What’s It Like to Kill Someone?

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

I have been asked that question more times than I care to count. I have been asked it by complete strangers, friends, and by those closest to me. I have been witness to the anger that erupts when someone is asked it and I have on occasion been the outlet of that anger. Most real honest-to-God combat veterans will tell you that asking that question is inappropriate, to say the least. However, the farther away I get from my time in the military, the less the question bothers me. In fact, I often find myself asking “what was it like to kill someone?” When I think of being asked it occurs to me that I was offended by it not because it was inappropriate, but because I didn’t really have an answer to the question. It was much easier to explode into a tirade or ignore the question than to face it.

I have killed. Killing to me wasn’t so much an act as it was a journey. It began as we marched in formations at Fort Benning, when we responded to the Drill Sergeants counting our steps by saying “Train to kill, kill we will!” I went to the rifle range with my comrades and shot at pop-up, man-shaped silhouette targets. The Army’s mental conditioning designed to offset the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” training provided by society. Action, reaction; target up, shoot, target down; see the enemy, kill the enemy. Train to kill and kill we will. More of the same mental conditioning was provided to us at our units. In Staff Sergeant Moore’s Squad we were taught to “Strike Fast, Kick Ass!” See the enemy, kill him first. Strike fast, kick ass. Our job as Infantrymen, to close with and destroy the enemy by means of maneuver and superior firepower, was drilled into our heads and into our souls. Trained to kill, kill we will. The journey took a few years. All of the training and mental conditioning culminated at one moment, a squeeze of a mechanical trigger, just a fraction of friction. I remember feeling relieved that I had done it, had proved to myself and those around me that I was capable of doing what I was trained to do.

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The act of killing I think is immensely private. My buddies saw me do it, but the feelings I had about it were mine alone. Those feelings are not always the same for everybody. I felt a sense of relief and a feeling of accomplishment. I had done it without hesitation and without fanfare. Others took it much harder outwardly. It was not uncommon for guys to lose their nerve after taking a life, or for them to become overwhelmed with the feeling that they had done something wrong. Then, some of the boys took great pleasure in killing, or at least they seemed to. As a defense against labeling the act of killing as killing we use gentle euphemisms to describe it like wasted, smoked or zapped. We also dehumanized our enemy to make wasting him easier on the conscience by calling him Haji, The Dirty Haj, and Raghead to name a few. And after the first time I killed another human being came as a relief to me, all of the ones I killed after him didn’t matter. Killing became a perfunctory and mechanical aspect of my employment.

What is it like to kill someone? As I look back on it now, years after what I hope is the last time I will ever have to kill another person my answer is this: The act of killing is a terrible and sad thing. For many it is a mentally and spiritually damaging act from which they’ll never recover. For others it doesn’t mean anything. For me, all I know is that it is better to be alive than to be dead, to walk the Earth, not to walk in someone else’s memories. I also know that to explain what killing is “like” to a person who has never had to kill, is an exercise in futility. They possess an annoying curiosity on the subject of killing, and maybe they have a right to know exactly what we did on their dime and in their name. Perhaps instead of coming unglued or shutting down, we as veterans should tell them exactly what they want to know even if they could never possibly understand it. Maybe we should find a way to articulate it to them in one word. If I had to sum killing up in one word, I’d say, “Easy.”

What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Thank You for Your Service’

I was recently talking with a friend about the dialogue surrounding ‘thank you for your service’ in the military and veteran community. When I mentioned that it might not be the best thing to say based on what I’d read and heard, she was perplexed. She wondered how a seemingly harmless phrase like that could take on such negative connotations. After thinking about it for a while, I wondered myself. What is wrong with it? Given the pervasiveness of this phrase’s criticism, it’s important to examine what we’re really talking about when we talk about ‘thank you for your service.’

yellow-ribbonThe spectrum of denigration of this saying within the military and veteran community is wide. Some have said it doesn’t go far enough, that society should do more than utter a phrase and offer a free meal on Veterans’ Day to welcome back its warriors. Some say it’s simply sycophantic and has more to do with making people feeling good about themselves than legitimately honoring a veteran’s service. And there’s a chorus of voices that claim such a platitude is a symptom of widespread disengagement, sort of a proxy for any meaningful conversation about war. Still others say there’s simply no need to be thanked for something we volunteered to do.

While there is a degree of validity to much of this criticism, perhaps the interpretations are indicative of something deeper, something that speaks more about  the perspective and experiences of post- 9/11 veterans than of the meaning (or the lack of meaning) of the phrase itself.

It’s true that a tiny fragment of American society participated in Iraq and Afghanistan. While we were at war our peers were obtaining higher education or pursuing and building careers, something on which we got a late start because we chose to serve. Life went on normally for an overwhelming majority of US citizens. “America wasn’t at war,” so the saying goes, “America was at the mall.” Sebastian Junger and James Fallows have correctly pointed out that the wars following 9/11 were something that fell on the shoulders of the participants rather than the society in whose name they were fought. Junger discussed a situation in which the public simply doesn’t know what its military does, much less share the moral burden, and Fallows mentioned that the gap between cultures goes further, effectively stymieing realistic, constructive debate about military spending and foreign policy.“Thank you for your service” can, in that light, be seen as something of a hollow gesture coming from across a wide chasm between the experiences of those who fought and those that didn’t.

The character of those experiences themselves can shape the interpretation. Recently, the concept of ‘moral injury’ has garnered some attention. In summary, moral injury is the psychological effect of taking part in an act that goes against basic human tenets of right or wrong, like killing. The ubiquity of civilians on modern, non-linear battlefields coupled with the guerilla tactics we encountered created situations in which innocent civilians were killed even while following the rules of war. Then there’s the feeling that we didn’t do enough or that we didn’t deserve to survive when so many didn’t. In these contexts the acceptance of gratitude seems inappropriate. SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

War unleashes a complex set of conflicting emotions. As young men and women we were awed by incredible displays of firepower even while knowing the obscenity of its purpose. Sometimes we loved it. Sometimes we hated it. Sometimes we hated that the fact that we loved it. And in the back of our minds, we knew it was something we chose to do. We’re proud of that even if we’re appalled at the sights we saw. That the overall experience can leave a veteran grappling with significant questions is not hard to fathom.

Can the average civilian contemplate the depth of this internal conflict? Probably not. But it seems they are attempting to at least ackowledge it by saying ‘thank you for your service.’ If the recent box office success of American Sniper is any indication, they’re willing to learn more about our experiences. Perhaps we shouldn’t spurn that. Perhaps we should meet them halfway across that gap.

contributed by David P. Ervin