[Trigger warning for mild descriptions of combat violence.]
When M and I were first together, we naturally got to talking about her time in Iraq -- this would have been June 2006, about 26 months after she got home from her year in the sandbox. After several hours of conversation, she said "And I'm sure there's a question in your head, it's okay, you can just go ahead and ask." I looked at her blankly, having absolutely no idea what she was talking about.
"Don't you want to know how many people I've killed?"
I looked at her and started crying, because no, I didn't want to know. The question had never even entered my mind, but now that it had been brought up I really didn't want to know. If she had, I didn't want to think about her doing that. Either way, I didn't want her to have to think about it, to have to go back to that place.
Last week, we got to talking about that conversation we had had back in the day and I asked her if a lot of people asked her that question. She laughed humourlessly, and said, "everyone asks that." Then she told me this story:
A man came to talk to our [junior-high] class, a Vietnam combat veteran, to tell us about what it was like to be a soldier. He talked to us for a while and opened it up for questions, and one of the kids asked had he ever killed anyone, and if so, how many? You could tell that this question was something he'd been prepared for, but it still hurt.
He said that he didn't know with utter certainty about all of them, simply because sometimes it wasn't him looking though the sights, squeezing a trigger and watching someone fall; sometimes he would be calling in airstrikes or they would leave a booby-trap on a trail in the jungle and then move away, and they could see that it had exploded but they didn't know exactly how many. He went on to say that he believed it was probably around 50. You could see in his face that this was haunting him, that several decades later this remained a constant horror in his life, and when that question was asked he saw it all again. Even as a soldier, with a soldier's training, this wasn't something he was proud of, it wasn't "yeah, I nailed 50 of those fuckers" it was "I stand before you, having killed 50 human beings" and you could just tell how awful it was for him. I decided right then and there that I was never going to ask anyone that question.
Within the community of soldiers, some people say that the first time you kill, it's hard. The second time you kill, it's harder, because now you can't just tell yourself that this was a fluke thing, you have to own up to the fact that you are a killer, that this is who you have become. And after that second one, you forget why it was hard to begin with because a place within you has died. You can't sit and contemplate every time you killed a person, or you'll go insane, so part of your soul dies to allow the rest of you to continue on doing what you have to do to survive.
I have the luxury of the answer being no, so for me it's not a terribly distressing question. However, I know a great many people for whom the answer is 'yes,' and for them, thinking about the people that they've killed is amongst the worst and most haunting experiences of their lives. So, consequently, I want to make sure that people don't continue to go around asking that question. So my response is to make them as uncomfortable as possible and make sure that they are very, very, very sorry that they ever asked and hopefully they won't ask anyone else ever again.
First of all, I let them know how crushing it is to the human soul to take someone's life and even if you're trained to do it, you still don't want to and you still don't enjoy it. Soldiers are not bloodthirsty animals, they're usually just ordinary people who felt the call to serve, and as such were put into a horrible situation. I know many, many people whose lives have been destroyed because of what they had to do to protect themselves or their fellow soldiers. And basically, they come back just wanting to be human being again, but when people ask that kind of question -- however inappropriate -- they're forced to relive everything all over again.
Then I end up telling them that people need to understand that people don't come back from war the same -- that most of us who raised our right hands and swore to defend our homes are being forced into an evil war of which they want no part, and they come back damaged. And it's awful that petty voyeurs have to rub salt in their wounds to satisfy their own curiosity.