Somehow it’s a dirty little secret that the entire purpose of war is to kill human beings. That vastly important fact is becoming more well-known thanks to the work of authors and journalists like Phil Zabriskie, a former foreign correspondent for Time who has also written for National Geographic, The Washington Post Magazine, and other notable outlets. He’s more than a war correspondent, though. He’s made a study of the subject of combat. He fine tuned that study with an in-depth exploration on killing in war in his latest book, a Kindle Single called The Kill Switch.
Zabriskie delves into the phenomenon of killing with considerable skill. He expands our understanding of the concept into the societal and institutional context and contracts it into the personal. It’s perhaps the latter that gives the book its stark, chilling nature. The author chronicles the lives of several participants of the Iraq and Afghan Wars to illustrate the powerful psychological forces at work in the act of killing and the impact of the moral injury that killing causes. His coverage of these men over roughly a decade paints a clear picture of the entire process of learning to kill, applying those lessons, and attempting to find peace with that act. For instance, we learn about a Marine, Ben Nelson, who struggles with the times he killed and the times he didn’t. We learn of a Marine officer who bears the emotional burden of ordering men to kill as well as taking lives himself, and how the strict enforcement of the rules of engagement protected civilian lives as well as the combatants’ humanity. We see them in war. Then we see them in their living rooms. We see their pain with a clarity that speaks highly of Zabriskie’s expertise in recording the grim truth of war.
To his credit, Zabriskie lets the subject and those who lived it speak for themselves. But he’s packaged those voices in a concise and fast-flowing narrative, one that is buttressed by interviews with psychologists and research into relevant scholarship. It’s an engaging, educating read.
Although the book is short, it is long on authenticity and insight. Zabriskie has created a work that offers real-world examples of some of the ideas first explored by Dave Grossman. He has made a clear argument for the fact that killing is one of the most traumatic experiences of combat, and it is the very essence of war. How we treat that haunting truth – that we collectively flip a kill switch when we go to war – is up to us as a society, but Phil Zabriskie has done a remarkable job of defining it for his readers.
(Review contributed by David P. Ervin)