David Wood, in WHAT HAVE WE DONE, talks about the obvious but usually unspoken fact that war is about killing:
Killing seems like such a natural part of war, so central to the existence of the Defense Department and so implicit in the duties of everyone in military service, that it’s easy to assume that if the act of killing carries any moral consequences, they are marginal. That soldiers and marines can kill without being disturbed by it later on; that the crews of bombers and strike fighters and the pilots of armed drones, those who launch rockets and mortars and who fire high-explosive artillery rounds, all emerge with their consciences unmarked by what they have done.
They do not. Even the most hardened of our military killers…are haunted in the end by the taking of life, justifiable though it may be. Our newest generation of veterans may have experienced grief and loss, remorse and regret, even anger at having felt betrayed. But it is killing that lies at the heart of their moral injury.
The deep tragedy of "moral injury" in war is that it comes not from unexpected traumatic events but from soldiers simply doing their duty. Wood relates talking with “a retired Army Ranger who early in his career had served several combat tours in Vietnam…in all, he seemed a tough, hard man, inured to close-up killing. Yet his demeanor changed when he described a trip he’d recently made back to old battlefields in Vietnam. At one point, he said, he had climbed over a ridgeline to find a vast cemetery spread out before him with hundreds of white crosses marking the graves of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. “All those people,” he said as tears wet his eyes. “We shouldn’t have killed all those people. We should not have killed all those people.”
Of course, that Army Ranger's job was to kill people; and we, the American people, are the ones who hired and paid him to do it. Soldiers are, not to put too fine a point on it, contract killers on our behalf.
Wood is unsparing in pushing the point home:
It’s a profound and unpleasant truth, and each one of us knows it, deep down. Under any circumstances, killing another human exacts a moral cost. We send men and women into war knowing that they will collide with a moral choice no one can resolve: in order to be good soldiers they must kill; and killing violates one of our oldest taboos. But rather than confronting the morality of killing, we’ve just surrounded it with a conspiracy of silence.
That silence can be paradoxically loud; in fact, it needs to be loud, in order to shut out the nagging of our conscience:
We smother the truth of killing with video games and television dramas in which the act is done casually, usually without evident pain, gore, or consequence. Except in escapist fantasy or frenzied political posturing, the word “kill” itself is impolite. The father of a new military recruit doesn’t say with pride “My daughter has signed up to kill.” Military recruiters avoid the word. Many of the young recruits I’ve talked with say they never really thought about killing. The Rifleman’s Creed memorized by every young marine demands not that the rifleman kill but only that he must fire his weapon “true” and adds, “We will hit.”
[Our] silence…rises to the institutional level as well. Killing is rarely discussed or even mentioned in the public statements and documents and training manuals of the Department of Defense (which was the Department of War until 1947, when the name began to seem too belligerent). There was a major fuss, for instance, when then major general James Mattis told his First Marine Division on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, and within earshot of journalists, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” The Defense Department publicly distanced itself from that advice, as if killing were not the central purpose of the war.
James “Mad Dog” Mattis is our new Secretary of War Defense; at least he knows the nature of the job.
I repeat what I said last week: please make David Wood’s WHAT HAVE WE DONE the next book you read.