Life is such a precious gift that unless one is a sociopath, killing someone is such a horrific thing that one shies away from it. It takes extraordinary circumstances for someone to lose control of themselves sufficiently to kill another human being. So governments have elaborate methods by which they encourage ordinary people to join their military and then turn them into killers. These involve training them to unquestioningly follow orders and to dehumanize those perceive as the enemy, by portraying them as less than human or so outlandishly evil that they deserve to die, and to shower the killers with medals and honors upon their return in order to make them feel like heroes.
But the fact that it seems easy enough for countries to recruit armies to fight in wars does not mean that this system works as well as one might think. It turns out that you cannot completely get rid of people’s human feelings and again, unless the person is a sociopath, the people who have done the killing struggle all the time to justify what they did or try to suppress the memories. Many of them become twisted and tormented.
War correspondent Kevin Sites describes what people are learning about the guilt felt by those who kill in wars.
Armed with these results, VA clinicians developed a disruptive new theory they’ve termed ‘moral injury’ – the notion that it’s not simply witnessing trauma that undoes combat veterans, but guilt; and in particular, guilt over two things: killing and not being killed. The implication is that we humans are fairly resilient in our ability to see horrible things and somehow continue functioning, but we’re not so good at living with what we consider our more shameful deeds. Even if killing seems justified by the demands and duties of war, it sends our moral compasses spinning.
Indeed, Maguen and Litz report, the combatant might see himself as ‘an evil, terrible person’ and ‘unforgivable’ because of acts done in war. Veterans might feel betrayed by the society that sent them to war or the superior officers who placed them in a situation where accidental killing of their own men or innocent civilians occurred.
It is that sense of violating one’s own basic moral values, of transgressing against what is right, that separates moral injury from garden-variety PTSD.
As Jonathan Shay wrote in Achilles in Vietnam: ‘When you put a gun in some kid’s hands and send him off to war, you incur an infinite debt to him for what he has done to his soul.’
This is why governments prefer very young people as their front-line soldiers, recruiting them before they have had time to solidify their internal moral compass and can be intimidated by authority and influenced to do unspeakable things by illusions of camaraderie, adventure, patriotism, and glory. Wars might be quite different things if armies could only recruit people over the age of (say) forty who might be more cynical about the motives of governments in sending people to kill others and more resistant to carrying out what they might perceive as indefensible orders.
Sites describes Corporal William Wold’s experience.
Wold’s mother Sandi said he was fine for a while when he first got home, but after a few months the darkness seeped out. He couldn’t eat and he never slept.
The transgression that bothered him most wasn’t the carnage in the mosque, but another, even more disturbing incident, an accidental killing at a vehicle checkpoint in Iraq. The vague description Sandi gave to a local television reporter is horrifying: ‘A vehicle came through that hadn’t been cleared,’ she said. ‘The lieutenant says: “Take them out.” He took them out. They went to the van – it was a bunch of little kids. And he had to take their bodies back to the family.’
Instead of killing an armed enemy, Wold had, through the orders of an officer, killed several children. Accidental killing of civilians in the Iraq War, as in all wars, are much more common than you can imagine. Numbers are so high it wouldn’t benefit the military to keep accurate tabs; rigorous documentation would just fan the public relations nightmare and boost the propaganda value of the deaths for the other side.
Wold’s life spiraled out of control and he died of a drug overdoes two years after his battle experience.
It is a crime what governments do to the people they send off to fight wars. As Seymour Hersh vividly describes in the anguished words of a mother who could barely recognize her son in the broken man who came back from Vietnam, “I sent them a good boy, and they made him a murderer”.