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Lt. Col David Grossman (U.S. Army-Ret.) is a former Army Ranger and has written extensively on the psychological impact of combat and killing. In this interview, he talks about how killing relates to PTSD and the deficit that he sees in the military's training. He tells FRONTLINE the soldier has been trained to kill, "but if this training just tricks you into killing, the magnitude of the trauma can be significant. Because you're having to live with something … that you didn't want to do." He also discusses why critical incident debriefing in the theater of war is key in helping soldiers cope with trauma, and also explains why killing affects some people more than others. This interview was conducted on Nov. 22, 2004.

Controlling the emotions doesn't mean not talking about the event. If you try to be the macho man, be John Wayne, and say, 'Real men don't cry' -- well, they do cry at funerals, it's OK to cry at funerals.

What is the preparation needed for someone who is going into combat and facing the reality of killing?

Prior preparation is the heart of what I do. I teach law enforcement. Today I just came from a conference where I trained 700 SWAT cops. And most of what I do is I train military and law enforcement in what I call the bulletproof mind. Just as today we have body armor that the guys in World War II didn't have, the same way we can have mental preparation that they didn't have. And this bulletproof mind is vital. Prior preparation is that one variable in the equation that we can control ahead of time, and one of the key things is embracing the responsibility to kill.

Modern training makes you kill without conscious thought. ...We're making it possible for people to kill without conscious thought. And frankly, at the moment of truth, they need to be able to do that. Those who are not properly trained are going to be killed. And so we're teaching them to kill without conscious thought. And they at an unconscious level, at the muscle-memory reflex level, have grasped killing: Gun. Shoot. He's dead.

I can trick your body into killing. But if your mind is not ready to come along in this ride, who's the next victim? You are.

I have tricked your body into doing something that your mind is not ready to do.

So when I teach, one of the things I believe we need to do is embrace this word "kill." You will read 100 military manuals, and you'll never see the word "kill." It's a dirty four-letter word. It's an obscene word. And yet it's what we do. ...

There are those out there who say, "Well, if we truly embrace the word 'kill' and understand the magnitude of what we do, then we can't do it, and we're undermining the soldier." And that's absolute baloney.

My book On Killing is being used by these folks that I train, the law enforcement groups, worldwide. And it empowers them; it enables them to be able to function at a cognitive level and at a body level at the same time. They have the muscles and the mind all focused on doing the same thing.

If you're truly prepared to kill, number one, you're less likely to have to [kill] them. [The enemy] will look in your eyes; they see the steely determination; they back off. A predator smells fear, they attack. They see uncertainty; they see fear; they attack. If they see the steely determination to turn your brains into a flying pink mist, they tend to back off.

So first, you're less likely to have to do it. I tell my soldiers, I tell my cops: "You've got the most difficult decision any human being will ever face. You have to decide whether or not to kill another human being." And killing's not the goal.

We're satisfied if he's wounded or satisfied if he surrenders. But we all understand that killing is the likely outcome of what we do. Now, if you choose to kill somebody you shouldn't, what do we call that? That's murder. It's a homicide. It's negligence. If you fail to kill somebody you should, what do we call that? Suicide. Because he's going to kill you and your friend. It's negligence.

You walk on a razor's edge, with horror and despair in one direction and horror and despair in the other direction. And yet if we didn't have cops who are willing to use deadly force, if we didn't have soldiers who were willing to employ it, our civilization could no longer exist.

The time to decide whether or not you can kill is not in the heat of battle. The time to decide whether or not you can kill is now, ahead of time. And if you do that, then you're better able to deter your opponent. It's the paradox of the battlefield.

Number two, you're less likely to panic. If you're a cop or a soldier and you pretend you'll never have to kill, and the moment comes to pull the trigger, you bought yourself a deluxe first-class, one-way ticket to panic and all the bad things that come with it. So if we embrace that word "kill," number one, we're better able to deter; number two, we're less likely to panic.

And number three, we're better able to live with it afterwards. I tell my people we don't need one-shot cops and one-shot soldiers. We had a lot of those in World War II. We had a lot of people who got in their first combat, and they lost it. But the ones who made it possible for us to survive were the veterans, the ones who saw combat and were stronger and better and more prepared by virtue of their combat experience. And that's what we want. If we had a nation full of one-shot warriors, we'd all be speaking German or Japanese today.

So that necessity to embrace a dirty four-letter word, "kill," that is in one way at the command [level], and at the psychological level is one area where we still need to make some progress, I think.

Do you feel like the military is doing enough to help soldiers and Marines embrace that idea?

They're increasingly doing it. There are many different resources available. Jonathan Shay's book [Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character] is so vital in understanding how we must not be berserkers. You know, there's two things that destroy you: running amok and running away. And inappropriate aggression is impossible and so difficult to live with. My book On Killing and my new book, On Combat, which are being used in a vast array of different places, these are tools that are being used.

The military is making progress, but it's an incremental process. And the truth is, the Marines will go one way, the Army will go another way. One division does this, and another division doesn't. One commander will institute something, the next commander will stop it. We think of the military as this great monolithic entity marching through history. In reality, what they are is a million different people, all of them taking two steps forward and one step back at any one time. And it is this great mass that slowly, slowly seems to be inching forward, and the quicker the better. We need to do it.

The truth is, we exist by virtue of killing. We are predators. We didn't spend all those years working our way up the food chain to not kill. And there are times when cops have to use deadly force. There are times when soldiers have to use deadly force to protect us and if it's appropriate.

Take me to the moment where you are faced with a difficult decision and you must kill. Physiologically, what's happening to somebody in that moment?

From 20,000 feet, you're not very frightened. From two miles back, firing the air artillery, you're not very frightened. But the human being who looks another human being in the face, that profound and powerful physiological process sets into place.

The heart rate goes up. It's a fear-induced heart rate. We can do physical exercise, and you look in the mirror and your face is red. You've got a flushed face, a flushed body from physical exercise. But when you're scared and you look in the mirror, your heart's pounding in your chest at the same rate, but your face is white. Something completely different has happened.

Fear-induced heart rate creates vasal constriction. The body shuts down the blood flow to the outer layer of the body. The outer layer of the body becomes a layer of armor. You can suck up significant damage out on the perimeter. As long as you don't hit an artery, there won't be much blood loss.

So this vasal constriction that shuts down the blood flow, your outer layer of the body becomes a layer of armor, but the price you pay ... there's always a price. First off, the shutdown of the blood flow means the muscles are not getting blood. If the muscles aren't getting blood, that means they stop working. So you begin to lose fine motor control.

One of the most devastating, catastrophic effects of all is [that] forebrain processing shuts down, and the mammalian brain, the midbrain, the part of your brain that's the same as your dog, begins to take over.

And in the mind of a frightened human being, you slam head-on into a resistance against killing your own kind. Animals with antlers and horns in their territorial mating, they fight head to head in the most harmless fashion, but against any other species, they go to the side. They gut. They go for the kills. Piranha will sink their teeth into anything that hits the water, except what? Another piranha. Rattlesnakes will sink their fangs into anything and everything, except what? Another rattlesnake.

So inside the mammalian brain of most healthy human beings is this powerful resistance to killing your own kind. And it's there in humans. We can see it throughout history. ... We saw it in World War II, when only 15 percent of the riflemen would fire their weapon at an exposed enemy soldier. In Vietnam, around 95 percent were firing, but there was a lot of spraying and praying.

Through modern conditioning, we have not only conditioned people to kill, but we've reduced the stress level. We've stress-inoculated them. And we've trained them not just to shoot, but to shoot accurately, to function at levels that have never been seen before in combat.

But the fundamental thing to understand is there's two things that we want to do first. We want to make sure that the frightened mind will do the right thing, and the only way to get the mammalian brain to do the right thing is to train it, train it, train it, train it.

... We want to reduce that stress, and we do that through various inoculation: paint bullets -- the technology of actually firing real guns with real gunpowder. What comes out the barrel is not a chunk of lead, but a plastic bullet, the marking capsule, and when it hits, it hurts. And we're inoculating you.

A firefighter can't use flickering red lights in his training. A mountain climber can't use a picture of a 1,000-foot drop. He needs a real 1,000-foot drop. A firefighter needs real fire to inoculate them, to teach them that they can deal with this. And soldiers and cops need the same, and we brought them up to that level.

So you see, this physiological phenomenon can be dealt with in several ways. One is to not get into what we call condition black, [but] to remain calm, cool, calculating in the heat of battle. And we're doing that. The other thing is to have a condition reflex in place so that even at the moment of truth, the shot's there -- (snaps fingers) -- and you fire without conscious thought.

And there's a couple of other dynamics in place: the breathing exercise and other tools that make it possible to stay calm. And we're doing all of that. But for the first time in human history, we're actually understanding the physiology of combat. ... For the first time in human history, we've systematically applied science to combat. Through the 20th century, we've done a little bit of it. World War II, it began to accelerate. In the last 20 years it's exploded. It's a renaissance.

So in summary, what is the three-sentence physiological description of the moment where you need to choose to fire?

Assuming there's no stress inoculation, in a normal human being, at the moment when you want to fire, the forebrain is shut down, the midbrain takes over, and you slam head-on into a resistance to killing your own kind. The only way to overcome that resistance is through operate conditioning, to make killing a condition reflex. And we've done that.

... But if we haven't prepared ourselves emotionally for the act ahead of time, and we just tricked you into killing, the magnitude of the trauma can be significant, because we're having to live with something that your body says is not right, that you didn't want to do, and you were simply tricked into killing.

Now, if you're convinced that what you did was right, if your society says, "But you were right," if everything's peachy keen and you come home, you'll probably be fine. But if there's any doubt about it, if you're killing without conscious thought and there's debate, there's doubt, there's hesitation, to overcome a resistance of that magnitude and to not have [a] support structure on the other end, you've got two strikes against you. The potential's there to be devastated and psychologically destroyed by that act.

What are the systems that need to be put in place to prevent that from happening?

The war needs to be appropriate. Leaders need to be supportive. Atrocities need to be prevented. But when they hone in on the individual, the things that need to be put in place is, number one, stress inoculation ahead of time, mental preparation. We need to have previously faced the stressor and overcome it. We need to embrace the responsibility to kill and accept that this is who we are, this is what we do. Mental preparation. We need to be given a toolbox of resources to deal with it. The breathing exercise. We need to understand what's going to happen to you in combat -- memory loss, memory distortions.

One out of four cops [who] walks away from a gunfight remembers something that did not happen. And the fact [is] that you've got to get together after the battle and sort out of the pieces. You may not need a debriefing, say, "I don't need no stinking debriefing," but your buddy might have a memory distortion that's going to destroy his life, his family and everything he has. What would you not do to save your buddy's life?

All of these things need to be understood ahead of time. The whole toolbox of coping mechanisms and psychological preparation needs to be given ahead of time.

Explain the mechanism of critical incident debriefing.

Throughout human history, the warriors got together around the campfire, and they talked about what happened. And then in World War II, we had day-and-night combat for months on end, and we lost that. We no longer had the opportunity to get together and talk about what happened. We're reinventing that. And it's as old as fire.

The critical incident debriefing, the after-action review, the hot wash, whatever you want to call it, serves many applications. It's kind of the same as a funeral. The human equation is to multiply the joy and divide the pain. Pain shared is pain divided; joy shared is joy multiplied.

We do that [as] humans. We share the pain; we divide our pain. At the same time, we multiply our joy. We buried my dad, we buried my mom, and we spent days sitting around with our loved ones talking about all the good things in their life. In the midst of our pain, we found joy, yeah?

Is there any joy to be found in battle? Valor, courage, honor, sacrifice. The sheer joy of being alive. The satisfaction of having saved lives, of having saved your buddy's life. The mission accomplishment. The nation that's liberated; the free elections that take place. There is joy to be found in battle.

There is honor if we honor those who do it. There is glory if we give them glory. There are so many people who say: "There is no honor in battle. There is no glory. It's nothing but nasty, dirty, vicious stuff." And it is. Combat is nasty, vicious, dirty stuff, but somebody has to do it.

And the battle will kill enough. The combat will destroy enough. It's badness, it's insanity to let it destroy lives after the battle that didn't have to be lost. So we choose to focus on the good things. We choose to multiply the joy, the honor, the glory, the valor, the medals, the recognition.

Men don't do what they do in combat for medals, but afterwards, that medal, that handshake, that parade, that recognition from their society is an actual talisman that says: "What you did was right. We honor what you did."

So the critical incident debriefing is a key ingredient. It is like a funeral in which we are turning around and we're multiplying the joy, dividing the pain. It is a ritual.

Second, the critical incident debriefing is an opportunity to fill in the gaps. About half of all cops walk away from gunfights with memory gaps, huge gaps in your memory. And about a quarter of all cops walk away from gunfights with memory distortions. They remember things that did not happen.

Now, you sit down, and who's the only person in the world who can fill in your memory gap? The people who are there with you. Who are the only people in the world that can say, "No, man, that's not what happened." Who can sort out that memory distortion? The people who are there with you.

So we sit around the campfire after the battle, and we figure out what really happened. And I tell people that I teach, I say, "You walk away from combat, and you take everything that you remember, and you hold it out here, and don't accept it as truth until you can verify it."

I had one Special Forces medic come up, and he says, "Colonel, why do so many people hallucinate in battle?" They hallucinate horrible things. Now, I can tell you [about] a SEAL team who had all come home, and 25 years later one of them could claim that atrocities happened, and the other ones swear [they] never happened. Odds are that one man is living with some kind of a memory distortion. And after action, if you immediately afterwards would sort all of those things out...

But most importantly in the critical incident debriefing, what you're doing is you're working right through the memory of the event, and you de-link the memory from the physiological arousal. People think these critical incident debriefings are supposed to be some "Kumbaya" sob fest, and they are not. The ultimate achievement is to work your way through the memory without having the emotions come for the ride. You've got to de-link the memory from the physiological arousal.

[Some] wonderful, wonderful research done by George Bonanno was published just this spring. You know, everybody studies the guy who gets PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. Somebody walks in your office; he's got a problem; you study him. Nobody studies the guy who doesn't get PTSD.

Some people are impacted more than others.

Some people are profoundly distressed by killing, and others aren't. The degree of prior preparation is a key factor. My first book, On Killing, was based on interviews with over 100 combat veterans, and most of them were 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids when they killed. And their response stage was initially a burst of euphoria, satisfaction. You saved your life; you saved your friend's life. It feels good. It's perfectly understandable to feel good: You're alive.

And then the magnitude of what you've done hits you. You see a living human being. You see them gurgle out their last breath. You say: "My God, I've just killed that man, and it felt good. There must be something wrong with me." There's a backlash of remorse and nausea. Many people vomit after their first kill. Then comes the rationalization or acceptance phase. And if you fail to be able to accept what you've done and rationalize what you've done, then you spin down one of the paths to PTSD. That's the way young men respond to killing.

Now, since my book has come out, I've had the privilege to speak to well over 1,000 people who have had to kill, and there's a different model that arises. A Green Beret sergeant major's first kill was in Somalia. A door gunner, master sergeant, Vietnam, [had] 17 years' [experience] under his belt when he killed. A state trooper, 12 years under her belt.

And these are mature warriors, and they're mature in walking the warrior's path. They're mature in doing the rationalization, acceptance ahead of them. When these individuals kill, their response is quite different. They feel the satisfaction. One state trooper, she told me it was the highest point of her life. It was the most significant achievement of her life. She's alive; she saved her buddy; she felt good. And there was no backlash of remorse and nausea. Sometimes they feel bad [that] they don't feel bad.

But old Green Beret sergeant major, 20 years of service, he finally killed in Somalia. He says, "When I killed those Somalis, all I felt was the recoil." Now, the truth is, [if] you had a choice between somebody who's nauseated, traumatized by killing, and somebody who is able to get on with it, which one would you choose? And it is those who have wrapped their mind around this responsibility to kill that seems to be the primary factor in how you will respond to killing.

And how does all this relate to those who get PTSD?

The [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatry Association, the bible of psychiatry and psychology [Editor's Note: See its description of PTSD in the Readings section of this Web site]] tells us that to have PTSD, two things have to happen: number one, a life-and-death event; and number two, your response was intense fear, helplessness and horror.

Now, if you have intense fear, helplessness and horror, the puppy will come for a visit. The neural network will kick up, and you will reexperience the event.

The key is to make peace with the memory. If you don't make peace with the memory, if you try to flee from the memory, if you try to not think about the event, not talk about the event, not seek counseling, then you spin down the path of PTSD. Just having intense fear, helplessness and horror, just having the puppy come for a visit, is not PTSD. It's when you try to flee from the memory.

You cannot not think about something. You will literally drive yourself crazy.

What happens when you try to not think about something is a lot of things. One of them is you put your emotions under control. It isn't just that you control the bad emotions. It's that you lock down all emotions. You live in fear of your emotions. You see the memory comes back for a visit. It scares the daylights out of you, so you're trying to lock down your emotions.

You can't lock down all emotions. They're still there. They bubble, and they swell. But you're Mr. No Emotions, remember? You've locked your emotions away. And then they come out in outbursts of rage and anger, and you say, "My God, where did that come from?"

A healthy person, their emotions are on their sleeve. They say: "Hey, that bothered me. Don't do that." But you can't do that. You're Mr. No Emotions. You've locked away the good and the bad. You have trouble feeling love for your loved ones. You have trouble with your sleep; because you don't deal with the memories during the day, they will come back in your dreams.

And it all comes down to failing to make peace with the memory, failing to do the counseling, failing to do the debriefing. And you're distancing yourself from your loved ones. There's still great love inside, but you've built a cage around your love. You've locked away your emotions -- not just the bad emotions, but all emotions. You become what's called ahedonistic, which means you don't seek things that give you pleasure, because pleasure means losing control, and you mustn't lose control. You live in fear of losing control.

So these outbursts of rage and anger are just one of those manifestations that can occur from somebody who is not coming to terms with the memory. You try to be the macho man. One old detective told me, he says: "Colonel, you tell these kids, don't be the macho man. I'd gotten my shooting. It almost killed me. It ate me alive. For two years, it was destroying my family. Outbursts of rage, sleep difficulty."

He said: "Finally I went to the counselor. These guys are good at what they do." And he said it like it was some stunning revelation. "Those doggone psychiatrists, they're good!" And he says, "In two months, it was all over." He said: "I was about to lose everything I had. My wife said before the divorce, 'Go seek counseling.'" (Snaps fingers.) "And that's all I needed. Don't be the macho man."

And that's really the number one message that we've got to give these guys: Don't be the macho man. You get the rage, you get the anger; deal with it.

Now, PTSD is not like having cancer. "Oh my God, I got cancer!" PTSD is like being overweight. Some people are 20 pounds overweight, and some people are 400 pounds overweight. The average person is going to be 20, 30 pounds overweight, and it's going to affect every day of your life. Carry[ing] around 20, 30 extra pounds is going to have an impact on every aspect of your life. It's not going to kill you, and you can carry it around without any great difficulty. But you should deal with it.

The guy that's 400 pounds overweight, he's self-destructive. He's losing his family; he's losing his life; he's thinking suicidal thoughts; his world is coming unglued. Well, that's a severe case that needs to be dealt with.

Whether you're 400 pounds overweight or 20 pounds overweight, you can still use some dieting. You can still deal with it. But don't think that just because there's some PTSD symptoms there that it's like having cancer. Deal with it in a measured understanding of this continuum of things that could go wrong.

How do you jibe the need to expose these difficult emotions with a military culture of "tough it out; just swallow it"?

There are three variables that allow somebody to not get PTSD, right? One is the individual who has had previous life experiences, right? You've been stress-inoculated; you've experienced it before your triumph. The other is an internal locus of control. The third is controlling your emotions.

Those who have got control over their emotions are better able to not have PTSD. But there's a difference. The stoic Roman, the inscrutable samurai, the stiff-upper-lipped Brit, the silent plainsman -- those are all different ways of saying the same thing: You control your emotions.

But you've got to understand that controlling the emotions doesn't mean not talking about the event. If you try to be the macho man, you try to be John Wayne, you suck up the emotions and say, "Real men don't cry" -- well, they do cry at funerals, and it's OK to cry at funerals.

But they shouldn't cry at the memory of battle. You want to separate those two out. You can mourn the loss of a loved one -- rightful, appropriate expression of emotions. But if, when you think about battle, [when] the puppy comes for a visit, if the emotional, physiological arousal happens, then that's a bad thing. We don't want that.

So we've got to understand that the no-emotions thing, the "real men don't cry," the "tough it out" thing has a place. Its place is to work your way through the memory of the event, to de-link the memory from the physiological arousal, to do the debriefing, to talk about the event, to take pleasure and pride in the event and not to have the emotions come along.

I was just training the British SAS [Special Air Service], the SPS [Staff and Personnel Support] and the Royal Marine Commandos, and they all understand the stiff upper lip. And they understand; it's not an affectation. The stiff upper lip, the emotional control of the Brits, is not something you do to look cool. It's a survival mechanism that a warrior society has learned across hundreds of years. But combined with it has to be making peace with the memory and being able to multiply the joy and divide the pain after the battle. And they've all got to come together as a package.

Do you think that the military is paying proper credence now to the reality of killing?

Yes. Increasingly we're focusing more on the reality of killing, the need to kill and the need to deal with killing. We always knew we had to kill. We kind of went at it from the Patton angle: You'll know what to do.

No, no, we don't know what to do. We need to teach them what to do. We need to guide them down this path. We enable them, employ them, equip them, order them to kill. And then they do it. And if we fail to provide them the support mechanism, then we're guilty. We're guilty of a horrible crime.

Do you think that, as a culture, we're ready to deal with this new generation of combat veterans returning?

We're better ready as a culture today to deal with the new generation of returning veterans than we've been at any time throughout the 20th century.

I want to go back and talk again about denial. And I have this quote: "The burden of guilt is so great that most men try not to admit they have guilt. And they deny it to others; they deny it to themselves." We've heard this from soldiers: They don't know if they've killed somebody. What do you make of this?

To say, "Well, I don't know if I killed; everybody fired in that direction," increasingly, that's becoming impossible. The soldiers today all have scopes on the rifles. They're doing precision fire. They've been trained to fire precisely, and they see the bullet hit the enemy soldier.

And so denial becomes of less and less value. Denial has some utility. To be able to walk away and say, "Well, you know, I don't know if I killed anybody," you're not truly denying reality -- it's true -- but if denial hits the realm in which you're denying reality, you're pretending you never killed, you're afraid to tell people you killed because society doesn't honor that act, then that denial can be terribly counterproductive.

What can happen?

Well, denial [of] reality creates cognitive dissonance. You say one thing; you know another thing is true. You've done things that your society says you should be proud of, and yet you can't talk about it; you can't do anything about it.

And it swells up inside of you. And it eats away at you. And it's one more path to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in many ways, in which, instead of making peace with the memory, instead of de-linking the memory from the physiological arousal, society says: "Swallow the memory. I don't want to hear about it. I don't want to know about it."

You know, the cowboy talked proudly about picking off the bad guys. Today we've got a society that's in the middle of a real pathology, and the pathology is about killing. ... The person that kills, we think there must be something wrong with them. The person that goes and hunts, the person that kills their own meat, the person that goes and kills in combat, we think there's something wrong with them. And that's a societal pathology that we need to work our way out of. And it will take time.

You have statistics in your book. ... Talk to me about the 2 percent statistic and what that means.

Naturally speaking, there's 2 percent who after 60 days of continuous day-and-night combat are not driven insane. And this 2 percent keeps bubbling up. Two percent of all fighter pilots in World War II killed more than the rest put together, something along those lines. This 2 percent keeps bubbling up.

And it's really not a percent. It's not a yes or no. It's a continuum. It's the old bell-shaped curve. [At] one end of the bell-shaped curve there's people, at the tail of it, with great capacity for violence. [At] the other end there's people over here with no capacity for violence. And there's most of the people right in between. But you can choose to go one way or another. Israel is a nation that has shifted their bell-shaped curve. Israel is a nation who's chosen a warrior path.

So what's happening in the psychology of those 2 percent?

Well, those 2 percent are people with a capacity for aggression. And then they divide into two parts. Those who have the capacity for aggression and an absence of empathy, we call those psychopaths, sociopaths, aggressive sociopaths. Those who have a capacity for aggression and empathy for their fellow citizens, we call those warriors, heroes, cops, soldiers, Marines, spec ops.

Do you think the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] psychologists are ready to deal with the issue of killing?

They're coming to terms with it. The VA psychologists are increasingly coming to terms with the task. Again, they're a monolithic entity, and there are some who are doing a good job and some who aren't. We're embracing this concept of killing.

They brought me out a little while back to train all the VA rehab counselors, and they were very receptive. They seemed to think it was of value. So step by step we're learning. The field is growing, and they're getting better and better. They're better than they have ever been in the existence of the Veterans Administration.

Do you think they're ready to deal with the guilt that people have to deal with?

Well, they're better prepared than they were after Vietnam. They're better prepared than they were after World War II or World War I. But it's all a matter of degrees.

There seems to be a blind spot in the scholarship of killing. And it's a two-part question. Why do you think that blind spot exists in academia?

Yes, there really is a cultural blind spot when it comes to killing. In academia, we don't want to talk about it. We'll study sex, study sex all day long. We don't want to study killing. We don't want to interview people who have killed. We don't want to talk about killing.

And I think it really represents a cultural taboo. I think it represents a pathology in our society. The Victorians had a similar blind spot for sex, in which they simultaneously fixated on sex and repressed sex. And that's what we're doing. In this society, we're fixating on violence.

And it seems there is something of a blind spot also in the military studies. Why is this blind spot for killing?

The military, academia, they're just reflections of the overall culture and society. They do the things that are popular.

We don't want to talk about it; we don't want to deal with it. But we're doing that. We're making progress. My book has been one of the tools that's made that possible. It's just a tool, a step in the right direction.

Is there another sort of complex set of cultural constructions that's keeping that blind spot intact in the military?

There is a complex set of cultural constructions that has made it difficult for the military to confront this issue, but they are confronting it more than they ever have before in modern history.

I think that we had a lot better grip on it in the early 1900s. Everybody went out and killed their own chickens for dinner. Everybody slaughtered the hogs every fall. Everybody hunted. And we were all in tune with killing. Killing's what we do. Killing's who we are.

Today we have a generation of people who think Chicken McNuggets grow off a tree somewhere. Or they think they can be a vegetarian and never have to be responsible for the death of any living creature. And that's a pathology. It's a dysfunction.

It is a denial of reality. But by virtue of our industrialization, by virtue of everything from funeral parlors to hospitals, we've separated ourselves from death. And we don't see death. And that whole cultural blind spot is something that we're coming out of. ...

What do we need to do to get ready for these combat vets coming back? What is it that they are going to need from us? What do they need to hear from us or not hear from us?

Yeah. Well, the most important thing is to tell them, "Thank you"; to be able to look at what they did and shake their hands and tell them, "I'm proud of you"; to be able to look at a democratically elected government in Afghanistan, to look at women voting in Iraq and Afghanistan and take these things and hold them up and say, "We're proud of you." And that's the single most important thing of all, to say that the death and the lives were not vain; these were [a] worthy and necessary cause.

The second thing we need to remember for the returning veteran is not to ask these intrusive questions: Did you kill anybody? That ghoulish, intrusive question is difficult for them. But on the other hand, allow them an opportunity to talk. Allow them an opportunity to speak about what they did, and allow them, when they're ready, to talk about it in a supportive environment.

We need to be understanding of the fact that they're going to be changed humans, but not necessarily changed for the worse. The generation that came home from World War II is the generation that created this, the greatest generation, this boom in America.

We've got this expectation that they're all going to come home, and there's going to be some horrendous traumatic era, when the truth is generally just the opposite. The returning veteran has potential to come home and be an era of great growth for us, as in the post-World War II era.

So those who are hurt, we will help them. We will deal with it. But we don't have this expectation that it's going to happen. The very expectation that what they did is going to be harmful has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So don't have that expectation. Look at the returning veterans from World War II and know that it can be that way. Have you read the book The Lord of the Rings? There is one part of the book that is really my favorite and was left out of the movie. ... [J.R.R.] Tolkien has this image of the hobbits coming home, and they've been turned by war into steely-eyed hobbits. And he's got a real turn of phrase in there about them that's really valuable: "... who came out and sorted things out in the Shire." I think this generation is going to come home and have the potential to help sort things out a little bit.


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posted march 1, 2005

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