Well it’s easy enough to pull the trigger on a sniper rifle, drop a bomb from an airplane, or even launch artillery into a house full of Iraqi insurgents, but it’s not so easy to live with what you see when you enter the house to survey the results and find out you’ve made a terrible mistake. So writes Army lieutenant Shannon Meehan for The New York Times:
I thought we had struck enemy fighters, but I was wrong. A father, mother and their children had been huddled inside.
The feelings of disbelief that initially filled me quickly transformed into feelings of rage and self-loathing. The following weeks, months and years would prove that my life was forever changed.
In fact, it’s been nearly three years, and I still cannot remove from my mind the image of that family gathered together in the final moments of their lives. I can’t shake it. It simply lingers.
While reading this column today, I was thinking about the conversation I had with my ten-year-old son during a battle scene in The Sand Pebbles. The movie stars Steve McQueen who plays Jake Holman, a Navy engineer assigned to a gunboat cruising China’s Yangtze River in 1926 as the Nationalist revolution led by Chiang Kai-shek breaks out. The battle scene takes place near the end of the film when the Navy boat must get past a blockade of junks set up by the Chinese revolutionaries. After much shooting and hand-to-hand combat to clear the center junk, Holman uses an axe to the cut the thick ropes that string the boats together. While he’s chopping at the ropes, a Chinese fighter sneaks up on him with a machete and raises it for the killing blow. Holman catches a glimpse of him approaching and moves just in time for the machete weilder to miss his mark. The blade hits Holman’s helmet and glances away from him. He then swings his axe head right into the gut of the Chinese man who doubles over and dies.
Holman stands there with his axe hanging by his side staring at the dying man while his boat, just a few yards behind him, begins to advance past the blockade. At that point, my son said, “What’s he doing? Why is he just standing there?” All I could say was something like, “Well, it’s not easy to kill a man. It’s a terrible thing to take another man’s life. That’s what he’s feeling, and it doesn’t feel good to him.” As I’m saying this, Holman shake his head, shoulders his axe, and gets on board the gun boat.
Meehan wrote about that feeling in his column.
Killing enemy combatants comes with its own emotional costs. On the surface, we feel as soldiers that killing the enemy should not affect us — it is our job, after all. But it is still killing, and on a subconscious level, it changes you. You’ve killed. You’ve taken life. What I found, though, is that you feel the shock and weight of it only when you kill an enemy for the first time, when you move from zero to one. Once you’ve crossed that line, there is little difference in killing 10 or 20 or 30 more after that.
…The deaths that I caused also killed any regard I had for my own life. I felt that I did not deserve something that I had taken from them. I fell into a downward spiral, doubting if I even deserved to be alive. The value, or regard, I once had for my own life dissipated.
My son plays a series of computer war games that are mostly based on historical events. In these games, he builds villages and farms to supply them with food and materials, and he must also build armies to protect them from enemies that want to take what he’s built. Battles ensue, and one side or the other ultimately wins. The games do teach a bit of history, but they don’t delve into the morality of war and allow for contemplation about the victims.
I’ll share this piece with him and hope that it makes him think a little about what might be going on in the minds of the tiny little warriors on his computer screen.