What Does it Feel Like to Kill?

What does it feel like to kill? For some reason, that question’s been on my mind a lot lately. With Chris going off into the Marine Corps later this year, it came up at my brother’s party last weekend. We were talking, and I said to him, “The one thing you have to be prepared for, is you may be put into a position where you have to kill someone.”

But what does that mean?

I’ve been asked the question, many times, starting just a couple of days after I got home from Iraq. It was three a.m., and I was sitting in a Waffle House in Macon, Georgia, with a girl I liked, and I had the misfortune to be wearing my uniform. Somebody had to ask: did I just get home from the war? Yeah. That led to the question, the big question, the one I didn’t want to answer, even to myself.

“So what did it feel like to kill somebody?”

None of your god damn business, and who the hell do you think you are to ask something like that anyway?

I didn’t actually respond that way. In fact, I don’t remember what I said. In due course, the girl I was with became my fiancé, then my ex-fiancé, and life rolled on. But let’s face it: the question never went away, did it?

In fact, it’s come up again, once or twice. People too stupid or misguided to know better always ask. Did you kill anybody? What was it like?

Bastards.

So how did it feel?

This time I think maybe I’ll actually answer the question. But first, let me lay the background.

My life is logically divided into a before and after. The before is everything up until about two in the morning on February 26, 1991. Up until that time, I’d shot at targets, on the range, and even in a lengthy battle on the afternoon on February 25. But to be honest, I was so scared out of my mind on the 25th I barely looked where I was aiming. Bunker that way? Yeah, pull the trigger and hope for the best. Keep firing, the spent brass falling from the machine gun with a rattle, then jump down into the turret to reload a main gun round. Surely some of those main gun rounds killed, but it’s not the same when you can’t see it.

Then came the moment that neatly bisected my life, and not so neatly ended someone else’s.

The tactical details (that’s a lot easier to discuss than the emotional): our company was stopped just on the north side of Highway Eight, not very far from Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. It was just about as far north as any American forces got in the 1991 Gulf War. We’d had no sleep to speak of, and the situation was incredibly tense after that lengthy rolling battle through what I later learned was called “Battle Position 102.”

I was drifting, asleep in the loader’s seat when someone – I think it was our Company Commander, called over the radio. Trucks to our front. We all jumped up, in a panic I think, and the first shot fired hit one of the trucks and it exploded, spraying burning fuel all over the other truck, which also caught fire.

For the record, when the first guy ran out, I pulled the trigger, and discovered the hard way my safety was on. I fumbled with it, until my platoon sergeant, with more than a little impatience, reached over, hit the safety, and walked the stream of bullets until it hit the guy and he went down.

The second one didn’t have as much time. As soon as he was in sight I opened fire. Just like training, except that this guy was running away and on fire – I had to chase him down with the tracers.

Another one ran out, and his end was quicker. Our wingman tank opened fire, but the gunner forgot to switch the computer to the coax machine gun. The Iraqi was cut in half by a main gun round.

Then it was over, in one sense. In another sense, it never ended, because that moment never ended, not for me and certainly for the families of the Iraqis we cut down. I’ve been worrying that moment in my mind for a decade, rubbing my tongue against it like a bad tooth, every once in a while discovering some new aspect of it to keep me awake at night.

***

A few days later – not long at all in objective time, but a lifetime, it seemed, for me, we had a cease-fire, and I took a long and healthy look down the barrel of my .45. It was a model M1911A1 Colt, with extremely worn palm grips, a rifled barrel, and a heft completely absent in the 9mm Berettas we’d trained with in basic training. At fifty feet it shot about six inches to the right, but I’d learned to compensate.

It didn’t matter anyway, jammed up in the mouth, whether it shot to the right or not.

It’s actually kind of awkward to shoot yourself with a .45, at least that model. Along with the regular thumb safety, and the half-cocked position, the .45 features a third safety, on the back of the pistol grip, to prevent it from being fired unless it’s actually gripped in someone’s hand. But you can work around that, and I almost did, but I was a bit of a coward after all, and though I wanted to do it, and didn’t really have much reason not too, I just couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger. It would have made a god-awful mess in the turret, which my crew would have had to clean up.

I told myself later, it’s because of the guys. They depend on me – if I were to pop a cap into my forehead I’d probably get replaced by some dumbhead right out of basic training. I could live with being responsible for my own death, but not my crew’s. See, don’t I sound noble? Not that I’d have to live with it. It sounded better than ‘I chickened out’. But in reality, what I thought was that I was just too much of a fucking weasel to blow myself away. Instead, I’d continue on, poisoning the world and the people I loved with my own brand of sickness. By that time I hated myself so thoroughly that anything I did seemed wrong.

It’s not like I really wanted to kill that guy anyway. Hell, he was on fire, and running across the field of view of 14 enemy tanks. He was going to die, no matter what I did. But I was really fucking eager to do it.

S.L.A. Marshall, probably the most influential military historian of the last century and chronicler of, among other things, the forces in Europe in World War II, wrote that as few as one-fifth of soldiers in wartime ever actually fire at the enemy. The rest simply fire in the general direction of the enemy, like a pre-industrial army refusing to actually aim – or firing deliberately low or high. In World War I, whole units established informal cease fires with their opposite numbers in the trenches, and had to be provoked by their own commanders into firing a shot.

It would seem that, despite all our beliefs to the contrary, there is a native reluctance to kill. Despite all the horror and bloodshed of our century, and the many proceeding it, the natural state of humanity is generally to leave each other alone.

I don’t know if the more efficient training methods of modern-day basic training have been effective in overcoming that reluctance. I suspect so – the emphasis on training by rote, and doing the same tasks a thousand times until they become second nature, is designed to take away the human aspect of combat. When you ride an Abrams tank into combat, it’s not so different from going downrange during gunnery, after all, except that you are scared out of your god damned mind, and the targets move around and shoot back. Not that the Iraqis ever had a chance to do much of that.

The question at hand is: why am I part of the one-fifth who actually pull the trigger? Am I defective or sociopath? Why the hell did I pull the trigger and shoot some guy in the back when I didn’t even have to?

Maybe the idiots of the world should stop asking, “What was it like to kill somebody?” and start asking, “Why?”

***

When people ask the damn question, they always have one of two looks in their eyes.

The first look is pity. Those are the people who look at you, concern in their eyes, as they listen to the story. They’re the ones who say, “Boy am I glad I never enlisted: I’d never be able to kill someone.”

Idiots. Of course you could, it’s so fucking easy to kill you wouldn’t believe. All you have to do is do what you are told.

Besides, unless you were out protesting against the war, you pulled the goddamn trigger, too. We all did, including those who are too uninterested or tuned out to vote. You mean you didn’t vote? You’re a killer, too. Welcome to democracy.

I can live with those folks, the ones who are concerned and questioning and just don’t know enough to mind their own damn business.

It’s the other ones who worry me. The other look some people get, when they ask the question, is one of eager interest. “So what was it like, huh? Huh? How did it feel?”

The look is one of lust: vicarious lust, they want to know what its like. These are the folks who most often say, “I would have joined the Army, but the dog ate my AFSVAB test,” or “I almost enlisted in the Navy Seals, but I broke my big toe,” and they just freaking piss me off.

It’s the same impulse that drives some of the violent movies and games, I think, and I’ll be the first to admit that I too, like my share of violent entertainment. Why? Are we the Romans? Will the next step in reality TV be a two thousand year step backwards? The ultimate in reality TV will be an American infantry platoon in combat, and guess what folks, its not that far out a concept. It wouldn’t be out of character. I finally realized that the reason few Americans were concerned about the impact of sanctions in Iraq (much less the impact of bombs) is because to them, it just wasn’t real. Except for the eldest among us, few Americans have any conception of what real suffering means. To us, real suffering is having to wait three hours while our SUV gets fixed up, or suffering a thirty minute power outage. September 11 was a terrible anomaly, a shock and a tragedy to be sure, but familiar to the rest of the world. It was such a shock to us precisely because we largely lead sheltered, privileged lives.

To the Iraqis, suffering was watching your kid slowly starve. Or never knowing what happened to a missing loved one. Having a father killed in the war with Iran, or in Kuwait, or in one of two wars with America.

Here’s what I knew about the Iraqis in 1991:

They had the fourth largest army in the world, a fierce, battle hardened force.

They threw babies out of incubators and speared them on their bayonets.

They tortured their prisoners.

They were in my fucking way if I was ever going home.

I knew all of that then, but now I don’t know any of it. Turned out the baby incubator story was an out-and-out lie, invented by a Washington public relations firm and supplemented by the testimony of the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador and a Congress which took no steps at all to determine if they were being lied to. To you it may be academic that they lied about it, but to me it determined the shape of my life, because I killed for that lie. Some might think the lies that launched us into war are irrelevant, but those people never pulled the trigger, or looked at a stack of dismembered human bodies, or machine gunned a burning man who ran away.

They told us the Iraqis lied to their own troops. The Iraqis have been told that Americans will torture them, or shoot them. What about the lies they told us?

You would think, after more than fifteen years, and three-or-four more wars, a new life with a family and a job and whatever, I wouldn’t still be so goddamn angry about it.

If you thought that, you would be wrong. I thought that, but then, a couple years ago, I watched on television as the Third Infantry Division crossed the border into Iraq for the second time, and I felt a strange pulsing above my left eyebrow as my blood pressure climbed, and I knew that another generation of soldiers and civilians was about to go through hell. Some of them I know, because they were there the last time, too.

This time it is worse, far worse. Even though it took lies to get Congress to vote for the last war, at least there was some provocation. After all, Iraq did invade Kuwait. But what about this time? Prior to the war I believed they were lying, and now we know for a fact that they were. To the pundits or people watching television, it is academic. It might be scandalous that the President lied, but no one, except on the hardcore left, is calling for his impeachment or resignation. For my neighbors and for many of us in this country, it is, once again, an academic question.

To the soldiers and civilians whose lives have been laid waste, it is anything but. The irony, of course, is once we got there, there’s no going back. You can’t take down a national government and all its institutions and replace them with nothing. That just leaves you with a failed state, an incubator for terrorists, and humanitarian disasters. It leaves you with future enemies.

Which takes me back to the question I’m still avoiding — just what exactly did it feel like to pull that trigger and watch a man die.

The thing is, I’d never been a terribly confident person. I turned twenty during the war, and I think in some ways I was a lot younger. Sergeant Lino, my platoon sergeant, wasn’t just my tank commander and platoon sergeant, in some ways he was almost a father figure, and I continually felt uneasy, as if nothing I ever did was quite up to snuff. What I remember most about it: more than anything else, I wanted to do the right thing, I wanted to do what would make Sergeant Lino proud of me. That’s why I killed, I think: because I didn’t have what it took to feel good about myself, I needed someone else’s approval. I needed Sergeant Lino to think of me as a man, and not as the scared little kid I really was.

Did it work? Who the hell knows? Pulling that trigger didn’t make me any more sure of myself, I know that much. I was still the same scared kid, except now I had every reason to hate myself.

So: what did it feel like? The truth is, it felt good. After days of terror and fear, after chaos and violence on a scale I’d never imagined, when I pulled the trigger and shot that burning man as he ran, all of the sudden I had control, I had all the control. When I pulled that trigger, just for a moment, I was as powerful as God, and for just a second I said “Yes!” and knew that no one could ever fuck with me again.

It may be that isn’t what you want to hear. There I was, making a noble sacrifice for my country, putting myself in harm’s way to protect your freedom. Forget about it — once the shooting starts, all that bullshit evaporates. All that’s left is ‘Get me the hell home.’ You wonder how it is civilians get killed in war? It’s because we take a bunch of scared kids, hand them guns, stick them in a shooting gallery, and they do what comes naturally.

After my initial exhilaration, however, what came next was horror and shame. Not because I’d killed — after all, that’s what you do in war. Shame at myself, for my reaction, for that instant of bloodlust and elation at killing another man. It was all over that quick, but as I said before, it never really ended. I can return to that moment any time I want, simply by closing my eyes.

For me, the rest of the Gulf War was merely aftermath, including the battle at Rumayla, where second platoon lost a tank and where I pointed my machine gun at a wounded man who was missing the bottom half of his legs. I was so scared I screamed at him to stay still, spittle flying from my lips as I threatened to kill a man who was already dead anyway.

Sixteen years later, I can see his face. I wonder if his family knows what happened to him? I wonder about the family of the man I killed along Highway 8, who I never saw except as a black silhouette. Somewhere, his mother grieves. Somewhere, his wife or his children learned of his death (or maybe they didn’t, maybe they never got any word at all) and wonder who was the person who killed him.

Not long before we invaded Iraq in 2003, some guy who was a REMF during the war wrote to one of the Gulf War veterans email lists, wondering why I had “turned against America.” Idiot. It’s the people who lie to drive us into war who turned against America. It’s the Americans who let us do it without question who have turned against America.

I catch myself sometimes thinking about the soldiers of 4-64 Armor (my old unit) and what they must be going through today, preparing for their third tour in the current incarnation of the war. What will happen to the gunner who shot and killed Captain Korn a during the ground invasion in a friendly fire incident? Or the other gunner, who fired a high explosive round into the Palestine Hotel, killing a Spanish journalist. Will they, like me, be haunted by those they killed?

You should be, too. They are our collective victims, our collective responsibility.

And so it goes on. Another war, another tragedy. Do you feel safer today?

You notice I still haven’t answered the question? What does it feel like to kill someone? It’s like asking what it feels to breathe. If you didn’t vote, well, you should know what it feels like to kill, because you pulled the trigger just as sure as I did. The scariest thing about it wasn’t how shocking or gory or frightening or terrible it was. The real horror is in how easy it was. One two three. Pull the trigger, track the tracers on to what was, after all, a brightly lit target (don’t forget he was on fire) and poof, he’s dead. So easy I was afraid of myself. So easy I worried for years it might happen again, in less socially acceptable circumstances. So easy I can still smell the blowing wind and the burning gunpowder today, I can still see him when I close my eyes.

It occurred to me a couple years ago that now that we’ve “liberated” Baghdad (you still believe that, right?) maybe I could go back there and seek out that spot, somewhere along the highway where part of me died along with the man I killed. Would I be able to find it? For some reason, I think I could. What would I do there, other than go insane?

The defining fact of my life: when it came time to shoot, I did. I had a choice. It wasn’t in the heat of battle. By that time I’d gotten my machine gun off safe and back from Sergeant Lino and I’d awakened. When that man ran out, on fire, I calmly, thoughtfully, murdered him. Not in the heat of battle, while I was wildly terrified, but calmly and in cold blood.

And that, I think, is what it felt like to kill someone.

Next time, just don’t ask.

 

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