Learning to Kill

March 2, 2015

sniper GettyImages_140238116I was very moved by an op-ed in the Sunday New York Times Sunday Review section titled How We Learned to Kill. It was written by Timothy Kudo, “a Marine captain and graduate student at New York University who was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011.” In a way it is a bookend to James Fallows’s Chickenhawk Nation piece. Where Fallows talks about how most of us are not paying attention to endless war and what that shallow, fawning regard we consequently have for the military does to our national character, Kudo talks about how those who are in the military learn to focus intensely on killing in combat and what that does to you. It is a sad and troubling piece.

Kudo focuses on the uncertainties of the kinds of war we are fighting today. Are those two men militants or farmers? Are they tending their fields or planting an IED? Should we shoot them? With those uncertainties and in the fog of war, mistakes are inevitable. How do you learn to live with that–with the killing of innocents, however well-intentioned the killing? Those are his questions.

Kudo was a young man when he became an officer. He talks about learning to give the command to kill, realizing that usually the decision when it came was his alone to make. He recounts how he had first to learn how to kill by himself, with knife and gun. He could not be entrusted with commanding others to kill until he was seen as willing to be the killer himself.

For me, the hardest and also truest part of Kudo’s account concerns his motivations for killing, and what he thought were the motivations of those attempting to kill him.  “The longer I lived among the Afghans, the more I realized that neither the Taliban nor we were fighting for the reasons I expected.” He says “The more I thought about the enemy, the harder it was to view him as evil or subhuman.” He realized that most of the Taliban fighters were “too young and too isolated to understand anything outside of their section of the valley.” They weren’t fighting for religious or ideological reasons, they fought because “that’s what they always did when foreigners came to their village.” He adds, “Perhaps they just wanted to be left alone.”

As to his own motives, Kudo says that the ‘big’ reasons he had “internalized from the newspapers back home,” the ‘war on terror’ reasons, gave way to this new understanding of the enemy. “I ended up fighting for different reasons once I got on the ground–a mix of loyalty to my Marines, habit and the urge to survive.” And this recognition: “If someone is shooting at me, I have a right to fire back. But this is a legal justification, not a moral one.”

Not a new thought but one that will stay with me from Kudo’s account: “Perhaps they just wanted to be left alone.”

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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