November 17, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)


The very emphasis of the commandment: Thou shalt not kill, makes it certain that we are descended from an endlessly long chain of generations of murderers, whose love of murder was in their blood as it is perhaps also in ours.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Another Veteran's Day has come and gone. It used to be called Armistice Day and was dedicated to remembering those who died in war. Now it is dedicated to all who have been in the military. As with many holidays, it is an excuse to close schools and government offices.

There is good reason to remember those who died, particularly if that person was a friend or a member of your family. Many veterans remember their dead buddies, and some still harbor guilt that they got out of it alive and their friends didn't.

If a person is a decent human being, as most people are, he has been taught that to kill another human being is an evil thing to do. If someone threatened my life with a weapon, I would not hesitate to kill him if I could. Yet, it would trouble me, probably for all of my life. It would have been far worse for me if I had been killed. I, as would most people, would greatly prefer to not be placed in a kill or be killed situation. I am still troubled by the look in a wounded elk's eyes before I finished him off. If you have to kill, it is not a good idea to empathize with whatever you are going to kill.

While I believe that hunting comes naturally to a boy, I don't believe that killing does. Even kids from hunting cultures often feel sad when they realize that the animal that they have just killed was once alive. Usually their first kill is something like a squirrel or a small bird. Holding the dead object in their hand and realizing that it will never run or sing again can't help but be troubling. Some quit hunting then and there.

I was a medic during World War II in Europe. During my brief stint in the infantry as an aid man, toward the end of the war, I got to know a number of combat infantrymen. Most were fine people, and one was a person whom I would have preferred as my enemy, rather than as a member of my platoon.

I know for sure that a few were troubled by what they did, and would remain so to the end of their days. There was also one who wouldn't have been troubled even if the people he killed had been his parents. As I listen to veterans of the Korean war talk about the killing of civilians, it is obvious to me that they are deeply troubled, but reluctant to talk about it. Good people can do very bad things in a war, but they revert to being good people when the war is over. Most would prefer not to be reminded of what they did. Many are ashamed of what they have done.

Airmen do not get to see the people they kill and are not as likely to be as troubled afterwards. It is interesting to speculate about the suicide of the pilot of the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

During most wars, people who had the good sense to not want to be placed in a kill-or-be-killed situation had to keep quiet about it for fear of being labeled cowards, or unpatriotic, by people who had also managed to avoid serving by some "legitimate" subterfuge. There were a number of ways that a person could avoid going into the military, or if in the military, to avoid going to where the fighting was. It is no accident that most of the people who end up in combat are young. They don't know any better.

The Vietnam war was unique in that there were a large number of men who left the country to avoid serving in a war that they felt was wrong. To a lesser degree, this was true in W.W.I. Conscientious objectors in W.W.II were mostly people who were members of a religious denomination, such as the Quakers, who refused to fight. I had medical basic training with a very nice Quaker lad who was treated shamefully by the officers and the non-commissioned officers. Strangely, after watching the orientation films, he volunteered for the infantry. I wonder if he manage to live through the war. I am amazed that I survived it. It was pure dumb luck, not brains. Had I known then what I know now, I would have done things very differently. But that's the way things are. As a sign that I saw in a bar said, "We grow too soon old and too late smart."

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