By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
Bay Back Books, 400 pages, $15.95
Back in the early 1990s, instead of going to college like a nice middle-class boy from the John Hughes suburbs of Chicago should, my friend Tony moved up from having knife fights with his fellow juvenile delinquents to carrying an M16 in the 101st Airborne. While the other kids in his high school graduating class were swapping spit with coeds at keg parties, Tony was trading tracer rounds with Saddam Hussein's equally confused minions in the Kuwaiti desert. For his trouble, he got to see the infamous Highway of Death, where the retreating Iraqi army was napalmed into shwarma by American airpower, and even caught a souvenir whiff of nerve gas when some genius blew up a cache of chemical weapons upwind of his unit, leaving him with lingering numbness and neuropathy in his extremities. Not coincidentally, out of everyone I know, Tony is also one of the most vocal opponents of the Bush administration's current war in Iraq.
My friend Christian has a very different opinion of the war. A West Point-educated career officer, up until a few months ago, Christian was in charge of a whole company of the 101st filled with guys just like Tony. Like Tony, he shot at, and was shot at by, the Iraqis--in fact, he received a Bronze Star for storming a Republican Guard compound in Baghdad--and saw the devastation American firepower wreaked upon the enemy. Unlike Tony, however, Christian speaks of the year and a half he spent in Afghanistan and western Iraq in glowing terms. His memories are of how glad the tribesmen in the sector of desert he was assigned to patrol were to be rid of Saddam's bully-boys, and the gratification he got from intercepting shipments of arms coming in over the border from Syria. To Christian, war might not have been Disney World--he didn't see his wife or kids once in the eighteen months he spent in the field--but it wasn't exactly all hell, either.
How could two guys, both of whom are about my age, both well-educated, both of whom--like me--grew up in the bosom of the American bourgeoisie, and both of whose opinions I respect equally, have such different views? Looking for an answer, I picked up On Killing, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman's classic study of the effects of combat on the human psyche. On Killing was published in 1995, but his thesis--that of all the horrors of war, the most damaging is having to kill a fellow human being--is as applicable to Iraq as it is to Vietnam, Korea, or even the Revolutionary War.
In fact, as Grossman reveals, one of the dirty secrets of the soldier's trade is that often, in the heat of the moment, men didn't kill. Civil War battlefields were littered with countless still-loaded muskets, while World War II brigadier general S.L.A. Marshall found that only about one out of five men on the firing line would actually shoot at the enemy. Like chimps battling for alpha-male status, we seem to have an instinctive aversion to killing our own kind; in fact, Grossman says that until modern times, most deaths in battle took place after one side had broken and another set of instincts took over as the fleeing soldiers were hunted down like prey.
Modern technology, of course, makes killing much easier: It is much less traumatic to push a button to launch a cruise missile or drop bombs from 30,000 feet than it is to stab a man face-to-face. Conditioning helps, too, whether it's the fencing lessons that enabled one World War I German soldier cited by Grossman to run a Frenchman through with his bayonet, or the human-shaped pop-up targets that today's army uses for training that helped my friends pull their triggers in Iraq.
But pulling that trigger--hearing the round fire, feeling the recoil, seeing the other man fall down, and knowing you've just ended a life--takes its toll. Robert Bateman, a career army major and history professor and author of No Gun Ri: A Military History of the Korean War Incident, which refuted the Pulitzer-Prize winning Associated Press story on the supposed 1950 massacre, agrees with Grossman on this: "After 90 days of combat most men are vegetables," Bateman wrote to me in an e-mail. "Only about two percent exhibit what might be considered sociopathic behavior. Those guys don't break down and it appears they remain effective in combat until they are killed." Grossman, in a bit of masculine fantasy, turns this around by hypothesizing a variant on these sociopathic "wolves" who can kill without regret: "sheepdogs" who "in their hearts... yearn for a righteous battle, a wolf upon whom to legitimately and lawfully turn their skills." (Having read Robert Browning's Ordinary Men, on how even "regular" World War II German MPs turned into willing executioners, and knowing how police tend to treat even nonviolent protestors, I think Grossman's "sheepdog" concept is more than a little dubious.)
The psychological effect of having to shoot to kill might be one way of accounting for why Christian and Tony have such disparate opinions of their time overseas: According to Grossman, officers like Christian are supposedly "buffered from the guilt of killing by the simple fact that they order it, and others carry it out." While Grossman does say that leaders feel guilt about making tough decisions and losing men--fortunately, though Christian's company took casualties, none of his soldiers were killed--Christian did, in fact, personally take part in the fighting. "While it is true that most officers do not fight on the same personal level as the privates and sergeants," he told me, "and it is also true that my men fired more shots than did I (according to our respective responsibilities), platoon leaders and company commanders are much more exposed to the fighting than are staff officers and high level commanders." Why, then, has the experience seemingly not had the same affect on him as it has on Tony?
What Grossman does not weigh sufficiently how what people bring in with them affects both their experience and their recollections. Besides being a West Point grad, Christian is also deeply religious--in fact, before storming the Republican Guard compound, he read the ninety-first psalm aloud to his men. He's also one of the most stand-up guys I know; for him, there is no such thing as moral relativism: Something's either right or it's wrong. Barring the possibility that Christian's one of Grossman's hypothetical "sheepdogs," one can easily see how his strict belief system affects what he thinks about his service in Iraq.
Likewise, what we're told by other people also tends to change the focus of the lens of memory. Remembering is a funny thing: Eugene Hasselman, one of the AP's star No Gun Ri sources, for instance, swore up and down that Ed Daily, another prize informant, had been there on the ground with him--but Bateman proved from personnel records that Daily hadn't even arrived in the unit until the following year. To relate this back to the example of my two friends, while Christian remained immersed in, and supported by, military culture until relatively recently, Tony went on to grad school at Cornell--hardly a bastion of neo-conservative thought.
Yet, though culture seems to be a big part of how veterans process their experiences, the military currently doesn't do much to prepare men and women who have been trained to kill, and even been responsible for the deaths of fellow human beings, to re-enter society. "In theory we'd have a lot of counseling, a few rounds of 'Kumbaya,' some group hugs and then pat them on the ass," Bateman writes. "But we don't. We ask inane questions, then leave it at that and it becomes a chain-of-command problem until they leave the service. If somebody loses it, we react. This is something I think should be addressed. It is not because resources in this universe are finite."
For those of us who have never been there, as Grossman quotes a sergeant who has been there, trying to imagine the reality of war is like a virgin trying to figure out what sex is like by watching a bunch of porn movies. As governor of Texas, George W. Bush was more than happy to sign the death sentences of 152 prisoners whom he never even had to see in person, let alone personally fry in the electric chair. (There is, of course, the distinct possibility that he's in that sociopathic two percent, considering that he reportedly giggled about the executions later.) As president, he is able to send hundreds of thousands of American teenagers to shoot and be shot at by Iraqi teenagers who see driving the U.S. off Iraqi soil the same way Patrick Swayze saw liberating Colorado from the Commies in Red Dawn. Moreover, like Vietnam, we're now fighting guerillas who target convoys and other "soft targets"--which exposes many more people, regardless of rank or job, to the realities of combat. Eventually, though, the surviving boys (and girls) Bush has assigned as his and Halliburton's proxy executioners are going to come back home. From the safety and solitude of his ranch in Texas, he's not going to have to deal with the effect the war has had on them--but the rest of us are.