On the business of killing

I first read Jarhead, Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the Gulf War, while deployed in the Persian Gulf. Serendipitously, I happened to be thumbing through it around the same time the world witnessed the ground invasion phase of the war in Iraq, making things vaguely surreal. I was a Marine peripherally involved in a war I had serious misgivings about, reading the memoir of a Marine nonplussed by the same a decade earlier.

The recently released Universal film (directed by Sam Mendes of American Beauty acclaim), which is based on the memoir, is a relatively poor adaptation of the book. This is a shame for reasons great and small, the small being that the book is actually a rather moving account of how men deal with the stress of war, whereas the movie is more or less a cavalcade of asinine statements and behavior (notice, however, I do not use the word “inaccurate”).

The greater shame is that had Mendes bothered to make this a film of the same caliber as his earlier two works and addressed the more disturbing notions of Swofford’s memoir, Jarhead’s success might have compelled a national discussion, which we have avoided for some time now – and that is, of killing. Swofford’s memoir, while concise, does not shirk addressing the long-term consequences of his experiences and those of the men around him – and “consequence,” in general, is a concept about which our culture has been remarkably lacking in introspection.

The shock of killing has become largely diffused in our national psyches – killing is, in fact, a common component in every form of our entertainment: our movies, our music, our fiction. It is so fundamental to pop culture that we no longer register anything odd about the fact that we are entertained by death. Consider the irony of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s, D-N.Y., recent freak-out over the “hidden” sex scenario in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Clinton contends that such blatant pornographic images are harmful to young viewers. Well, fine. What does not seem to register with her (or anyone else, oddly) is the fact that this is a video game that is otherwise focused on non-stop violence. Killing, thus, is a non-issue, and frankly unreal.

But we are a nation at war these days, and it is becoming real – not simply in terms of fallen Americans and their grieving families, the cost of which is immediate and intense, but also in terms of those who will return alive, some of whom will have more to deal with than most will ever know.

War, at its heart, is a situation of human beings killing human beings, and we would do well to settle up with that. Whatever else is achieved or lost, whether an engagement is justified or rationalized, the fact is that we send our men (and increasingly, women) to kill theirs – whoever “they” may be. Beyond military victory or failure, this often yields an amazing amount of personal crisis for the survivors.

Skipping right to the Big Unmentionable, I feel our nation’s lingering anxiety over Vietnam has less to do with whether the war was “won,” but rather with the condition of so many of our veterans after they were discharged. Common lore reflects on how poorly the peaceniks treated the returning, but let’s face it: Once many of the veterans began to talk, the pro-war crowd wasn’t too eager to listen. I would like to believe that the past 30 years have prepared us for the next generation of returning veterans, but I doubt it already.

In most engagements, it’s random chance that dictates who’s thrown into harm’s way and who isn’t – the odds in Iraq, however, have become particularly ugly, things having dissolved into a guerilla conflict, where the “front line” is more or less everywhere. The two essential results of this lottery are those who engage in direct conflict and those who don’t. Some of those left out of the fray will wonder if they’ve somehow missed out on the defining moment of their lives, while others are happy just to have escaped unscathed. Among the survivors of firefights, there will be those empowered by the things they’ve done, and others who will be haunted by them. Resist the convenience, by the way, of assuming those last two are simply determined by “knowing” whether you’ve done “the right thing.”

Once, killing was almost exclusively a face-to-face ordeal. Millennia of technology, however, have provided humanity with ever-greater powers of destruction, and with them, the moral ambiguity of distance. While I doubt world leaders commanding great armies lose much sleep over the enemies slain at their behest in distant lands, anyone (psychopaths excluded) forced to kill with his bare hands will likely reflect upon it all the rest of his days. While the Gulf War was more or less won through bombing campaigns as most of the ground forces stood at the ready (the central irony explored in Jarhead, by the way), this war has revived the art of urban combat – street-to-street, house-to-house, room-to-room, face-to-face.

Anthony Principi, the U.S. secretary of veterans affairs, announced in September 2004 that 20 percent of returning Iraq vets had sought medical treatment from the VA for mental health issues.

Given that the intensity of close-quarters combat has increased in the ensuing year, I would have to imagine that that percentage has only increased. Discharged Iraq war vets are already showing up at homeless shelters around the country. Meanwhile, the mainstream broadcast media (I’m thinking in particular here of FOX and CNN), despite their ubiquitous flag- waving enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq, are not only loathe to mention the dead, but abhor any discussion of all but the happiest of the living. Where do you suppose we are headed here?

My point is not about “the evils of war,” nor am I trying to disparage military service. What I am saying is that this is all a great deal more serious than our culture has led us to believe. Taking individuals from a society where the specter of death is evaluated chiefly in terms of its entertainment value, plunging them into mortal combat and then returning them home – where the general populace takes nothing particularly seriously – is a recipe for disaster.

I have an acquaintance who served one enlistment in the Marine Corps and then enlisted in the Army as a medic. When his unit received orders for Iraq earlier this year, part of their preparation was a group counseling session, wherein an Army psychologist laid out some very essential information: “What we have learned,” he said, “is that the act of killing is psychologically damaging. There is no way around that.” It is reassuring to learn that the military has begun to address this fact. All I pray is that the rest of us can begin to grant it some gravity as well.