One dark night in Iraq in February 1991, a U.S. Army tank unit opened fire on two trucks that barreled unexpectedly into its position along the Euphrates river. One was carrying fuel and burst into flames, and as men scattered from the burning trucks, the American soldiers shot them.
"To this day, I don't know if they were civilians or military - it was over in an instant," says Desert Storm veteran Charles Sheehan-Miles. But it wasn't over for him.
"For the first years after the Gulf War it was tough," says the decorated soldier. He had difficulty sleeping, and when he did, the nightmares came. "I was very angry and got drunk all the time; I considered suicide for awhile."
Like many young Americans sent off to war, he was highly skilled as a soldier but not adequately prepared for the realities of combat, particularly the experience of killing.
Much is rightly made of the dedication and sacrifice of those willing to lay down their lives for their country. But what is rarely spoken of, within the military or American society at large, is what it means to kill - to overcome the ingrained resistance most human beings feel to slaying one of their own kind, and the haunting sense of guilt that may accompany such an action. There is a terrible price to be paid by those who go to war, their families, and their communities, say some experts, by ignoring such realities.
"We never in our military manuals address the fact that they go forward to kill," says Lt. Col. David Grossman, a former Army Ranger. "When the reality hits them, it has a profound effect. We have to put mechanisms in place to help them deal with that.
"Every society has a blind spot, an area into which it has great difficulty looking," Colonel Grossman says. "Today that blind spot is killing."
It may seem strange that a central fact of war for millenniums should become an urgent concern now. But some close to the scene say modified warfare training that makes it easier to kill - and a US cultural response that tends to ignore how killing affects soldiers - have taken an unprecedented emotional and psychological toll. A lengthy conflict in Iraq, they worry, could increase that toll dramatically.
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