I did, though, spend time with combatants and former combatants, and I started wondering how they got to the point where they were ready and willing to take the life of another person. That led me to think about how American troops carried the weight of the killing they did and were doing as part of their service, as well as how and why they learned to do it in the first place. Aside from rare exceptions, that piece seemed to be largely missing from the conversation in the U.S. about America’s wars, how they were being waged, and what was happening as a result. There was talk of the fighting. Of those who’d been injured and killed. Of those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other aftereffects. Of detainee policies and torture and just about every other related element. But the fact that soldiers, Marines, special operators, pilots, and others were being asked to kill other people, what that involved, and what that meant was usually left out.
So I decided that I wanted to write about the before, during, and after of killing in combat, to understand how it comes about, how one prepares for it, what it’s like in the moment, and how it’s carried afterward. I wanted to take a frank and sober look at these questions, grounded in the real-life and real-death experiences of guys who’d been on the frontlines.
To the extent that I was successful, it was primarily because some soldiers and Marines I first met in Iraq and Afghanistan, people who knew whereof they spoke, were willing to be open and honest with me, at times painfully so. Some I’d been in touch with over the years, some I hadn’t. Some were barely old enough to vote when they went to war; some were a decade or two past that point. In all cases, though, I was very upfront about what I wanted to discuss, very aware that this was not necessarily easy to talk about and that I was asking a lot. Most of the people I contacted were game for it; some seemed to welcome the opportunity. Over many months and hours and hours of conversations—in their homes, in restaurants, in bars, in malls, on the phone—about 15 talked about the killing they’d done, the killing they hadn’t done, the people they’d killed they wished they hadn’t, the people they hadn’t killed they wished they had, and more.
We discussed the processes that preceded their first battle encounters—the preparation, the training, the language that was used, the sense of legal and military duty and responsibility that was instilled, the mechanics, the movements, and so forth—all of which placed the act of killing in combat in the larger context of their service, their mission, and the obligations they had sworn to uphold for their country and (even more so as time passed) the guys they were fighting with. They talked about why they answered “kill” when they were given orders and why they told jokes about dead babies to “take the horror out of death and make it funny,” as one ex-Marine recalled. They also explained why saying “you’re not a killer!” was a profound insult, and why one instructor brought on before the second battle of Fallujah had left a group of Marines with the mantra, “See the motherfucker, kill the motherfucker, quit thinking about it.”
These were the physical, psychological, legal, and, some argued, the moral foundations for the acts they would later carry out. The religious context, too, which was imparted by officers or chaplains who contended that “thou shalt not kill” should really be “thou shalt not murder,” creating a spiritual allowance, in essence, for taking life. The idea of killing in war was given a lofty air—deemed necessary, even honorable, or at least better than not killing—at the same time as those they would be killing were cast as something less than human, deserving of death.
We talked about what it was like in the moment, in Iraq and Afghanistan, when counterattacking an ambush, when riding patrols in Tikrit or Ramadi, when taking part in the second battle of Fallujah or fighting across Ghazni province in Afghanistan; when terrified, angry, wanting revenge, or just reacting to what was happening, letting the training take over, without really thinking at all; when shooting one man at close range like he was a 25-meter target and only later realizing it was actually a person, when killing numerous men in a single sustained gunfight, when giving orders that led to more killings, when shooting a boy who was pointing a gun at fellow Marines. We discussed what it means to be “mission oriented,” why leadership is so, so important in combat settings, how the rules of engagement can be destiny, and how it was different to fight and kill during the initial invasion(s) than it was in subsequent years.
For individuals and countries alike, it grew clear, a threshold is crossed when the killing begins—when the “kill switch gets switched on,” as one battalion commander put it. Everyone I spoke to said there is a before and after, that the killing that ends another’s life begins a new one, as someone who has killed, for the person who perpetrated the act.
And we talked about what happened later, when they got home, when they transitioned to different roles in the military or left it altogether, taking off the uniform, starting families, trying to adapt to life stateside as they moved away—geographically, psychologically, temporally—from the context in which the killing they did made sense. How did they deal with dislocation, guilt, or rage, or the questions about what it meant to fight for places that were later retaken by the same people they fought, what it meant to fight in wars with such equivocal outcomes. Brian Chontosh, a former Marine who was awarded the Navy Cross for charging an ambush and killing more than 20 men during the initial invasion of Iraq, and later led a company during the second battle of Fallujah, stayed another decade in the military, benefitting greatly, I’d say, from an ongoing connection to the structure and the rituals of the organization. Another former Marine, Ben Nelson, on the other hand, struggled mightily after he was wounded in Ramadi when a suicide car bomber rammed his Humvee, killing everyone else inside it. After he was discharged, he was adrift in a population that knew little of his experience, and his attempts to find a similar sense of camaraderie and immediacy as a county sheriff’s emergency dispatcher couldn’t fill the void or assuage the guilt he carried because he hadn’t shot the car bomber back in Iraq (he had been ordered not to).
Of those who sought assistance, some found it, while others could not (Nelson was connected with a VA counselor he found helpful about seven years after he got back). A number of therapists and counselors who work with vets filled out this picture, too, describing how for some, life moves on and they can be happy and healthy and productive for many years to come, but for others, there are struggles, some of which may get harder, not easier, as the years pass. And when it comes to killing in particular, if they can’t make some sense of what they did—if they can’t hold on to that context and understand it for what it was—it can, as one retired Navy psychologist put it, be like a trial they put themselves through over and over, the evidence and the arguments differing as time passes, as their own relationship to those events evolves.
This is where the concept of “moral injury” comes in. A term coined by Dr. Jonathan Shay, author of “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,” it refers to the outcome of having done something that so contravenes one’s sense of right and wrong that it can be devastating to one’s sense of self as a decent human being. Killing, which one West Point instructor called “the biggest moral taboo” one can break, certainly applies, and it’s clear that the military spends much more time preparing recruits to kill than it does preparing them to deal with the aftermath. The Navy psychiatrist I mentioned earlier noted that both the military’s and the mental health field’s understanding of the longer-term psychological impact of killing is elementary at best. Even in the best case, it’s hard for guys to talk about—with counselors, due to the ongoing stigma around mental health issues in the military and the ongoing mess that is the VA. It’s hard to talk about with civilians because they might not want to hear it, or might not know how to listen. And veterans might want to protect their loved ones from such stories anyway, keeping the horrors of war at a distance.
I was fascinated throughout by what I learned and heard. I was glad to have a chance to delve into questions I still had about what I’d seen in various conflict zones over the years, and to dig back into my own memory and notebooks to find relevant material from those earlier trips. It wasn’t the easiest topic to live with, though, and it was not easy to write. I get why people don’t talk about it, why they might be inclined to turn away. These stories are dark and irrevocable. There was evident pain and anger behind many of them, much of it unshaped, floating, and unsettling. It affected my mind and my mood in a number of ways and conjured up some hard recollections and questions as well.
But it definitely helped me see the degree to which killing in combat—how it’s been done, where and why it’s been done—is a kind of language through which the U.S. has been communicating with the world (and some populations in particular) for many years now. A language that other countries and armies and organizations, from national militaries to ISIS to ragtag militias prowling eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to whoever else you might mention, are communicating, too, with equally profound consequences.
Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” has written that we as a species kill far less than we used to, and it’s true that it’s very hard to imagine future wars on the scale of World War I or World War II. But we are a species that kills, quite a lot, and we will continue doing so. The future will involve more drones, more automated systems, including some, perhaps, that make their own decisions. The implications of this are profound, and they should be examined, because—and this would be both my reason for doing this and my ultimate takeaway from the project—if we’re not talking about what killing is and what killing does, we cannot, to our detriment, truly understand what war is and what war does. We will fail to see how important taking life is to what happens afterwards.