Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home David Phillips Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
After fighting in the Trojan War and a 10-year odyssey, Odysseus of Ithaca finally returns home and confronts his wife's suitors, all assuming that he had died. Not only does he kill all 100 or so suitors but he also kills individuals who had disparaged him (his rage causing him to mutilate the corpse of one of the latter) and even disloyal maidservants who had connived with the suitors. Interestingly, the name "Odysseus" could be translated from the Greek as "he who causes pain".1 Perhaps not to the same extent as Odysseus, violent rage and social withdrawal in combat veterans has been frequently noted throughout history. The combination of cognitive and affective dysfunction, resulting from exposure to intense, life-threatening violence and death, has had different labels in the past, but is known today as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).2
The cost of war can be measured in tangible ways such as dollars, cultural destruction and body counts. More difficult to measure are the long-term effects on the psyche to prolonged exposure in a war zone. Not all combat veterans suffer from PTSD. However, those who do are not only a significant threat to themselves but also to the civilian population. An example of the deadly consequences of war's imprint on young men is the violent crime wave that occurred in Colorado Springs, Colorado, involving veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom stationed at nearby Fort Carson. The perpetrators were members of one unit in particular, the "Lethal Warriors." Journalist David Phillip lucidly narrates the day-to-day lives of members of the "Lethal Warriors" in Iraq and upon their return to Ft. Carson. Phillips attempts to explains why members of this unit in particular brought back with them the mayhem and death that typified their tour in Iraq. He points out that the violent crime wave is a symptom of a greater problem, the need to address PTSD and other mental health issues, which both military and civilian leaderships have either studiously neglected or downplayed. From a biological viewpoint, the book raises the question of the psychological basis for PTSD and the general innate nature of violence in humans.
Phillips follows the Ft. Carson-based 506th Infantry Regiment, better known as the "Band of Brothers," the unit that parachuted into Normandy, France on D-Day and into the Netherlands in the fall on an ill-fated operation, and valiantly held out against the Germans, despite overwhelming odds, during the winter Ardennes Offensive. That all veterans emerged psychologically unscathed is entirely untrue. Phillips points out that hundreds of thousands of soldiers were released during the war for "combat fatigue". Long after the end of the war, many "Band of Brothers" veterans continued exhibit symptoms of PTSD.3 Due to an Army order in 2005, the unit was re-designated as the 12th Infantry Regiment and the unit's current nickname is "Lethal Warriors. The unit was deployed to the Sunni Triangle in 2004, long after President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech, and re-deployed to Baghdad in 2006. While stationed in Iraq, the unit saw heavy combat and suffered high rates of casualties. Any feeling of empathy towards the Iraqi people the soldiers had quickly evaporated. Dropped into an alien culture, surrounded by invisible enemies, improvised explosive devices and restrictive military rules of engagement, soldiers succumbed to frustration and uncertainty, engaging in indiscriminate targeting of civilians, vandalizing civilian property, abusing detainees and looting. The location, enemy and times may be different, but the corrosive effect of war on the lives of young men is consistent.4
The book gives a number of insights concerning the former soldiers who are charged with and convicted of murder or accessory to murder. They are characterized as having "average" intelligence. Based on the pre-enlistment biographies that are in the book, though, this rating may be an overestimation. Most of the men's lives were a series of dead-end jobs, punctuated by recreational drug use and video games. Few had privileged or stable family lives and few even managed to graduate from high school. Some gave patriotism, and the shock of the attacks of September 11, 2001, as their motivation for enlisting. However, given their lives up to that point, the military may have been seen as a way out. An "average" number of criminal waivers were issued by the Army to the recruits, indicating a flexible recruitment policy based on immediate needs rather than screening against recruits who may develop psychological issues in the future.
To find reasons behind the spike in violent crime in Colorado Springs, the Army commissioned a study and its findings were released in 2009.5 Rather than dysfunctional family background or criminal background alone, the study indicated that key factors underling the propensity to violent crime, particularly murder, was the intensity of exposure to combat during deployment and subsequent development of PTSD and other behavioral disorders. Although a few soldiers appeared to be resilient subsequent to exposure to traumatic events, coping mechanisms for others were weak to non-existent. The study did not conduct an in depth psychological profile of those who were convicted. It is still possible that those who possessed particular personalities or lacking in self-control were more predisposed to PTSD, but the Army's study was not designed to address this. Thus it is entirely possible that innate characteristics may have an important role in the development of PTSD, whether in a military or civilian context.
Meanwhile, the Army was unable to conduct further research, due to shortages in staffing of their mental health facilities. In addition, especially at the small-unit level, fellow soldiers were unwilling to help those in distress - the general attitude being that, as soldiers, they "can hack it" and anyone who couldn't cope was malingering and did not deserve to be called a soldier. Some of the convicted veterans also noted that while civilian mental health facilities did not understand "military culture and war," they were found to be useful as far as treatment. Perhaps a partnership between civilian and military hospitals can facilitate the treatment of mental health problems of veterans. The veterans received no extensive psychiatric screening, job training or effective means of reintegration into civilian society, which in total could have compounded their stress and anxiety. In fact, some veterans applied for combat re-deployment - which further aggravated any existing disposition to mood disorders. Following the release of the study, Army instituted more behavioral monitoring of its troops prior to, during and following combat deployment. Time will tell if these and other measures have their intended effect.
From a biological perspective, the most fascinating aspects of the book are why humans kill and the neurological basis for PTSD. Phillips suggests that humans are generally averse to killing and that humans have evolved to abhor killing. By extension, he suggests that killing is entirely a result of socialization and conditioning (the "blank slate," Standard Sociological Model), a manifestation of, for example, violent video games and an abusive childhood. However, such a conception of violent human behavior is false. Only a small fraction of murders can be explained though video games, childhood trauma and even psychopathology. The tendency of modern humans to kill as well as the reason has not changed over time. The primary interest in the ancestral environment was to find mates and defend territories that provided life-resources so as to be able propagate one's offspring, and killing evolved as a means to fulfill the primary interest.6 There are also secondary or proximate interests that may improve chances for mating, such as acquiring high status, reputation, territory and resources. Killing competitors for both primary and proximate interests greatly enhances the odds of success for one's genes being propagated into the next generation.
Perhaps as partial support for the hypothesis of finding mates as a motivation to kill, the Army's epidemiologic report on Fort Carson showed that about half the members of the murderer's unit were single whereas in the comparator unit (which also deployed to Iraq but did not see as much violence as the "Lethal Warriors"), fewer, about 40 percent, were single. The comparator unit also had a higher percentage of married men than the "Lethal Warriors". The book mentions that the convicted veterans had girlfriends, but having girlfriends alone does not indicate mental stability or reproductive fitness. The number of children per family in the comparator vs. the index unit was not indicated. It is possible that having offspring reduces the tendency for erratically violent behavior by focusing protective behavior towards one's offspring.
Phillips does mention that our brains are, as he calls it, still "stuck in the Stone Age." In this he is correct, in that emotional and cognitive "modules" which have facilitated the solving of problems of survival and fitness in the ancestral environment have not evolved with the advancement of technology. The propensity to kill is yet another evolutionarily conserved module. Rather than building up from scratch a "killer instinct," military training weakens modern social controls over that instinct. The efficacy of such training is evident not only in Iraq but also in Colorado Springs - convicted veterans displayed precision handling of their weapons during the commission of their murders.
What is missing, then, is how to shut off the instinct when it is no longer needed. For combat veterans with PTSD, perhaps the module is stuck in an on-mode. Perhaps there are neurological changes in the neural pathway between the executive center, which manages socially accepted behavior, the prefrontal cortex, and the limbic system, brain regions responsible for memory, emotion and autonomic function, corresponding to the "on-mode".7 Phillips notes that there are changes in neocortical and limbic system function visualized with in vivo brain imaging techniques. It may be possible to use neurophysiology to supplement the subjective behavioral criteria that define PTSD and other psychiatric disorders. By identifying and correlating changes, it may be possible to devise treatment strategies to ameliorate those changes.
While there may not be a great need for high-level IQ in the lowest ranks of the military, there is a need for recruits with specific characteristics amenable to killing on orders and accepting death on a daily basis. An Army sergeant in the book noted that the better soldiers "tended to be a little crazy." Perhaps there are personality differences (e.g. conscientiousness, aggressiveness) between soldiers who do and do not develop mood disorders - in-depth, long-term studies are needed to determine this. Since personalities are heritable, perhaps genetic testing in the future may flag recruits who will be able to withstand the rigors of both training and actual combat. Such information could help not only in increasing the quality of soldiers but also reducing the burden of unfit soldiers in an organization that demands uniform thinking and action.
1 J. Shay, 2002, Odysseus in America, NY, NY: Scribner.
3 D. Malarkey, 2008, Easy Company Soldier, NY, NY: St. Martin's.
4 J.H. Webb, 1978, Fields of Fire, Prentice Hall.
5 U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, 2009, Epidemiologic Consultation No. 14-HK-OB1U-09. Investigation of Homicides at Fort Carson, Colorado, November 2008-May 2009:
6 D.M. Buss, 2005, The Murderer Next Door, NY, NY: Penguin Press; F. Salter, 2007, On Genetic Interests, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press.
7 K.C. Hughes & L.M. Shin, 2011, Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, vol. 11.…