnants who have now decided to abandon it as a “leftist” deviation. Martens backtracks on a view which he says he held and ardently defended for twenty years, in these terms:

“We believed at the time that Khrushchev had established a new specific mode of production, state capitalism, a higher form of capitalism where the “nomenklatura” collectively owns the means of production. This thesis isn’t tenable”.

He now believes that Khrushchev didn’t after all “restore” capitalism in 1953; all he did was to embark on a course that would eventually lead to “the restoration of capitalism” but that this didn’t actually occur till Yeltsin came to power in 1991; in the meantime the Russian economy remained “basically socialist”.

So the Maoists have now retreated to the same absurd position as the Trotskyists they hate: that Russia from Stalin to Gorbachov was still basically socialist even if those at the top were feathering their own nests (as if the absence of a privileged group in society wasn’t the essence of socialism).

This view has the added advantage -and is probably a major factor in their U-turn- of allowing the ex-pro-Chinese Communists to make it up with those ex-pro-Russian Communists who haven’t become open reformists, so that they can both rally round the remaining “socialist countries” (Cuba, North Korea, China, Vietnam and Laos). On reflection, perhaps we should have left the dead to bury the dead.

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