When Soldiers Kill Civilians

I wrote this article June 3, 2006.

The recent news of our soldiers killing innocent civilians in Iraq leaves me with mixed, even conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I, like most people, am outraged by this and think that it reflects poorly on our country; I think that our military’s killing of civilians is a horrific act, one that hurts me as a human being and as an American. But it’s the other hand that I would like to talk about today, partly because everyone is already lambasting the men, the military, our country for these acts and partly because I am neither shocked nor bewildered by the news.

War, we (the general public, the non-warriors) started learning during World War I, is not all glory and honor and upstanding young men morally fighting just causes. It never was. But we didn’t quite get that until the beginning of the twentieth century, and judging from the surprise and confusion created by the recent news and reflected in news stories and on blogs across the net, I’d venture to say that quite a large number of people haven’t gotten it yet. And that surprises me a great deal. Even if you have never been to war, you may know someone who has been, you may have read any number of “war writers” from Hemingway to Tim O’Brien, you may have seen any number of “war movies” from Platoon to We Were Soldiers. Any of these experiences reveal the underbelly of war.

Fiction can sometimes do what fact cannot, and fictionalized facts and events are very powerful conveyers of meaning, rather than of mere events. When Tim O’Brien writes of U. S. soldiers ritualistically and methodically mutilating a baby buffalo before dumping what remained of its pain torn body down a well and listening with mixed emotions to its baleful shrieks of pain and confusion as it slowly died, he’s writing about more than that baby buffalo, more than the sadistic cruelty of the men who engaged in and of those characters who watched the act take place. When Willem DaFoe’s character is shot and left behind by his own men in Platoon, Oliver Stone is doing more than moving the plot along or developing the character of the man who betrays the DaFoe character, he’s revealing something about war, about its effects on the men (and women) who fight it, and how they ultimately fight themselves and each other in situations far removed from polite society.

The picture above is the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Jim MacMillan; it was taken in Iraq in 2004 and depicts two U. S. soldiers taking cover from enemy fire. These men are young American soldiers doing what we cannot or will not, and they are in a situation that we can never fully understand having gone through an intense psychological and physical training process that emphasizes soldiering in all its forms. One of the men has his head shielded, instinctively; the other’s eyes are wide, with fright or apprehension perhaps, but certainly with the awareness that at any moment he and all his buddies could be dead. Killed by enemy troops, rebels, or yes, civilians.

There is a fine line between condoning acts of violence against civilians and understanding it– feeling some degree of empathy, and that is the line I walk here. I don’t condone what these men have done, but I can tell you that I am not shocked by it, and I am not confused by it, and I do not think that it is a rare occurrence in war (on either or any side, during any war at any time in history). Does that make it “okay”? Of course not. Does acknowledging that drunk drivers drive drunk condone it? Does recognizing that mothers sometimes kill their own children approve of it? Of course not. Does the fact that some people have killed in self defense or to protect their loved ones mean that it is “okay” to do so? I don’t think so. And frankly, I feel that the men and women in our armed forces stand head and shoulders above those in any other, they are held to a higher standard and they are under more scrutiny on the battlefield, and for the most part, they rise to the occasion.

In A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson, following a fabulous speech about keeping our country safe and guarding our freedoms, famously says, “You can’t handle the truth,” and you know what? We can’t. But can it all be boiled down to a trite saying? War is hell. You can’t know what someone else experiences until you have walked a mile in his shoes. No. But you know what, I think that war is indeed hell, that gray areas are grayer and less well-defined in combat situations, and I think that I will reserve judgment on our soldiers until I have been through military training, been shipped (in my late teens, early twenties) to foreign soil (for the first time perhaps), seen my buddies die gruesome deaths, known that freedom rests on my shoulders, and until I’ve been desperately frightened in a way that no civilian can grasp, psychologically strained to a near snapping point, physically exhausted, sleep deprived for days on end, emotionally battered, and constantly on edge as I wait for the next gun fire or bomb to blast me to Kingdom Come.
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2 thoughts on “When Soldiers Kill Civilians

  1. the soldiers in this photo are under attack by the mahdi militia, not fighting civilians.hooray for your free speech, but attaching these individuals so closely to this headline and your comments is inaccurate and patently irresponsible.please remove this photo.

  2. Thank you for your comment, and I have considered doing as you ask; however, the content of the post is clear in that the soldiers pictured are ducking “enemy fire” and not “civilian fire.” The danger that our troops were in at the time was, to my mind and as I express in this blog, a large part of why civilians were killed.The photo is well-known and award-winning; if anyone misconstrues it in the context of my post, I apologize.

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