War From Near And Far

Longtime OB commenter TGGP gives quotes showing the “near/far dichotomy is reflected in Randall Collins’ “Violence: A Microsociological Theory”:

Soldiers who have been in combat and had direct contact with the enemy tend to depict him as courageous; it is enemies on more distant combat zones who are not respected; and soldiers in rear areas, and even more so civilians at home, who express a low regard for the enemy. …

The higher the rank, the more the person identifies with the formal frontstage ideals of the organization and is likely to talk in official rhetoric. … The contrast between detailed observation of what is happening in each micro-situation, and summary accounts of an ideal-typical version of performance; the latter would tend to be more idealized toward a favorable image, and we would expect that this bias would grow with as the actual memories of combat experience become more distant. …

In the modern era, casualties were caused primarily by artillery fired at long distance. In the musket era of parade-ground formations, cannon operating closer to the battle line generally accounted for more than 50 percent of the casualties. … The sheer distance from the enemy, and especially being shielded from personally seeing the men one is trying to kill increases the level of [soldier] performance. …The tension/fear of combat is almost completely debilitating at close range. …

Pre-battle elation … [is] troops’ “strange and fearsome delight at being at last up ‘really’ up against it”. This is a case of feelings prior to these men’s first battle, still in the phase of rhetoric. … Soldiers in rear areas express more hatred of the enemy, and more ferocious attitudes toward them, than frontline troops. … Whereas combat soldiers are more likely to treat prisoners well … rear area troops tend to treat prisoners more callously. … Civilians at home are more likely to express violent rhetorical hatred. … This fits the general pattern of all fights: surrounded by bluster and gesture up until the actual fight situation, when the emotion shifts drastically and tension/fear takes over. …

The proportion of empty rhetoric expands with each step toward the rear; war is successively more idealized, the enemy successively more dehumanized, attitudes toward killing successively more callous, and the whole affair more like the cheering of sports fans. …

The circumstances that cause the most fear not necessarily those that are objectively the most dangerous. Artillery shells and mortars … cause by far the most casualties – and the soldiers themselves generally know that – but the greatest difficulty in combat performance is in confronting small-arms fire at the forward edge of the combat zone. …  The source of strain is neither fear of death and injury, nor aversion to killing in principle. … What is different, and what seems to buffer them from tension/fear, is that [officers] personally do not have to do the killing.

War is a powerful horrifying example of just how badly our minds can be deluded by our “idealistic” far view.  Our far view of war functions well to help us signal our loyalty and commitment to our associates, but it makes us far too willing to make war and be cruel to our enemy, and makes us too willing to use tech that can kill from afar.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    Speaking of near and far, what do you suppose civilians in a battle zone think of the enemy? Of the soldiers on their own side? Why might civilians in battle zones have been left out of the discussion?

  • fenn

    “and makes us too willing to use tech that can kill from afar.”

    I do wonder what the odds are we go 100 years w/o decimating ourselves (in the proper sense of the word) and how far it would set us back if we do.

    • James K

      There seems to be a long-run trend toward the world recommit more peaceful. I would expect this trend to continue so long as economic growth remains on a steady or increasing trend and globalisation continues.

  • http://t-a-w.blogspot.com/ Tomasz Wegrzanowski

    Back when wars when face to face like in ancient Greece, they were happening almost all the time. Now that you can bomb people from afar, there are hardly any wars. This seems like the opposite of what this theory would predict.

    In fact it seems that quite significant drop in frequency of warfare fits time line of introduction of effective artillery, bombers, and ICBMs reasonably well.

    And it’s not just due to fear of retaliation activating near mode in people. Even one-sided wars where one side bombs the other are far less frequent than one-sided wars with swords and spears were.

    • Jess Riedel

      This is very hard to disentangle from the effect of rising incomes on the propensity to go to war. As people become richer, they have more to lose and are more likely to avoid hostilities through peaceful processes. Rising incomes leads to both having more to lose (which decreases fighting) and the ability to wage more powerful, long-distance warfare (which, according to the above theory, increases fighting). I think we’d need a much more detailed analysis before we started taking historical data as evidence against the above theory.

  • Someone from the other side

    The sheer distance from the enemy, and especially being shielded from personally seeing the men one is trying to kill increases the level of [soldier] performanc

    I think that is much more related to the much higher firepower of long range weapons compared to close combat ones. The fact that a high end fighting jet dropping bonds on guerilla is pretty much invincible can’t possible help, either.

    • Steve

      Lt. Col Dave Grossman’s well-referenced book On Killing strongly supports the distance explanation.

  • Thomas M. Hermann

    This is another reason that the transition to remotely piloted/autonomous combat vehicles is disturbing. This transition will lower(remove?) 2 large barriers to armed conflict. The first barrier is the cost, in terms of casualties, to the politicians of engaging in a war. The financial costs don’t count because governments generally aren’t limited, at least in the short term, by finances. The second barrier is the accurate reporting of the horrors of war as reported by returning troops. It will be much easier to maintain support when the war is reported in terms of video grabs from the combat vehicles showing successful missions.

    Don’t misunderstand my post as opposition to remotely piloted/autonomous combat vehicles. I’m just concerned that the full ramifications of such technologies are not being considered and that new barriers to arm conflict need to be erected to replace those that are being lowered.

    • Thomas M. Hermann

      Just recalled something my grandfather, a WWII vet, liked to tell me, something he read, I’m sure someone will recognize it. He believed that governments should have to send their most “valuable” citizens to war, first, however you want to define valuable. He thought that would help deter war or at least make them think twice about it.

      • TGGP

        The aristocracy is historically a military caste, most famously as medieval knights. As warfare modernized, they became the officer class. As I quoted Collins in my post, officers actually have rather high casualty rates. I’ve heard some claim that the draft was a major motivation behind opposition to the Vietnam war, but Bryan Caplan notes there little relation behind vulnerability to the draft and anti-war sentiment.

        Nancy Lebovitz: Collins notes that civilians in bombarded cities do not become psychiatric casualties, but soldiers guarding prisoners (and not the prisoners themselves) in an area being bombed do.

        I’d also like to note that with greater distance and removal, accuracy goes down. So the artillery is causing so many casualties even though most shells miss, because of the sheer quantity of shells fired in a general area.

        Jess Riedel, that is basically Steve Sailer’s dirt theory of war.

  • tonyf

    James K (and to some extent Jess Riedel):
    Wasn’t that what people were thinking up too and including first half-year of 1914? Economic growth, growth of trade and globalisation, had made major wars too expensive and almost impossible? And indeed 1815-1914 was rather peacefull. Still 20’th century became the worst we have seen so far when it comes to war.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      As a percentage of the population killed in war, the twentieth century has been the safest yet.

  • Me

    Dunno, seems like lately (since 60-ies or so) the crowd at home is more likely to critisize their own troops for excessive cruelty while in the harms way. Beats me.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    Near and far for anti-malaria bed nets, or how “user compliance” is a way of not noticing why people are or are not doing what you think they should.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Yes, that is a good relevant post.

  • ad

    Soldiers who have been in combat and had direct contact with the enemy tend to depict him as courageous; it is enemies on more distant combat zones who are not respected; and soldiers in rear areas, and even more so civilians at home, who express a low regard for the enemy

    Soldiers talking about the prowess of their own enemies, would appear to be implicitly boasting about their own prowess.

  • Billy Oblivion

    Soldiers who have been in combat and had direct contact with the enemy tend to depict him as courageous;

    There are several soldiers and former soldiers in this office, and this is not their general impression of the “enemy” they dealt with outside the walls.

    I’m sure that if asked they would indicate that some are courageous and some were cowardly.

    However the impression I’ve gotten from the guys here is that most of them were simply stupid.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com/ denis bider

    I see some parallel between this post and the meat industry. It is easier to kill if you only launch the bombs and don’t have to see them landing. It is easier to eat meat if you pay a few people with suitably non-empathetic traits to do all the slaughtering.