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Killing in the Name of War - The Impact on Soldiers

March 27, 2009
N.J. Lukanovich

I once met a man from West Virginia who lamented the deaths of the men he had killed. He was a trucker who gave me a ride over two decades ago from Modesto, California to Flagstaff, Arizona; a Vietnam vet locked without respite in moments he could not undo, trapped in a state of pitiable remorse agonizing over the faces of 25 men. "I remember each and every one of them," he said, then asked me to hold his hand for comfort as we traveled through the night and he talked and talked and told his stories and tried to ease the anguish that had crippled his dreams and transformed his life into a never ending quest to forget. Since returning from his tour of duty, he could do nothing but drive and remember.

When a nation sends it's children off to war, to fight whatever devil that may lurking in another nation or pounding on the borders of home and hearth, there is talk of soldiers being killed in action, of the wounded, there is even muted discussions about post-traumatic stress. What is never spoken of with any clarity, or the brutality of truth, is the undeniable fact that young men (and now women) are sent off to become killers.

Post-traumatic stress related to war is no doubt caused by an accumulation of horrors, such as the fear of losing one's life, being witness to death and destruction, losing fellow soldiers, the resulting inability to integrate back into society, but that soldiers may be damaged by the grisly knowledge that they have taken human life is rarely, if ever, mentioned. There is a silent agreement to avoid the discussion of soldiers who are so wounded by killing others that they find it impossible to return to a normal life.

For some, perhaps it is enough to know that they are fulfilling their patriotic duty; they have been desensitized successfully or their breadth of conscience is so slender they devote little time to considering the impact of their actions. Outside factors play a critical role in how easily a soldier may justify killing in combat: the period in history, how death is viewed in one's culture, the attitude of one's immediate family; all combine to influence how fiercely one believes in the cause or necessity of the war. Is it killing in self-defense, or an offensive with incontrovertible reason? Or is it a battle based on disputable justifications?

There are statistics for those killed in action, those who are wounded, those who have sought help for post traumatic stress, but there are no figures, there is no documented evidence of the numbers of soldiers who have killed during a war or military offensive. We live in an era in which ideals about rights of individuals have become sacrosanct and we are taught that killin another is a horrific crime when committed without valid and urgent reason, but what do we as a society consider to be valid and urgent? Western nations, in particular, are comprised of populations that are not in cohesive agreement on what situations justify murder.

In the U.S., there is much disagreement on the validity of the Iraq war and in Canada, there is a similar disagreement about the decision to support the U.S. in Afghanistan. There are those who believe that there is no justification for fighting wars on foreign soil, others may believe that stopping genocide is the only reasonable cause, and at the other end of the spectrum there are many who claim that any possible threat is worth fighting. But I have yet to see the headline "4 more coalition soldiers became killers today," with an analysis of the consequential post-traumatic stress. Articles on post-traumatic stress do not discuss the impact of taking human lives. We can not expect young men who grew up in a society that tests the safety of everything from car seats to the plastic used in water bottles to easily transform into men that kill without conscience.

The media report the death of their nation's soldiers (or "troops," a less human term), but rarely report the total number of casualties of the "enemy," and only sporadically mention deaths of innocent women, children, and men, for whom the term collateral damage has been coined. What about the soldiers who fight from the sky? Does not being witness to the faces of those you kill lessen the despair? Or is it better to know you've killed another soldier rather than inflicted this so-called collateral damage. How exactly does a man who flies far above the earth feel when he learns that the bomb he has dropped has blown apart a wedding party killing 30 women and children?

While statistics on the number of soldiers who have killed are nonexistent, statistics on deaths of civilians, Iraqi troops, insurgents, and according to some, even U.S. soldiers, are varied and fraught with misleading methodology. The most quoted source for civilian deaths in Iraq is the organization Iraq Body Count, which only includes deaths that have been reported in at least two English language newspapers or newscasts. This obviously excludes all non-media reported deaths, and any deaths reported in newspapers of other languages, such as the main languages spoken in Iraq: Arabic, Kurdish, Assyrian and Armenian.

The most recent number from the IBC is 91,297 - 99,679 civilian deaths. This is dramatically lower than the estimate of 426,369 - 793,663 civilian deaths from the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom until July 31, 2006, reported in the article "Mortality after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq," published in the British medical journal The Lancet, based on a study done by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Baghdad's Al-Mustansiriya University. CNN reports that since the beginning of the war till March 25, 2009, there have been 4,262 US soldiers killed in Iraq, and at least 31,131 U.S. troops wounded in action (based on figures from the Pentagon). The total number of coalition troops killed in the war to date is 4,579. Even if one uses the low estimates produced by the IBC, the number of civilian deaths is staggering in comparison.

There can be honor in fighting to protect the innocent, but how to feel heroic when there is fragmented support of the battle? There are few parades for those fighting wars with dubious imperatives. The Vietnam War became a war against young men who didn't want to go to war; young men were vilified as unpatriotic draft dodgers if they left the U.S. to escape the prospect of becoming killing machines. The draft has thus far been avoided for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, partly by deploying the National Guard, partly by extending tours of duty, and partly by multiple deployments.

The Army reported that 24 U.S. soldiers committed suicide in January, 2009 compared to 16 who died in combat (7 are confirmed suicides and the Army expects investigations to confirm the other 17 as suicides). The number of suicides increased 6 fold from last January, 2008. The increase is suspected to be related to multiple deployments; soldiers are often redeployed while they are in the midst of undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and the stigma of seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress prevents many other soldiers from seeking the help they need. Adding to the problems, according to Col. Kathy Platoni, chief clinical psychologist for the Army Reserve and National Guard, is the excessive use of antidepressants among soldiers in combat. An increase in suicidal thoughts is one of the possible side effects of antidepressants, especially for those under the age of 24.

In March of 2008, Army psychiatrist Colonel Charles Hoge told Congress that a staggering 30% of troops suffer mental health problems by their 3rd deployment. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine revealed that one third of the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan seen at Veterans Affairs facilities from 2001-2005 were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, depression, and/or psycho-social disorders (such as problems with domestic violence, homelessness, etc.).

My beleaguered Vietnam vet is probably still driving without respite. After his return from Vietnam he spent one year drunk and then became a trucker who only pauses for mandatory breaks. He has no wife, no children, no close friends and no connection with any community. I have frequently thought of him over the years; he made an indelible impression on my young mind with his gnome-like body hunched behind the wheel, his insistence on telling his story, his need for absolution looming like a giant in the headlights. He asked for nothing but sympathy and gave me this narrative of himself, a brief visit into the mind of an anguished veteran, a reminder of what can become of a soldier.


I found this to be a very moving piece. Your encounter with the Vietnam vet really brought to light an intimate view of the personal devastation of war for those young people forced to become killers.
Maggie Fraser
March 30