Do Sociopaths Make Better Soldiers?
Though you might think people who could kill without remorse would make perfect fighters, in reality it can be difficult to make it as a soldier without a conscience.
Photo of a soldier who is not a sociopath via US Army Flickr Feed
The psychopath I'm on the phone with is quite friendly.
"There's kind of a joke in the military that if you go out and kill 100 people as a civilian, you're thrown in jail, but if you do it as a soldier, you get a bunch of medals," he says with a chuckle.
The man, whom I'll call "Ben" because he prefers to remain anonymous, tells me he was in the Air Force for four years, from 2002 to 2006. He claims to have been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) in 2005.
"I fit the description, just from a certain lack of empathy or ability to understand it," he tells me. "I don't have close friendships. I look at the human race just as any sort of animal in nature. I see most people as basically greedy and stupid. So I can detach any real emotion from it. I think that makes it easier to make certain decisions in combat or how to deploy forces, things like that."
ASPD is a mental health condition chiefly characterized by a lack of concern for the feelings of others. According to the National Library of Medicine, people with the disorder—alternately called psychopaths or sociopaths—can be skilled manipulators who flatter and lie their way into people's lives. As the name of the condition suggests, they have little to no regard for social norms, and tend to cause pain without experiencing remorse or guilt.
In short, they are believed to be capable of heartlessly taking a life—arguably rendering them some of the scariest people on the planet.
It's only natural that many people with ASPD might be drawn to the military, given that it offers an opportunity to kill without consequence. The controversial movie American Sniper, based on the book by former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who was killed in 2013 by another veteran, led some Americans—including prominent commentators like comedian Bill Maher—to label Kyle a psychopath for what they say was callous disregard for the lives of the 160 Iraqis he's confirmed to have killed. Maher pointed to statements Kyle made in his book, such as "I hate the damn savages" and "I love killing bad guys," as proof of the emotional detachment that characterizes people with ASPD.
Scientific studies and expert testimony suggest the phenomenon of antisocial military personnel is quite real. But as it turns out, succeeding as a soldier without a conscience is no small task. Interviews with current and former soldiers diagnosed with ASPD, as well as soldiers who have served alongside them, indicate that many sociopaths are unable to overcome their more troublesome psychological tendencies long enough to excel in a military environment. Indeed, the failure to form emotional connections with peers or tolerate superiors makes sociopaths difficult to train, especially in an environment where each soldier's life literally depends on his or her teammates.
But those who pass that test become a kind of secret weapon for an army: merciless fighters whose self-preservation skills and ability to kill without remorse can be consciously utilized by their superiors.
"They are natural leaders who will motivate other soldiers to kill. They are also fiercely competitive and will aggressively pursue victory."
—US Army Major David S. Pierson on "natural killers"
In her popular 2005 book, The Sociopath Next Door, Harvard Medical School psychologist Martha Stout explains that ASPD occurs in about 4 percent of the population. According to Stout, while many of these people end up committing crimes and getting caught, others manage to come across as normal humans living acceptable lives, holding jobs as librarians, CEOs, and soldiers. Like all personality disorders, ASPD is overwhelmingly misunderstood, even within the mental health community. There doesn't appear to be a professional consensus on whether there is even a difference between psychopathy and sociopathy. Some doctors use the terms interchangeably, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—which is the widely accepted standard for diagnosing mental illness—doesn't use either of those terms, instead grouping all variations of this condition under the same ASPD category.
Some mental health professionals, however, take the stance that psychopaths are essentially more controlled than sociopaths. According to this school of thought, while having very little regard for others, sociopaths are somewhat able to form limited attachments to certain individuals or groups. They are usually disorganized, impulsive, and volatile—and therefore more likely to be imprisoned for committing crimes. On the other hand, psychopaths are completely incapable of attaching to others. They seamlessly assimilate into society and are generally so skilled at emotional mimicry that they can maintain a solid education, gainful employment, and even families and long-term relationships. Many of the serial killers that haunt our collective subconscious—Ted Bundy, Dennis Rader (BTK)—were psychopaths. (To be clear, the majority of psychopaths are not serial killers.) Although I'm not a mental health professional, I'll be distinguishing between psychopaths and sociopaths here, since all the people with ASPD I interviewed clearly fell into one of those two separate categories.
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There isn't all that much academic material on the subject of sociopathy and psychopathy in the military. A short study by US Army Major David S. Pierson (who didn't return my request for an interview) details the potential benefits presented by "natural killers" in the military. He describes high-functioning psychopaths as bringing "obvious advantages to a unit. They will personally kill the enemy in droves. They are natural leaders who will motivate other soldiers to kill. They are also fiercely competitive and will aggressively pursue victory." According to Pierson, these individuals generally gravitate toward infantry, armor [tanks], and, above all, special operations units. He advises officers to keep an eye out for them so their skills can be well-positioned and utilized.
Ryland Taylor, a former US Army Ranger sniper who has not been diagnosed with ASPD but wrote an article on the topic for a popular blog on sociopathy, says he's noticed these types of people during his time in the service, and believes they can make great soldiers. But Taylor adds that most of the people he believes to have been sociopaths in the Army were too impulsive and destructive to last very long in such a highly structured and hierarchical environment.
"Most of the guys I knew who had really bad cases of ASPD, and I mean the spooky sociopaths— the guys who don't register things and make everyone uncomfortable—most of those guys wash out," he explains. "They just can't make it. I think there's something required to get through these commando pipelines, or even the Army in general, that most of them don't have. For one thing, these units need to be cohesive. You need to be able to get along with your peers. If they feel like they can't trust you, you won't get very far.
"You also have to be willing to shoot, though," Taylor continues. "If you're a guy who doesn't belong there, you make everyone nervous too. Some sweethearts make it into the Army who really shouldn't be there, and everyone watches them. We don't need to worry that they're going to choke up or freeze and get a bunch of people killed. You want that sweet spot, where someone's extroverted, adventurous, and thrill-seeking, without being so spooky that no one likes you and wants to work with you."
"They thought I was suffering from depression. They were very concerned about PTSD. Turns out I just don't care about most things." —Nathan
People with ASPD tend to look out for themselves first, so many sociopaths and psychopaths also display a proclivity for self-preservation seemingly incompatible with a career that requires risking one's life for the sake of their country. Nathan, 28, says he was unsurprised by his diagnosis, which occurred just as he was being medically discharged from the Army.
"I spent five years in the military, but I broke both my legs," he begins. "They thought I was suffering from depression. They were very concerned about PTSD. Turns out I just don't care about most things. I went to a psychologist a couple of times and talked to him, and he said I was fine. I wasn't at risk for suicide; in fact, quite the opposite. It didn't impact my life negatively."
Nathan was never in combat, but I can't help asking why he joined the military in the first place.
"What drove me to the military is different than some people," he explains. "I imagine many sociopaths to be intrigued by the prospect of killing someone. For me, I feel very strongly in property rights, and people's bodies are their own property, so when I see somebody victimizing someone else, I think that's the worst thing you can do. I don't know if you've ever heard the metaphor that there are sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. I am definitely a sheepdog."
I'm struck by this statement. If that's how he feels—and I never forget he and the other interviewees might be lying, given the ASPD traits of dishonesty and manipulation—it would seem to indicate some semblance of a moral compass. James Fallon, a neuroscientist and professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine (who is himself a diagnosed psychopath), says this mentality is not uncommon among those with ASPD. "Emotional empathy is when you feel what other people feel," Fallon explains. Of course, "there are other people who understand you are having these emotions, but don't experience them on your level. That's cognitive empathy, and there is some association with another type of bonding, which is essentially bonding with [a] nation. Psychopaths tend to have a larger vision. They're not personally empathetic, but they feel like they are powerful enough to change things."
That requires a kind of discipline and mentality not all of all those with ASPD have. An ex-Marine I'll call Chris tells me he was diagnosed as a sociopath while still in the service, and that he was not discharged as a result of his condition. He adds that he was eager to be in combat, but it just didn't work out, as the Marine missions in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't line up with his four years in service.
Of course, that doesn't mean he kept his shit together the whole time.
"I was actually court-martialed in 2010, but I didn't get kicked out." Chris says. "I have no idea how I got so lucky, but I was drinking in Thailand and stabbed two of my friends. We were arguing, someone pulled a knife, and it got pretty bloody. I didn't feel bad about it. I don't think I ever told them I was sorry. One of them almost died. He had arterial bleeding.
"I got court-martialed, lost one rank, and spent fifteen days in the brig," he adds with a hint of pride. "They originally tried to get me for attempted murder, but I had a good military lawyer, and he got it down to assault and battery."
Chris goes on to tell me he eventually went AWOL and fled to Mexico, where he became addicted to meth and spent time in and out of prison before getting caught by the US Border Patrol. Now thoroughly bored with civilian life, he says he's saving up money to join the Lions of Rojava, a group of Americans fighting with the Kurds against the Islamic State in Iraq.
"I feel like I'd be doing some good," he says. "I'd kill some bad guys... I only enjoy hurting people if they deserve it and it usually doesn't do me any good. ISIS is like torturing people in cages, and that's pretty fucked up. That is the opposite of progress."
The only active soldier I spoke with—whom I'll refer to as David—says he's had a lot of trouble dealing with higher-ranking officers while in the army.
"I'm very against authority," David says. "I've been that way for a long time, and I thought the military would fix that, but it didn't. I have a very hard time taking orders from people I consider to be dumber than me. I don't consider myself a genius, but I'm pretty damn smart, and I hate when someone has been here ten years and is a rank above me, and they think they know everything."
"I remember seeing the fear in people's eyes, and knowing that I could operate with a clearer head because it was absent in me." —Nolan
There is a small population of psychopaths that can hold their act together for long enough to become experts at the profession of killing. Professor Kevin Dutton, a research psychologist at the University of Oxford and the author of a number of books on psychopathy, says it's rare but possible for psychopaths to function well as a member of a team like a combat unit.
"If you can harness a psychopath's self-interest and make it dependent on the success of the team that they're in, then they become better team players than the others," Dutton explains. "There are certain premiums on heroism and risk-taking; so if they can do those things and not put people's lives in danger, then it gives their team an edge over an opposing team. It takes close and careful management, but you can get psychopaths to function well in a team."
When they do so in a military setting, their attributes of fearlessness, emotional detachment, and calculation become valuable assets in the fight to kill as many enemy combatants as they can without being killed themselves. Nolan, who served in the British Army infantry for 11 years before becoming a security contractor, seems to have walked this fine line.
"I remember seeing the fear in people's eyes, and knowing that I could operate with a clearer head because it was absent in me," he writes in an email. "People that we recognized as having 'the fear' (this was our name for the look that people get in their eyes before a patrol) were weak, and I'm glad I do not suffer from their problems. Why would I invite something into my character that could get me killed?"
Another, more prominent veteran of the British armed forces also seems to personify this concept of a psychopathic soldier. One of the books Dutton recently published, called The Good Psychopath's Guide to Success, was co-authored by Steven Mitchell, who goes by the pseudonym Andy McNab. McNab is an author and long-time veteran of the British Special Air Service (SAS)—the UK's elite special forces unit—and a diagnosed psychopath. He claims to be the most highly decorated soldier in British military history, and in 1993, he released Bravo Two Zero, a book about his SAS unit's attempt to destroy underground communications between Baghdad and the rest of Iraq during the Gulf War.
"I've never had a problem killing... I don't keep a tally, but I don't lie in bed and worry about it." —Andy McNab
Although there is controversy over the details, the Bravo Two Zero patrol's fateful mission has been extensively documented by former members of the unit. According to their accounts, McNab and several of his troop members were captured and imprisoned for six weeks by the Iraqi army, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He tells me his condition made him much better suited to special forces than most soldiers.
"I've never had a problem killing... I don't keep a tally, but I don't lie in bed and worry about it," McNab says, going on to explain how, in contrast, his fellow soldiers were severely affected by the violence they witnessed and took part in.
"Two have committed suicide; one's in prison for murder," he tells me. "He shot his girlfriend, gave her something like 27 rounds in the back because they had an argument in a pub car park. Another tried to commit suicide but cocked it up. He had champagne and chocolate with his kids, and then, when the kids went back to their mother—because he was divorced—he took something like paracetamol [Tylenol], just buckets of it. But he had so much champagne and chocolate that he was sick, so it all came up. He has permanent kidney damage now."
So McNab does believe PTSD afflicts many combat veterans—just not him.
"Family lives crumble, things like that," he says. "But for me, it's never been a problem. When I was a prisoner in Baghdad, I was whipped, I was burned, I had my back teeth pulled out. I got dysentery; my right collarbone was broken. I was stripped of clothing for weeks on end, blindfolded and interrogated in a detention center, and I've never dreamt about it. That was then, and I'm out of it, and that's it."
Much like Nathan's "sheepdog" metaphor, McNab and Dutton claim in The Good Psychopath's Guide to Success that people like McNab can be successful and sometimes even valuable members of society under the right circumstances.
Other people with ASPD also express a wish to help humanity and achieve a sense of personal growth, or just a desire to avoid the unnecessary drama that comes with hurting someone. Combat veteran Blanka Stratford, 35, wrote a memoir in which she describes her experience in the Army, among other interesting things she's done.
I ask if she ever killed anyone during her time in Iraq.
"I was ordered to shoot at a little girl who came close to our fence with her father and brother," she replies. "They were just picking up sticks and coming closer to the fence, and I was on watch duty. I was instructed to shoot close to her because she was close to our perimeters, and I told them there was no danger. She was dressed in rags, and there was no possibility that they had bombs strapped to them. There was absolutely no reason to shoot. My supervisor was an idiot, and it would have had a result that was completely pointless. So I didn't."
When faced with the question of whether someone with ASPD can adhere to some form of a value system, Dr. Michael Stone, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University—who often appears on television as a premier expert on psychopathy—says absolutely not.
"Cognitive empathy means you understand the facial expression of another person," he says. "It doesn't mean you give a damn about them."
Stone is skeptical that there are any real psychopaths who manage to stay in the military, suggesting they lack the ability to assimilate into a highly structured and cohesive entity.
"For example, Chris Kyle—there's no indication that he was a psychopath," Stone says. "He had a solid marriage and cared deeply about his own people, and wanted to get rid of as many of the enemy as he could. He seems like a good soldier, not a negative personality. I would be dubious that anyone could describe snipers as sociopaths."
I point out that Kyle seemed to have an absolute disregard for the lives of anyone who wasn't American or a soldier.
"And what's wrong with that?" Stone laughs in response. "In World War Two, I'm sure there were some Russian snipers in Leningrad who saved many of their own by killing Nazis. And why not? Who the hell should care about killing Nazis? Why should their lives count for anything?"
Dutton, on the other hand, says that while no one can accurately diagnose a patient posthumously—and that there's a chance Stone is right about Kyle not being a psychopath—his ability to emotionally distance himself from the people he killed is a traditionally psychopathic trait. Dutton argues that psychopathy, like all personality disorders, exists on a spectrum. People can have varying degrees of ASPD, he says, and it's quite possible Kyle shared at least a few traits with someone like McNab.
"It would appear that Kyle does offer support for my theory that certain psychopathic characteristics dialed up in the right context, in the right combination, and at the right levels can predispose you to success in various professions," Dutton writes in an email.
Whether Kyle had ASPD—and even if you don't consider his time as a SEAL to be helpful to society—he certainly managed to contribute something to the world. He died while trying to help a fellow veteran overcome his PTSD, a condition some say Kyle himself suffered from, making it less likely he was high on the psychopath spectrum.
But being an effective sniper seems to involve a dispassionate distance from one's targets that might be conducive to a psychopathic personality. McNab tells me one of the many positions he held during his time as a British Special Forces officer was that of a sniper. He describes the role as characterized by a sense of detachment and often ending in devastating emotional trauma—but only for soldiers with consciences.
"It's very technical," McNab says. "You look through your optic, you make your calculations for wind and distance and all the rest of the stuff you have to do—and then you crack on. So what happens is it stops becoming about the human you're killing, and it starts to become about the success of the process.
"And that process becomes almost mechanical after a while," he continues. "They're never people to you, just targets. But what happens when some guys come back, out of that environment, back to their family and kids and cutting the grass and all that sort of stuff? They start to think about it, and there's the possibility that those people become human to them, or they start to think about the right and wrong of what they've done... It's the aftermath that's difficult for them."
McNab offers a dark chuckle.
"For me, I realize the people I've killed are human beings," he says. "But I think, you know, So what? It's all part of the game."
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