*Caution: Sensitive words and discussion to follow. Please note I do not condone racism of any kind.*
There was a Communications Marine who posted a video last week saying extremely racist things about the Chinese, claiming he would kill them when he got to the fleet (he is still in his occupational school in Twentynine Palms, California) with the colloquial use of “5.56” (the millimeter of the rounds we use in our M16/M4 weapons). Of course, this was not well received by anyone in his chain of command and he is getting removed from the Marine Corps.
I saw a comment on Facebook regarding this incident which said, “Silly boot, don’t you know we can only be racist towards the people we are at war with?”
The Marine Corps is changing, much to the begrudgement of the “Old Corps,” into a more politically correct and upstanding version of its once war-hardened killers. We are still fighting the Afghan War after almost two decades…but things are much different than they were in 2001-2011 for Marines. When I was active duty, we were fighting two fronts: Iraq and Afghanistan. We knew when we entered the service that we would be going on deployment (at least one)…There were sometimes weeks between deployments to combat zones. We were understaffed, mentally unstable, and trained to kill, no matter our job, no matter our gender.
The comment about being racist towards those we are at war with reminds me of a book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman, which discusses aspects of training that the military has adapted over the years to foster a better…killing rate…to put it bluntly. One of the ways the military has pushed for more effective killing since the 1950s is to adopt an “other” attitude towards the enemy, a sense that they are “less than human”. When I think of how I was trained to kill “goat fuckers,” “towelheads,” and “shitstained pieces of garbage,” racism was prevalent from the moment I went to boot camp…and continued through every bit of training I received. We were trained to believe the enemy didn’t deserve to live…it helped us be more willing to kill them.
Humans do not want to kill…so instilling the idea of “other,” cultivating intense comradery between platoon mates, stabbing human-shaped and human-feeling dummies with our bayonets, simulating combat through chaos and noise, all of it helps numb our very intense and very human desire not to kill. Pilots who drop bombs are less likely to feel like they have killed than those who see the light leave the eyes of a person they have shot (Grossman, 1996). The distance factor makes killing easier (heyo, drone warfare!). And I want to point out that this type of training seems to be more pervasive in the Marines than in other branches and more pervasive in strict combat roles than in administrative jobs (PJs in the Air Force, SEALS in the Navy, and other special groups receive this training too). Killers need to be capable of killing.
Ironically, this way of war fighting is in direct opposition to the emotional and intellectual “winning the hearts and minds” of the countries we are at war with. As we would say in the Marines, “Yeah, I’ll win the hearts and minds alright, with two [sic] to the chest and one [sic] to the head.” We meant bullets: two bullets to the chest and one to the head. Upper leadership seems to act in opposition to the task of killing through their promotion of cultural training and understanding of our enemy. Because when we understand the enemy and see them as human, the impact of killing is horrendous to the killer’s psychology. We do not want to kill those who we empathize with. Ask the Vietnam veterans who came across the family pictures in the pockets of those they had slain. It…breaks…them.
This battle between emotion and the human experience when you want to promote killing in a warzone is something the Marine Corps has seen shift rapidly over the last decade. We are more aware of the cultures we are fighting, we are more empathetic, more emotionally intelligent, and we kick a Marine out for racist remarks. This is a stark contrast to when I would sing cadence about dropping napalm on the square, because napalm sticking to kids…
Can we be emotionally connected killers? Can we retain our humanity when we kill? Is there such a thing as ethical killing? And how do we address the mental turmoil of those of us who have already killed in war? These veterans walk among us. If saying racist things is grounds for removal from the Marine Corps now, how can you expect Marines to kill and not psychologically f*cking lose it? An emotionally and culturally aware killer…is that possible?
Someone recently asked me what my favorite and least favorite part of the Marine Corps is…My initial internal response was, “Do I tell them how I still have nightmares about Dumaw’s bones and blood everywhere? Or do I talk about aiming my weapon at a child with my finger on the trigger and how I was willing to pull it?” However, I couldn’t expect a civilian to be receptive to such inhumane discussions (such an isolating feeling), and my bitter response wouldn’t bring closeness with a person who was simply curious about my experience. My favorite part is easy: I have a great career that is lucrative and stimulating as a network engineer. My least favorite part?
What I hate the most about my time in the Marine Corps is that I saw a side of humanity that was no longer humane…and that part exists within me. I know I can kill. I know that part of me is there, and I have looked into the eyes of people who saw me as “other” and who wanted me dead. Sometimes it feels as though I have lost my connection to society because I know that shadowy place within me is still accessible.
How can we address the effectiveness of killing without causing extreme emotional distress on veterans as they reintegrate with society? I have seen grown men breakdown when they stopped seeing the enemy as “other”…and realize they took the life of a human being who did matter.
None of this seems to have an easy answer, unless we stop wars completely. Perhaps one day, we can sit at tables and discuss differences with our enemies without resorting to killing.
Or we invest in drones.
Please, please read On Killing by Dave Grossman if you are a veteran and you struggle reconciling killing with your humanity.