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Psychology of Soldier Training in the UK

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Bullying, humiliation and exclusion are all part of the British culture.  How does this assertion sit with our duty to produce trained soldiers for the front line by running hard, relevant and fair training?

First, it is essential to understand that the larger British cultural psychology exerts its oppression through mostly subtle forms of psychological warfare.  Repression of emotions, fastidiousness, fixation on decorum and protocol, and elite classism are all fixtures of the British school system and of British adult society.  This is no accident -- the hallmarks of British socialization are present in military training as well.  In the case of the military, the bullying, humiliation, and exclusion are achieved through both subtle and overt psychological warfare, and even violence.  As military expert Dr Hans Pols observes, “cultures of denigration and harassment have existed in all army training camps.”  (Das, 2004)  Why is this the case?  Surely these characteristics do not exist arbitrarily in either British society or the military itself.  The overarching reason is a conceptually simple one: an historical preoccupation with maintaining the culture of superiority: “Throughout history the superiority of the winners has been connected to a denial of feelings -- what, in the British Empire, was called the ‘stiff upper lip.’ The conquerors of nature and ‘natives’ claimed their right to the world as their possession because they had first conquered themselves.”  (Davey, 1999)

With respect to the military, specifically, what is the point of such institutionalized human denigration in our organizations?  According to Dr Pols, the implicit philosophy behind bullying and denigration is based on the idea that to be capable of dealing with the rigours of battle, soldiers need to be toughened up by being subjected to conditions that test their resolve and resilience. Also, to create an effective army, soldiers need to lose their individuality and personality to become part of an efficient fighting unit … A culture of bullying and denigration is aimed at removing individual peculiarities and characteristics that, in daily life, make people endearing and special.  (Das, 2004)

Dr Pols’ last sentence is telling, as it speaks to the dehumanizing power of corporations and other patriarchal, top-down institutions within British society – in fact, “similar patterns of behaviour [to the military] can be seen in other, usually male, institutions such as the police force, sporting clubs and college fraternities.” (Das, 2004)  This is not recent phenomenology; as far back as the war with the United States for its independence, the British were invoking similarly disturbing psychological motifs, characterizing their bombardment of a colonial harbor in 1776 as:  “a rod of correction… we must assure them,” the Tory naval officer continued, “that we dread the very thoughts of an absolute independency; and that we see no prospect of security or happiness but under the powerful protection and mild superintendency of the mother country.” (Wyatt-Brown, 2004)  The colonialist mentality inherent in the above example was rife throughout British history throughout its Empire, including its occupation of India and Iraq, and indeed colonialism can be seen as the outward, global manifestation of the haughty, elitist patriarchal mindset around which British society was organized for the better part of 400 years.  

To be fair, there are valid reasons for the military to employ certain tactics within their training protocols that we might find unacceptably barbaric in schools and universities.  As alluded to above, soldiers in modern warfare experience stresses, pressures, and horrors that are inconceivable to civilians.  Even fleeting psychological weaknesses or hesitations in judgment during combat can be fatal, and so soldiers’ responses to battlefield pressures must be so deeply ingrained as to be virtually instinctive.  There is often no time for polite university seminar-type committee discussions in war.  A soldier must be trained to obey and execute orders that may threaten their lives, and insofar as military training utilizes dehumanising and de-individualising psychological techniques to enable soldiers to respond properly in battle, it is arguably a necessary evil.

But what are the consequences to a soldier, who is, after all, a human being, outside of the context of the battlefield, after receiving this training?  The evidence, particularly incorporating new evidence from the horrific recent war in Iraq, suggests grim news:  “Rituals involving physical and psychological humiliation, as well as sexual abuse, are not confined to overseas operations, but are also present "at home". A survey carried out by the Ministry of Defence in 2002 found that more than 40% of British soldiers believed the army had a problem with bullying, sexual discrimination and harassment.” (Bourke, 2005)

The war in Iraq, in fact, points to an acute need for military training that strikes an appropriate balance between the need to turn men and women into auto-robotic killing machines and the understanding that the work of doing so is supposed to facilitate a greater good, such as the liberation of oppressed peoples.  Iraqis endured decades of humiliation, torture, murder, and oppression under Saddam Hussein and his Baath party; the British participation in the war to liberate the Iraqis was supposed to be a showcase in British military superiority, not just in training but in honourable behavior: 
The British army prides itself on its professionalism and its discipline. Its adherence to codes of honourable behaviour in battle is central to the way the British army markets itself, particularly in opposition to other fighting forces (such as the Germans during the two world wars, and the Americans in the current conflict).  (Bourke, 2005)

Is it possible to create a soldier whose psychology can simultaneously contain the instinct to kill and the instinct for compassion?  Can a British soldier decapitate a 17-year old Iraqi insurgent with a burst of machine-gun fire, and then immediately go to a nearby 17-year old civilian female witness and quell her sobbing with a comforting embrace?  Idealism prays that the answer is yes – realism will dictate that serious institutional changes must be effected in British training methodology.

Though the deeply ingrained conservative cultural elements within the military have and will react in horror to such a suggestion, it is utterly imperative, if British society wishes to consider itself civilised, that military training do only what is required to form a cohesive fighting unit, but not be extremist in goading soldiers to behave like monsters.  In World War II training, “racism … played a significant part. As drill instructors told recruits: ‘You're not going to Europe, you're going to the Pacific. Don't hesitate to fight the Japs dirty.’ Classifying the Japanese as inhuman meant they all became fair game.”  (Bourke, 2005).  The atrocities reported from Iraq suggest similarly misguided training instincts.  It is no longer acceptable to write these incidents off as ‘collateral damage,’ the inimitably clinical American military term for civilian casualties.  As paradoxically difficult as it may be, we institutionalize compassion in the military at the same time as we institutionalize brutality.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Davey, Brian.  “The Psychology of Racism,”  A Strategy for Losers: Helping the Last to Come First in The Ecological Transformation of Society, 1999.

Das, Sushi.  “A Brutal Business”, The Melbourne Age, November 22, 2004.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram.  “Honor and America’s Wars: From the Revolution to Mexican Conquest”, The 2004 James Pinckney Harrison Lecture, Andrews Hall 101, March 22, 2004.

Bourke, Joanna.  “From Surrey to Basra, Abuse is a Fact of British Army Life”, The Guardian U.K., February 25, 2005.


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