"We could kill this entire family and I'd never tell anyone. you know that, right?" is what my team leader told me as the sun began to set, on what would end up being around a six-hour patrol. My unit was about five months into a seven-month deployment in a habitually contested area of Helmand, Afghanistan, known as Kajaki. We had patrolled hundreds of kilometers, found dozens of IEDs, detonated others, and killed. As twenty something olds we routinely held shuras, with a collection of the most important elders in the region. They had seen the passing of the Soviets, British and now Marines. We dictated new restrictions on their lives, provided for them, and passed judgment. Up to this point we kept our honor intact. What is it that would make a highly trained, and experienced professional say that about a family? Why was my only response something along the lines of "shut up and focus on security." And why did I not feel a thing when one of my trusted leaders brought up the idea of murder for no other reason than because we could.
That family would never know what was discussed by us, about their fate. That team leader was transferred to a new position the following week and received increased supervision and mental help. My unit kept their honor. We finished that seven-month deployment, having grown in some ways and experienced mental change in others. As a group, we went on to do and see things, most in the corps only train to, but rarely do. Although I didn’t feel anything about that suggested murder, that would resemble empathy, compassion, or disgust; I knew enough to know it was my responsibility to at least fake my role as the moral compass for the group. This is not to say that I was the only one who knew better. My platoon was populated by many of the best men I will ever know. Many of which would have easily stepped in, had I disappeared. Unfortunately, this was not the case for all units.
On March eleventh, 2012 (just over three months into my deployment) Robert Bales, an Army Staff Sergeant left his combat outpost and preceded to a nearby village and murdered 16 villagers and injured six more with his rifle, pistol and knife. Robert Bales was a veteran of the Iraq war, on his fourth combat deployment, a husband, a father, and a leader. When interviewed by fellow soldiers and investigators after the attack he was said to be calm and unapologetic. What was the difference between his unit and mine? What was the difference between him and I? What would change a normal man that society had shaped for a lifetime, and make him capable of such a thing without the sense of guilt? The first two question could be answered by luck or simple circumstance. The last question can be studied, possibly prepared for and maybe even mitigated.
Typically, Americans are raised from a young age to mind their manners, wait their turn, share, and most of all to not fight. They are raised as members of a non-aggressive society that continues to discourage competition more and more by the year. So imagine, after a life time of learning societal norms, you enter a new profession that begins to shift everything you thought you knew. The new profession is the military, specifically combat arms. Competitions are won or lost at the cost of human lives. The application of focused or mass violence are the means by which missions are accomplished. This develops a struggle of the mind. It confuses the individual morality of the service member, and forces a mission first, ethics later mentality. One’s gut feeling can no longer be trusted. Is the gut feeling leaning towards deciding in line with societal norms; which may result in the service member’s death? Or is the gut leaning towards the black and white application of violence?
War is tough. War can be the hardest activity both physically and mentally known to man. Only a small percentage of the American population can say that they’ve been to war. A smaller population can say they ever ‘left the wire.’ A smaller number than that, can say that they ever came into real contact with an enemy. The smallest percentage of all, are those that have lived in austere conditions under the constant threat of imminent danger. I do not believe it is possible to be effective as a leader while also truly grasping the weight of the emotions and responsibilities that come with being responsible for others’ lives and the accomplishment of a mission. There has to be a certain amount of forced emotional deadening. It is common of those who live in a high level of stress to acclimate to it, meaning situations that may have previously elicited an emotional response, no longer do. This is not a bad thing, but a required transition of the mind, to maintain sanity. With the deadening of emotional responses, a service member has to be able see and know how to ethically deal with different situations through study and understanding of the law of armed conflict, rather than intuition.
Americans take for granted the fact that when they have a child, the child will probably make it to maturity. They will most likely not die from an act of violence. They will have food to eat, a shelter to live in and clothes to wear. America though, is not a microcosm of what the rest of the world looks like. In Afghanistan for example, there are high rates of infant mortality. Rates of violent deaths can exceed that of the United States’ most crime ridden cities. There are things like famine, limited housing, and biblical level epidemics. These simple facts that prevail in Afghanistan and other developing countries reduce the significance of an individual life to the people who live there. Going from a civilization that cherishes life above all else, to one where death is always an option, can be hard to rationalize. Death is mourned, but less of a surprise when it comes in a way other than natural causes. A common unspoken question maybe, “is a life in this country worth the same as a life in my country?”
I theorize that the brain cannot truly or completely adapt to war, when war is stigmatized for an entire adolescence. The majority of Americans either deliberately or unknowingly have to shut down or disregard certain emotional responses to stimulus to remain effective and sane when in habitual combat. The difference between an organization that maintains its honor while at war and one that does not may not only rely on the psychological adaptations of one. The difference may be most influenced by the overall average ability of the unit’s members’ capacity to reach a rational conclusion without a conscience. The nature of war is not changing, and the process of evolution is not quick enough. So, the adaptation of the mind to survive intact in combat must not be branded; but accepted, planned for and trained to mitigate. For me, it was necessary to dull emotions. I could not have come through combat had I stopped to feel the pain and empathy associated with the loss of a life.