Saturday, March 29, 2008

Killers in our midst

There are people in our society who are hired killers. I don’t mean the illegal stuff done by gangs and proponents of organized crime. I mean perfectly legal killers, the types that populate the Army or become good Marines. They are the killers who defend our safety. Their job is to kill before they are killed. That is how they keep our world safe. Or at least try to.

These killers undergo a special kind of training in order to be effective at their jobs. The training requires that they lose their individual identity and become part of a group so cohesive and interdependent that their closeness eventually challenges the intimacy of any marriage. They are battle buddies sharing the same focus and mission. Stripped bare of ego, warriors are expected to comply with orders to kill. And most do.

Killing is a lot like sex. At least that’s the view of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, an expert on “killology” or the science of killing [“On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society”]. Grossman notes that there is no substitute for actual experience. A virgin can figure out the mechanics of sex from looking at a pornography video. But she/he will still have no real sense of the actual experience, of what it feels, smells, and tastes like. You have to live it to know it.

For legal killers, this knowing however comes at a cost. Grossman believes that this is because it is instinctive in human nature to avoid slaughter, because killing another human being is a horrible experience. That is why most fighters are much more comfortable killing from a distance. From a distance the enemy remains amorphous, undefined. From a distance, it becomes more difficult to experience guilt.

Grossman opens his book with a wonderful piece by Garrison Keillor called Hog Slaughter. In it, Keillor recalls a childhood experience growing up on a hog farm. After some exposure to the slaughter of hogs, young Garrison finds himself becoming carried away by the excitement of it and he and a cousin start pelting stones at the pigs to torment them. They are caught in the act by an enraged uncle who threatens dire consequences if they ever do that again. And young Garrison understands that he has violated the honorable ritual of the slaughter in which pigs are killed not for fun or sport but as part of the mechanics of survival on the farm.

Soldiers kill because they are ordered to do so. Killing is easier under order. When a soldier finds himself unable to carry out this order, it is characterized as a moment of failure, and is called an acute combat reaction. When he is able to kill but becomes overwhelmed by the horror of it, we say that he is suffering acute stress. When these feelings refuse to go away, when they become the stuff of nightmares and flashbacks that continue to haunt over time, we say that he is suffering from post-traumatic stress.

When news stories tabulate the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they start quoting billions and trillions of dollars. But the much larger cost is psychological. Psychiatric breakdowns under the pressure of having to kill remain the single largest cost of this or any war. You cannot put a price on the impact of fatigue, hunger, living with profound and daily fear, lack of sleep, weather changes, hatred, not to mention being under constant attack – there is no way to compute the collective toll of all of these deprivations on the psyche of a human being. Add to that the psychological cost of having to kill and no wonder some go over the edge of sanity.

At some point, these killers will have to come home. To live among us. There are many killers who have been deployed twice or three times, and who, in the last five years, have spent more time fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan than they have with their loved ones at home. Those who return are often broken, mutilated, their psyches dominated by fear, their bodies instinctively avoiding danger. For a while, they remain hypervigilant, mistrustful. They see enemies everywhere. They remain in survival mode. Many feel guilty for having survived while their battle buddies did not. Far too many end of killing themselves as a result of difficulties reintegrating into our midst.

It is our collective job to take care of them and make them whole again. To deprogram the killing mentality and help them reconnect with all of the aspects of their human natures. We need not to belittle what they did but to honor the scale of its grandness. We need to put them on pedestals so high that they are above us, but not so high that we cannot reach out to touch them. We need to love them back into being the people they once were, while accepting that they will never be those persons again. Killing changes you in ways too profound to measure.

We need to forget about ourselves and what we went through while they were gone. That is a reasonable sacrifice for what they have sacrificed. Nothing we endured can ever equate what they suffered. We need to get over selves and make it all about them. Because they have participated in the ritual of killing, and like virgins, we will never know what that smelled, or tasted, or felt like.

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