Killing 101 - Part Two - Atrocity
I take a walk outside,
I’m surrounded by some kids at play.
I can’t feel their laughter,
So why do I stare?
Twisted thoughts that spin
Round my head (I’m spinnin’).
How quick the sun can drop away.
~ Pearl Jam, “Black”
“Shoot that old woman, Hall,” I yelled, but Hall [the chopper gunner] who had been busy on his own side of the chopper had not seen her before and looked at me as if I had gone crazy, so we passed her without firing and I zigzagged around the paddies, dodging sniper fire, while I filled Hall in.
“She has a 360 degree view over the trees around the villages, Hall,” I yelled. “The machine gunners are watching her and when she sees Hueys coming, she faces them and they concentrate their fire over the spot. That’s why so many are down around here – she’s a g*damned weathervane for them. Shoot her!”
Hall gave me a thumbs up and I turned to make another pass, but Jerry and Paul [in another helicopter] had caught on to her also and had put her down. For some reason, as I again passed our burning Hueys, I could not feel anything but relief at the old woman’s death.
~ D. Bray, “Prowling for POWs”
At the end of last week, I anticipated we would delve into dissociation in more detail in this next article. But I should know better than to try to plot our course, since I am not in charge of this expedition. We go where we are led. So today we will go straight to the psychology of atrocity as Lt. Col. Grossman explains it in his work, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.
According to Grossman, “in order to kill at close range one must deny the humanity of one’s enemy,” (Grossman, p. 199). Denial, discussed in Killing 101: Part One, is one of several psychological tools used to overcome our innate resistance to killing a member of our own species. Distance, or range to target, is another of these factors. At the furthest end of the spectrum, there is aerial bombing (or abortion referral). According to Grossman, at the other end, the closest and most difficult range at which to kill is sexual range, (Grossman, pp. 134-137). There is an even closer kill, one that also includes sexual overtones, if one is a woman and able to carry another human life within one’s own body.
But women who abort are not soldiers in war, who are not only sanctioned to kill, but whose occupation exists almost solely for that purpose. In most cases, the killing done by soldiers is justifiable. Grossman tells us it is very important to a soldier, personally and psychologically, that his killing be justified: “the basic aim of a nation at war is establishing an image of the enemy in order to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder,” (Grossman, p. 193). He defines atrocity in war as the act of killing someone who is a non-combatant. When we abort our children because of conflict in our lives, we are either killing a non-combatant, or we are making enemies of our own offspring. If we are killing a non-combatant, we are committing an atrocity. Whether one believes that abortion takes a sentient or viable human life simply doesn’t matter. We object to violence portrayed in video games and the media, where killing is not real, because we recognize that even killing a human being in psychological concept is damaging. Women conceptualize their children when they learn they are pregnant, or they wouldn’t seek abortions.
This reluctance to kill is high even when we are under direct attack. It is increased manifold when the victim does not seem to be an appropriate target, like non-combatant women and children: “…the higher the resistance bypassed, the higher the trauma that must be overcome in the subsequent rationalization process,” (Grossman, p. 191). As an example, he reports that Vietnamese children were at times armed with hand grenades against U.S. soldiers purposefully, to cause intense psychological damage in those men who would be forced to shoot the children or see their fellow soldiers, and themselves, blown to bits. These occurrences were broadcast by “…beautiful young movie stars [who] led the chant of a nation that echoed through the veteran’s soul: ‘Baby killers… murderers… butchers…,’” (Grossman, p. 288). The baby killer epithet seems to hurt them the most, particularly since the vast majority did not earn it. These same movie stars (not so young anymore, not shining quite so bright) wear the label themselves today and don’t see the irony.
Another of the psychological tools we use to rationalize, or justify the decision to kill is group absolution. To commit an atrocity, which is at the most difficult end of the spectrum of combat killing, if he is psychologically normal, a soldier’s psyche must be shattered. Then the broken pieces must be held together by those in his group who sanctioned the act:
“The process of bonding men by forcing them to commit an atrocity requires a foundation for legitimacy for it to continue for any length of time. The authority of a state … a state religion… a heritage of barbarism and cruelty that diminishes the value of individual human life… are all examples of varying forms of ‘legitimizing’ factors that, singly or combined, can ensure the continuing commission of atrocities,” (Grossman, p. 214).
The absence of this social approval is one factor that Grossman blames for the inordinate number of Vietnam veterans who suffered (and are suffering) from post-traumatic stress disorder – inordinate as it compares to those in other wars. The veterans of prior and subsequent conflicts were not assaulted by the public when they returned home, but were, in most cases, paraded, lauded, and honored. This group absolution did nothing to minimize the horror these veterans experienced in war, since “…killing in combat, by its very nature, causes deep wounds of pain and guilt,” (Grossman, p. 93). But they were supported by societal acceptance and thus better able to resolve their experiences in a way that did not leave them in a continuing state of denial and trauma. “Rejected by the nation that sent them off to war, the veterans [of Vietnam] have been plagued with guilt and resentment which has created an identity crisis unknown to veterans of previous wars,” (Grossman, p. 282).
As this applies to abortion, you might wonder if I’m saying our society should simply approve the act, and all will be well. In the first place, if that were true, there would be no PTSD in veterans of “approved” conflicts, and that is not the case. We have been documenting combat fatigue for centuries. The second answer is even easier: we already did that. Abortion is legal in this nation up to and including the day of birth. I can write here in a public forum that I killed my own child, and I am immune from prosecution. A large segment of our society will tell me I was justified; that it’s perfectly acceptable to deny my child his humanity; and that I had a legal right to have an abortion, nay, a duty not to be an unwed teenage mother. In 1973, our Supreme Court gave us permission to fire at-will, as long as we aim at our unborn children. But we have to remember our innate aversion to killing. Even sanctioned killing wounds us, while killing the innocent with or without justification can break us completely apart. Wounds leave scars. Scar tissue will never have the properties of the healthy tissue it once was; and a shattered psyche will never have the same capabilities, either.