Why did 80% of soldiers in WW2 combat NOT shoot? How do you write about killing?

English: Cases of PTSD and Severe Depression A...

English: Cases of PTSD and Severe Depression Among U.S. Veterans Deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan Between Oct 2001 and Oct 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wrote a novel and had the editor resist the way I portrayed my character’s reaction to killing. (He hated it–a negative personality trait in a conventional thriller).

However, I have a problem with novels that are really dressed-up comic books. I don’t think that anyone knows how hard to hit someone on the head to be SURE that his victim won’t have a subdural hematoma and either die or be permanently disabled. From what I read, a “bullet graze” carries a strong danger of violent infection and hitting someone in the face with a bare fist is a great way to break your hand. Cops who fire a weapon face months of evaluation, they don’t hit the streets the next day.

I don’t think that normal people kill others without carrying that fact with them forever.

In the process of developing a character, I’ve been reading “On Killing” by Lt. Col Dave Grossman, which in turn is based on the ground-breaking studies of Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall (“Men Against Killing”) who found that only 15 t0 20% of infantryman in World War Two would actually fire a weapon at an enemy. They were brave, they would perform other duties under fire, they would load for others, they just wouldn’t fire or they would deliberately fire over the heads of the enemy.

"Gun Threat Target" Illustration from bodyguard.bgSilhouette targets are one of the key training tools that a modern military uses to break down the instinctive human desire NOT to kill another human and it has been monumentally successful. A modern military will alway defeat one trained in “classic” methods. The British defeat of the Argentine military in the Falklands is a great example.

However, as Grossman points out, soldiers who are put in positions where they either kill or have to confront killing another human have far more cases of PTSD than soldiers in equally dangerous situations but where they do not have to actually SEE the target that they are shooting (i.e. Artillery). As I read articles about PTSD and the 20% of the military returning from our current wars with some combination of concussive brain injury and/or PTSD, the more I realize that the casual use of killing in the novels we write is grotesquely incorrect.

Yes, good people can kill and go on with their lives but only real psychopaths can kill and not have some psychological injury without significant training to break down the instincts and-usually-replace it with the desire to protect and be respected by their “buddies.” Most people who are trained and placed into the sort of close quarters, house-to-house fighting that we’ve had in the past 20 years are going to suffer some degree of long-term, possibly permanent damage.

Once, this is stuck in your head, it starts to appear everywhere–especially in the comments of troops who have returned from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. They don’t have nightmares of the times they were in danger, they see the people they killed, the civilians they almost killed, the monsters they feel they became. THIS is what they can’t tell their wives, this is what you’d drink to forget, this is what never leaves you.

If anything, the bravery of someone who fires to kill an enemy or to save another from danger is MORE honorable and heroic than currently portrayed. They face a lifetime of life with this event and, by choosing to do it from patriotism, love, or duty; they deserve real praise.

Someone who kills and walks away is a sociopath at best.

Any comments are more than welcome.

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society
On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace
Throwing Lead: A Writer’s Guide to Firearms (and the People Who Use Them)


2 responses

  1. excellent post. I’ve often wondred if this was one of the causes of PTSD.


  2. As usual, Mr. Irving digs deeper to find the truth.


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