This is part 3 of my interaction with the book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. It’s been awhile sense my last post. Today I’m writing about Section II of the book, “Killing and Combat Trauma: The Role of Killing in Psychiatric Casualties.”
As I read this section of the book I couldn’t help but think of the debates regarding guns that are happening in our country. What I suspect that some don’t understand is that it is not so easy to kill. So, to have the idea that a response to gun violence is to have more people carry weapons would result in more safety is naive. Maybe someone who is properly trained can help to increase the safety, but then that is the role of our police. If combat is as difficult and traumatic as described, then untrained civilians, whose idea of combat is gleamed from movies and television, have no clue as to what is really required.
Last, I grieve for all the soldiers through the centuries who’ve experienced the trauma of war and combat. As I grieve I continue to pray and hope for that one day we will experience peace in our world.
Following are highlights of the section.
We start with a telling quotation:
“Nations customarily measure the ‘costs of war’ in dollars, lost production, or the number of soldiers killed or wounded. Rarely do military establishments attempt to measure the costs of war in terms of individual human suffering. Psychiatric breakdown remains one of the most costly items of war when expressed in human terms.” -Richard Gabriel, No More Heroes (page 41)
The author then goes on to describe the stressors that cause psychiatric trauma. I was surprised to learn that the chance of being a psychiatric casualty is”greater than the chances of being killed by enemy fire.” (p43)
As the goal of combat is to kill the enemy one would think that fear would be the biggest cause of psychological trauma. However fear of death and injury are not the primary problems. This is evident in that the majority of civilians who suffered bombing campaigns during WWII did not exhibit the same psychological breakdowns and neither did those who served in combat but did not directly face enemies. The difference between soldiers and civilians was that civilians did not have the “responsibility of (1) being expected to kill and (2) the stress of looking their potential killers in the face. (page 65)
Factors that lead to psychological trauma:
- Physical exhaustion. I know exhaustion from running marathons, but a marathon doesn’t even come close to the physical exhaustion experienced by soldiers in combat. Their physical exhaustion entails: lack of sleep; lack of food; and the impact of the elements. (pages 71-72).
- Then there is the sheer hell of it all. This quote is telling:
“I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.” – William Tecumseh Sherman. (page 73)
- Another psychological cost is in dealing with hate. Here not some much in hating others but in being the recipient of hate. The trauma felt here is one that sadly can be readily transferred to civilian life away from the battlefield. Sadly the author notes, “Many medical authorities believe that it is the constant hostility and lack of acceptance that they must face – and the resulting stress – that are responsible for the dramatic rate of high blood pressure in African Americans.” (page 76)
The “one historic circumstance in which noncombatants did suffer a horrifyingly high incidence of psychiatric casualties and post-traumatic stress,” was among the survivors of Nazi concentration camps. (77)
As I review this material I am saddened by the hate that we are seeing today exhibited toward Muslims.
- Still the biggest source of stress is in the act of killing, or needing to kill. “The media’s depiction of violence tries to tell us that men can easily throw off the moral inhibition of a lifetime – and whatever other instinctive restraint exists – and kill casually and guiltless in combat. The men who have killed, and who will talk about it, tell a different tale.” (87)
For many a coping method is to use euphemisms for killing, so that “most soldier do not ‘kill’, instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and moped up.” Soldiers throughout the world use alternative words for this, as well as dehumanize the enemy by using negative pejoratives.
For the author, non-soldiers do not understand the reality and stress of war. I agree with him that we who have not experienced combat are clueless as to the realities of war, of combat, of killing.
“A culture raised on Rambo, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, and James Bond wants to believe that combat and killing can be done with impunity – that we can declare someone to be the enemy and that for cause and country the soldiers will cleanly and remorselessly wipe him from the face of the earth. In many ways it is simply too painful for society to address what it does when it sends its young men off to kill other young men in distant lands.” (page 94).