Killing doesn't come naturally to the average person. Human beings are predisposed not to kill, whether they are civilians or military. And although our armed forces are trained to defend life even at the cost of taking another life, it doesn't mean that killing is ever easy -- or that it doesn't leave lifelong scars.
So how do you train people to kill, all the while leaving their moral compasses intact? It's a delicate dance, one that requires the firm hand of an inscrutable teacher beforehand and the gentle hand of a counselor or chaplain after the fact.
"We take advantage of basic psychological principles of conditioning -- stimulus, response, reward -- in order to get people more engaged in battle. ... Any emotional or intellectual handicap cannot be reasoned away with simple 'kill-or-be-killed' philosophy," said Kenneth Murray, author of "Training at the Speed of Life," a reality-based training manual for military and police personnel.
Murray said that a lot has changed since the early days of war, when troops were in much closer contact with the enemy and combat was much more direct -- as in driving a bayonet into the opponent. But one thing has not changed: the innate unwillingness to pull the trigger. Even studies of the Civil War show that many soldiers were shooting over the heads of the enemy. Soldiers must overcome an aversion to killing in order to be successful on the battlefield.
"There's a process they have to get through. How do we experience killing before we go out and kill? That's where some of the reality-based training comes in. I put people in conflict with one another. They are wearing protective gear, they're using real guns, they're looking each other in the eye and they're pulling the trigger," he told Our Sunday Visitor. "Studies have shown that people who train this way become indoctrinated into the killing process. So mechanically, psychologically we can overcome the resistance to act. The next thing is reconciling that with the morality of killing."
A just mission
Murray said that he uses the "just war" theory of St. Thomas Aquinas and biblical interpretation to help soldiers understand that sometimes the only way to save lives is by taking lives. "How can we reconcile 'Thou shalt not kill' with the killing act? The Bible never said, 'Thou shalt not kill.' The Bible said, 'Thou shalt do no murder,' " he said, in reference to the Torah's use of the Hebrew word ratsah (murder) instead of the more general term harag (kill). "Murder was a very different action from killing," he said, adding that there was never any shortage of "righteous" killing in the Bible. "How do we retain our moral boundaries? That comes down to having good people in the game."
Murray said if soldiers feel their mission is just, are right with God, talk things out and know what to expect, chances are they will handle the situation well and be fine when they return home. "It's only when you start creating acts of atrocity that you can't escape your demons," he said.
Society plays a role as well. Murray said that history demonstrates how the reaction of people back home affects soldiers' return and recovery. When World War II soldiers returned to the States, they were welcomed as heroes with ticker-tape parades; Vietnam vets were spat upon and called "baby killers."
"They came back to social consternation. There was no support. One of the things psychologists are starting to postulate is that one of the main contributors to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not having a support system or not being prepared for the trauma that you saw," he explained. "Soldiers need to have an expectation of what they are going to go through."
Power of reconciliation
Father John Barkemeyer, an Army chaplain and lieutenant who returned in October after a one-year tour in Iraq, said it is a normal human reaction to have a sense of guilt over killing someone, even if you know the person you killed is a "bad guy."
"The idea of taking a human life for most people it really is a painful experience," he said, noting that when the person killed is clearly the enemy, it is easier for soldiers to process what has happened. "If the casualty was a bystander, that's just a painful reality to accept. I don't think there is any easy solution for that."
Father Barkemeyer witnessed how "tremendously powerful" the role of Catholic faith, especially the sacrament of reconciliation, is in the lives of the troops.
" 'I grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you of your sins.' That's hugely powerful for guys. Where else can you hear the words that you need to be able to hear so desperately?" he said.
It was not unusual for Father Barkemeyer to have long lines for confession when he was serving in Kuwait, where soldiers arrive to prepare for the Iraq mission.
"War time gives people a sense of their own vulnerability and mortality," he said.
Many of the men are 18- or 20-year-old "kids" who are confronting the possibility of death for the first time. They begin to ask important questions about what their lives are all about. "Ultimately those are questions that only faith can answer. ... Although I know it sounds like a trite slogan, there are no atheists in foxholes. I have seen that firsthand," he said.
Support back home
While in the midst of battle or surrounded by fellow servicemen and servicewomen, it is easier, in a sense, to deal the stresses of war. It is the homecoming that is often difficult for those serving overseas.
"It's a much bigger adjustment than almost anybody is willing to admit. What could be easier than going back to your family and friends and the way life used to be, but you have to entirely switch your perspective around," Father Barkemeyer told OSV. "For a year or so, these guys have been living in an incredibly stressful life-and-death situation, where it's normal to put your life on the line every time you go outside of the wire."
Family and friends should understand that returning soldiers need time to slowly re-enter the lives they left behind, he said. For the vast majority, that is all that will be necessary, but 15 percent to 20 percent will develop some type of PTSD. When Father Barkemeyer came back from Iraq, he found himself driving down the middle of the road looking over his shoulder for danger at every turn. "Every aspect of your life is changed when you are over there, and it does take time to rebound from all of that."
Judy McCloskey, founder of Catholics in the Military ( www.catholicmil.org), said people back home need to be patient and pray when loved ones return from war.
"Expect him to be different from when he left," she said. "A year has gone by, maybe longer. With or without combat, there will be noticeable changes."
McCloskey said that families can never fully understand what their loved one has gone through and how "trite" concerns at home can seem. "One former POW equated explaining his experience of war to non-combatants as 'futile as a woman explaining childbirth to a man,'" she said. "Acknowledge that fact, and when the soldier is ready to talk, listen."
Mary DeTurris Poust is a contributing editor for OSV.