How Accurate is Black Mirror's "Men Against Fire"?
If you've watched the Black Mirror episode "Men Against Fire", you might be wondering if the claims of soldier effectiveness in battle are, as claimed, quite pitiful. In case you haven't watched, the premise is that, in battle, most soldiers will shoot over enemy soldiers' heads or purposefully miss.
But is this actually true? Are humans actually hardwired not to harm, if at all possible, another human being? Let's find out.
How often do soldiers actually fire their weapons?
Since the basic duty of a soldier is to engage and potentially kill the enemy, you might think that most, if not all, soldiers actually fire at the enemy in combat. However, the reality of war tells a very different story.
A seminal work on the subject was published in 1996, titled, "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society" and written by Dave Grossman. A former lieutenant colonel for the United States Army, Grossman argues in the book that human beings are not usually that willing to kill another human being.
In one particular study conducted during the Second World War, Grossman quoted the work of military historian Brigadier General Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall (S.L.A.) Marshall that only somewhere between 15 and 20% of soldiers actually fired their weapons in combat. Of that percentage, even fewer actually aimed to kill their enemy.
If true, that would be a stunning revelation to say the least.
By the way, it is this study, among others, that the Black Mirror episode is actually based on. While widely discredited today (in fact there are credible claims that the data was made up), the basic premise of the study may well hold water.
On the back of Grossman's more credible study, the United States Army, as well as other armed forces, changed their basic training methods in an attempt to desensitize soldiers to the humanity of enemy combatants. It appears the training actually worked, with noted firing effectiveness of soldiers improving drastically over the years.
During the Korean War, for example, around 55% of infantrymen fired their weapons, and between 90 and 95% by the time of the Vietnam War, although others have disputed both of these findings, arguing that the rate of fire varied considerably.
Interesting, but such findings, notably the apparently low firing rate seen during the Second World War, have been hotly debated over the years. One major problem, if there is one, could have been to do with the form of training soldiers received.
Prior to the post-WW2 training reforms, most infantry soldiers were trained to fire their guns on open firing ranges with "bullseye" targets at set distances. Soldiers were expected to maintain a rate of fire over a given period of time and score a certain minimum of hits.
All well and good for a non-aggressive, stationary target, but real combat is nothing like this. Battlefields are constantly in flux and targets don't usually stand still for you to aim and fire at.
By the time you, as a soldier, have acquired a target, leveled your gun, and taken aim, your target has likely moved or reached cover. Assuming, that is, you, yourself, are not under fire.
To address some of these issues, firing ranges have changed drastically since, often incorporating "pop-up" targets at varying distances. These targets appear and disappear "at random" and only remain visible for a few seconds. Firing ranges will also feature cover like walls or vegetation too to increase the realism of the situation.
More modern training includes the use of moving targets that actually look like enemy combatants, as well as non-combatants. They may also be sophisticated enough to react to incoming fire.
Another issue, as we've touched upon above, is that most human beings, no matter how much training they've received, are very reluctant to take another person's life, at least when they are initially in combat — unless it is a matter of life or death.
Technically termed "buck fever", this is not an inconsequential factor for soldiers in combat.
Crewed weaponry equals willing soldiers?
Willingness to fire upon an enemy does seem to improve drastically with crewed weapons like machine guns, however. It is not fully understood why, but it is likely that having two or more people working together on a task increases the willingness of all to fire the weapon, perhaps because then they all share the responsibility.
It should also be noted that weapons like machine guns are used to saturate an area with bullets rather than aim at an individual target. During large-scale battles like the "Battle of the Somme" during WW1, this is partly why these weapons were so deadly.
Yet another thing to consider when looking at firing statistics of combat troops is their actual role in the army. While infantrymen are primarily on the battlefield to engage enemy soldiers, other armed forces staff on the battlefield have other duties that involve less shooting. Medics, communications officers, weapons crews, etc all have critical roles that will often mean they are limited in the amount of shooting they do at a given time.
In fact, in some situations, choosing to engage the enemy rather than perform their support duties could be something of a "false economy".
How many soldiers actually shoot to kill?
As we have seen, a surprisingly few number of soldiers in a typical engagement actually fire their weapons during a given period of time. But, of those who do fire, what are the likely accuracy rates?
For specialist troops, like snipers, the kill-to-shot ratio is, as you'd expect, very high. This should come as no surprise as snipers are some of the best trained and experienced soldiers in any armed forces.
In fact, some are so highly skilled in this area that they can make some incredible shots under intense pressure. One particular example was one Staff Sgt. Hunter Bernius, who was able to hit his mark from a concealed position 7,500 feet (2.3 km) away.
When you consider the fact that at this kind of distance, it takes the bullet several seconds just to reach the target, this is an incredible feat. The sniper must anticipate the target's location at that time, and factor in environmental factors like wind speed and direction, gravity, and spindrift of the bullet.
Amazingly, this feat does not hold the record for the longest confirmed kill shot by a sniper. That goes to a Canadian Special Forces sniper who managed to kill an ISIS militant at a distance of 2.2 miles (3.54 km), in Iraq in 2017. The previous record was held by Craig Harrison, a British sniper who shot and killed a Taliban insurgent from 2.475 km (1.5 miles) away.
Snipers are exceptional shots. But what about regular infantry? Clearly less exceptional than a highly trained sniper, but by how much?
The first thing to point out is that this is incredibly difficult to quantify with any certainty. During combat, the last thing anyone is really concerned about is counting bullets fired and tallying kills.
Some statistics from the Second World War will give you some indication of this. According to some studies, Allied forces would spend, on average, 25,000 rounds of small arms ammunition for every killed enemy soldier.
During the Korean War, this number rose to an estimated 50,000 rounds expended for every kill, and an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 rounds during the Vietnam War.
That is incredibly inefficient from a bullet-to-kill point of view. However, such statistics may completely miss the point of small arms fire in combat.
A widely-cited and highly acclaimed article, "The real role of small arms in combat" by Dr. Jim Storr, argued that, generally speaking, a soldier who is more than capable of hitting a human-sized target at 2,000 ft (600 m) on a range can rarely achieve the same feat in battle.
“It appears that a soldier’s ability to hit a given target is typically reduced by a factor of ten or so when he is moved from a static rifle range to a field firing area where he has to select cover, move, shoot, and so on. It is reduced by a further factor of ten or so if there is an enemy firing back at him. It is reduced by another factor of ten if the enemy has machine guns, or if he has tanks, and by a hundred if he has both," Storr explains.
There are several reasons for this, Storr argues. The first is that small arms fire is not actually intended for the mass killing of enemy combatants, believe it or not.
To win a battle you want to break the enemy's fighting spirit rather than slaughter them outright. If you can cause enough psychological damage to enemy troops and force a rout or a surrender, that's better than mass death.
Of course, inflicting casualties on an enemy force is part of that, but the main purpose of infantry and small arms fire is to suppress the enemy, surprise them, or flank them. Suppression of enemy forces is critical during an engagement, so that your forces can advance on the enemy and, if need be, engage them in close quarters with grenades or bayonets.
Accuracy under fire can be improved dramatically, but this tends to require thousands of hours of intense training, and hundreds of thousands (or more) spent bullets in the process, all of which is expensive. So, this level of training is typically the preserve of elite units.
But all that investment can quickly fade if such elite troops do not keep their skills honed.
This kind of information should not really come as much of a surprise. After all, most combatant casualties during wars tend not to come from small arms.
During the First World War, for example, most soldiers were killed from artillery barrages, rather than small arms. While the death count from things like machine guns and rifles was significant, of course, it paled in comparison to the lives claimed by fragmentation shells, mortars, and grenades.
According to some studies, around 60% of the 9.7 million infantry fatalities during the war were in fact due to shrapnel from mortars, grenades, and artillery projectile bombs, or shells. The rest being claimed by disease, chemical weapons, bayonets, and, of course, small arms fire.
With small arms fire apparently so ineffective, you might ask what the point of it is?
What is the purpose of small arms in war?
We've already touched on this a little above, but small arms continue to play a major part in any modern battle, as they have in the past. The reasons for this are varied but needless to say they wouldn't be used if they weren't deemed effective in some way.
In fact, it can be argued that small arms have become more important over time than major weapons systems like artillery — especially in theatres of war like Afghanistan, Syria, etc. that involve gorilla tactics.
Small arms, unlike larger weapons such as tanks, fighter planes, or howitzers are generally very cheap and quick to manufacture.
Small arms are by their very nature also potentially very lethal too. They have grown in sophistication, accuracy, and fire rates over the years, with some capable of firing 300 rounds a minute or more — very useful from a battlefield perspective.
Small arms are generally very simple to use and are increasingly more durable. This makes them ideal weapons for soldiers in many different combat environments and situations.
Small arms are also very portable and some can even be easily concealed on a combatant.
All of these factors are incredibly important for environments like a battlefield or combat zone. Such places, as previously mentioned, are constantly evolving situations, and soldiers need to react and move quickly. Small arms offer a soldier the ability to react and change to situations while still having offensive capabilities.
Larger weapons of war like artillery, etc, are often slower to deploy, and react should the situation arise. They are also more cumbersome and ineffectual for taking and holding positions like cities or infrastructure. After all, something like a landed fighter, no matter how capable in the air, is effectively just an expensive mass of metal on the ground.
So, given how important small arms are to armed forces, is there any way accuracy can be improved?
Can computer games improve real-life firearm accuracy?
It is a commonly-held belief that playing computer games, especially those involving projectile weapon accuracy, should, at least in theory, make you a better marksman in real life. In fact, games developers, like those behind the "Call of Duty" or "Battlefield" series of games spend millions on making them as realistic as possible.
But is this actually true?
According to some serving soldiers, the answer is a definitive no. In an interesting interview with IGN on just this subject, some serving army personnel were lovingly critical of combat-based computer games.
While the games may look and sound realistic, they lack one key component, "the feeling of real danger isn't there," Marine Lance Corporal Anthony Andrada explained to IGN.
From the mental fatigue felt by soldiers who are constantly in harm's way, to the physical fatigue from carrying around equipment on long patrols and in all types of weather, these critical elements on a soldier's effectiveness in battle cannot easily be replicated in computer games.
And most people would concede that point with little hesitation. But that about the actual shooting part of these games?
As it turns out, unsurprisingly, they are also nothing like the real thing.
"No enemy is going to stand out in the open for you to easily shoot, but most of the time enemies in these games like to stand in front of my weapon. Soldiers learn to cover each other and work as a team, covering all lines of fire while maintaining a dominant position and then maneuvering to pin the enemy with fire," Marine Lance Corporal Nicko Requesto explains.
Computer games also tend to feature a wide variety of firearms and an astonishingly large amount of ammunition. This is obviously nothing like real combat, where a soldier will typically be issued with very few actual firearms and even less ammunition.
Most magazines tend to carry 30 rounds apiece, with, on average, around 7 magazines per soldier. That's no more than 210 rounds, plus another 3–4 magazines for a secondary weapon.
For this reason, soldiers need to be conscious of their ammunition limits and use their weapons accordingly. While some tactics, like suppression fire, do require soldiers to saturate an area with bullets, not necessarily intending to actually hit someone, this is used primarily in short bursts, to gain a tactical advantage to help your comrade soldiers move to a new location.
But what about firing accuracy? Can computer games help soldiers hone their firearm proficiency?
If you reached this far in the article, we are pretty confident you'll have a rough idea of the answer.
In essence, no.
Firing guns in a virtual environment is nothing like the real thing. For one, there is no physical impact on your body in-game, unlike in real life.
Real weapons are actual physical objects that have a weight, smell, and size that cannot really be replicated in a computer game. When you fire them, they also produce noise, exhaust gases, and, more importantly, recoil, that you can feel, taste, and see with your own senses.
Unless you are experienced in firing real guns, this aspect of firing can come as quite a shock.
But that is only part of the story. Just pulling the trigger is not the end of the story. To actually put a bullet on target requires hours of intense training and repetition to master. Just because you can aim a gun-shaped bundle of pixels in a game does not mean your "skills" can be translated to real-life firearms.
However, there might be something to it. A 2012 study did seem to show a correlation between playing violent video games and accuracy when shooting at mannequin targets.
Players were split into several groups and those that played violent video games, for as little as 20 minutes, were more likely to hit a target and aim for the head. What's more, veteran gamers were more accurate than casual players.
And this does not come as much of a surprise for the military, police departments, and others already use video games for training purposes.
However, this study, while interesting, did not use real firearms,. Instead, participants were provided with a realistic airsoft gun. The gun was armed with .43 caliber rubber training rounds at a target 20 feet (6.1 meters) away. While this cannot completely simulate firing a real gun, it is a realtively close approximation.
Can computer games help train soldiers?
The kind of war games most readers will be used to, while fun to play, turn out not the best training for real-life combat. For example, most games tend to center around a kind of "one-man-army", or "supersoldier" kind of experience where players can absorb a lot of hits (relatively speaking) and break cover frequently with little "cost" to them.
The reality of modern warfare is nothing like this. Military units are just that, groups of soldiers working together on a common mission. They are not a collection of individuals who can effectively fight independently.
They must work together.
Of course, game developers are not entirely to blame here. They need to make a product that individual players will enjoy playing either on their own or with their friends. Computer games are, in essence, something of a trade-off between reality and providing an entertaining and immersive experience.
In fact, from a combat preparedness point of view, computer games may be more of a hindrance than a benefit as they provide players with a false sense of competence.
Serving soldiers, like Requesto, who was interviewed by IGN, think it is necessary to labor this point.
"Number one, you don't act by yourself, the key to winning and staying alive is communication. Number two, you're not alone. You are fighting to protect the man on your right and the man on your left," he explained. This is not the same as if your squadmates are AIs or players located halfway across the globe.
Another issue with computer games is the complete lack of battle fatigue (physical and mental), along with the now well-documented phenomena of post-traumatic stress disorder. There is also no real risk in these games, no matter how realistic. There are no consequences such as feelings of stress and terror, guilt or regret at taking another human's life, pain from being injured yourself, or the grief of losing close friends or family in battle.
There are also the more mundane aspects of war that are not included in computer games, for obvious reasons. War is, as the famous quote says, is "99% boredom and 1% terror".
Most of the time soldiers spend their time conducting menial tasks like cleaning, maintaining their gear, preparing food, and even filling out paperwork. Anyone whose idea of battle comes from combat-based computer games may be surprised at how much of a soldier's time is spent in not engaging the enemy.
That being said, that does not mean that computer games cannot be used, at least in part, to train actual soldiers in the real world. In fact, some games do form a key part of a modern soldier's multi-faceted training.
Simulations, akin to commercially available simulator computer games, have long been used in military training. Aircrew and tank crew, for example, are regularly trained on simulated environments using programs like "Close Combat Tactical Trainer" and "Advanced Gunnery Training Systems".
But, it is important to note that virtual training programs, using specialist or online games, tend to only form part of training new recruits rather than veteran warriors.
One of the main benefits of using computer games in this way is to introduce battle tactics, squad coherency, and familiarity to in-battle commands. Soldiers can, for example, get a basic understanding of why particular orders are given and see the tactical reasoning behind them without the blinding effects of the "fog of war".
They can also help reduce "skill fade" for soldiers during their downtime, albeit in a limited way.
Interestingly enough, prior to the rise of computer games, soldiers were often encouraged to play strategic board games (chess, Risk, etc).
So, while computer games are used to train armed forces, the reason is not necessarily to learn any "real" combat skills. They are simply a training aid.
Is it easier to shoot non-human targets?
Sociopaths aside, the vast majority of soldiers are not natural killers. While one of the primary roles of a serving soldier is, in part, to kill the enemy, many soldiers need to be trained and drilled to be ready to take a life.
The subject of taking another's life in combat is a very sensitive one, for obvious reasons, and is often a very taboo subject to talk about with serving or former soldiers. In fact, it might be a fruitless exercise, as many soldiers will either lie or deny they have ever killed anyone.
There are a number of reasons for this. One of the most important is that this subject is very personal and something that most soldiers are not proud of. Fighting for your country is a symbol of pride, but being "proud" of taking a life is something very different altogether.
"We recruit people to kill. We train people to kill. We make the orders. Yet after the fact, we don't talk about killing," said Lt. Col. Pete Kilner, a serving officer in the US Army, in an interview with the BBC.
"We talk about destroying, engaging, dropping, bagging — you don't hear the word killing," he explained.
Some in-depth interviews with WW2 veterans show that this is not something new. Most, when speaking candidly on the subject, explain the shame and revulsion they have with themselves after killing for the first time.
For this reason, we might wonder if it is easier to shoot a non-human target or potential combatant. Like, say, a robot?
In essence, the answer is, undoubtedly yes. In fact, most modern combat training involves the use of human-shaped targets rather than old-school "bullseye" targets.
This, in part, is to improve the reality of combat, but also prepare them psychologically for firing at actual human beings in the field. A basic level of accuracy and precision is generally expected for qualified soldiers, but many modern forces have higher tier qualifications for marksmanship too.
In the United Kingdom, for example, for a soldier to qualify as a "Marksman" they must achieve a score of 55 out of a possible 65 (85%+). In the United States, soldier accuracy has levels such as marksman, sharpshooter, and expert.
But these figures are based on, obviously, non-living targets. This level of accuracy in the heat of battle would be the reserve of only the most hardened and coolheaded of troops.
Since modern firearms are typically able, in theory, to hit a human-sized target at 600 yards (550 m), or so, would shooting at "live" non-human combatants offer a better accuracy?
In the absence of an alien invasion or robot uprising, we can never really answer that question. While modern combat training does involve non-human targets, some of which can be "hostile", this is not a real substitute for battle.
However, since warfare is very fluid, as we've previously pointed out, and assuming current military tactics would still apply if non-human combatants were engaged, we can probably expect a similar or only slightly higher accuracy from frontline troops.
This is because, in most cases, soldiers will only have a fleeting moment to aim at and engage an enemy unit. With all the best will in the world, unless some form of augmentation can be made to a human's brain, the reaction times of even the most highly trained soldier cannot be changed that much.
While the reluctance to fire (on human targets) will be removed, the threat of being hit and combat stress of battle will also likely not be reduced that much. If anything, battle stress may increase as alien or robot combatants could have higher morale, accuracy, and precision than human soldiers.
And that's also assuming robotic and alien combatants are humanoid. But that is a discussion for another time.
On the flip side, as is commonly depicted in films, robotic soldiers may have little consideration for their own safety and may, as it turns out, actually act more like computer game AI units. If this were to be the case, it would make the work of human soldiers considerably easier. But any true robotic soldier would more than likely be programmed more like a human soldier.
But, we can only really guess.
Why do we do it, how can we stop it, and who else is at it?