“Before killing the first time there’s a reluctance that tempers the desire to know whether you are capable of doing it. It is not unlike teenagers longing to lose their virginity but also wanting to wait for the right time to do it. But once killing loses its mystique, it no longer becomes a tool of last resort.”
– Captain Timothy Kudo, US Marines
On 27 February 2015, The New York Times Sunday Review online edition published an article by Captain Timothy Kudo, US Marines. The article, titled How We Learned To Kill, talked about Captain Kudo’s experience during war both as a soldier and as someone giving orders to kill. I found the article interesting because of its matter-of-fact narration on killing, a sense of empathy for the enemy, and a somewhat illogical justification of killing as ‘just following orders’.
The article begins with a story:
“The voice on the other end of the radio said: “There are two people digging by the side of the road. Can we shoot them?”
It was the middle of the night during my first week in Afghanistan in 2010, on the northern edge of American operations in Helmand Province, and they were directing the question to me. Were the men in their sights irrigating their farmland or planting a roadside bomb? The Marines reported seeing them digging and what appeared to be packages in their possession. Farmers in the valley work from sunrise to sundown, and seeing anyone out after dark was largely unheard-of.
My initial reaction was to ask the question to someone higher up the chain of command. I looked around our combat operations center for someone more senior and all I saw were young Marines looking back at me to see what I would do.
Image courtesy rt.com
I wanted confirmation from a higher authority to do the abhorrent, something I’d spent my entire life believing was evil. With no higher power around, I realized it was my role as an officer to provide that validation to the Marine on the other end who would pull the trigger.
“Take the shot,” I responded. It was dialogue from the movies that I’d grown up with, but I spoke the words without irony. I summarily ordered the killing of two men. I wanted the Marine on the other end to give me a reason to change my decision, but the only sound I heard was the radio affirmative for an understood order: “Roger, out.” Shots rang out across the narrow river. A part of me wanted the rounds to miss their target, but they struck flesh and the men fell dead.”
Midway through his article, Captain Kudo laments a bit – perhaps because he begins to question his job:
“The longer I lived among the Afghans, the more I realized that neither the Taliban nor we were fighting for the reasons I expected. Despite the rhetoric I internalized from the newspapers back home about why we were in Afghanistan, I ended up fighting for different reasons once I got on the ground — a mix of loyalty to my Marines, habit and the urge to survive.
The enemy fighters were often young men raised alongside poppy fields in small farms set up like latticework along the river. They must have been too young and too isolated to understand anything outside of their section of the valley, never mind something global like the 9/11 attacks. These villagers fought us because that’s what they always did when foreigners came to their village. Perhaps they just wanted to be left alone.
The more I thought about the enemy, the harder it was to view them as evil or subhuman. But killing requires a motivation, so the concept of self-defense becomes the defining principle of target attractiveness. If someone is shooting at me, I have a right to fire back. But this is a legal justification, not a moral one.”
Further on, Captain Kudo continues with:
“On most occasions, when ordnance would destroy the enemy or a sniper would kill a Taliban fighter, we would engage in the professional congratulations of a job well done like businessmen after a successful client meeting. Nothing of the sort happened after killing a civilian. And in this absence of group absolution, I saw for the first time how critical it actually was for my soul and my sanity.
Nobody ever talked about the accidental killing. There was paperwork, a brief investigation and silence. You can’t tell someone who has killed an innocent person that he did the right thing even if he followed all the proper procedures before shooting.”
However, Captain Kudo worries me with an unfitting end to the article when he says:
“I don’t blame Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama for these wars. Our elected leaders, after all, are just following orders, no different from the Marine who asks if he can kill a man digging by the side of the road.”
What weighs heavily on my mind is not that Captain Kudo is justifying killing as ‘just following orders’ – in itself, a difficult proposition to justify – but that he seems to suggest that both the US soldiers and the two Presidents he refers to in his article believed that those orders were morally right… and that, they are absolved from personal responsibility. No, ‘just following orders’ does not legitimise killing, nor does it make judgements on and support of killing morally acceptable.
[Citation: How We Learned To Kill by Timothy Kudo, The New York Times Sunday Review, February 27, 2015]