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.


Rob Thornton said...

Hi Pete, thank you for sharing the results of your interviews and thoughts, they can benefit us both in the present and the future. What are your thoughts on how this has translated into institutional knowledge and changes in behavior? How has the Army communicated this to the public, our political leadership, and to the Soldiers now entering service? What are the mechanisms which will help us better prepare our men and women to see life taken, to kill and to manage the fallout to themselves, their soldiers, families and our society?

I ask these questions because while I believe most of us were well trained and accomplished our missions to meet the intent, I also think there are some things that perhaps we could have done better to prepare ourselves and our soldiers with respect to training and education. I have concerns that already we are losing institutional knowledge on this subject and may even be willingly distancing ourselves from this hard won experience; perhaps it is too difficult to talk about, is not popular with society, or does not lend itself to the quantitative.

As you tightly point out Land war is very personal, and very human. The act of deciding if a person must be killed or not should be deliberate, even if the decision is made in a split second. A deliberate decision is a thoughtful one that can be revisited and understood. While realistic training under stressful conditions is critical to survival and mission accomplishment I also think that as a profession the Army must help bring out the “why” – why is/was killing this or that person necessary? What makes the death of another rational and allows us to live with it without attempting to bury or dismiss it? It must go beyond the “its war” explanation and translate into the specifics of the mission and personal actions because the former in my opinion can be too big for the mind to comprehend and lends itself to societal judgments on justness and historical interpretations.

Switching gears a bit, I acknowledge the military’s attraction to STEM (perhaps more for the technology based USAF and the Navy than the land components), but I am disheartened by the lack of acknowledgement the role the humanities play in helping us understand ourselves and other people. Perhaps it is because of external trends or not fully understanding our own requirements, but I’ve yet to see any studies that investigate the linkages between specific academic disciplines and are desired ALAs and BOLC A/Pre-commissioning outcomes. One could make the case for logic, but I think all disciplines offer a process for reasoning, however not all make inquiries into the human condition.

Again, thanks for your thoughts and passion on this subject. My oldest has declared his intent to make the Army his profession. While there are leaders serving who are willing to discuss this difficult question in open forums I have some hope that he will be prepared to do what is asked of him and understand why he did it. I think this is a requirement beyond the individual, but is an imperative as a profession and a society.

Best Regards, Rob Thornton

Pete Kilner said...

Rob: Great comments; I concur on all.

I am committed to writing a book that lays out a coherent, consistent argument for the morally justified use of lethal force--in self defense, by police, and by the military. Once we can agree on the principles and have a shared vocabulary, then we'll be in a position to think critically and argue productively about the morality of any particular war or action in war. We have more than enough folks studying the strategies of war; we need more studying the morality of war.

Anonymous said...

I would definitely be interested to hear your argument for the morally justified use of lethal military force. Do you have an article to link to?

Pete Kilner said...

Anonymous: I'm glad you asked, and I'm sorry it took so long for me to respond. --Pete


Anonymous said...

Good post.

Anonymous said...

Finally, I have found meat to eat. That is, I deeply appreciate this arduos embracement of such a highly-evaded topic. Fits my appetite just right!
Thank you Sir!