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I recently read about a fascinating study on the psychology of killing.

Brig. Gen. S. L. A Marshall was a United States combat historian in the Pacific during World War II. And he observed a fascinating phenomena that occurred many times in his studies:

Almost all soldiers would obey and fire their weapons while their leaders were present to command them, but when the leaders left, the firing rate immediately dropped to between 15-20%.

Not only would the firing rate drop, the accuracy would plummet as well. The soldiers would essentially “cheat” on they duty to kill by deliberately missing.

Marshall believed the great relief displayed by the soldiers was not so much because they realized they were safer, but because they were no longer under the compulsion to kill.

Killing another human being is unnatural. Normal men with a conscience cannot do it without extensive training (or perhaps a compelling self-defense context).

Sure, we can fantasize about killing. Yet when it comes to actually pulling the trigger, we are unable to do the deed…

Unless we are compelled to do so by a present authority.

It is this “nearness of authority” that drives much of our behavior and even overrides our conscience. Most of us will obey someone who looks like an authority and is telling us what to do right now.

War gives a graphic microcosm of human nature. It’s the ultimate contest between conscience and authority. Authority wins when it is present. Conscience wins when authority is absent.

This is why those who wish to manipulate depend on a constant present authority.

We may not be asked to fire a gun to kill, but men are asked to violate their conscience in a variety of other ways in the nearness of authority:

  • You know the Scriptures say one thing, but the preacher says another thing from the pulpit… so you doubt your conscience.
  • You know the right thing to do, but your wife is so upset by it… so you hold off (since you’ve been conditioned to view a woman’s approval as authoritative.)
  • You decided in your conscience that something was “pure” and “undefiled” but then you read a strongly opinionated article online by a persuasive writer… so you doubt.
  • You decide the life path that’s best for you, but your father disproves, so you “put your dreams on hold” for something more “sensible.”
  • You want to live a certain lifestyle, but no one else in your religious circle is living like that… so maybe it’s not appropriate.

Real masculine power comes from the ability to follow your conscience in the face of present authority.

It’s easy to follow your conscience when the authority is distant. It’s when perceived authority is near that our true character is tested.

This is why it’s not uncommon to see men with a masculine exterior (a “man’s man”) who are privately fearful of their wives’ wrath on a daily basis.

A woman’s disapproval is the nearest “authority” that a man encounters on a daily basis.

It’s easy to talk about your bold politics. Not so easy to face an angry woman in the home.

The home is where the real test of manhood takes place. And there is no one there to witness your struggles and victories. It’s a private battle.

If you can face your angry woman without compromising your conscience, the more distant “authorities” will seem less threatening.

Further reading on conscience vs. authority: