When a Soldier Kills


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It’s a simple action for a soldier to kill another human being and without consequences – at least not immediately. You see, the act itself is without emotion and devoid of much thought. The preparation for such a task is unconscious, but very important indeed. Soldiers generally are not willing to take a life, even in self defense. It is something that is incorporated in their training, subtle though it may be.

It all starts with anger, or revenge. Feelings not felt during the actual event, but begin the thought process. This emotion is not trained, but is certainly exploited. Soldiers are fundamentally angry at their enemy simply for causing them to leave their families. But, whatever the cause, all soldiers find some way to be angry.

This anger leads to a process called dehumanization, or making the victim appear less than human. This takes some time. The military makes it easier by replacing the term “human" – which is entirely what the victim is – with names like “enemy" and “target", in this war we just call them “Iraqis", which to us means “animal". It’s far easier – though not completely “easy" by any means – to kill an animal than a human.

Next you have to decrease your personal value on human life. Dehumanization only goes so far, so when it comes down to it, you still know that you are taking a “human" life. This process is the most difficult but, as a result, leads to a very effective soldier. To decrease the value of human life means also to decrease the value of your own. A soldier who doesn’t fear death is a force to be reckoned with. They do this in the military by speaking of death merely in numbers. They also sing marching cadence which makes very light the idea of death. “If I should die in the old drop zone, box me up and ship me home".

In our countries Second World War, a great many soldiers were found to have trouble firing upon their enemies, even when our soldiers were being engaged themselves. They would just keep reloading their weapons without taking a shot. Thus proving that simply being able to shoot does not prepare you for the task of shooting another person. The military had to alter some of its tactics to accommodate “familiarity" training for soldiers who would have to kill. The targets used for weapons qualification were changed from circular targets to silhouettes of a human head and torso. They also incorporated commands which seem very robotic. During training soldiers are instructed when to fire by a series of commands. These commands are the same used in battle and prove to be effective in forcing soldiers to fire on an enemy without the usual hindrance of actually thinking about it.

This training, subtle as well as obvious, makes a soldier completely immune. It turns combat into a form of entertainment, like a video game. And the gore and wounds inflicted by pulling a trigger are cinematic, as opposed to actually being real. You are killing an enemy which you deem to not be human, and are trained to do so without hesitation. It seems a perfect plan, and proves to be a very efficient way to fight a war, until these methods unravel.

As I stated before, these unraveling effects are not immediate. For some it happens at the end of a mission or operation. In fact for a good soldier it won’t occur until they return home to their family. All soldiers must, at some point, deal with what they have done. It is inevitable that he will have to confront the fact the he has killed another human and not just an “Iraqi". He will have the moral dilemma of having taken a life when he realizes that he was not just playing a game. And he will have to reacquaint himself with the reality that human life is very precious and that because of him, another person has been robbed of his right to live. The simple rules of self defense will only console him for long.

And so, even with counseling and reassurance from friends, the soldier realizes that the only condolence he will have is to forget. Unfortunately most soldiers never will, though not for lack of trying.

I have killed before. If you ask me am I proud of it? No, I cannot be. I understand that I needed to do it, but I also understand that the men I killed had families and dreams. And they were fighting for their country and for their leadership, just as was I. I am not haunted by my experience, but I am troubled. Do I have any regrets? No, I cannot allow for that either.

~ SGT John C. Owings

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