Why are Congolese such bad shots?

I often wondered why Congolese armed groups could fire tens of thousands of rounds during a battle and end up hitting next to nobody. On numerous occasions, I would be close to the front line of fighting and hear hour after hour of continuous AK-47 fire, hundreds of thousands of rounds, and then find out that there had been no casualties except for a few farmers hit by stray bullets. Once, I asked the Mai-Mai commander General Padiri Bulenda, the leader of the largest Mai-Mai group at the time (2003), what the most casualties his troops had ever suffered in battle was. He thought about it for a long time, then said, “Thirty.” He may have been fudging it (he probably was), but even during the Kimia operations, it is rare that the FARDC loses more than 3-4 troops per battle.

I used to think this was primarily because of poor training, low morale and lousy equipment. In other words, due to poor unit cohesion and morale in Congolese armed groups, commanders would not be able to get their units close enough to hit anybody with any reliability (i.e. 150-300 meters). I would often see soldiers crouching behind a wall, sticking their rifle over the top and shooting without aiming. Little wonder they didn’t hit anything. In addition, many of their AK-47s are 15-30 years old, the ammunition is damp and the barrels are crooked or rusted up.

There may, however, be another reason. In his book On Killing, Lt Col Dave Grossman says that such behavior is typical of most armies. He quotes a US medic in Vietnam who had to crawl onto battle fields to help wounded soldiers, “What always amazed me is how many bullet can be fired during a firefight without anyone getting hurt.” Equipment can play a role, but there are also psychological factors, Grossman explains. Soldiers have an innate aversion to killing, he says, and will intentionally miss or just not shoot to avoid killing.

Might sound implausible, but there is quite a bit of data to back it up. During World War II, US General S.L.A Marshall interviewed soldiers after battles and found out that only 15 to 20 per cent even fired their weapons. Another amazing factoid: After the US civil war battle of Gettysburg 27,500 muskets were recovered from the battlefield. Ninety per cent of these were loaded, almost 50 per cent had more than one bullet and 25 per cent had 3-10 bullets in the barrel! In other words, instead of shooting, many soldiers just kept on loading. Another one: in World War II, less than 1 per cent of all US fighter pilots accounted for 30-40 per cent of all aircraft shot down.

Some of aversion could be defused through racism or prejudice – 44 per cent of Americans said they “would really like to kill” a Japanese soldier, but only 6 per cent said the same about Germans.

The US army has tackled this problem through socialization, conditioning and training. They now teach their recruits to kill, they desensitize them and dehumanize their enemies. Apparently, this has allowed them to boost firing rates from the 20 per cent in WWII to 50 per cent in Korea and 95 per cent in Vietnam. While I would be very careful about these stats, it looks like there is sufficient evidence there to be able to say that most people need copious coaxing and coercing to kill their fellow man/woman.

So what about the Congo? I don’t know, but I would not be surprised if commanders faced similar problems. Soldiers trained by the AFDL and the Rwandans in 1996/7 were often forced to shoot deserters or kill with knives so they would get used to it. Children are often used (in some groups, up to 50 per cent of troops are under 18) because they follow orders better and are not afraid; i.e. they are easier to condition. The use of magical potions and balms (Mai) helps persuade soldiers not only that they are invincible to bullets, but that killing is OK, absolving them from breaking this taboo.