It is the nature of war to kill. Whether a Nation is engaged against another in a classic siege in order to starve the enemy into capitulation, or forcing a war of attrition, wherein the directive is to make as few enemy as possible available for capitulation, war is all about killing. Truer still is that, from early wars to modern, the men and women doing the killing have similar reflexive reactions and protective denial strategies for dealing with the trauma of this killing’s necessity. That is, the advent of the bomb-nebulous-targets-from-safety-and-afar Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) does not distance the modern Soldier or Airman far from the core mental culpability of the 13th century foot soldier armed with a longbow who must look his enemy in the eye before killing him. On different levels of interpersonal interaction both are killing for their cause, their God, or their country, and both must justify those decisions.
How does a Solider subscribe to the fate that to kill is the last and correct option? To whom, Devine or human, does he or she feel they must justify this decision the first time, and then again for subsequent killings? Do these considerations change over time? How will the Soldier interpret his or her families’ reactions and lifestyles upon return? Are there gender, age, or psychological factors -like honor and duty- at play during the pre- and post-killing justification? The following essay will discuss the mental process of killing and its resultant social, emotional, and clinical implications.
Justifying To Kill or Be Killed
To kill may be part of our human history, but it is certainly not part of human nature. The incorrect, yet growing view, as advanced by agenda-driven historians, is that Soldiers enjoy killing (Jones, 2005). This is in complete contrast to the declarations of veterans from World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and more recently from Iraq, that there is “a general repugnance of war [among Soldiers], while also acknowledging the protective strength derived from comradeship formed under fire” (p. 539). Low initial and return fire rates from all of the Nation’s wars, interviews from veterans, and historical records of ammunition supplies add to the rest of the mounting data supporting the reality that men and women in war do not, in fact, relish killing (Grossman, 2009).
Evidence proving the argument against killing being part of human nature is easily found during a post-battle account from the American Civil War. After the Battle of Gettysburg, 90 percent of the 27,574 muskets recovered were still loaded (Grossman, 2009). Half of these were double loaded, some were loaded three to four times, and “one weapon had been loaded [round upon round] twenty-three times” (p. 23). This directs one’s attention to the mental process of the man faced with the decision to fire upon another, potentially causing his death. It can be hypothesized that these men could stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the volleying line and appear to fire to their peers and commanders as if they were acting nobly. They then could take their time to re-load and eventually appear to fire once more. Studies have proven that Soldiers are motivated to fight not through idealistic political or ideological convictions, but rather “by group pressures and processes involving[:] regard for their comrades, respect for their leaders, concern for their reputation with both, and an urge to contribute to the success of the group” (p. 89). A Soldier faced with killing must process the decision to kill based on those pressures as well as his or her own personal and religious convictions. He or she may have to quickly decide, will I be letting my team or leader down? What will both my comrades and my leadership think of me if I do not kill the enemy? Will my failure to kill lead to demise or failure of my team’s mission or success?
Religion cannot be discounted as a contributing factor that can encourage killing, as in Ireland, the Middle-East, early American history, and every other geographic location with religion as part of its societal pulse (Noss & Noss, 1990). Ironically however, the World’s religions often extol the virtue of peace and saving lives. It is the powerful opiate religion offers its users, numbing them to some pressures of human instinct or reality, which can affect the decision process of some Soldiers to attack first or not to fire when attacked. Religions often threaten their followers with a day of reckoning whereupon each individual will be compelled to answer for their worldly deeds. Even the slightest doubt in the rightness of one’s Nation’s endeavor may be enough to compel a man or woman from fearing this final review from Higher Authority.
A Spoon Full of Sugar
Once done, the action of killing demands rationalization by any sane-minded person even if it might not be repeated. The act has to be distanced from reality, or at the very least watered down, to remain digested and forgotten. The spoon full of sugar heaped upon this bitter medicine comes as various forms of rationalization. This can be served through a series of euphemisms, denials, categorizations of the enemy as something other than like oneself, or justification through a reasoning process wherein the inaction of not killing would produce worse results than the action of killing would have. Often times, as reported in Grossman (2009), the burden of killing is lightened by simply changing the way one thinks about the killing and the tools used for doing it.
Soldiers will try to deny the killing to themselves or to others; they make it impersonal or something that happened in a different reality that does not need to connect to the current one (Figley & Nash, 2007; Grossman, 2009). Grossman (2009) explains that one effective tool for denial is the changing of our very language about war. “Most Soldiers do not ‘kill,’ instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up” (p. 91). When I was in Iraq we called all the Iraqis Hadgi in a derogatory, nearly de-humanizing way (see also: naming all Japanese Tojo in World War II, or the Vietnamese Charlie in Vietnam). The irony of this ilk of racism and its stupidity is that by calling all the Iraqis Hadgi we were not even calling them an Iraqi name, rather we were calling them all an Indian name, and the Indians in Iraq were there on our side. By changing the nature of the situation’s reality, the language used to describe the action and the receivers, and creating as much protective distance between oneself and the cause of the enemy’s death, killing becomes more palatable. A spoon full of sugar, one might say.
Dealing With Civilians and Family
Once the true mortal pressures of living and dying have been a part of one’s experience, life in the slower-paced civilian world can be difficult to handle (Cantrell & Dean, 2005; Grossman, 2009; Hall, 2008). Back from war, a Soldier may be prone to perceive families and civilian artifice and their propensity for bloviating importance of trivial matters with frustration and anger. Gegax and Thomas (2005; as cited in Hall, 2008) write that many military members are “unimpressed by the civilian work ethic” and even “harbor a disturbing distain for the decadent and selfishness of modern American society” (p. 108).
This objection is tuned with each interaction counter to the two sides’ opposite schema for cultural normative behavior and standards. As it is honor and duty that the career Soldier considers to be defining characteristics, he or she might perceive the civilian population to believe in artificial means to determine self-worth and success. “Honor in the military is much like the concept of money, or accumulating wealth, in our U.S. civilian culture” (Hall, 2008, p. 18). Knowing this, it is not difficult to understand why dealing with one’s family and the civilian community upon return can be frustrating at times.
Society is fascinated with, anxious to talk about the very thing that the Soldier may be trying to forget. Killing is as curious a concept as sex is to American society (Grossman, 2009). When I returned from Iraq, one of my fraternity brothers attended my Bronze Star ceremony. For the entire post-dinner section he queried me repeatedly, “How many people did you kill?” “What’s it like to see a guy die?” “Did you hold anyone in your arms while they died?” – I wanted to punch his lights out. I still am not sure which ruined my evening more; it was either the wanting to punch him, or the not punching him. Grossman (2009) summarizes the feeling exactly while quoting a “crusty old sergeant” (p. 2). “Those bastards don’t know anything about it. They’re like a world of virgins studying sex, and they got nothing to go on but porno movies. And it is just like sex, ‘cause the people who really do it just don’t talk about it” (p. 2).
When Dealing With Killing, Who You Are Matters
There are gender, age, and psychological factors like honor and duty at play during the pre- and post-killing decision to justification. Just as chivalry may prevent a man from killing a woman, it will also increase the haunt of the act of killing an enemy combatant if that enemy happens to be female.
There are always social and political pressures in play. Politicians and military leaders try to compel Soldiers, through training or fear, to kill when directed. Grossman (2009) calls some the methods outright mental conditioning like Ivan Pavlov described. Hundreds of repetitive drills are designed to move this inhuman act from the frontal lobe of logic and reasoning further from the conscious, back to become instinctual and purely reactionary absent of the inhibitions of forethought. Nation’s like ours take their young men and women and train them in this fashion to react as deemed appropriately in the face of the enemy. “However, there is no known method for reversing the process of ‘trained killer’ back into [a] normal and adjusted civilian” (Paquette, 2008). Of course, Paquette’s (2008) comments reveal the very essence of the problem. For society to demand the adjustment of the Soldier back into normalcy is to accept the precept that the returning Soldier has somehow become abnormal. He or she would have generally left for war holding onto society’s normal, and then returned with what to him or her remained as the same normal. Only that while society’s did not change over the time of the Soldier’s absence, the Soldier’s normal was constantly reinterpreted and morphed to include the experience of war and potentially the process of killing. To him or her, this is the correct normal. To stipulate otherwise is to begin the dialogue (of healing) with one party already out of step.
Governments also use threats to provoke killing the enemy. Sometimes they are simply threats of physical violence or discomfort, as in the American Boot Camp model; other times they can be as severe as Stalin and Trotsky’s. During the autumn of 1919, when the war was not going well for the Russians, Trotsky put out an order to his Generals, “Any scoundrel who urges retreat will be shot. Any Soldier who abandons his post will be shot” (Radzinsky, 1997). The outlook for survival of these men was so bleak that only one rifle was issued to every two, or sometimes three, impressed Soldiers so that when the rifleman died there would be a man standing by to take his place. Still, Soldiers refused to fight and kill.
Those who did fight and kill, those men and women who were either compelled by protection, success of battle, unfortunate circumstance, or the fog of war to kill or be killed, must be protected once more upon return. Mental health professionals should be trained and poised to protect them from the painful (sick) curiosity and from the scorn. Scorn can come from misunderstanding families, the media, their community, or worse, themselves.
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