One of the most sobering thoughts and challenges I face as a military chaplain is ministering to those who have directly engaged in the task of killing others in the line of duty. Recently, I’ve been re-reading LTC Dave Grossman’s fascinating book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. As a former Army Ranger, he looks at the effects of killing in war, both during the conflict and in its aftermath. As horrible as it may sound, this book is a compelling read, especially for anyone who may have to interact in any capacity (personally or professionally) with those who have killed in combat.
The first time I read this work was during my stint of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis, Washington. During that summer I had my first serious interactions, personally and pastorally, with individuals who had killed others in their service to our country. The book is filled with first-hand accounts from LTC Grossman’s decades of study and research, most of it spent talking with vets from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. While reading it, I couldn’t help but see how my training at USAFA had been part of a larger program to train me, quite bluntly, to kill.
Out of that initial reading, I wrote a reflection paper to share in my CPE group. I decided to revise it a bit and post it here, if for no other reason than to get us to be more thoughtful in our interactions with vets, soldiers, or police officers who may have had to face the horrible task of taking another life in the honorable calling to serve our nation and her people. Now almost fifteen years later, I have thankfully never had to kill anyone in the line of duty and would consider myself to have been resensitized to the atrocities that may have grown to be almost instinctive for a time.
Anyway, here is the short paper in its entirety. All that has substantively changed is the fact that I am not only now a non-combatant, as a chaplain I am forbidden from taking up arms and would never be called upon to engage in this sort of melee. Those to whom I have been called to minister, however, are not exempt from this very real possibility. (NOTE: The block quotes are taken from Grossman’s book mentioned here.)
My eyes stung with the sweat from my brow as it dripped down from the headband of my Kevlar helmet. My nose and lungs burned with sulfur as the yellow cloud from the smoke grenade descended into the culvert I was lying in. I fixed the bayonet to the front of my M-16 with shaky hands. “Hopefully I’ll make it through here without putting this sucker into my own belly,” I thought as I locked the blade onto the business end of my weapon. My arms and legs ached with fatigue as I continued to low-crawl through the ditch toward the exit. KA-BOOM!!! A ground burst simulator went off close by and rattled right through every fiber of my being—“I wonder if real artillery bursts feel like that,” I wondered briefly before continuing my crawl. RAT-A-TAT-A-TAT!!! M-16’s and M-60’s were firing all around, a mixture of blanks and live fire. Hardly another day in the Air Force…
I exited the culvert and began running toward my next available cover, a low-lying wall of sandbags about ten yards in front of me. Between the relative safety of the sandbags and me stood my first ‘enemy’…but I knew what to do. I ran with full force toward the target, a six-foot ‘soldier’ made of wood and dressed in black BDU’s. As I neared him, I let out a deafening scream, lowered my M-16, and aimed for the lower abdomen. WHACK!! The bayonet stuck into the wood, jolting me with surprise at how hard I had hit him. “TWIST,” I yelled as I turned the bayonet into the enemy, and “RECOVER,” as I pulled it out and returned to the ‘fighting position.’ “Surely this blade would go into a real soldier much smoother than into this old piece of wood,” I thought, still a bit in shock from how hard I hit the target…
We got the order to storm the [enemy] position…and during the ensuing melee an [enemy] corporal stood before me both our bayonets at the ready, he to kill me, I to kill him. [My training] had taught me to be quicker than he and pushing his weapon aside I stabbed him through the chest. He dropped his rifle and fell, and the blood shot out of his mouth. I stood over him for a few seconds and then I gave him the coup de grace. After we had taken the enemy position, I felt giddy, my knees shook, and I was actually sick…
After ‘killing’ the first target, I continued to the sandbags, where I paused to catch my breath. “Go! Go! Go!” shouted an upperclassmen almost as soon as I hit the ground. “No time to nap! Your classmates are getting killed!” In the excitement of the moment, I almost believed him. No time to think too much about things here. Up I jumped again and ran to the beginning of the barbed wire. I rolled over on my back, held my weapon over my body, and began to wiggle awkwardly through the obstacle. Holding the wire off my face and uniform sure looked a lot easier on television! KA-BOOM!! Another explosion nearby brought with it a light covering of dust and dirt from the sky—dirt was in my eyes, nose, and mouth, but I couldn’t spare a hand to wipe it away. Just then, another upperclassman came by and kicked loads of dirt all over my face while firing a long series of blanks right behind my head. That wouldn’t have been unnerving if I had seen it coming—but I hadn’t.
With another obstacle behind me, I again began to look for my next bit of cover. Like the last sprint, I would again have to engage another ‘enemy’ before getting there. I again ran toward him at full speed, noticing through the red smoke that this target had a swinging ‘weapon’ that I would have to parry with the barrel of my rifle…again I knew what to do. No time to think…I approached the ‘soldier,’ swept aside his ‘weapon,’ and, with a bellowing roar, smashed the butt of my rifle into his ‘head’ as hard as I could. THUD!! I hit him so hard I thought the stock of the rifle would shatter. For a moment I was stunned by the impact. It was almost like running into a wall! “This can’t be how it really is,” I thought again…
We looked at each other for half a second and I knew that it was up to me, personally, to kill him, there was no one else there. The whole thing must have lasted less than a second, but it’s printed on my mind like a slow motion movie…I moved the [rifle] slowly, slowly it seemed, until I hit him in the face. He slipped to his knees, then he raised his head, with his face terrible, twisted in pain and hate, yes such hate…There was so much blood…I vomited, until the rest of the boys came up.
After more obstacles, more dirt, more explosions, and more running, I was in the trees at the top of the hill…halfway!! At the top it was almost serene because the smoke wafted to lower ground and the ground burst simulators were apparently all beneath me. Now the course bent around to the left and I began to make my way down the hill. I ducked into a trench that was just tall enough for me to high-crawl through. As soon as I entered the trench, I was pelted by pea gravel from above—was this just the icing on the cake? I hesitated as I came to a junction in the trench then headed to the left. No sooner had I chosen that direction than I was rocked by another KA-BOOM!! So much for the serenity here on top. If that weren’t enough, thick red smoke began billowing around the bend in the trench and voices from above me started screaming, “Go back! Go back! Go back!” I headed back to the bend and crawled in the other direction, eventually coming to the end of the trenches and open ground once again.
Before I knew it, I was running downhill at breakneck speed toward the last obstacle—a series of horizontal poles I would have to go over, under, and over…before engaging the final ‘enemy.’ I was going so fast I literally sailed over the first pole, coming down hard on the canteen I had almost forgotten I was carrying. I went under the next pole and flopped less-than-gracefully over the final one. In the few seconds before reaching the final target, I remembered my instructions for this ‘kill’—slash and thrust. Charging and screaming, I came to the target and stopped. I slashed with my bayonet from his head to his abdomen, reared back, and thrust with a shout as hard as I could into the hard wood, though I don’t think the blade penetrated even an inch. “SLASH, DROP, THRUST, TWIST!!” I screamed!! This time I didn’t think about the wood being too hard but bellowed with a sickening glee, “AHHHHHH!!”
Bayonet fighting is just berserk slaughter…the grunting breaths, the gritting teeth and staring eyes of the lunging [enemy], the sobbing scream as the bayonet ripped home. Here we see combat at its most personal. When a man bayonets a person who is facing him, the “sobbing scream,” the blood shooting out of his mouth, and his eyes bulging out “like prawns” are all part of the memory the killer must carry forever.
This training took place almost fifteen years ago. No one died that day, but it was one event in a string of many where I was trained to kill…not in the sterility of an aircraft cockpit at thirty thousand feet but in the ‘intimate brutality’ of cold steel. Many of us, I would guess, haven’t given these days more than a passing thought, except to the chuckle at the intensity of basic training and thank God those days are over. The fact remains, all of us in the United States military have taken an oath to do this for real if called upon…a sobering thought.