The Impact of State Sanctioned Violence and Its Targets

By Heather Gray

There’s nothing glorious about war or in killing. The human cost of war reaches far beyond the battlefield – it has a lasting affect on spouses, children, brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles for generations. It has also been found most soldiers throughout history are not willing to kill other human beings and to do so apparently so goes against their very nature. As a license to use violence in resolving conflict, then, the consequences of killing in war are dire…and the aftermath of violence sanctioned by the state is usually devastating for both the so-called winners and losers. It’s a no-win situation.

George Bush had said we face the peril of the “axis of evil” being Korea, Iran and Iraq. The Obama administration has, unfortunately, subsequently increased the number of countries to be targeted. Whereas, Martin Luther King, Jr. said the intractable evils in the world are poverty, racism and war. King’s triple evils are played out every day in U.S. domestic and international policies. Perhaps if Bush and then Obama were really interested in ending terrorism they would look more closely at King’s far more profound analysis.

Throughout history, debates have ensued on how best to resolve conflict. The choices are generally violence and  varying methods of non-violence. There also appears to be a resolute difference in attitudes between how “individuals” within a state resolve conflict and how conflicts between “states” are resolved. It is in these conflicts and their resolutions that poverty, racism and war interact.

The vast majority of people in the world resolve individual conflicts through non-violent methods (i.e. discussion, verbal agreements). Dr. King said the purpose of non-violent social change or non-violent conflict resolution is not to seek revenge but to change the heart of the so-called enemy. “We never get rid of hate by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy,” he said, “by getting rid of enmity. By it’s very nature hate destroys and tears down.”

Most countries also have laws against the individual use of violence. In the U.S. civil society, for example, an individual is not supposed to deliberately kill another person. If so, they are vulnerable to prosecution by the state that might result, after a jury trial, in the state itself killing the individual for committing such a crime. Punishment in the U.S., however, is generally reserved for those without resources. It is worthy of note that the United States is the only western country that still uses the death penalty, which is invariably imposed on extremely poor people and disproportionately those of color – people who usually don’t have the wherewithal to defend themselves. The death penalty is a profound example of state sanctioned violence (or terror) as a way to resolve conflict. In Dr. King’s terms, American domestic policy is racist, essentially a war against the poor and, with the death penalty, demonstrates a people who are not willing to forgive.

Years ago I wanted to learn more about war and naively probed some of my father’s friends who had fought in Germany during WWII. They wouldn’t talk with me. They wouldn’t share anything. It took a while to grasp the meaning of their rejection. War, I have since learned, is synonymous with such violence, pain and suffering that is it not surprising that sharing those experiences is something most people are not willing to do. In his book What Every Person Should Know About War, correspondent Chris Hedges writes, “We ennoble war. We turn it into entertainment. And in all this we forget what war is about, what it does to people who suffer from it. We ask those in the military and their families to make sacrifices that color the rest of their lives. Those who hate war the most, I have found, are veterans who know it.”

In resolving conflicts “between states”, among reasonable people at least, war is always considered a last resort for any number of reasons, not the least of which being its tremendous destructive capacity. The “just war” concept is based on that premise – that everything else has been attempted to resolve the conflict before war is ensued. Nevertheless,  to quote Dr. King again, he wisely asked why “the murder of a citizen in your own nation is a crime, but the murder of citizens of another nation in war is an act of heroic virtue?” The values are distorted to be sure.

The United States has a tragic history of using excessive violence in an attempt to resolve international conflicts in what is generally a desire to control and have access to natural resources, such as oil. Rarely is the U.S. transparent about its real reasons for war. The hypocrisy is stark while at the same time our youth are taught to kill.

With parallels of the triple evils of racism, poverty and war, the targets of U.S. wars have conspicuous similarities to who gets punished in our domestic arena. This is invariably the poor and people of color rather than the largely wealthy and white corrupt bankers, corporate leaders and government officials, etc. The accountability in the U.S. justice and court systems is severely lacking and the class issue and inequities are extremely important overall with the inequities becoming even more extreme. Nevertheless, the Ferguson incident and countless others throughout the U.S. resulting in the tragic loss of Black lives come to mind, of course, as familiar examples of the typical behavior in America. Like in our domestic arena, U.S. invasions have largely been against extremely poor, ill equipped and countries populated by people of color, where the U.S. can be assured, at least, of a short-term victory.

Violence has a “brutalizing” effect on us as a society. It is not good for us anyway you look at it. Some years ago the British anthropologist Colin Turnbull studied the impact of the death penalty in the United States. He interviewed guards on death row, the individuals who pulled the switch for electrocution, inmates on death row and the family members of all of these people. The negative psychological impact and health problems that prevailed for all those directly or indirectly involved in the state killing was profound. No one escaped the horrors.

Sociologists have also begun to look at the impact of “war” on society. It also has a “brutalizing” effect on us. It is known that what largely molds our individual behavior is the family and peers that surround us. But what sociologists had not looked at is the impact of the state’s policies on individual behavior. Some sociologists have found that after war there is an increase in individual use of violence in the countries of both the losers and winners in the conflict. Sociologists have looked at the violent veteran model, and economic disruption model and others to explain this phenomenon. The only explanation that appears to be the most compelling is the state’s acceptance of the use of violence to resolve conflict. When all the branches of government from the executive, to the legislature, to the courts accept violence as a means to resolve conflict, it appears to filter down to individuals – it’s basically a green light to use or consider violence as an acceptable course in our daily life.

Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments against sending our young women and men to war is that most of us don’t want to kill at all. In spite of being taught how glorious the battles might be, most of us don’t comply with the request to kill. In his fascinating book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995), psychologist Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman devotes a whole chapter to the “Nonfirers Throughout History.” Research has found that throughout history, in any war, only 15% to 20% of the soldiers are willing to kill. This low percentage is universal and applies to soldiers from every country throughout recorded history. Interestingly, even distance from the enemy does not necessarily encourage killing. Grossman offers the fascinating finding that “Even with this advantage, only 1 percent of the U.S. fighter pilots accounted for 40% of all enemy pilots shot down during WWII; the majority didn’t shoot anyone down or even try to.”

The U.S. obviously didn’t appreciate this low percentage of killers, so it began changing the way it trained its military. Americans began using a combination of the “operant conditioning” of I.P. Pavlov and B.F. Skinner in their training, which desensitized our soldiers through repetition. One marine told me that in basic training not only do you “practice” killing incessantly but you are required to say the word “kill” in response to virtually every order. “Basically the soldier has rehearsed the process so many times,” said Grossman, “that when he does kill in combat he is able to, at one level, deny to himself that he is actually killing another human being.” By the Korean War 55% of U.S. soldiers were able to kill and by Vietnam an astounding 95% were able to do so. Grossman also states that Vietnam is now known as being the first pharmaceutical war in which the U.S. military fed our soldiers enormous amounts of drugs to dull their senses while they engaged in violent behavior and they are likely doing the same in Iraq.

Addressing the question of the low percentage of killers in battle, Grossman says that “As I have examined this question and studied the process of killing in combat from the standpoint of a historian, a psychologist and a soldier, I began to realize that there was one major factor missing from the common understanding of killing in combat, a factor that answers this question and more. That missing factor is the simple and demonstrable fact that there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.”

The fact that we don’t want to kill is a thankful affirmation of our humanity. Do we really want to behaviorally modify our young men and women into professional, skilled killers? Do we really want to modify our youth’s behavior in this way? Do we really want our youth desensitized to their own humanity and that of others? Isn’t it time we addressed the real evils in the world, the real axis of evil being racism, poverty and war and all of that coupled with the greed for control of the world’s resources at the expense of all of us? Do we really want our tax dollars used to kill the poor of the world, destroy their countries and make us all more violent in the process? Surely we can do better than this!


Heather Gray produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. In 1985-86 she directed the non-violent program at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta. She lives in Atlanta and can be reached at

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