February 14, 2008


Why We Fight: a review of Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory by Randall Collins (GRAEME WOOD, February 13, 2008, NY Sun)

Violence simply does not happen as readily as we suppose, he says, and because it is so exceptional, many of our guesses about its origins and nature have missed their marks.

Previous approaches tried to identify "violent individuals," and to discover whether a blend of, say, poverty and desperation and broken home life made them violent. Mr. Collins argues that this broad sociological approach won't explain anything, because the most important factor — the overwhelmingly most important factor — that determines whether one resorts to violence is not one's past but one's present. Sociologists could find that a history of childhood abuse correlates with a violent adulthood, but most abuse victims aren't violent. The broad approach over-demographizes the problem, focusing on background instead of moment-by-moment situations, tension-wracked instants as they are actually lived. Mr. Collins's method — serious and painstaking but also endlessly diverting — is to hunt down first-person accounts, newspaper clippings, witness testimony, and, if possible, video and photographs of the perps in flagrante. Mr. Collins dips into a robust range of sources, from his own fieldwork among goons on the streets of Boston to the "Iliad" to studies of hazing rituals at elite British boarding schools. Long and entirely worthwhile diversions explore the history of dueling, of violence in sports, and countless other examples of violence in controlled and chaotic environments. The result reads like a social science survey crossed with a work of comparative military theory and a self-defense manual.

How lovely to have a book so unsubmissive to the conventional tropes that misinform our notions of how violence actually plays out! It is a very rich study indeed that provides such an illuminating taxonomy of personalities found on preschool playgrounds, but also tells us the self-soiling rate of American soldiers in World War II (5–6% overall, one in five on the front lines) and examines the phenomenon of pillow fights in prison cells (all fun and games, till the strong gang up on the weak, and fill pillowcases with books or stones). Or that tells us that soldiers often regard elite snipers — even those on their own side — as social lepers, because of their unsettling comfort with death. Almost every page in this long book offers insight into lives lived in extremis. Mr. Collins's most distinctive point — that we have to overcome a very high threshold of fear and tension before we become violent — seems, under the weight of his anecdotes, difficult to deny. He repeats the famous military finding that soldiers in combat only very rarely fired their weapons at the enemy with the intention of killing. All evidence suggests that the typical frontline infantryman fought not with a frenzied, sexual thrill, as was suggested by Joanna Bourke, but with jelly-guts and a whimper on his lips. In not especially severe cases, some men under fire will lie down exposed in an open field and cover their eyes and head, hoping to make the violence go away by not looking at it.

Under these conditions of fear, few will fight. Violence happens only when the fear-stricken desperados find a path around their paralysis, often through "staged violence" — the highly stylized dueling rituals so popular in 19th-century Europe, or informal "fair-fights" staged outside bars or after school today — or by finding a weaker victim to gang up on; Mr. Collins calls one common variety of this "forward panic," a manic orgy of violence as in My Lai or Nanking. Providing a weak target sometimes suffices to tip a situation from tense to violent. In moments of tightly wound panic, begging for mercy can itself provoke slaughter.

So we ought hold out little hope for President Obama's plan to go grovel before the leaders of the Arab world?

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 14, 2008 7:24 AM

Regarding those figures on the percentage of soldiers who actuall shoot at the enemy during combat: the research supports a finding that the Marine Corps does much better than otherarmed forces in that regard. The difference is due to a great extent on our heavy emphasis on individual weapons and marksmanship training.

A man who has confodence in his own ability to shape the outcome of the combat has a resource for dealing with fear in a constructive way--that is, by taking action to overcome to source of the fear.

For this reason, proficiency with individual weapons is an efficient force-multiplier,+less+for+its+material+effect+than+for+its+spiritual.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 14, 2008 9:11 AM