Leading Ethically Only is an educational outreach of Leadership Ethics Online (LEO). Essays range widely--from ethical analysis of the news, to ethical challenges to leaders in society, to personal reflections of an ethical nature. We welcome your thoughts and criticisms to make us better.

Friday, May 28, 2010

On Human Nature, Killing, Soldiers, PTSD--and Our Ethical Duties

No one is born a soldier.  Everyone is born a helpless, dependent little baby.  Our mothers, most of them, nursed us at their breasts, holding us close, keeping us warm and clean.  There is an intimate bond between our mothers and us tied by the cords of tender care.  By nature, we are weak and helpless at birth.  We were conceived out of the love between our parents, then brought into the world completely in need of daily tender love.  We respond with smiles, our little hands holding on to the index finger of our parents.  We make our baby noises as we hear our Moms and Dads speaking words of love.  We are not born soldiers.

Openness to Death and Killing

Because of how we were born--completely dependent and surrounded by love--the idea of killing another member of the human family is an inconceivable, monstrous idea to us.  That is, this is true for normal children raised up to adulthood in a normal way.  But not all children grow up normally.

Some are slapped around and screamed at.  All over the world, children are born into families who live in ghettos of poverty, or who grow up in daily terrors from drug lords, war lords, tribal enemies, and even vicious law enforcement puppets.  The natural, biological story of growing up surrounded by loving parents and family is only a dream for too many millions who childhood is torn apart by anxiety, fear, and even mental illness created by unnatural, human being-created instability, destruction, and ever-stalking Death. 

Familiarity with Death-As-Normal, and unfamiliarity with Love-As Normal, surely create psychological conditions where killing is more natural than unnatural.  The child who is slapped and beaten regularly well may look forward to removing the cause of terror by killing the abuser.  A small or even a very large group of people terrorized by another group can do the same.  Killing the source of fear is considered self-defense, self-affirmation, against the oppressor.  If you, Reader, are or have relatives in any group persecuted and terrorized by another, you understand how someone's imagination can dream of killing, to remove the source of fear.

Teaching People To Kill

Patriotism, love of country, which includes the desire to love and protect one's family and neighbors, is the most common motivation for learning to become soldiers.  The "enemy"--which actually are millions of people who are parents, children, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles--is depersonalized and demonized as deserving death by the weapons of war.  There are real enemies, real people who truly want to kill.  And those enemies have learned to depersonalize and demonize those they wish to kill.

Habit and practice help the willingness and capacity to kill on command.  The new recruit or volunteer may, and likely has, the innate reservation against killing anyone.  Yet day in and day out, the "normal" person is saturated with intellectual, physical, and emotional reinforcements and repetitions, to become prepared to kill.  Centuries of military methods have been polished and refined to cope with any individual whose natural resistance to killing remains intransigent.  Very few people have so much natural resistance they finally are drummed out of the service.

There may be many who complete their training, yet who still have inner misgivings as they go into combat.  Some of those may be the most vulnerable to mental instability and disorders, once they have used the tools of war on people they see as innocent and undeserving of the horrible deaths they inflicted.  To have been raised in a healthy and loving family, then to have fired rockets and missiles into residential areas "inhabited by the enemy," may be the perfect conditions for insanity.

One definition of insanity may be a mind so unhealthy it is detached from reality, temporarily or permanently.  The person who grew up knowing only goodness and love, then who became a perfectly trained soldier who accepted the task of inflicting fire, explosions, terror, destruction and death, is a candidate for some form of post-combat insanity.  During or after the battle, as he or she looks at the human butchery created by his or her own hand, the soldier knows--by nature--he has done something against nature, as he or she looks at the charred, exploded, bloody, living and dead.  By nature most soldiers know the people called "enemies" actually were, or are, members of the human race, not demons or non-persons.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a Symptom of Sanity

PTSD is a mental disorder now recognized more and more widely as common, not uncommon, among combat veterans, as well as personnel who supply and serve them.  Unfortunately, military leaders have a vested financial interest in releasing combat veterans from service with a clean bill of psychological health.  PTSD, when diagnosed--and symptoms often are manifested months and years after combat--requires long-term psychiatric treatment, supplemented by pharmaceutical therapies.

Veterans of all wars throughout not only U.S. but other nations' wars have suffered psychological harm and scarring, though PTSD used to be called "combat fatigue," "mental weakness," and other incorrect euphemisms.  The combat warrior tradition has tended to ridicule, discount, and demean the effects of war on those who wage it.  There is a growing, persistent movement in the U.S. military psychiatric establishment to change, and understand that PTSD may be considered more common than unusual.

Though the symptoms of PTSD are severe--including deep depression, nightmares, suicidal thoughts, behavioral violence and withdrawal, and many others--in one sense, PTSD is a sign of sanity's struggle to oppose the unnatural, insane nature of war.  People who were raised in healthy and loving families, whose view of life and the world were loving and good, naturally react violently to what they have been put through by military training and experiences.  PTSD, horrible as it is, is an affirmation of their deep, inner, healthy nature in revolt and revulsion against all the unnatural horrors that war truly brings on combatants and those they kill and injure.

The truly insane soldier, I would argue, is the one whose pre-military life was so distorted and disordered that the tasks of war were natural and normal.  Depersonalization and demonization of the "enemy," psychological and moral detachment from blanket killing of innocent people, these are the traits of the sick mind and personality.  The military is most pleased and most commendatory when combat soldiers are released from duty showing no symptoms of PTSD, nor ever being heard of again for treatment in a VA center.  Yet how many people can be called normal and healthy who, after killing and maiming thousands, many who were noncombatants, without adverse mental consequences?

It seems to me PTSD must be considered a sign of fundamental sanity for those who suffer its horrible symptoms.  PTSD is a sign, not only that war has harmed those who wage it, but also that those who wage war originally possessed normal, healthy, loving, beautiful mental outlooks given to them by their parents, siblings, and families.  War at times is necessary, we know that.  Yet there are military traditions of training that create false ideas of what is "necessary," such as "not letting collateral damage get to you."  For the normal human being, for the healthy human being, for the loving human being, knowledge that one has engaged in killing innocent people--who were precisely like the family back home, wanting only to live, love, and be left alone--there is no other option than to have one's deepest inner values, and emotional structures, cry out in agony, and that agony is expressed as PTSD.

Killing Is Against Human Nature

Now I am a historian and am, quite frankly, more familiar with the perennial facts of global conflicts and wars than I am with perennial facts of global movements for understanding, restraint, and peace-seeking and peacemaking.  Much has been made by many anthropologists, theologians, and philosophers--and by political warmongers--that human beings seem destined to be warmakers, war victims, and killers of their own species.  I confess that much of my life has been filled with the darkness of, as the Psalmist wrote, "walking in the valley of the shadow of death."

Nevertheless, I reiterate the truths stated at the beginning of this essay.  We are born babies.  We are born dependent on the milk from our mothers' breasts.  We are born and continue for some years completely dependent on survival by our biological nurturers and caretakers, our parents.  This is our universal experience as human beings--being loved, fed, cleaned, held, protected.  Learning to kill, therefore, is not part of our nature, for all of our beginnings teach us love, support, and care.

Yes, there are real enemies in the world.  Some of them apparently are so dedicated to the destruction of the innocent--who they have depersonalized and demonized, denying the common humanity they share with them.  Some enemies will not stop until they are killed.  Killing can be a defense mechanism, a result of the survival instinct.  But killing is not natural, not normal, not innate, not a natural resource to be harnessed for nationalistic purposes.

And when the nations of the world persuade their healthy-minded citizens that killing is normal, necessary, and good, and when those trusting citizens complete military training to go on into combat, let us not call them "sick" when their fundamental goodness refuses to succumb to the real insanity that war always includes.  To the contrary, let us do for them what their parents taught them was real.  Let us feed, nurture, care for, and be patient with them, as we embrace the goodness within them that refused to accept the simply false things they were told.

And like their parents, let us be so loyal, faithful, and true, that we will love, defend, and protect these people who have been harmed by loving their families, neighbors, and nation so much they acted against their own nature learned from birth.  Let us leave no one behind on the battlefield.

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