01 November 2010

Have You Ever Killed Somebody?


"So, you in the Army? You ever kill somebody?"

While I was walking across a college campus back in the late 1980s, a passerby casually tossed a Vietnam-era war-surplus epithet at me, and called me a "baby-killer." Granted, I was in my battle-dress uniform, but the incident was so completely out of context--historical and otherwise--that I was stunned into inaction.

Whether willful or accidental, such ignorance is thankfully rare. But today, in the dark early hours, it is driving me to the Des Moines International Airport. My taxi driver, a young Vietnamese immigrant, has just asked me whether I've ever killed someone. I'm wearing camouflage today, too, on my way to Fort Irwin, Calif.

If I were more awake, I'd try to judo-throw the conversation into a teaching moment. Instead, I give him both barrels of shotgun Sherpa.

"That's not an appropriate question," I bark, and am immediately sorry for it. Rather than recalculate the tip, I attempt to recalibrate the conversation. We mutually steer the topic quickly to the driver's recent vehicular brushes with urbanized deer, and the morning's prospects of dashboard venison.

Here's are two quick rules of thumb about talking to soldiers:
1. Anyone who wants to talk a lot about killing doesn't know what they're talking about.

2. Anyone who should talk about it probably isn't, unless there's beer involved, or years of trust.
No, I have not killed. But I know people who have.

Sometimes, they tell me their stories. I do not repeat them. My place is to listen.

The stories are often offered up spontaneously. Sometimes it's late at night. Sometimes, it's over coffee. Sometimes, it's shucking and jiving in the barracks. We've all had our bad days. We just don't talk about them much. I understand that, whenever such a story is told, it is both a gift and a curse. It is a gift of trust, because the teller has somehow determined that I will listen and not pass judgment.

It is a curse, because the listener himself takes on some of the burden of the story. I was not there, at this place or that, when death came to a child. Or to a fellow soldier. Or to a nameless adversary. I was not there, but that doesn't always matter.

I have not killed. But I know people who have. I have only been given shards of their stories--fragments and echoes--but some are the kinds that stay with you, that wake you up at night.

It is way too early in the morning for this.


  1. Sherpa, I have struggled with a personal outrage concerning our soldiers since Viet Nam. I grew up watching that war on the nightly news. I sent off high school boyfriends and welcomed back new friends. What I could never ever understand is how people in general lumped government/politicians and soldiers together. Soldiers become a much too easy target for everything politicians have created. Some people feel justified at taking out their anger on the uniform and don’t see the soldier who has protected their way of life. Why can’t people separate politics from our soldiers? The current war really should have a new name. Yes there is deadly fighting going on in many places, the wounded coming home is a testament to that. But how many of the troops could be classified as “Peace Corps” with machine guns. Maybe someday a taxi driver will ask you “Were you building roads over there? Or were you teaching?” We can only hope.

  2. @ Ria: You've got some lovely thoughts and turns-of-phrase there. Thanks for your comment, and your insights!

    Borrowing from my Facebook-self not 5 minutes ago, my post-Internet, post-September 11th experience has mostly been that hurtful or insensitive comments are more likely driven by ignorance of history than by political intolerance. Even people who are "against the war(s)" seem to genuinely "support the troops"--at least, here in the American heartland.

    As a citizen-soldier, I wrestle with the question of how our U.S. troops are and should be used. Collectively and individually, the National Guard brings some unique talents to the field, whether you're talking about responding to natural disasters or defending our country.

    I wish that more of the burden of the counterinsurgency "fight" was shared by non-military agencies and organizations--and by our citizenry at large--but I also understand that diplomats and do-gooders can't always work in dangerous places.

    I'm not really heading anywhere with this, I suppose. But I did want to react to your thoughtful words. Thanks again!

  3. I agree completely that the real impetus behind these seemingly insensitive or disprespectful comments is (most likely) ignorance. (Oh, wow, could I go 420 directions with this subject. Yikes.) It's all wound up together into one unruly knot: lack of discipline, not being taught manners, respect, and deference, submission to authority, impatience, lack of discipline, faulty and incomplete understanding, etc.)

    What's the cure for true ignorance? Knowledge. I think you alluded to that by saying that you NORMALLY would choose a "teaching" moment. That's a good approach. And, even if someone gets in a wad because they feel "corrected," it will work for their benefit at one point or another. (Like, let's say, bringing attention to someone's persistently incorrect grammar. Ahem.)

    Honestly, I don't think there is one right answer. This is about "picking your battles." I believe you already aware of what is in your arsenal. Hmmm, now just to have "all the right words ALL of the time." Knowing what to each time requires practice, wise counsel, and time. That's how we get Wisdom to show up at our parties.

    I don't think it's wrong to give information and/or "correct" someone-if you have the correct information. They need it!(I am speaking very generally here.) We can actually contribute to others' ignorance by keeping our mouths shut.

    I personally am convinced, that keeping silent is a bigger detriment than any words spoken.

    Sometimes, people NEED to be offended. Some will never move unless they are propelled to do so. It is horrible thing to be "kept in the dark." It seems, however, that the burden is greater for those who have been tasked to speak/teach/correct; those who will tell the stories and illuminate the truth. Like you.

    Remember, Sherpa, "To whom much is given...MUCH is required."

    Keep talking.


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