COMMENT: The Care and Feeding of Vinyl Records (part II of II)

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The care associated with caring for real, tangible, touchable objects is significantly different than the care associated with caring for unreal, virtual, untouchable objects. That’s the thesis I tacked up on the proverbial castle door during part I. I used my high school experience of entering the environment of taking care of vinyl records and audio equipment within the world of the audiophile as a backdrop. Here’s what I said in part I:

Rather than learning about the care and feeding of vinyl albums (as an example), kids (and many adults) today simply gain access to an MP3 audio file. When it comes to an MP3 audio file, there’s no care and feeding; there’s just access. You don’t have to worry about scratching an MP3 audio file, or, for that matter, putting fingerprints on it. In fact, there is no way to put fingerprints on an MP3 audio file because it only exists in digital format and often in the cloud (’s cloud-based audio service would be an example here). Will moving from objects (like vinyl records) to access (like cloud-based MP3 files) affect the overall care environment? In part II, I will try to convince you that it will.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Moving from taking care of vinyl records to taking care of MP3 files is such a trivial example. Not very convincing.” Fair enough. OK, lets up the ante a bit. OK, a lot. In part II, I’d like to look at book that, in my opinion, has great information and insight concerning Bowlbian attachment theory, especially at the level of society. When you think of books on Bowlbian attachment theory, this title probably is one that would not readily come to mind. It is On Killing—The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (1995, Back Bay Books).

Grossman teaches psychology and military science (at least he did back when he wrote On Killing). “Military science?” you ask, “Is there really such a thing as military science?” Yes, military science is a real discipline. (Ask any military school student.)

As Grossman points out in his book, one of the goals of military science is to increase fire rates defined by the following ratio:

(# of times a soldier fires at a human target) ÷ (# of times a soldier fires, whether at a human target or not)

If you multiply this ratio by 100, you get a percentage. One of the goals of military science is to figure out ways to get as close to a 100% fire rate as humanly possible. A 100% fire rate would mean that every bullet fired would be fired at a human target. A 100% fire rate is probably not an achievable target (no pun intended), however military science tries to approach it at least asymptotically.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. Any guesses what needs to be reduced in order for fire rates to go up? According to Grossman’s research, military scientists discovered that in order for fire rates to go up, “attachment” or “human bonding” must go down. And that makes sense when you think about it. It is easier to fire at a human target that has been dehumanized and turned into an object. It’s also easier to fire at a human target when you do not care about or empathize with that target.

So, how did military scientists increase fire rates by reducing attachment or human bonding? Grossman suggests that the fire rate went up dramatically during the Vietnam War as Attachment Man (for lack of a better term) was converted to Systems Man through the wholesale application of systems engineering by military scientists. It’s a very complicated story but systems engineering got its start during WWII and reached a zenith during the Vietnam War. For a great book on the story behind the rise of systems engineering, see the book by Debora Hammond entitled The Science of Synthesis—Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory (2003, University Press of Colorado). Interestingly, feminist writer Susan Faludi has a great chapter on the rise of Systems Man during the Vietnam War in her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (1999, Perennial). Lets look at how Grossman describes the rise of Systems Man.

According to Grossman, during WWII, soldiers were trained as a group, fought as a group, and returned home as a group. This “grouping” process allowed soldiers to form long-lasting attachment bonds. As Sir Richard Bowlby (John Bowlby’s son) told us at a lecture up in Canada back in October, 2005 (executive summary available), “Going to war often results in attachment bonds being formed between buddies. In war, you have to depend on others for your very survival.” Sir Richard gave us the following “bottom line”: “Life threatening events will trigger the attachment behavioral system and, if all goes well, attachment bonds are formed.” As Grossman describes, grouping allowed attachment bonds to form, which, in turn, allowed for the trauma of war to be processed “in the moment” and right there on the battlefield. In contrast, lets listen in as Grossman describes the Vietnam War experience (with systems engineering now in full swing).

In Vietnam most soldiers arrived in the battlefield alone, afraid, and without friends. A soldier joined a unit where he was an FNG, a “f—ing new guy,” whose inexperience and incompetence represented a threat to the continued survival of those in the unit. In a few months, for a brief period, he became an old hand who bonded to a few friends and able to function well in combat. But then, all too soon, his friends left him via death, injury, or the end of their tours, and he too became a short timer, whose only concern was surviving until the end of his tour of duty. Unit morale, cohesion, and bonding suffered tremendously. All but the best of units became just a collection of men experiencing endless leavings and arrivals [which was the genius of systems engineering], and that sacred process of bonding, which makes it possible for men to do what they must do in combat, became a tattered and torn remnant of the support structure experienced by veterans of past American wars.

I hope you are asking yourself the following question: “Why on earth would military scientists, now teamed up with systems engineers, wish to reduce the ‘sacred process of bonding’ to tatters and torn remnants by forcing soldiers to experience ‘endless leavings and arrivals?’ ” Simply, why would anyone wish to reduce “unit morale, cohesion, and bonding?” There’s a simple answer: to increase fire rates and, by so doing, increase the rate of return on investment. It was all about achieving efficiency. But at what external cost? Well, as Grossman describes in detail, the external cost equals increased levels of PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder in returning soldiers. During WWII the grouping and bonding of soldiers allowed trauma to be buffered, and, when experienced, to be processed (for the most part) in situ. During the Vietnam War, systems engineering techniques (which included psychopharmacology) numbed soldiers to the trauma that surrounded them so they could be more effective on the battlefield. But that meant that trauma was being experienced outside of the “sacred” healing effects of attaching and bonding. The trauma of systems engineering was particularly pernicious because, by design, it was addressed (if at all) way after the fact and in relative isolation, which, unfortunately, allowed it to set in.

Grossman draws our attention to the fact that, having learned the lessons offered up by the Vietnam War, not all military scientists and systems engineers were willing to pay the external cost of “endless leavings and arrivals.” Here’s how Grossman puts it:

Since Vietnam, several different returning armies have applied this vital lesson. The British troops returning from the Falklands could have been airlifted home, but instead they made the long, dreary, and therapeutic South Atlantic crossing with their navy.

In the same way, Israel [provided] for a cooldown period among their soldiers returning from the nation’s extremely unpopular 1982 incursion into Lebanon.

Have things improved in the US as well? In some ways yes, in others no. Grossman observes that “U.S. troops deployed to Grenada, Panama, and Iraq [during the first Gulf War] left these conflicts in intact units.” That’s clearly good from a therapeutic or healing standpoint. But at about the same time (the early to mid-1990s) something else happened that, well, is not so good, therapeutically speaking.

According to the web site, in 1985, the military created LOGCAP or Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program. The purpose of LOGCAP was to privatize “more of the duties involved in civil logistics” (quoting HalliburtonWatch). Under this plan, the following military services would be privatized: “construction of military housing for the troops, transporting food and supplies to military bases and serving food at military cafeterias” (quoting HalliburtonWatch once again). Under this plan the environments in which soldiers typically group, bond, and care for each other—constructing and maintaining housing, transporting food and supplies, and serving food—would be greatly reduced. Simply, troop care environments would be greatly reduced. (See Faludi’s book Stiffed for examples of how systems engineering has played a role in reducing civilian care environments such as shipbuilding and the aerospace industry.) Soldiers would no longer have to depend on one another if private contractors were enlisted to take care of their needs (which have now moved into areas that include fast food restaurants, movie theaters, and, yes, motorcycle dealerships). I would suggest that when troops have to care for one another, this is the care associated with caring for real, tangible, touchable objects. In contrast, privatized care within the military theater is the care associated with caring for unreal, virtual, untouchable objects. The former is part and parcel of Attachment Man. The latter is part and parcel of Systems Man.

Lest you think that the systems engineering of the military theater has nothing to do with the systems engineering of civilian digital reality theaters, I have one word for you: cybernetics. It was cybernetics that brought in the “endless leavings and arrivals” of the Vietnam War, and it’s cybernetics today that gives us such feedback systems as Google, iTunes, TiVo, smartphones, the Internet, Netflix,, and on the list goes. (For more on this theme, see Hammond’s afore mentioned book The Science of Synthesis, or grab a copy of Katherine Hayles’ book How We Became Posthuman—Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.) As social critic Gore Vidal suggests in his 2002 book Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, war never goes away, it just changes form, from military form to civilian form (or as one cable TV program put it, From Tactical to Practical).

So, yes, the Systems Man of the Vietnam War is now the Systems Man that uses a smartphone, shops online at, listens to cloud-based MP3 sounds files, and has a Netflix account. These system care environments (and I’m using the term “care” loosely here) are on the same continuum. As Grossman points out, these system care environments are designed to reduce bonding and attachment. Think about hyperlinks. Don’t they facilitate “endless leavings and arrivals?” When you don’t have to take care of anything tangible and touchable, you can arrive and leave at will. I guess you could say, “Wherever you go, there you are … right along with your intangibles and untouchables.”And many argue that this is a good thing. But notice the trends now talked about in the popular press—kids and young adults who wish to arrive and leave at will in the following areas:

  • jobs and career
  • housing
  • friends
  • families
  • education

To wrap up, I’m often asked how we (especially us philanthropists) can improve the overall care environment. In specific, I’m asked how we could get men to care more, especially at home. My answer is simple really: to improve care you have to consider the entire care continuum that includes soldiers caring for each other in the military theater to people caring for each other in homes and in communities (1). In my opinion, to increase the care associated with secure attachment relationships, one would have to work toward controlling the growth and influence of Systems Man. As you work to reduce the privatization of care in military life, one should also work to reduce the socialization of care in civilian family life so that the sacred healing of attachment can be preserved along the entire care continuum (2). In both theaters the procedure is the same: move from taking care of unreal, virtual, untouchable objects to taking care of real, tangible, touchable objects. It might be a small step but try caring for and feeding a few vinyl records.

As a final note, I find it distressing that young adults (and many older adults) would rather give up sex than give up their smartphone or Facebook account. As I have blogged about before, I see the innate behavioral systems of attachment, caregiving, and sex as existing in dynamic relationship within what I have called the Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment (GBAE for short). Darwin argued that resolving conflicts between motivational systems within animal communities gave rise to moral development in humans. When young adults (and many older adults) would prefer attaching to and caring for their smartphone or Facebook account to the exclusion of sex, something dramatic has happened within the GBAE, a drama that no doubt will affect moral development in this and future generations. A desire to care for unreal, virtual, untouchable objects is such a drama, one that is mapped by the continued rise of Systems Man in all sectors of life.  Social media is “social” in that it principally involves and expresses a desire to care for unreal, virtual, untouchable, robotic objects. Social media answers the question asked by insecure attachment—by Systems Man: “How can I achieve a sense of being connected while at the same time avoid the pain that face-to-face intimacy inevitably brings?” Systems Man answers that question. But at what cost, whether external or otherwise? This is a topic I’ll try to take up in a future post. In the mean time I would recommend a book by MIT researcher Sherry Turkle entitled Alone Together—Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011, Basic Books). Another book I’d recommend is Mary Midgley’s The Solitary Self—Darwin and the Selfish Gene (2010, Acumen). Midgley writes: “[I]n modern times, when [an] anti-corporeal stance might be expected to have died down, it still persists in the form of a special reverence for human intelligence, which is seen as almost supernatural, and even in an exaltation of virtual experiences over those that involve the flesh” (emphasis added). Ergo, the central goal of so-called social media is to normalize dissociation or, to use Midgley’s phrase, the “anti-corporeal stance (a stance, as Midgley points out, that has been taken up at various times for various reasons throughout history).

(1) – I recently finished reading a book by psychologist Michael Thompson entitled Homesick and Happy—How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow. In essence, Thompson describes the care—grouping, bonding, and attachment—that takes place within the summer sleep-away camp environment. Thompson’s description of the summer camp care environment tracks Grossman’s description of the care environment that existed for US troops during WWII. Thompson goes so far as to suggest that the summer camp environment of today is a throwback to the community environment of the 1950s. The rise of systems engineering since the 1940s and 50s has done much to dismantle 1950s-style care environments (and some would argue for the better), but maybe we should take care to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As Mary Midgley cautions in The Solitary Self, “[As] troublesome bonds are successfully loosened, that process gradually leads us toward the idea that, ideally, each of us ought to stand altogether alone.” Thompson argues that the “old fashion” care environments of summer sleep-away camps—no digital technology, face-to-face interactions, appropriate separation experiences, time spent in nature, time for reflection, appropriate physical and mental challenges, mentorship, formation of longterm friendships, etc.—provide much in the way of social, moral, and psychological development. All of this may in part explain why some groups are attempting to use summer camp-like environments to heal PTSD in troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Thompson’s book may offer us a glimpse at why such a plan may just work.

(2) – In Midgley’s book (mentioned above), she makes the following observation: “[A]ttempts to homogenize babies [through socialized care] have failed dismally because the babies themselves won’t accept them [e.g., generic caregivers]. It turns out that strong individual attachments are an indispensable matrix for human sociability.” Studies of children raised in kibbutz communal living arrangements tend to support Midgely’s observation.