The guilt and shame of killing someone

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”.


  1. Sophy Cooper says

    I remember, during the years when Canadian forces were in Afghanistan and Stephen Harper was prime minister, when opposition members raised questions about the war that there were frequent attempts to shut them down because such questions were ‘unpatriotic’,or, ‘they would lower the morale of the troops.’
    There was a weekly Peace vigil at that time that I attended sporadically. Sometimes people would say the same to us. My response was that it was our civic duty and responsibility to question because we were sending people to hellush situations and it would be appallingly lax of us to not be absolutely sure it was necessary.
    I find the ease with which some people suggest or invoke a military solution to any problem very, very troubling.

  2. Don F says

    Even causing a death accidentally can result in debilitating PTSD; I can only imagine what causing a death intentionally.would be like.

  3. deepak shetty says

    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

    While I dont like it , I can understand how soldiers get convinced by the above.
    What I have always failed to understand is how civilians (see for e.g. Harris/Coyne/Hitchens) can casually dismiss such killings usually using “Collateral Damage”.

  4. Holms says

    Most likely by being so distant to them that it can remain an abstraction. I’d like to know if they change their tune after watching visceral footage were such to leak.

  5. says

    In the Jewish tradition there are only two of the 613 commandments for which there can be no forgiveness—murder and rape—because restoration for either crime is impossible.

    I was very fortunate that in my 11 years of service I never had to take a life—although I know was prepared to do so after an incident in the Gulf of Oman in 1979—but I was one of a handful on my ship entrusted with nuclear weapons and while we used very dark humor to ease the stress, we all knew what we might be called upon to do someday.

    That haunts me nearly 40 years later.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  6. rich rutishauser says

    Hyphenman, I sympathize with you (and all like you).
    I was also in the Navy, but in the first Gulf War instead. I was only a power plant operator, it was cold comfort telling myself that after seeing the footage of what our cruise missiles were doing on the ground.


  7. says


    I think that one of the factors that sets the Navy apart from the other services is that everyone onboard—from the seaman apprentice painting the fo’c’sle to the captain on the bridge—equally feels responsibility at sea.

    There is only the water, the steel and your shipmates between you and Davy Jone’s Locker.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *