War can be an Experience of both Heaven and Hell

Many combat veterans have a love/hate relationship with their wartime experiences. They love the profound sense of purpose that their liv...

Observations about Soldiers' Experiences of Killing in War

by Pete Kilner (@combat_ethics)

Killing the enemies of our country in war is something that has to be done, but it’s not something that soldiers talk about much, especially with civilians. To help the next generation of soldiers prepare for combat as well as help the American people understand what soldiers experience, I offer these observations, which I have gleaned informally from hundreds of interviews and conversations with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as with veterans back home. (The list is not in any particular order.)
  1. Soldiers join the Army to defend their country. They kill in war to protect their buddies and accomplish their mission.
  2. The American soldier is much better at reacting to contact than at initiating contact. Maybe it’s their training, maybe it’s a cultural thing about not throwing the first punch. Yet once the enemy engages us and crosses that threshold, they are lethal. (This aversion to engaging before being engaged diminishes with combat experience.)
  3. Firefights are terrifying and exciting.  In the frightening kill-or-be-killed situation of close combat, it’s a thrilling relief to come out on top.
  4. It’s validating for a combat-arms soldier to kill an enemy combatant. Having trained for so long and heard so many war stories from their respected small-unit leaders, they feel proud to have demonstrated their professional competence under fire and thus joined the ranks of combat-proven soldiers.
  5. Once the personal threat has passed (e.g., the patrol is done, the deployment complete, or the war ends), soldiers’ attitudes toward killing become more subdued.  The cost in lives is weighed against what was accomplished by that mission, that deployment, that war.
  6. When talking about killing an enemy combatant, soldiers tend to avoid the term “killed.” Instead, they “took him out,” “took care of him,” “dropped him,” “eliminated” him--the list of euphemisms is long. On the other hand, they never describe the accidental battlefield killing of a noncombatant by anything other than “killed.”
  7. Leaders who issue orders that result in the deaths of enemy combatants feel a strong sense of responsibility for those deaths. As one lieutenant put it, “I never killed anyone with my personal weapon, but I killed people” [through his soldiers carrying out his orders]. Even leaders who merely authorized indirect fires or drops from fast movers can feel a strong sense of responsibility for the resulting deaths.
  8. Soldiers make judgments about the moral responsibility of the enemy they kill. The more that an enemy combatant is actively engaging in a threatening action (i.e., pointing a weapon, emplacing an IED) and is likely to understand what he is doing (i.e., isn’t a child), the better it feels to kill them.
  9. When one of their fellow soldiers is killed, their determination to kill the enemy increases. Payback is a primal instinct.
  10. For units heading out on dangerous, enemy-focused missions, “Let’s go kill some bad guys” is a motivating mantra for overcoming the fear.
  11. Some soldiers, once they have killed in war, decide that they can’t/won’t kill again.  I came across this situation in several combat-arms battalions, and I found their commands to be remarkably understanding, moving them off the line into staff positions. As one infantry company commander told me, “Not everyone is cut out to be an infantryman, and some don’t realize it until they’ve killed.”
  12. Soldiers who are hunters seem to be less bothered by killing in war.
  13. It’s not uncommon for the faces of enemy combatants that soldiers killed to appear in their dreams. The deceased don’t condemn; they are merely present. Even when the soldier never saw the person’s face, he knows who it is.
  14. Combat veterans prefer not to tell their family members and civilian friends that they killed in war. If asked, they answer matter of factly and move on. When acquaintances and strangers ask, soldiers lie or ignore them; they have no right to know. Those who haven’t experienced combat couldn’t possibly understand what it means to kill another human being, and soldiers want to be looked at for the ends they pursued (protecting the innocent) not for the means they used (killing enemy combatants).
There may not be a single combat veteran who agrees with all of these observations; people process experiences differently. But I can assure you that each of these themes emerged from the voices of soldiers who have killed in defense of our country.

I invite you to comment with your own observations on this topic.

I am a former enlisted infantryman and infantry officer who interviewed more than 370 junior officers in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003-2011 about their combat-leadership experiences, which often included killing. I also maintain a military-ethics blog (http://soldier-ethicist.blogspot.com) that has connected me to many more veterans, especially those who are reflecting on the morality of war. I never commanded troops in war and I’ve never killed anyone.

Updated 10-29-2018 to use third-person voice.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this post are entirely my own and do not reflect the views or policy of West Point, the US Army, or the Department of Defense.

War Needs a Better Tagline

Long before I ever read the classic On War by Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz, I was familiar with its most famous line--the one in which Clausewitz says, “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means.”

Yes, I realize that Clausewitz offered dialectic arguments and his insights on war are profound and nuanced, but my concern is that many citizens--and more importantly, politicians--to the extent that they know anything about a theory of war, accept uncritically what they have heard--that “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.”  It’s not Clausewitz’s fault (nor anyone else’s) that his complex theory has been reduced in popular culture to a superficial tagline, but it has, and the result, I think, is morally problematic.

The German term that Clausewitz used, Politik, can mean “politics” or “policy.”  Both meanings of the term discount the importance of a war being morally justified.

Is war merely policy?  I think not. The decision to go to war is distinct from all other expressions of policy in that it forces people to kill and be killed on a large scale. Diplomatic statements are policy; tariffs and economic sanctions are policy. Although those types of policy affect people (and thus have an ethical component), they do not directly result in the intentional, large-scale killing of human beings, which wars inevitably do. War, then, should not be viewed as one tool among many in international policymaking; rather, war should be viewed as a last resort, to be utilized only when all other policies have failed to protect the people’s fundamental human rights.

Is war merely politics? Listening to our politicians, many of whom appear to base their war-authorization votes on the whims of poll results and the election cycle, one wonders if they do indeed view war as mere politics--as a means to help them and their party increase their political power. That wouldn't mean that they are necessarily bad people; they might be good people who know little about the moral reality of war and thus treat it as they do any other issue with political implications.

So, what might be a better, more ethical tagline for war? One that keeps at the forefront of everyone’s minds the fact that any decision to go to war must overcome a high moral hurdle? My first cut is:

“War is a last-resort defense of collective human rights.”

What do you think of this tagline? What do you think war’s tagline should be? I invite and welcome your critique and suggestions.