Rewiring the Human Brain to Train it for Obedience and Violence: The Psychological Reality of Military Training, by David Gee

The First Ambush: Hijacking the Human Brain

‘Unbeknown to me at the time, the army’s training and/or indoctrination would come to shape my life, my decisions and my neurological processes for years to come. I suppose at the time we took it all in our stride and laughed it off. But we as people and in particular our brains were being prepared for the inhuman rigours and demands of traditional war fighting, closing with and engaging the enemy and by extension modern international conflicts’ – Ryan Hall, British infantry, 2000-2008

A major new report has just been published drawing on veterans’ testimony and around 200 studies from the last half-century to explore for the first time the effects of modern army employment on soldiers, particularly their initial training. The studies are mainly the work of military academic research departments in the UK and US, supplemented by research in other countries including Australia, Canada, Germany, and Norway. The report finds that army employment has a significant detrimental impact on soldiers’ attitudes, health, behaviour, and financial prospects. This is partly due to soldiers’ war experiences, but also to how they are recruited and trained, how they are conditioned by military culture, and how they re-adjust to civilian life afterwards.

It reveals how in the process of transforming civilians into soldiers, army training and culture forcibly alter recruits’ attitudes under conditions of sustained stress, leading to harmful health effects even before they are sent to war. Among the consequences are elevated rates of mental health problems, heavy drinking, violent behaviour, and unemployment after discharge, as well as poorer general health in later life.

Army recruitment, training and culture 

“Army training indoctrinates unconditional obedience and stimulates aggression and antagonism. Recruits are taught that stressful situations are overcome through dominance”

To ensure that new recruits will follow all orders and kill their opponents in war, army training indoctrinates unconditional obedience, stimulates aggression and antagonism, overpowers a healthy person’s inhibition to killing, and dehumanises the opponent in the recruit’s imagination. Recruits are taught that stressful situations are overcome through dominance, and that soldiers are superior to civilians.

The available evidence points to appreciable changes to the recruit population once they are enlisted: to personality (more antagonistic and conformist, and less emotional); to attitudes (more authoritarian and militaristic); to mental health (more anxious, depressed, and suicidal); and to behaviour (more likely to drink heavily and behave violently, including the sexual harassment of women by men). Traumatic war experiences typically reinforce these changes.

Just like everybody else: “appreciable changes to the recruit population once they are enlisted: personality (more antagonistic and conformist, and less emotional)”

In the UK, almost half of the army’s youngest recruits, having left full-time education early to enlist, leave within four years. They then face a high risk of unemployment and long-term disadvantage. An official report in 2013 found that 30% of British infantry soldiers who left the army within four years were still not in work or education 18 months later. Veterans often argue that their military training contributed as much to later difficulties, or indeed more so, than exposure to traumatic events in war (Sharrocks, 2016).

“It is not just battlefield trauma that causes mental health issues but the conditioning associated with training have a massive part to play” – Wayne Sharrocks,  British Army veteran deployed in front line operations in Afghanistan and member of Veterans For Peace UK

The British army exemplifies these divisions. Its policy is to enlist 16-year-olds, who also tend to be disadvantaged by background, ‘particularly for the infantry’, because it is difficult to attract adults to be infanteers (Ministry of Defence, 2013). Consequently, minors are over-represented in the infantry. Compared with the armed forces as a whole, British infantry recruits are 50% more likely to have experienced a ‘high’ level of adversity during childhood, and twice as likely to join up without any qualifications from school.When the army is short of infantry recruits, it reduces the minimum entry standard of literacy from a reading age of 7-8 years to one of 5-7 years (Ministry of Defence, 2017)

Romantic notions of military life are often formed at an early age. In 2007, the head of British army recruitment said that the process starts with a seven-year-old boy watching the airborne infantry jump from a plane at an air show, after which the army angles for his future enlistment ‘by drip, drip, drip’ (Armstrong, 2007).



‘Forced Change’: Stripping the Civilian

“Military training is deliberately designed to erase the recruits’ civilian self-image so that the army can start to fashion the identity of the soldier on a blank piece of paper”

In countries where conscription is no longer used, the public is usually not aware of the process by which soldiers are produced from a nation’s youth. Military training centres are closed institutions; even the ‘open day’ at the British army’s training depot for 16-year-olds is closed to all but the immediate families of recruits. Military training is, as one well-informed observer commented, ‘deliberately designed to erase the recruits’ civilian self-image so that the army can start to fashion the identity of the soldier on a blank piece of paper’ (Swain, 2016b).

Basic training in the US army is characterised as ‘forced change’ (Bourne, 1967). Others have described it with approval as ‘intense indoctrination’ under sustained mental stress with the express aim of guaranteeing recruits’ unerring conformity with the military regime and all its demands.

Collectively, academics and military officers alike describe basic training as a coercive process, characterising it variously as ‘re- socialisation’, ‘assimilation’, ‘psychological conditioning’, ‘programming’, and simply ‘control’ (Arkin & Dobrofsky, 1978; McGurk, Cotting, Britt, & Adler, 2006; Grossman, 2009; Dornbusch, 1955; Swain, 2016b; McGarry, Walklate, & Mythen, 2015; Wesbrook, 1980; Winslow, 1998).

Basic army training can be understood in three parts. The first aims to overpower recruits’ civilian identities, which has been described as ‘breaking down’ or ‘stripping’ (Hockey, J, 1986; Jackson, 2012; Bourne, 1967; Elder, 1986; McGurk, Cotting, Britt, & Adler, 2006; Griffin, 2015):

  • trainees are forbidden to leave the training estate. A recruit has no right to be discharged in this period, even if still a minor; any trainee who tries to leave is arrested and returned
  • the regime suppresses recruits’ civilian identities by shaving the head, imposing a uniform, denying access to private space, and banning the use of first names. For the first few weeks, recruits may not receive any visitors and email/phone contact is tightly restricted.
  • the army disorientates recruits by keeping them in the dark about what is coming next. In the words of an American recruit: ‘You are ignorant of what is expected or what actions are right or wrong. You fear making a mistake and you fear the consequences. You have no clue, and that is a big factor in the stress.’ (Gold & Friedman, 2000)
  •  training dominates recruits by controlling their daily routine totally, denying them any choice over their personal affairs. There are right and wrong ways to stand, make a bed, polish boots, and fold a t-shirt. A mistake, however inconsequential, brings an aggressive reprimand.
  •  training depletes recruits by applying stressors continuously. Day in, day out – and at night – instructors can deprive recruits of essentials, such as sleep, food, shelter, or time to go to the toilet. Beastings are routine: instructors shout insults into a recruit’s face and give orders intended to humiliate. Physical aggression is also routine, in degrees from pushing a recruit over to hitting them.
  • the instructor punishes a struggling recruit, who is ‘singled out for weakness, humiliated, and isolated’, as British infantry veteran James Florey has characterised it.

“the regime suppresses recruits’ civilian identities by shaving the head, imposing a uniform, denying access to private space, and banning the use of first names”

Military culture is often said to contribute to personal development by imbuing young recruits with ethical commitment (Travis, 2006; Huntington, 1957; British Army, 2000). To this end, the British army has adopted six official values: courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty, and selfless commitment (British Army, 2012). These are defined narrowly. In the army ‘discipline means that all soldiers will obey orders’, which require ‘unquestioning acceptance’; loyalty means fidelity to the army; and courage means a readiness to kill and to accept the risk of being killed (British Army, 2012, pp. 3B2-3B3; British Army, 2000, p. 1:1). The official values also jar with military culture as practised. ‘Respect for others’ is absent, for example, when the army punishes a trainee in a manner intended to humiliate, and the ‘selfless commitment’ said to motivate soldiers is obviated by terms of service which deny them the option of leaving the army for several years.

Before and after military training


Disconnecting the forebrain and targeting the midbrain: How to turn the brain into a killer

The military rationale for the coercive manipulation of recruits is that mere instruction would not produce soldiers who will face down mortal danger and direct lethal violence at others on demand. A healthy person’s innate aversion to killing other people must be dulled, as must the natural tendency to appraise a course of action on its merits before committing to it. To ensure that the military group will work as a unit, personal individuality must be suppressed and loyalties realigned until recruits assume military culture as their own and accept the supremacy of its demands.

A healthy person is profoundly averse to the intention to kill another person, thanks in part to two blocks in the psyche. The first is cognitive, represented by a moral conviction that harming other people violates our common humanity (‘I ought not to kill.’) The second is physiological, felt as a visceral repulsion against killing another human being (‘I cannot kill.’) Some individuals do not experience either of these strongly, but most do, and military training aims to suppress and overcome them.

Lt Col Dave Grossman explains how military training systematically overrides the forebrain and drills into the midbrain in order to overwrite and rewire it. This allows humans to override their powerful resistance to killing but also generates devastating long-term problems for the brain, especially when veterans are returned to civilian life, with brains that have been overwritten and rewired to enable violence. “There are two filters that the mind has to go through to kill someone. The first filter is the forebrain – the conscious rational mind. It will put you on the battlefield, in a certain place, with a weapon in your hand.

But the second filter is the mid-brain. Once you become frightened or angry you literally stop thinking with the mind of a human being. You turn off the forebrain and you start thinking with the midbrain – the limbic system, and the hypothalamus. You start thinking with the part of the brain which is indistinguishable from the mind of an animal. You have to go through this second filter if you want to make somebody kill. And the only way to make a frightened person react in a certain way is to drill it into them – to make it a conditioned response, using operant classic conditioning responses.

You overcome the innate revulsion to killing. You overcome this resistance and you begin to associate violence with pleasure. The thing to realise is, we are overcoming a powerful resistance.” Through its increasingly sophisticated and powerful brain-reprogramming techniques, the US military raised the killing rates from 15% in WW2 to 55% in Korea to an astonishing 95% in Vietnam – with its concomitant epidemic of trauma and PTSD on a scale we’ve never seen before


The training regime operates in three ways to achieve this. The first is the principal goal of initial training: to secure unquestioning obedience to all orders. Crucially, obedience is experienced collectively, leaving little or no room for individual autonomy.

Projective idenitification

The second objective has two parts: a) to dehumanise; and b) to demonise the soldier’s opponent in war. Rather than a human being whose guts will spill out when shot in the chest, who will die moaning, and whose death will bereave a family, the soldier’s opponent is depersonalised as an ‘enemy target’ to ‘be engaged’, which will ‘fall when hit’. Somewhat paradoxically, the opponent is also demonised as a merciless savage; he fights because he hates. He does not share the soldier’s regard for humanity and therefore ought to be killed. Seldom is the soldier’s opponent envisaged as a woman or child, or as a man with children of his own, who might be fighting for much the same reasons that other soldiers fight. Recruits who do not or cannot aggress on demand are considered weak as individuals and deficient as soldiers.




Violence Enabling: The Goal of Military Training and the onset of PTSD



Long-term effects of army training and culture on mental health 

Since the Vietnam era, hundreds of studies have investigated the impact of war on the mental health of veterans. It is now well established that prolonged or repeated frontline deployment injures the psyche of most, possibly all, personnel (Jones & Wessely, 2001; Grossman, 2009). Stress-related mental health problems are more common in military populations than in the general population, particularly among veterans who have left the forces. A discussion of the effects of military employment on mental health is available in a companion report, The Last Ambush? Aspects of mental health in the British armed forces (Gee, 2013).

Those most likely to suffer mental health problems: a) enlist at a young age and/or are from a deprived background; b) are deployed to war in a frontline combat role, meaning one where the frequency of traumatic experiences is greater; and/or c) struggle to readjust to civilian life after leaving the forces. Since recruits who enlist in their mid-teens and from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely than others to be given direct combat jobs and to lack social support as veterans, the report concludes that this group faces the greatest long-term mental health risks. One of the principal military causes of ill-health is the stressors of basic training.

One barometer of stress in a population is the rate of attempted suicide. By this measure, American research indicates that the stresses on recruits during basic training are greater even than in war (Ursano, et al., 2016). Between 2004 and 2009, the rate of attempted suicide peaked in the second month of army basic training. Research published in 2009 found that veterans aged 16-24 had been between two and three times as likely to kill themselves as nonveterans of the same age (Kapur, While, Blatchley, Bray, & Harrison, 2009).

A British study in 2015 found that military personnel are twice as likely as working civilians to suffer from CMDs [Common Mental Disorders] (Goodwin, et al., 2015). Although initial training indoctrinates recruits to contrast a noble soldiery with dissolute civilians, one day they return to civilian life, which brings multiple challenges of readjustment. At an early stage in their lives, the army institutionalised them and inculcated unconditional obedience, which displaced the autonomy and personal responsibility required in civilian society. Whereas their social standing as soldiers depended on cultivating social dominance and ‘passing harsh tests bravely’ (Hale, 2012), the same attitude has jarred with their new civilian context as veterans, which tends to reward attitudes of mutuality and agreeableness.

“Although initial training indoctrinates recruits to contrast a noble soldiery with dissolute civilians, one day they return to civilian life, which brings multiple challenges of readjustment.” Pic from the award-winning Action Man: Battlefield Casualties film made by Darren Cullen and Veterans for Peace UK to illustrate the reality of life after military training and deployment for many veterans

As a form of traumatic stress, moral injury is often subsumed conceptually into PTSD, but that is a fudge. Moral injury implies that the tacit, fundamental trust between human beings has been violated, whereas many other events that precipitate PTSD, such as road accidents and natural disasters, do not (Bryan, Bryan, Anestis, & Green, 2015). That is, moral injury points directly to the harm caused by severe violence to an individual’s faith in others, in oneself, and in the world.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges the reality of moral injury and in the last decade the issue has attracted some research, but it is not yet recognised clinically. The term has yet to achieve any currency in the UK; there appear to have been no British studies of moral injury in a military context. Consequently, research into the mental health of British veterans risks pathologising conscience, as the humane complexity of moral responses to war exposure are labelled a ‘stress reaction’ and lost from view. Veterans who experience moral injury do so because their conscience is strong, not because their mental health is weak.

An indication of the scale of the problem is offered by a US study published in 2017. It found that 11% of combat-exposed veterans admitted moral transgressions on the battlefield; a quarter witnessed transgressions by others; and a quarter felt morally betrayed by their peers or leaders, or by others (Wisco, et al., 2017).

Evidence for mental health benefits of military employment is scant. One advantage enjoyed by military groups is a greater rate of physical exercise (Brooks & Greenberg, 2017).

Stress-related mental health problems are substantially more common in the armed forces than in the general population. They become still more prevalent once veterans re-join civilian life, which is partly due to difficulties re-adjusting to civilian norms, which military culture had deprecated. A British study in 2012 found that 13% of British personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan admitted behaving violently inside or outside the family in the weeks following their return (MacManus, et al., 2012). Applied to all personnel deployed to Afghanistan alone over the course of the war, this proportion is equivalent to 17,500 individuals. In the US, 9% of veterans from the Vietnam era to the present reported committing ‘severe violence’ in the previous 12 months, according to a study in 2014 (Elbogen, et al., 2014).

An American study in 2005 expected to show that joining the army reduces violent offending, only to discover the opposite (Bouffard, 2005). The increase was particularly marked among recruits with a history of anti-social behaviour, but those without such a background were also more likely to offend after they enlisted than before. In the same year, a study of US Navy personnel reported that the proportion of men committing ‘severe violence’ against intimate partners increased from 4% in the year before they enlisted to 16% after their second year in the navy (Merrill, Crouch, Thomsen, Guimond, & Milner, 2005)

These findings should put to rest the popular assumption that enlistment ‘straightens out’ young males with a history of violent behaviour. The available research points the other way: to a marked increase in violence following enlistment, affecting the youngest and most disadvantaged recruits the most, particularly those who join the infantry.

More serious in the British armed forces is heavy drinking. The most recent study, based on a survey in 2004-2006, found that 13% of British forces personnel were drinking at levels deemed harmful (vs. a 6% rate found in the general population in 2007) (Head, et al., 2016; McManus, Meltzer, Brugha, Bebbington, & Jenkins, 2009). The rate was much higher in the youngest group assessed (aged 18-24), at 25%, nearly three times the 9% rate found in a similar age group (16-24) in the general population (ibid.)

The government now collects limited information about the employment status of veterans who pass through the military’s resettlement system, six months after they leave (Ministry of Defence, 2017a). One in five veterans do not use that system and nothing is known of how they fare as veterans. Of soldiers who do, 13% who left the army in 2015/16 were unemployed six months afterwards, which is more than twice the national unemployment rate for the same period, at 5% (Ministry of Defence, 2017a; Office for National Statistics, 2017).

See the world

Veterans’ high unemployment rate persists beyond the initial six months after their discharge, according to research by the British Legion (2016), which found that the working-age veteran population is twice as likely to be unemployed as are non-veterans in the same age group.

The British army competes with civilian education by encouraging 16-year-olds to leave it and enlist instead.

Another problem with the military narrative of opportunity is that so many soldiers leave the army shortly after joining, or are thrown out. British soldiers who sign up as adults face a one-in-four chance of leaving during their training, and those under 18 a one-in-three chance. Within four years of enlisting, around a third of adult infantry enlistees have left the army, and almost half of the army’s youngest recruits, aged 16-17½, have also left.

For this reason, Veterans for Peace UK believes that war cannot be a solution to the problems of this century – war and the militarism that supports it are among the problems that humanity faces.

Veterans for Peace UK mark Remembrance Sunday at the London Cenotaph. Every year the organisation of ex-servicement set up to peacefully oppose war march to the Cenotaph from Trafalgar Square and lay a wreath of predominantly white poppies

This is an edited version of the report The First Ambush? Effects of army training and employment commissioned by Veterans For Peace UK. To read the full report please click here


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