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Is anyone ever truly prepared to kill?

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 2004

One dark night in Iraq in February 1991, a U.S. Army tank unit opened fire on two trucks that barreled unexpectedly into its position along the Euphrates river. One was carrying fuel and burst into flames, and as men scattered from the burning trucks, the American soldiers shot them.

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"To this day, I don't know if they were civilians or military - it was over in an instant," says Desert Storm veteran Charles Sheehan-Miles. But it wasn't over for him.

"For the first years after the Gulf War it was tough," says the decorated soldier. He had difficulty sleeping, and when he did, the nightmares came. "I was very angry and got drunk all the time; I considered suicide for awhile."

Like many young Americans sent off to war, he was highly skilled as a soldier but not adequately prepared for the realities of combat, particularly the experience of killing.

Much is rightly made of the dedication and sacrifice of those willing to lay down their lives for their country. But what is rarely spoken of, within the military or American society at large, is what it means to kill - to overcome the ingrained resistance most human beings feel to slaying one of their own kind, and the haunting sense of guilt that may accompany such an action. There is a terrible price to be paid by those who go to war, their families, and their communities, say some experts, by ignoring such realities.

"We never in our military manuals address the fact that they go forward to kill," says Lt. Col. David Grossman, a former Army Ranger. "When the reality hits them, it has a profound effect. We have to put mechanisms in place to help them deal with that.

"Every society has a blind spot, an area into which it has great difficulty looking," Colonel Grossman says. "Today that blind spot is killing."

It may seem strange that a central fact of war for millenniums should become an urgent concern now. But some close to the scene say modified warfare training that makes it easier to kill - and a US cultural response that tends to ignore how killing affects soldiers - have taken an unprecedented emotional and psychological toll. A lengthy conflict in Iraq, they worry, could increase that toll dramatically.

Society has a moral obligation, some argue, to better prepare those sent to war, to provide assistance in combat, and to help in the transition home.

"We have a profound responsibility because we send these people into combat on our behalf, to kill for us," says Shannon French, who teaches ethics at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Postwar tragedy may have been averted, says Mr. Sheehan-Miles, if help had been available to his tank unit. "Within my own tank company, half of the married soldiers were divorced within a year after the Gulf War; one shot another over a girl," he says. "They didn't know how to get help, and the Army essentially did nothing."

Psychological injuries of war can't be tied solely to killing alone - seeing close comrades die and other horrors of war are also factors. But mental-health professionals and chaplains who've worked closely with veterans see killing as a significant contributor, along with other demoralizing elements of combat that soldiers experience or see as "a betrayal of what's right," says Veterans Affairs psychiatrist Jonathan Shay.

The devastating impact of war on soldiers was visible after World Wars I and II and the Korean War as well. But particularly evident today is the ongoing toll of the Vietnam War, whose vets are overrepresented in the homeless and prison populations. One-third are said to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In July, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that 16 percent of veterans of the war in Iraq suffer from depression or PTSD, and that fewer than 40 percent have sought help.

Along with several studies, the efforts of two men are stirring thinking within the US military: Grossman, who wrote "On Killing: the Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society," and Dr. Shay, who has worked with vets for 20 years at the VA Outpatient Clinic in Boston. Shay has written two books ("Achilles in Vietnam" and "Odysseus in America") that provide in-depth analyses of how combat can affect individual character and the homecoming to civilian society.