The moral struggle of killing – one soldier’s perspective

How does one overcome the intrinsic urge that killing is bad?

Like many countries, we Americans, take eighteen year old people and send them off into conditions where they have to kill or be killed. What does it take to develop that mentality and then un-develop if when they come back?

Let the bodies hit the floor

               Beaten, why for

               Can’t take much more

               Here we go, here we go, here we go now

               …nothing’s wrong with me

               …something’s got to give

These lyrics are from a song called “Bodies” by the band Drowning Pool.

It is a popular pre-mission song in the military that troops listen to in order to psych themselves up before going on patrols or out of their safe areas. The idea of a self-selected military soundtrack and the role of music in motivating troops is a concept that dates back to at least the fife and drum units of the American Revolution and Civil War. The concept became prominent in military culture during the Vietnam era when music became much more portable. Today it is the mp3 player or smart phone.

Help me if you can

               It’s just that this, this is not the way I’m wired

               So could you please

               Help me understand why

               You’ve given into all these

               Reckless dark desires

From “The Outsider” by the band A Perfect Circle. A song about having to watch someone destroy themselves “one bullet at a time.”

Like athletes getting pumped up before a game, these songs prepare the mind and for some the soul, for the things they may have to do on their mission.

Another mission, the powers have called me away

               Another time to carry the colors again

               My motivation, an oath I’ve sworn to defend

               To win, the honor of coming back home again

               No explanation will matter after we begin

               Unlock the dark destroyer that’s buried within

               My true vocation and now my unfortunate friend

               You will discover a war you’re unable to win

From “Indestructible” by the band Disturbed.

I didn’t cherry pick these songs. In fact, they are a far distance in choice from my own pre-mission playlist. I took them from a list in an article on a reputable website about military life that surveyed military members to develop the list. And although I knew that many struggled with these issues, it was the first time I had seen some wide spread popular culture reference to the struggle.

So back to my first question, how do we get those in the military to overtime the intrinsic belief that killing is bad? I am not sure that most of them ever do overcome that belief. I believe these songs illustrate that those “boots on the ground” combat troops struggle with these issues every day and in very deep ways.

They have accepted the struggle as their lot in life, their “true vocation” and “unfortunate friend.” So where does that leave them after combat? Where does that leave them when they return to civilian life?

Some lock it away in a trunk. Put it in the garage or attic. And try to find a new vocation. Maybe a select few are able to rationalize it and see some situational ethics as involved. Some seek parades and accolades from others in hopes of justifying their actions as righteous or necessary. They need to know that the violations of their own moral standards was for the greater good.

They will forever carry the burdens of what they have done and be unsure of why they did it. And our culture is quick to thank them for their sacrifices but often without realizing the invisible, psychological sacrifice, that goes unrecognized, no matter how many bumper stickers you put on it. Even when we expect them to come home and suddenly return to their previous morals. Many never do. The scars and trauma of service will continue to live with them. We have many Vietnam vets still living who can attest to this.

War creates more peace advocates than war hawks. I’m talking about the mentality of the boots on the ground, the front line troops here, not the upper levels of the Pentagon or especially the politicians who send them off to do these things. What I offer is the argument that you can’t take your average college-age soldier and get them to go off and kill people very easily. They each struggle with these moral and philosophical issues in their own way. Some will come back and question the reasons for which they were sent. Some will come back and seek affirmation that their actions were for a greater good or higher cause. As a culture, we need to do as much to help them come to their own answers about this as we did to prepare them to go over there in the first place.