A deeply disturbing article appeared last month in The New Yorker magazine. It discusses, with grim candor, what nearly everyone knows but few will openly acknowledge -- that soldiers who are being sent off to Iraq have to be intentionally trained to kill in combat.
Apparently, according to the article, the U.S. Army made the discovery during World War II that its recruits and draftees come from backgrounds, circumstances and with values that make the taking of the life of another human being unacceptable, not to mention forbidden.
The Army, therefore, learned to "condition" its troops to kill -- a military reality that has guided Army training ever since. "We attempt to instill reaction," the article quotes an infantry training captain at Fort Benning, Ga. "We don't talk about 'engage this person, engage this guy,' " states a second training commander. "It's always 'engage that target.' You're not thinking, I wonder if that guy has three kids."
I suppose many will read the article as a tragic confirmation of the reality of warfare. Some will maintain that combat should not be burdened with moral questions -- that we should especially not burden the 18- to 25-year-olds whom we send off to do our military bidding.
Apparently, however, there is mounting concern both inside and outside the Army that, again according to The New Yorker article, "the high rate of close-up killing in Iraq has the potential to traumatize a new generation of veterans."
"Close-up killing," it seems, is a distinctive feature of the war in Iraq. Not since Vietnam have U.S. soldiers had to engage in combat in which they are face to face with those they are sent to destroy. If the aftermath is anything like Vietnam, a significant number of American soldiers will return from this war as veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Thirty years after Vietnam, our streets and homeless shelters are still places of last resort for far too many veterans suffering from PTSD.
There is another frightening, potential aftermath of this war that we also might as well prepare ourselves to witness. A perusal of homicide rates in the United States over the past half-century shows that, after a fairly steady, consistent pattern from 1950-57, the murder rate took a sudden and marked increase in 1958 (4.0 per 100,000 in 1957 to 4.8 in 1958). The new rate then held fairly constant (between 5.1 per 100,000 in 1960 and 5.6 in '66) until '67 when it rose suddenly and dramatically until '75 (6.2 in '67; 9.8 in '74). Only five years ago did homicide rates begin to return to pre-1967 levels.
It is immediately apparent that the two periods in which the homicide rate increased dramatically were following (in the case of the Korean War) and during and following (in the case of Vietnam) major military conflicts in which this nation had thousands of soldiers engaged in "close-up killing." There are, to be sure, likely other explanations for the spikes in the murder rates during these two periods, but the fact that they coincide with periods in which countless numbers of veterans were returning home from combat cannot be overlooked.
Nor should this surprise us. Why, in fact, would anyone imagine that being trained to kill is an attitude or behavior that can be turned off, like a light switch, when a young soldier is plucked out of combat and returned home?
Anyone who has seen "Fahrenheit 9/11" will recall the chilling dialogue in which a young American soldier recounts how he and his comrades listen to heavy rock music with violent lyrics before going into combat situations "in order to get our juices flowing" (or words to that effect). A similar incident is described in The New Yorker article; a 24-year-old veteran in the Enlisted Club at Fort Benning shouts at a disc jockey to play "music about blowing people's brains out, cutting people's throats ... about s--- I've seen!"
A nation that sends its young men and women off to fight its wars owes those who survive more than we can ever repay. That many survivors will also be burdened by memories they will find difficult to escape and a few tempted to continue doing what they've been taught to do will be one more horrid legacy of this tragic and unnecessary war in Iraq.
Hubert G. Locke, Seattle, is a retired professor and former dean of the Daniel J. Evans Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.
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