July 18, 2004

"Kill, Kill, Kill, Kill, Kill"

In a number of essays in this series, I have talked about the emotional dynamics underlying the phenomenon now amply and horrifyingly documented in the following article.

Here are some extended excerpts from an LA Times piece [link no longer working]:
NAJAF, Iraq (news - web sites) -- Tucked behind a gleaming machine gun, Sgt. Joseph Hall grins at his two companions in the Humvee.

"I want to know if I killed that guy yesterday," Hall says. "I saw blood spurt from his leg, but I want to be sure I killed him."

The vehicle goes silent as the driver, Spc. Joshua Dubois, swerves around asphalt previously uprooted by a blast.

"I'm confused about how I should feel about killing," says Dubois, who has a toddler back home. "The first time I shot someone, it was the most exhilarating thing I'd ever felt."

Dubois turns back to the road. "We talk about killing all the time," he says. "I never used to talk this way. I'm not proud of it, but it's like I can't stop. I'm worried what I will be like when I get home."

The men aren't Special Forces soldiers. They're just ordinary troops with the Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment serving their 14th month in Iraq, much of it in daily battles. In 20 minutes, they will come under attack.

Many GIs and Army psychiatrists say these constant conversations about death help troops come to grips with the trauma of combat. But mental health professionals within and outside the military point to the chatter as evidence of preventable anguish.

Soldiers are untrained, experts say, for the trauma of killing. Forty years after lessons learned about combat stress in Vietnam, experts charge that avoidable psychological damage goes unchecked because military officials don't include emotional preparation in basic training.

Troops, returning home with untreated and little-understood mental health issues, put themselves and their families at risk for suicide and domestic violence, experts say. Twenty-three U.S. troops in Iraq took their lives last year, according to the Defense Department -- an unusually high number, one official acknowledged.

On patrol, however, all that is available is talk.

"Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill," Hall says. "It's like it pounds at my brain. I'll figure out how to deal with it when I get home."

Home is the wrong place for soldiers to deal with combat experiences, some experts say.

"It's complete negligence," says Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a retired psychology instructor at West Point who trains law enforcement officers and special operations soldiers.

"The military could train soldiers to talk about killing as easily as they train them to pull the trigger. But commanders are in denial. Nobody wants to accept the blame for a soldier who comes home a wreck for doing what his country asked him to do," he said.

The emotional and psychological ramifications of killing are mostly unstudied by the military, defense officials acknowledge.

"The idea and experience of killing another person is not addressed in military training," says Col. Thomas Burke, director of mental health policy for the Defense Department. "Training's intent is to re-create battle, to make it an automatic behavior among soldiers."


Much of the military's research on killing and battle stress began after World War II, when studies revealed that only a small number of troops -- as few as 15% -- fired at their adversaries on the battlefield.

Military studies suggested that troops were unexpectedly reluctant to kill. Military training methods changed, Grossman and others say, to make killing a more automatic behavior.

Bull's-eye targets used in basic training were replaced with human-shaped objects. Battlefield conditions were reproduced more accurately, Burke says. The goal of these and other modifications was to help soldiers react more automatically.

The changes were effective. In the Vietnam War, 95% of combat troops shot at hostile fighters, according to military studies.

Veterans of the Vietnam War also suffered some of the highest levels of psychological damage -- possibly as many as 50% of combat forces suffered mental injury, says Rachel MacNair, an expert on veteran psychology. Most notable among the injuries was post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition contributing to violent outbursts years after soldiers leave battlefields.

"The more soldiers ignore their emotions and behave like trained machines rather than thinking people, the more you invite PTSD," says Dr. David Spiegel with the Stanford School of Medicine.

Military officials say there have been changes in treating psychological trauma since Vietnam. ...

The men of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment's Alpha and Charlie companies are resting and playing cards in the shade of a staircase here, and the talk turns to killing.

"I enjoy killing Iraqis," says Staff Sgt. William Deaton, 30, who killed a hostile fighter the night before. Deaton has lost a good friend in Iraq. "I just feel rage, hate when I'm out there. I feel like I carry it all the time. We talk about it. We all feel the same way."

Sgt. Cleveland T. Rogers, 25, avoids dwelling on his actions.

"The other day an Iraqi guy was hit real bad, he was gonna die within an hour, but he was still alive and he started saying, 'Baby, baby,' telling me he has a kid," Rogers says. "I mentioned it to my guys after the mission. It doesn't bother me. It can't bother me. If it was the other way around, I'm sure it wouldn't bother him."


Grossman says training troops to have therapeutic discussions about killing is "not that hard." His curriculum, used by law enforcement officers and in the wake of traumas such as school shootings, focuses on mental and physical techniques to consciously manage anxiety and other emotional reactions to killing.

"To make killing instinctual, rather than conscious, is inviting pathological, destructive behavior," Grossman says. "We have to give soldiers a vocabulary to talk through emotions and teach them not to be embarrassed by troubling feelings."

Grossman says his suggestions have been overlooked by military commanders who are uncomfortable with the emotionally destructive aspects of military service.

"During the heat of the battle the adrenaline is such you don't really think about it," says Capt. Brandon Payne, 28. "Once that adrenaline wears off, though, it gets tough. Some kids, it rolls right off their backs. Some, it's like they break down a little more each day."

Payne is as conflicted as his troops about making sense of war. Reconciling duty with ethics, he says, seems more complicated in Iraq.

"I'm a Christian. I feel I'm saving my soldiers' lives by destroying as many enemy as I can. But at the end of each day, I pray to God. I worry about my soul," he says.

"Every time a door slams, I flinch. I'm hoping it will just go away when I get home."
It won't "just go away." This kind of lasting emotional damage is still another reason, among many others, why war should always, always, always be the very last resort -- and not the first. And it is an unanswerable objection to so-called "optional" wars -- at least, it should be unanswerable to anyone who is remotely humane and civilized. I can also confirm one part of the above story from my own experience. I have known a number of Vietnam War veterans in my life, well over ten as I review them in my mind. Almost without exception, they have exhibited severe emotional problems (of which most of them were also very painfully aware themselves), and the memories of what they experienced have never left them. But they will almost never talk about the horrors they witnessed with anyone, which is yet another part of the problem.

And from an earlier post, here is a very brief summation of part of the mechanism lying beneath the psychology of a soldier who feels "exhilaration" about killing or who "enjoys" it:
By demanding obedience above all from a child (whether by physical punishment, by psychological means, or through some combination of both), parents forbid the child from fostering an authentic sense of self. Because children are completely dependent on their parents, they dare not question their parents' goodness, or their "good intentions." As a result, when children are punished, even if they are punished for no reason or for a reason that makes no sense, they blame themselves and believe that the fault lies within them. In this way, the idealization of the authority figure is allowed to continue. In addition, the child cannot allow himself to experience fully his own pain, because that, too, might lead to questioning of his parents.

In this manner, the child is prevented from developing a genuine, authentic sense of self. As he grows older, this deadening of his soul desensitizes the child to the pain of others. Eventually, the maturing adult will seek to express his repressed anger on external targets, since he has never been allowed to experience and express it in ways that would not be destructive. By such means, the cycle of violence is continued into another generation (using "violence" in the broadest sense). One of the additional consequences is that the adult, who has never developed an authentic self, can easily transfer his idealization of his parents to a new authority figure. As Miller says:

"This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called 'healthy normality'--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology."
It is one thing for a soldier to have to kill genuine enemies who are trying to kill him -- although even in that circumstance, one might expect a reaction along the lines that a necessary action was taken, together with an acknowledgment that it is nonetheless tragic in a more general sense that lives were lost (particularly since, in this case, there is no compelling reason of national self-defense for us to be in Iraq in the first place). Killing another human being should be hard, and not automatic, even when it is absolutely necessary and, I would submit, even in war. If it is not, you practically guarantee that you will end up with ex-soldiers with emotional problems that will inevitably cripple them for life.

But whenever a soldier feels any kind of pleasure or even joy in killing, you can be sure that some underlying emotional dynamic has been tapped into -- along the lines discussed by Alice Miller in her work. And in that case, it is absolutely necessary to address those underlying issues, if lasting damage is to be avoided. Given the fact that the military -- just as is true of our society in general -- studiously avoids all these issues, since the great majority of people find them far too painful to deal with, it is hardly surprising that a significant number of soldiers commit suicide (as I discussed in The Suicide Taboo, and that discussion also analyzes the military's great reluctance to acknowledge suicide at all, since it supposedly represents some terrible kind of "weakness"), or inflict horrendous violence on family members (and/or others) after they return home.

Avoidance of crucial psychological issues comes at a great price -- and one would think that the mounting costs of all kinds would cause both our military and our culture more generally finally to take note of the ultimate causes of these kinds of problems. But as I have often noted before in this lengthy series on "The Roots of Horror," the human capacity for denial is unending, even when the cost is tremendous loss of life and an infinite amount of suffering.