What if we all have a pacifist gene and just refuse to recognize it? That’s the question that Jane Yoder raises in this recent article published by the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
Human beings are social creatures. Our ancestors had to cooperate in order to hunt large and powerful prey. Humans can function solo, of course, but we are hard wired to cooperate with and protect other members of our species. The innate human propensity not to kill another human being leaves some combat veterans wondering why they sometimes feel strange compunction after close encounters with the enemy. Strange, I say, because military trainers strive to desensitize recruits to killing. They strive to dehumanize the enemy in order to prevent warriors from recognizing themselves in the enemy. The U.S. military has come to recognize that moral injury is a valid psychological affliction, one which fuels depression and increases the rate of suicide among veterans. However, when explaining what kinds of memories trigger moral injury, only very rarely do military analysts mention that killing per se can do it. Killing an innocent bi-stander is frequently mentioned as a trigger. Failing to save the life of a buddy? Yes, of course, that too. But killing an enemy? Our violent culture has conditioned us to laud such an act, not call it into question. If military recruiters and trainers were to admit that there is something fundamentally unnatural about killing members of our own species, that we all share as it were a pacifist gene, their job would be much more difficult.
Ex-Marine Karl Marlantes, in his book, What It’s Like to Go to War, recounts a combat experience where he encountered a young enemy soldier suddenly, face to face and almost within an arm’s length. He shot him dead even as he felt a strange compassion that no amount of training or combat experience could eradicate. Killing, he declares, is wrong, but it may sometimes be necessary. It seems to me that we will not get to the root of veterans’ moral injury without grappling with the irony of that observation. Instead, a culture wedded to the myth of redemptive violence depicts military service as unquestionably heroic.