The Cost of Killing

Jean Stimmell

Before returning to private practice, I spent years working with veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), primarily from combat trauma but also from sexual assault

As Vietnam veterans and rape victims understand better than most, society does not always treat trauma survivors well. An expert in the trauma field explains this negative reaction by society as a conservative impulse attempting to maintain the belief that our world is just: “Good people are in charge of their lives, and bad things only happen to bad people.” 1

I thought of this quote after reading the recent New Yorker piece entitled, “The Price of Valor:” We train our soldiers to kill for us. Afterward, they’re on their own.2 Startlingly enough, the author relates, in spite of countless research studies already done about various combat stressors that can result in PTSD — fear of death, witnessing carnage, survivor’s guilt, loss of a buddy, torture, killing civilians — no one until recently has investigated if there is a connection between killing enemy soldiers and PTSD.

The article began by looking at a strange anomaly of WW II published in an official 1947 Army report. WW II was almost universally viewed as The Good War, a life or death struggle against fascism, but only “15% of American riflemen in combat had fired at the enemy.”

This confirms what some of my own WW II clients have told me about not being able to fire on enemy soldiers unless directly threatened. And, often, the ones who did shoot paid a stiff price!

I had one client, a heavy machine gunner, who saw extremely heavy combat across Europe, was wounded, and ended up one of the few survivors of his unit. Remarkably, he could handle all that. What he couldn’t handle were all the German soldiers he had killed. Any connection to death, even driving by a cemetery, would trigger memories of killing and reduce him to racking sobs.

The Army was taken by surprise by this report showing how few riflemen had fired on soldiers during World War II. Needless to say, it found this low “kill rate” unacceptable and vowed to do better. It was no longer enough to teach soldiers how to shoot; now the Army had to learn how to condition them to kill.

The idea was to make killing automatic and instinctual, overriding our genetically hard-wired abhorrence to killing others of our species. To help accomplish this task, the military worked to further dehumanize the enemy. Vietnam vets talk about how “killing gooks” became a daily mantra of Army and Marine Corp boot camps.

Our military’s new approach succeeded spectacularly: in Vietnam, 90% of soldiers were found to be shooting back against the enemy, up from the 15% of WW II. There was just one little problem: a surge in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Of course, some of the increase was because Vietnam was controversial and resulted in no clear victory, making it difficult for many veterans to construct meaning from their sacrifice. It was also a counterinsurgency war where it was often impossible to distinguish civilians from the enemy. But the high rate of return fire appears to be a key factor.

New studies show that soldiers who killed in combat suffer higher rates of PTSD. Certainly, I saw Vietnam vet clients who experienced multiple stressors from combat but were most traumatized by the killing they had done, even when against clearly identifiable enemy combatants.

And now it is happening all over again.

The war in Iraq, like Vietnam, is a counterinsurgency conflict becoming more controversial and unpopular over time. And in Iraq — even more than Vietnam — most combat soldiers have shot at people and many have killed. Quoting one soldier: from the New Yorker article “There’s just too much killing. They shoot, we return fire, and they’re all dead.”

The inescapable conclusion is that we can soon expect yet another generation of traumatized soldiers to return home, their hopes and dreams for the future demolished.

These are our sons and daughters. I think many of us are in denial about their situation because we have no draft.

And, if history is any guide, our newest disabled veterans will soon be marginalized and written off by society, just as other generations of war veterans have been. Another example of society’s conservative dictate that bad things happen to bad people while good people come through unscathed.

Blaming the veteran for becoming traumatized by combat has always been terribly unfair. And it’s even more so now. The new evidence in this article turns the idea of good and bad upside down, forcing us to ask tough questions.

Is it our young soldiers who are bad because they develop PTSD after their natural abhorrence to killing is overridden by our military?

Or is it our society that is bad for condoning this brainwashing when it happens and then, even worse, ignoring the plight of the returning veterans who have been irreparably harmed by this practice?

If we dig deep enough, we will find the answer is not to be found in the political or psychological realm. Respecting our natural aversion to killing fellow humans is ultimately a spiritual question, one that we ignore at our peril, both as a nation and as a species.


1. Bessel van der Kolk, Traumatic Stress, Guilford Press: N.Y., 1993. Page 28
2. Dan Baum, The Price of Valor, The New Yorker, Issue of 7/12-7/19/04

Published Saturday, September 25th, 2004 - 10:08am GMT
Article courtesy of The New Hampshire Gazette
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