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In for the Kill?

It's only natural when soldiers can't stomach combat


Published March 26, 2003 at 5:00 a.m.

Peace will not became a reality until war ceases to be an abstraction. On the TV screen, it can all seem quite bloodless. Using terms like "collateral damage" to describe civilian casualties masks the horror of burning flesh and decapitated torsos. Precision-guided munitions promote the illusion that innocents are spared, but in our recent campaign in Afghanistan, more than 1000 children, women and other non-combatants were incinerated by "smart bombs," according to the Center for Defense Alternatives. If more people understood what warfare actually entails, its allure might be diminished.

Dismembering bodies at close range, even blowing them up from a distance, are not activities that come naturally to most human beings. A graduate of Parris Island, the Marine Corps boot camp, probably spoke for a majority of vets when he said that "the idea of me killing a person when I first came down here just... you know, it was unheard of, you didn't do that." From quite early in our lives, we are taught that murder is the capital moral evil, and it requires intensive conditioning to overcome the inhibitions built up over many years.

Military training is for this reason as much psychological as technical, emotionally preparing ordinary men and women to do extraordinary things: to kill and risk being killed, sometimes valorously, but more often meanly and pathetically. Sometimes in the name of a grand cause, but more often for reasons that are obscure not only to them but also to the generals and politicians whom they serve.

War is a moral anomaly in which actions we normally feel to be contemptible are declared heroic, and attitudes we ordinarily value, such as respect for life and independent thought rather than unquestioning obedience, are treated with contempt. People do not operate well in this topsy-turvy setting. Many have mental breakdowns and return impaired, unable to function in a more normal environment.

Because it runs counter to our upbringing, combat is not an experience sane people relish or enjoy. The historian William Manchester re-members his own introduction to killing as a recruit in World War II: "You think about it and you know you're going to have to kill, but you don't understand the implications of that... When you do actually kill someone, the experience, my experience, was one of revulsion and disgust."

His reaction to the job of soldiering is not atypical. In a U.S. infantry division stationed in the South Pacific, more than 2000 men were given a questionnaire to study their responses under the stress of battle. Eighty-four percent said they experienced violent poundings of the heart; three-fifths shook and trembled; about half felt faint or had cold sweats or felt sick to their stomachs. More than a quarter admitted that they vomited, and 21 percent lost control of their bowels. All of this argues against the view that men are "natural warriors" or possess anything like a "killer instinct."

While there may be a few individuals who exult in the risk and excitement of military action, most appear to be repulsed by violence. In World War II, Colonel S.L.A. Marshall of the U.S. Army discovered, through extensive interviews with men who had seen hard fighting, that 85 percent of infantry riflemen never fired their weapons in battle. Even when their own position was under attack and their own lives were in immediate danger, more than eight out of 10 never used their guns. They didn't run away; they didn't desert their comrades; but neither did they discharge their weapons at the enemy. In effect, they refused to become killers.

Marshall concluded his study with the words, "It is therefore reasonable to believe that the average and healthy individual -- the man who can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat -- still has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility. At the vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector."

Soldiers know war best and most intimately. They have few illusions about it. They understand what can be won in a war but also know its true costs. In Lines of Battle, a collection of letters from servicemen overseas in the Second World War, a lieutenant in the Philippines wrote: "I don't like war. There is no beauty in a gaping wound. The dead lie on their faces. A live body has personality. A dead body becomes a shrunken mass of rumpled clothing. I can tell when a man is hit, even if he does not fall. His shoulders stoop. His arms and hands tremblingly protect his face and chest, a dazed look of shocked hurt comes into his face and eyes. I can tell now when a man is dying by the gray pallor which changes the healthiest skin. There is no beauty in war."

Small wonder that civilians are often more ready to send in the troops than those with actual military experience. Too many armchair commanders -- like President George W. Bush, who sat out Vietnam in the National Guard, and Vice President Dick Cheney, who managed to secure five draft deferments -- have never had to dodge bullets while in uniform. Former President Ronald Reagan spent World War II making movies. But violence in cinema is usually exciting and glamorous; warfare in the trenches typically alternates between long stretches of absolute boredom and short interludes of gut-wrenching butchery. If they'd ever survived an artillery barrage, those who have learned about war from watching John Wayne might be less enthusiastic about sending our B-52s into Baghdad.

A view from the foxhole gives the best vantage into war's real character. As seen from the frontlines, combat is not primarily a matter of national security or global strategizing. It is not in the first instance a clash of ideologies or worldviews. War is not, as the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz defined it, simply "the extension of politics by other means." War is most basically a matter of killing, and the moral issue in war is the question of whether or not to pull the trigger on another human being -- almost certainly a total stranger who has never done us any personal harm but whom circumstances have deemed expendable. From the viewpoint of the G.I., we are faced with the existential decision to follow our orders or to become conscientious objectors, confronted with the choice between obeying our "duty" or obeying our fundamental instinct to save and preserve life.

Three hundred thousand U.S. military personnel are now facing this very choice. We can best support them by understanding what they're going through. Most of them are young and don't want to die. Most are ordinary, working-class men and women -- not professional mercenaries or gung-ho fighters -- and under normal circumstances they wouldn't want to shoot anyone, either. Whether to take another life is a decision each may be forced to make. But the decision is not theirs alone, nor does the decision belong solely to the President or Congress. Each of us, as citizens and taxpayers, has a finger on the trigger; we're the ones calling the shots.

As the United States descends into war, those on the home front hope to be spared direct retaliation. But because of our action or inaction, our compliance or complicity with the policies of our leaders, thousands of human beings will die as surely as if we ourselves had fired the offending weapon.

There may be times when we can justify war: in self-defense, as a last resort, and when the means are in agreement with the ends. But if there is ever to be peace on Earth, it will be because more and more of us realize, on ever more personal and immediate levels, what the decision to take up arms actually involves. We must come to grips with the ugly truth of war if we are ever to go beyond it.