To Kill or Not to Kill
U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl was an unlikely guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. One of the authors of the 2006 Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, Nagl said: “If I could sum up the book in just a few words, it would be: Be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill.” In that single sentence, he put his finger on a crucial discrepancy. In Iraq, I witnessed this discrepancy. I felt it. I knew from the moment I picked up the Counterinsurgency Field Manual what was missing.
On April 11, 2004, I did something that I’d never before done. I shot a man . . . at least, I shot at him. (Amidst the chaos of the moment, it was difficult to say whether or not he was hit.) It was Iraq. I was a Marine. And we were under heavy attack. It seemed like the thing to do.
Though I’d been in the infantry for more than a decade, I would not exactly describe the moment as perfunctory—automatic perhaps, but not quite perfunctory. Exactly what does it take to level the sights of a weapon and fire it at another human being? Under the circumstances, you wouldn’t think it would take much. And honestly, for me it didn’t.
But it would be precarious to assume that it didn’t take much because of circumstances alone. For some people, circumstances weigh very little in the decision to shoot or not to shoot. In a counterinsurgency operation, military doctrine not only demands of its soldiers a willingness to kill, but a willingness not to kill as well. Training for the Iraq War has slighted the second part. So today, we have a different kind of force, a different kind of warrior. I know. I was one of them.
There was a well-known study—well known within the military, anyway—done directly after World War II by retired Colonel S. L. A. Marshall, author of Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War. He discovered that even in the thickest of fire fights, the vast majority of soldiers did not fire their weapons. (Based on interviews with the soldiers themselves, Marshall estimated that within the average unit under fire, only 15 percent of men actually pulled their triggers. Even within the most disciplined units, he found that average rose to not more than 25 percent.) Marshall discovered that it was not fear that prevented these men from engaging their enemies, but humanity. All of them reported a keen reluctance to kill.
You can just imagine the military’s dismay upon getting this news. Beneath all the rigid tomes on military tactics lies the fundamental principle of conventional battle: Those who fire the most bullets win. In the military, this principle is referred to as fire superiority. It’s not which side has more guns. Fire superiority is when one unit is discharging a heavier volume of fire than the other, keeping more of the latter’s heads down, thereby allowing the former to maneuver. That’s the key right there—maneuver. That’s how an infantry unit gains forward momentum and how it seizes the initiative. That’s how you win the battle. And that is precisely why Marshall’s findings were so disconcerting, and how a new emphasis on killing entered the military culture, where it has thrived ever since.
The killing culture prevails not simply by indoctrination. With soldiers, the effort is mutual. The military, no doubt, provides an environment in which violence can be looked upon with nonchalance. But that can only take a man so far. A soldier must engage this environment willingly. He must embrace it for it to have any meaningful effect. To be truly desensitized, he must desensitize himself.
When I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1989, drill instructors conveyed the gory destruction of human bodies with genuine zest. But while I found the instruction initially shocking, I did not find it altogether repelling. In fact, it struck a chord deep within me, a part of me that seemed to already understand this obvious truth: To master one’s reluctance to take life, one must stop revering life so much, particularly that of an enemy.
This unseemly dimension of war, so often unpalatable to civilians, was almost universally taken for granted within the Marine Corps. It had to be. Defending well—our essential calling—meant fighting well. This, in turn, meant killing well, which ultimately meant nurturing the more primal parts of ourselves. It made perfect sense, especially when one took into account Marshall’s revelations from WWII.
We trained ourselves with flair to gouge eyeballs from our enemies’ sockets and crush—literally obliterate—their skulls with the heels of our boots as they lay quivering on the ground. The higher a Marine could swing his leg up into the air and the deeper his heel sunk into the dirt, the more congratulations he received—and the more virile he began to feel. After I wrote a passage about this in Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine, I received an e-mail from a former Marine I’d recently become friends with. Like me, he served as a rifle company commander, but that was back in the 1950s, and he was displeased by my characterization of Marine Corps training.
“Even as a former infantry officer who has been shot at and has fired back, I found this image of a lust to gouge out eyeballs, and to thrust bayonets into real bodies, very off-putting,” he wrote. “It sounded un-Marine to me. Though there had been some bayonet fighting in Korea, our training in that area was perfunctory. And though we came out of our training determined to be very good Marines, I don’t think we were ever encouraged to think of ourselves as, or be, bloodthirsty. In my day, we prided ourselves, I thought, on cool professionalism that didn’t depend on hating an enemy.”
This former Marine’s name, by the way, was Daniel Ellsberg.
It is, of course, possible that he has simply forgotten what things were really like back in his own day or that he has clung to a nobler myth in defense of his generation of Marines. It is also possible that he’s just plain wrong. But I don’t think he is. Ellsberg’s description of the general attitude toward war when he was a Marine matches very closely with the findings of S. L. A. Marshall. It was exactly this attitude that made American combat units inefficient. It was exactly this attitude that the military sought to, and successfully did, drive out. By the time I arrived to recruit training, “cool professionalism” was no longer the eminent characteristic desired in a young Marine. I’d say it was closer to cold-heartedness.
A soldier is either striving to make himself a better killer or he is resisting. In such an environment, some men will turn out to be more enthusiastic killers than others. But in the days of Daniel Ellsberg, those individuals might seem odd, out of place, or just plain crazy. In today’s efficiency-conscious military, they are more likely to fit right in.
But as often as Marines chant “Kill” in training, they don’t really mean everybody. This is a point so apparent that it tends to divert attention from the military’s rather paradoxical task—to train its soldiers to want to kill, to want it badly enough to do it reflexively in combat, but not to want it too badly. Soldiers are encouraged to make an effort to accomplish the mission efficiently enough to save as many lives in the unit as possible while doing so. “Saving lives,” particularly at the ground level, is not done merely in the spirit of preserving firepower, but out of a genuine desire not to see friends die.
The deaths of a soldier’s comrades are always dealt with in the most solemn manner. Conversely, the enemy’s death is meant to be regarded with indifference and sometimes even amusement, which was precisely the aim of the desensitization in training. Civilians, for their part, occupy a strange space in a soldier’s mind. As noncombatants they must be protected and, therefore, their lives partially heeded. But when they are killed, either inadvertently or by way of some calculated risk, their lives are swiftly sloughed off as “collateral damage” and forgotten. Such an ambiguous posture is often unavoidable on the battlefield where “objectives” always supersede life. This was the gray area that I became intimately familiar with in Iraq.
In 2005, after twelve years of active service in the Marine Corps and with growing reservations about the war, I relinquished command of my rifle company and resigned my commission. It struck me that, in our headlong pursuit to deliver freedom and democracy and to expel an oppressive regime and combat terrorism, we had inadvertently lost sight of the very people we’d been deployed to help. Because the conflict was unconventional, and because our adversaries wore no uniforms and were indistinguishable from the local populace, we began to view all people with suspicion. The distinction between the lives we could revere and those we were compelled to dismiss suddenly became blurred. This was problematic amidst an operation in which gaining popular support, as a method to undermine insurgents, was the paramount task put forth by the Counterinsurgency Manual.
2004, the year I was deployed to Iraq, was a truly violent time. The killing on all sides was rampant. Our own casualties mounted quickly, predominantly from the ubiquitous Improvised Explosive Devices (a.k.a. roadside bombs). I remember clearly the first Marine they brought back to base with his skull broken open by shrapnel. And even more clearly than that, I remember the hatred churning in my gut for those who did it. The trouble was that we didn’t actually know who did it. It was difficult not to make the entire Iraqi population the collective scapegoat for this one Marine’s death. As our frustration swelled, our operations shifted conspicuously from humanitarian (stability and nation-building) to a fierce battle of wills with the insurgents and, by definition, with the populace in which they concealed themselves. The more casualties we took, the heavier our hand became with the locals, and consequently the more recalcitrant they grew.
The Counterinsurgency Manual does anticipate some of what I’m describing. The authors understand that any military occupying a country using excessive force will soon be subverted by its people. They offer useful maxims like, “Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is,” and remind commanders that the nature of a counterinsurgency is quite different from that of a conventional battle. The manual advises that “judgment [on how much force to be used] involves constant assessment . . . and troops may have to exercise increased restraint.” Such words seem to imply deep insight into the minds of the occupied, but what I learned in Iraq was what is missing from the text—any insight at all into the minds of the occupiers.
It does not account, for example, for the military’s response to S. L. A. Marshall or the intense cultural shift and decades of desensitization that followed.
It does not account for the hatred that soldiers will feel in the wake of their fallen comrades, or the frustration, or the fear, or the hunger to survive.
It does not anticipate the incompatibility of an inured force, such as the American military has become, with principles that require at least some level of sustained empathy.
And yet, for all its shortcomings, the book itself is not the problem. It merely points to the problem: the irreconcilable nature of the modern warrior and the modern objectives he is sent to achieve.
Contrary to current military doctrine, empathy and aggression do not go hand in hand. The more extreme one’s environment, the more obvious this reality becomes. It is not possible to reduce one’s regard for an enemy’s life without reducing one’s regard for all life. And it is not possible to genuinely strive to help a people, to reach out to them, while simultaneously preparing to kill them. You cannot achieve excellence in both war and humanity at the same time.
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