We bear the mark
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. – Genesis 4:8
The Bible I grew up reading tells me that God created the universe, the heavens and the earth, all the birds in the sky, the creatures on the ground, and the fish in the sea. Then God created human beings in God’s own image. After the first man and hte first woman were exiled east of paradise for taking knowledge of good and evil into their own hands, we hear of the first murder. Brother envied brother, so one bludgeoned the other to death with bare fists in the field. He destroyed the image of God. We learn that transforming a body with a living soul that bears God’s own likeness into an object, a bloody twitching thing lying on the ground, is a grave sin. We read that Abel’s blood cried out from the soil, begging God for justice.
We learn that transforming a body with a living soul that bears God’s own likeness into an object, a bloody twitching thing lying on the ground, is a grave sin.
There is no moon in Baghdad tonight. This combat mission is less than two hours old, and I already sweat through my uniform. Our convoy of Stryker armored fighting vehicles, a Humvee, a crane, and a flatbed truck carrying a dozen concrete barriers pushes through the brutal darkness and the thick October air, then down the offramp of Route IRISH onto the Doura Expressway, known to us as Route SENATORS. Three and a half years ago, this massive cloverleaf intersection between two major highways in Iraq’s capital city was Objective Curly, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the invasion.
I am sitting in the command seat of an up-armored Humvee, fiddling with the dash-mounted touch-screen computer I use to keep track of our location when the ambush begins. The barren night explodes with the crackle of gunfire. Through the windshield to my left, I can see little flashes of light bursting from the empty lot beside the buildings along the highway. A wall of red, tracer-tipped bullets hurdles toward us, each one a streak of fire burning its way through the night air looking for human tissue to gore. For every bright red line of death we see, there are at least three more beyond our vision, but I can hear them hitting the Humvee’s armor and striking the windows. I chamber a round in my rifle and reach for the door. As my hand reaches the latch, I can feel bullets skipping off the asphalt and slapping the underbelly of the truck beneath my feet. Brake lights illuminate everything in view. The flatbed truck in front of us slams to a stop and the truck’s Iraqi driver dives from the passenger side of the cab into the road.
“Stop, Stop, Stop!” I yell into the platoon radio.
We jerk to a halt. The gunner’s turret above me spins wildly out of control until it’s facing the wrong direction as I realize Hendo has forgotten to lock the turret in place before we set out. Chaos. With the truck’s .50 caliber machine gun uselessly pointed to the rear now, Hendo, the gunner, begins to fire his rifle at the hidden enemy.
“Hendo, grenade!” I yell, desperate to get a bigger weapon into action. He fires his grenade launcher, reloads, and fires again. I have no idea if he’s hit the target. The bullets keep coming.
“Contact left, small arms,” I shout into the platoon radio, telling the rest of the vehicles in the convoy to stop and fight. The sergeant in the seat behind me has commandeered the touch-screen to send a report to our higher headquarters, letting them know we’ve been ambushed.
Before I can say or do anything else, the heavy THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP of a .50 caliber machine gun from one of the Strykers behind us pounds the sticky night air. The tracers stop and a heavy stillness wraps us in anticipation of another attack. Everything is quiet but for the sound of the Humvee engine idling and the WHUMP-WHUMP-WHUMP of my pulse beating against my temple.
We wait. Scan the buildings and rubble and horizon for more insurgents. Nothing. I call negative enemy contact and direct the patrol to move ahead.
After the fight, we regroup at the checkpoint about a half-mile up the road. We check vehicles and weapons for damage. We count ammunition and we count heads. No damage; no one wounded. Even the Iraqi contractors driving the crane and flatbed with us have made it through unscathed.
While the other soldiers get their heads straight for the rest of the mission, I gather with a pair of the platoon’s staff sergeants outside our vehicles. We light cigarettes. I smoked in college but quit years ago, and returned to the habit after we took our first casualties weeks before. We swap our newest war stories, and I find out that it was the first squad’s Stryker that poured its .50 caliber gun into the ambush. The gunner had put the bullets right on target, killing several insurgents and causing the rest to flee. One of the staff sergeants describes shooting the insurgents with his rifle from the rear hatch of the second squad’s Stryker. He radiates from beneath his helmet and his thick body armor.
“L-T, that felt fucking fantastic,” he says. “I think I came in my pants.”
I’m not entirely sure he is exaggerating.
The staff sergeant is 25 years old. He’s been killing people since he was 22. I’m 24. The soldier who launched the .50 caliber bullets from the top of the last Stryker and watched the white human-shaped wisps explode on the gun’s thermal camera is only 19 or 20. None of us are equipped to understand the feelings that will come later. For now, adrenaline saturates our blood and cortisol soaks our brains. How can watching 19 grams of steel hit human flesh with five times the energy of a hunting rifle, turning the body into an explosion of pulp and gore, bring a man to the same territory as a climax? It feels great, surviving. Yet, I cannot help feeling like I have defiled something holy, tainted the sacred with something depraved in ways that cannot be understood, much less repaired.
There is no going back now. I bear the mark. I am Cain.
There is no going back now. I bear the mark. I am Cain.
I was relieved and elated that my soldiers survived, that I survived. I took delight in the fact that we killed the enemy. The discharge of pent-up energy left me limp, wrung out, and satisfied. What I dared not say in front of the soldiers I led, ever, was that even though the killing felt ecstatic, the ecstasy made me feel uncomfortable – a heat spread beneath my skin, like an itch underneath the surface that could not be reached and could not be ignored. To this day, when I think of Iraq, I feel it. Sometimes it builds until my body twitches in an involuntary convulsion, a spontaneous discharge of built-up static electricity.
Why? Back home in garrison, during our daily physical training exercises, we sang cadences together while we marched or ran in small groups. Songs with lines like “Kill the enemy, take his soul, and Na-Palm … sticks to kids.” We qualified with rifles and machine guns using life-like pop-up targets that fell when hit, wiring the pleasure and reward centers of our brains to feel good whenever we squeezed the trigger and the target, a human, went down. I remember a sign painted in one of the squad bays on post at home reading, “Nothing Forges Loyalty Like Shared Guilt and Complicit Bloodshed.” Wasn’t killing the necessary and good thing to do in war? Didn’t the killing mean there are fewer insurgents in Baghdad to kill my brothers and sisters tomorrow?
When we returned to the concrete embrace of Forward Operating Base Falcon after the night’s mission, I found myself alone with self-doubt and shame, my two constant companions as a small-unit combat leader trying to keep my place at the top of the platoon. I knew that one slip, one bad day, one mistake could cause the entire unit to lose trust in me. Once that trust was gone, the consequences would be toxic and lethal. Had this been the one? I felt self-doubt over my performance in my first real shootout. That night, as I still do to this day, I replayed the ambush in my head, probing my mistakes. I had failed to be decisive. I should have told Hendo to turn the Humvee’s turret around and get our .50 caliber machine gun in the fight. I failed to control or coordinate the fires of the rest of the platoon. I hadn’t reacted fast enough and the sergeant in the Humvee with me, the third squad leader, had to start making the report to higher headquarters.
Did the other soldiers notice? With my shortcomings seeming on display for the platoon to dissect over the following days, I still had to stay calm, maintain my bearing, plan missions, give orders, and act like I knew what I was doing. Anything less could expose me as weak or lacking confidence, fatal flaws for a platoon leader in combat. But I wasn’t weak or incompetent. I was just a scared kid ordering a bunch of other scared kids to kill pissed-off Iraqi kids until we could go home.
I was just a scared kid ordering a bunch of other scared kids to kill pissed-off Iraqi kids until we could go home.
None of this internal reckoning wrestled with the moral weight of killing or considered the people we killed in their entire humanity. I only reasoned that if I had been more efficient, more prepared, more calm, we could have killed more of them, faster. But, I also felt shame alongside my self-doubt. Shame that doing what the Army told me I was born to do – kill the enemy – felt intoxicating and joyful. A good officer is always in control of their emotions. As I had done before, and would do many times again, I smothered inconvenient feelings, this time my curious shame around killing. With enough willpower and intense distraction, I might even put the reckoning off forever, however long that might be.
Though I could not yet process the weight of these facts, I had crossed a moral threshold. I murdered. My actions transformed God-made flesh into bloody corpses. I had not aimed my rifle and squeezed the trigger, but I gave orders and took responsibility just the same. I destroyed what is rare and precious and I took joy in it. Joy because I survived and my soldiers survived. But also joy at the killing itself, the act of it. It was the warm satisfaction of getting the work done, even if I was not yet proficient in my craft. The pleasure rippled through me in waves at knowing I was alive and they were dead. Coming down from being so goddamn scared heightened the whole thing. They were dead. We were not.
But I ignored something bigger going on inside me as well. The reckoning with the damage I had done, and would continue to do for months to come, would have to be put off in order to survive. I would continue to put it off after I returned from the war and throughout the next few years as I went to Afghanistan to fight another war. The thing about reckonings, though, is that once they are set in motion, we can’t control them either. Each time my reckoning with killing and death called during the next decade, I managed to silence it, to send it away. Until my reckoning refused to be quiet any longer.
it should break your heart to kill. – Brian Turner, “Sadiq,” 2005
Simone Weil observed that the real subject of The Illiad isn’t Achilles or Agamemnon or Hector. The Illiad’s subject is force: violence, power used by the strong against the weak. “Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates,” she wrote.
I remember the warm smell of animal death in the freezing December air on the old family farm. From the railroad tracks that split the motionless woods in two, I could see the doe’s gray carcass and the froth of blood rising from the entry wound just behind the animal’s muscled front shoulder. My eyes met the doe’s glossed brown eye and for a moment the woods collapsed around us as I contemplated the work ahead.
I was 14 or 15 the first time I killed a deer. I knew what to do: beginning below the groin, I had to make a small incision upward, taking care not to open the bladder or an intestine, then continue upward into the belly until there was room to pull the entrails out. We had to field dress the animal before we could put the carcass in the truck and drive it to the meat processor ten minutes down our country road. A burst organ could foul an entire quarter or half of the animal and that was among the few things that were unacceptable to my father.
It is one thing to know, a different thing altogether to have experience.
My hands trembled as I kneeled down beside the doe, now beginning to stiffen in the cold. I unsheathed a knife with a great hook at the end, meant just for the task of opening game without spilling entrails. I looked over the anatomy in detail, staring for minutes at the protrusions between white fur. It is one thing to know, a different thing altogether to have experience. The great whooshing valves of my heart pounded in my temples as I gathered the nerve to make the first cut. Then a thick crush of leaves from the other side of the tracks broke the silence, my father approached from the bluff.
“Did you start yet,” he asked, becoming visible in the tree line.
“Nope. Think you should watch me,” I said.
“Okay, now. Be careful not to spoil the good meat. We didn’t kill this beautiful animal just to throw it away,” he said.
I am in the plans office of the brigade’s Tactical Operations Center, or TOC, with several of the staff planners when the brigade commander walks in. It is 2011. We are in eastern Afghanistan, and our commander has a problem. As American forces increased in late 2010 and early 2011, the higher-ups wanted more infantry units to control territory in Afghanistan. The trade-off is fewer aviation units and helicopters to fly large groups of soldiers and marines around the battlefield. Fewer helicopters mean more driving and more driving means more IEDs, more twisted shells of armored vehicles littering the dirt roads across our province, more failed missions, more maimed or dead soldiers.
“How do I keep these shitheads from blowing up my soldiers?” he says.
We return his stare. No one blinks. The air hangs thick with authority.
“It’s like hunting white-tailed deer,” he says with a crooked smile that betrays his disappointment in all of us for not thinking of the metaphor first.
“What makes the emplacers come out? Low illumination. Moonless nights. Big, slow convoys. Route clearance patrols out on the road. What makes the emplacers hunker down and hide? Attack aviation, close air support, jets, drones. So what should we do?”
We follow his metaphor, but no one is sure if he’s asking a question or giving an order.
“C’mon, guys. Shit! We fuck with him! When it’s dark out, we fly our attack aviation and loiter over the hotspots where he wants to bury his IEDs with the drones. In the daytime, we put route clearance out. We only send out supply convoys after nights during the high illum part of the lunar cycle. We make it so that he can’t emplace. We make the conditions so hard that he’s practically salivating for any opportunity to put a bomb in the ground. He’ll get sloppy, and just when he thinks he can’t go another month, we pull all of our assets back during low illumination. Of course, when he comes out to start digging, we’ll have a small kill team waiting for him. Just like hunting white-tailed deer — you watch their patterns, set out a salt lick or two, and pick your treestand.”
Months after the commander’s hunting lessons, I find myself on the road again, leading soldiers and looking for bombs. We are the bait. Creeping through the Kholbesat Bazaar along Route ALASKA, the only paved road going north and east from Forward Operating Base Salerno outside Khowst City to the American outposts at the Sabari and Bak District Centers, our patrol of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles might as well be spaceships floating among the crowd of mostly Pashtun shoppers and merchants looking up from the market stalls to watch us pass. We are on a routine mission to find and reduce, a technical term for blowing up, IEDs that Taliban-aligned fighters routinely bury along this road. They know this road is our only way to carry supplies and equipment to and from these outposts, and they know that any convoy of vehicles driving past has to return the same way. The insurgents, or the teenage boys the insurgents have been paying to put bombs in the ground, like to wait until a patrol like ours has come through, then come out behind us to bury a bomb.
Today’s mission is different, though. The rifle company at Combat Outpost Sabari has coordinated with our patrol to leave ambushes in place overnight along the route and in the wadis we usually clear around their outpost. We love this kind of work and have been doing more of it as we get deeper into the deployment. I’ve had my operations center keep track of how many IEDs and how many pounds of explosives each platoon has found and reduced. They’ve become competitive over it. When the infantry kills an IED emplacer for us while he’s putting the bomb in, it counts the same for the platoon, only there’s no danger of the bomb detonating on my soldiers. It’s a cheap, easy win.
Today, the emplacer doesn’t wait for us to pass through before putting his bomb in. When we are called to the scene in the wadi just over a kilometer west of the outpost, we find him on his stomach, the tail of his dark blue kameez emerging from beneath a black jacket. A rusty pick with a long, splintered wooden handle rests a few feet away from his outstretched hand. On his right, we find a neat, cylindrical hole. Beside the loosened earth, we find a round, yellow jug, the trademark bomb that comes across the Pakistani border by the dozens each day, manufactured with such precision that occasionally we find serial numbers stamped into the plastic on the bottom of the container. The entry wound must have been somewhere in his face, as the mess of blood-streaked hair and open skull at the back of his head tell of the violent exit of a well-aimed bullet.
Our work remains ahead. We know what to do. Separate the blasting cap from the explosive and recover the tangle of copper wire as evidence to help other units find the bomb-maker. Prepare a C4 charge and power up the bomb disposal robot in the back of the truck. Lay the charge gently across the yellow bucket of explosive, ensuring enough contact to make a sympathetic detonation. Ensure every vehicle is at least 100 meters away from the blast or behind cover. Call in a five-minute blast window to warn friendly aircraft or other units in the area. After the detonation, check the area for any secondary explosive devices.
Once the scene is clear, someone will handle the body. The Enemy, Killed-in-Action, or E-KIA. They will photograph his face to attempt identification, scan the retinas, if they are still intact, against the biometric database and gather fingerprints before bagging the body and removing it for further processing. It is important that all steps are followed to ensure any biometric evidence linking the dead emplacer to others in the insurgent network is collected and analyzed. Nothing is wasted. Just like hunting white-tailed deer.
The Lord said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people (Numbers 31:1-2).”
Ancient Israelite warriors who killed in battle isolated themselves outside their camp for seven days when they returned from war so as not to bring the rest of the community into contact with the impurity of death. They bathed themselves on the third and seventh days to become ritually clean. They washed their garments, too, and passed anything metal through cleansing fire – their weapons and plunder of gold, silver, bronze and iron. It was the only way they could return to the community clean. To do otherwise was to bring the sickness of war back to the community. To bring the war back to the community was to contaminate the pure, to spread the infection of sin and death to the entire society.
The night I return home from Afghanistan in January of 2012, the children are in bed and my wife lures me into the basement with an open bottle of beer. She has redecorated the bland storage space into a comfortable retreat as a surprise in my absence — plush chairs, couch, bookshelves, bar, mini-fridge. She pulls me onto the couch and into her body to welcome me home. There is pleasure and there is release. But my soul is 8,000 miles away.
I should feel the delight of reunion, but I remain numb in the afterglow. It is too soon: 48 hours ago I was in Kyrgyzstan, 96 hours before that a handful of my soldiers were still on patrol, digging up bombs a stone’s throw from the Afghan-Pakistan border.
I am still unclean. I have brought the war home. Now those I love, those who love me, will be tainted too.
I am still unclean. I have brought the war home. Now those I love, those who love me, will be tainted too.
A close friend from my time in Iraq once told me that, after war, nothing would be exciting or fun again. At the time, I didn’t believe him. By the time I return from my deployment to Afghanistan, though, my emotional range has narrowed to just two states: numbness and extreme rage.
My wife and I leave the kids with my in-laws and take a trip to New York City with old friends over block leave. When I am not freezing her out with my biting silence, we argue about the distance in my words, my voice and my body. I got my first smartphone in the days after I returned, and now I stare at the phone’s white glow obsessively, reading any piece of news or clickbait that takes me away from the life right before me.
When we get back to our home in Fort Knox, Kentucky, I continue unraveling. We work half-days for the first three months after redeployment, but I stay at the office until 5 p.m. every night. Where most people have a drink after work to relax and unwind, I come home and start drinking each night to forget the vicious ballet of bombs and bullets that cycles through my head on repeat during the quiet, 20-minute drive home. I have night terrors where I wake myself up, screaming so loud that I scare the children and drive my wife from our bed.
When it’s time to get our post-deployment medical evaluations, I make sure to answer all the screening questions with an acceptable amount of duress, but not so much that I would cause anyone concern. I am rarely bothered by intrusive memories. I sleep 6-8 hours at night. I am occasionally on guard, watchful, or easily startled. I drink no more than 2-3 times a week and never more than 1-2 drinks per day. No, I say, I never feel guilty or unable to stop blaming myself or others for traumatic events. The last answer is the hardest of lies to tell. I wear guilt like a second skin.
It’s as if the price for all the killing I’ve done in two wars is my own living; I walk upright, I breathe, my heart beats, but I only exist, I no longer live.
If I were honest with the screening, I would be seen and diagnosed with PTSD. But there’s more to the condition. I can’t feel anything unless I feel anger, hatred, rage. It’s as if the price for all the killing I’ve done in two wars is my own living; I walk upright, I breathe, my heart beats, but I only exist, I no longer live. Is this what it means to bear the mark of Cain? Am I cursed to be some zombie, the dead who walks among the living?
Trauma is contagious, it spreads from body to body in close quarters much like a virus. I watch the infection spread among my own family through the years.
When I find toys spread across my son’s floor and clothes wadded up in the bottom of his closet, my brain sees loose ammo cans and radios in the back of an MRAP and poorly maintained machine guns — mistakes that get people killed if I look the other way before a combat patrol. When my daughter cries hysterically during her 6-year-old tantrums, I hear screams of the wounded, chaos, noise competing with gunfire, radio chatter, and engine whir on the battlefield. I rage. I scream. I spread the virus.
Trauma is contagious, it spreads from body to body in close quarters much like a virus. I watch the infection spread among my own family through the years.
We know that family members of PTSD sufferers can get their own brand of symptoms, secondary-PTSD. I still see traces in my own family, years after I’ve been to intensive therapy and stabilized on medication. My now 14-year-old daughter asks, “What’s wrong, need a hug,” several times an hour when she detects something concerning in my facial expressions. My wife withdraws into small talk, still afraid of what words might trigger the explosion within me. “This is why I don’t tell you things,” she’ll say when we argue. My son balls his fists and grits his teeth when he’s angry, the same way I do when I am about to rage.
We know that trauma enacts chemical changes in our DNA. We know trauma changes our brain structure. We also know that we can pass our trauma on through our genes to the bodies of our children and our children’s children.
If the echoes of violence and destruction I committed thousands of miles away pass through the people I love, their bodies are changed forever. If my children pass these injuries to their children, who pass them to their children and their children, then the echoes reverberate for centuries. If each of these wounded bodies carries their wound out into the world, then the echoes are not just lasting, they are loud. Multiply this noise across the violence carried home by 3 million veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and the damage cannot be visualized.
The violence I caused to bodies in Iraq and Afghanistan echoes throughout their societies, their generations, too. How much louder does it sound?
Years after Iraq, after my deployment to Afghanistan, we’re stationed outside of Washington, D.C. when my wife’s cousin brings her family to town for a visit. One night, her husband leans over the kitchen counter and takes a long pull on his beer. He was a Marine before 9/11, got discharged because of a back injury, and hated like hell to watch his boys go overseas while he had to sit this one out. He watches a lot of Fox News and listens to a lot of talk radio.
“I bet you had a hard time over there in Afghanistan, with Obama tying your hands behind your back,” he probes.
I parry with my best go-to non-reply that threads the needle between Blue and Red and conceals my irritation.
“Yeah, I guess you can’t say anything bad about your Commander-in-Chief, can you? I remember from when I was in the Marines. I get it,” he says, launching into a monologue parroted from last night’s news programming about the Global War on Terrorism.
“At least you guys are still killing ‘em over there so we don’t have to fight ‘em over here,” he finishes.
It’s been almost 10 years since that first firefight in Iraq. The first bodies I killed may have been hardcore al-Qaida fighters, or they may have been Iranian-backed Shiite militia fighters. Just as likely, they were poor, desperate kids paid to shoot at Americans. We will never know them as anything more than white wisps exploding on the thermal gunsight’s screen.
I saw a lot of dead people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sunni cab drivers tortured and dumped in a ditch in Baghdad. A Shiite wedding party blown up by a car bomb. Teenagers shot while putting bombs into holes dug into Afghan soil. I know in the great pile of bodies we made, there were some very bad people who meant our country harm. But I saw so many bodies – brown-skinned bodies and olive-skinned bodies, male bodies and female bodies, Shia and Sunni and Kurdish and Pashto bodies, Elderly bodies, child bodies, mothering bodies — and I can’t help thinking how most looked like ordinary people going about their day, driving to work or maybe going to the market for groceries, just trying to live their lives the best they could in hell.
Before they leave town, my wife’s cousin thanks me for putting up with her husband.
“He doesn’t have anyone to talk to about that stuff, you know, the Marines and all that,” she says. “I think it’s really good for him. Lately, he’s just so angry all the time.”
Ares’ lust is never satisfied. – Edward Tick, PhD., “ Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul After War,” 2014
He doesn’t like the way I lock eyes with him from my yard as he steps off the three-wheeled open-top roadster in his driveway. My neighbor comes home at the same time every day, zipping through the alley where our kids play. He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t like to be told what to do, doesn’t want to slow down for your kids. He’s sped down the alleyway at 35 mph again and I am staring him down, shovel in hand, from the flowerbeds. He doesn’t like it one bit.
Before I can go back to my digging, he’s walking to my yard.
“You got something to say to me?” he shouts across the alley.
I drop the shovel and step toward the edge of the yard. Size him up. The kids are outside. Where are the kids? Behind me. Good. He’s twice my size. My mind retreats back into its primitive lizard brain, the one that knows only to kill and die. Go back into the garage, I think. Grab the bat.
All I remember now is the neighbor’s wife running to his side, filming the scene on her cell phone. I’m shouting obscenities, telling the world how far I will scatter his brains across my driveway if he touches one of my kids. I remember knowing that this ends with one of us in the hospital, one of us in jail. And I don’t care. Everything is tunnel vision before my other neighbor, a friend, arrives to push me back into my yard.
“It’s okay, man. You don’t want to do this.” My friend whispers in my ear. “He’s not worth it. I got you.”
I’m still shouting. The last thing I say before going inside is, “You piece of shit, I’ve killed better men than you.”
My children, still in elementary school at the time, heard every word. They saw all of their father, the one more at home in war than in peace.
By the time the police arrive to issue verbal warnings, my wife has returned home. She is wrecked by this day, the final piece of evidence that she cannot leave me alone. I can’t be left with the kids, and if I’m left alone, she’s sure I’ll kill myself. I’ve been in therapy quietly for a while and I’ve tried some short-term prescriptions for anxiety. But the time has come for that reckoning I’ve been putting off for all those years since that moment when I first took life in Iraq. The stakes could not be higher. Who I will become for the rest of my life begins in the decision that I make in the aftermath of this day.
I have to live with the violence I brought home. I am complicit. But, so are you.
When the nation decided that the wars would never end, when American society became okay with day-to-day living during a wartime that asked them to change nothing about their daily existence, we denied those who would fight these wars any meaning that could come from their experiences. If the wars never end, the world is never better or safer because of the killing and dying we’ve done. It was all for nothing. I killed people for no greater reason than someone had to live and someone had to die.
In 2019, after 14 years of fighting war and preparing for more war, I am finished with the Army and the Army with me. My spine is held together with spacers and screws. I suffer near daily migraines. When I get down into the prone to fire a rifle without support, my arm shakes so hard from nerve damage that I cannot hit a target farther than 50 yards away. It wouldn’t matter; I can’t even lift my head high enough anymore with a helmet on to see into the weapon’s rear sight to aim from this position. These problems are not the root cause, though. On paper, it is the PTSD that keeps me from doing the one thing the Army needs me to continue doing: deploying to war.
The end of my Army career begins the rest of my life, my chance to repair what I’ve destroyed.
Words can take away humanity, and words can give it back. – Sarah Sentilles, “Draw Your Weapons”, 2017
In The Illiad, Achilles kills Hector and desecrates the Trojan hero’s body by dragging it behind his chariot in front of the Trojan walls for Hector’s family to see. His hatred is so great for Hector, the killer of Achilles’ comrade Patroclus, that Achilles refuses to give the enemy’s body proper funeral rites or even turn it over to the Trojans. Not until Hector’s broken father, King Priam of Troy, risks death to sneak into the Greek camp and begs Achilles for his son’s body does the “Best of the Greeks” display compassion and yield.
Irish poet Michael Longley, a witness to The Troubles in Northern Ireland, put Priam’s voice to the verse:
“I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.”
I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan for a lot of reasons, reasons that changed over time. First, I fought because I thought my country needed defending. For a while, I told myself, implicitly, that if I did not fight them over there, the people I love would fight them over here. After the original reasoning for the invasion of Iraq unraveled, I still believed we were doing our best to make something good from a bad situation. After Iraq, I merely accepted that the Army was my career. This is what I do for a living. Following that reasoning, then, I traveled to distant countries to murder people in their homeland because of who I wanted to be more than what I believed in. None of the reasons mean anything to me now.
For a long time, it’s been clear to me that other Americans are the greatest threat to my safety and well-being. According to the often-cited website Mass Shooting Tracker, 2022 gave us 753 mass shootings, defined as gun violence with four or more victims shot in a single incident. That works out to more than two mass shootings a day, with 859 Americans killed and 2,982 wounded. We often think of someone injured by a bullet as making a full recovery, but no doubt, many of those injured have adapted to wheelchairs, amputations, or stoma bags that collect urine and stool — horrific impairments that will last a lifetime. 2022’s uniquely American list of mass shootings includes the racist murder of 10 people in a Buffalo, New York, grocery store and the murder of 19 elementary school children and 2 teachers in Uvalde, Texas, the worst school shooting since Sandy Hook. As of my writing this in July 2023, we’re at 450. Three happened yesterday.
I have to live with the violence I did over there. I have to live with the violence I brought home. I am complicit. But, so are you.
I read an essay recently about other veterans and the inevitable civilian question: “So, how many people did you kill?” I like the answer a friend who commanded infantry troops in Afghanistan and Iraq once gave: “How ‘bout more than ten, less than a hundred? That sound like enough?”
What number would make people asking that question happy? What do people want to know when they ask, “Did you kill anyone over there?” If I answered truthfully, I’d have to say yes. But I’d also have to say that you and everyone who lives and works and consumes and distracts and dissociates from the day-to-day horror of this America paid for me to kill. No matter how you voted, or whether you voted, you paid my salary. You bought my bullets and put fuel in my vehicles. You fed me and clothed me and put me in the heaviest armor money could buy so that I could kill people you thought were terrorists over there in order that you may live your American life with the least possible inconvenience over here.
We thought we were the masters of force, that there was no such thing as fickle fate changing sides. But we were never in control. The force we wield without pity at home and around the world will have no pity on us when we are weak. I did not kill alone. We are all complicit. We all must bear the mark now. The question is how do we bear it well? If we can’t erase it or come clean, how do we heal?
I did not kill alone. We are all complicit. We all must bear the mark now. The question is how do we bear it well? If we can’t erase it or come clean, how do we heal?
My son is 12 now. When we play catch in the yard, our bodies enter a shared rhythm. The ball slapping against the leather glove, the twist of his body receiving the ball’s energy, reaching its peak, then unwinding leg, arm, elbow, and wrist to send the ball back to my glove, where the motion reverses again. It’s like we are two trees swaying together in a common wind. In these moments, we forget the ball and glove. Throw and catch become automatic, and the boy will say things that come from the deepest parts of him.
I take my daughter to a coffee shop for an unpronounceable drink that costs more than I want to pay. We sit in the parking lot and, on the good days, she speaks without prompting and I learn the contents of her heart. With my wife, it happens when doing shared labors — gardening, landscaping, and little repairs around the house. These moments are where the repair happens.
I don’t know how to repair what I did to people in Iraq and Afghanistan, people I did not see as fully human at the time, but who I need to see in their totality if I’m ever to be fully human again myself. I have to start in my own home, though, and if I’m fortunate, I’ll live long enough to figure the rest out.
Repair is not linear. Healing happens one conversation at a time, one person at a time, one space at a time.
Repair is not linear. Healing happens one conversation at a time, one person at a time, one space at a time. Hopefully, these spaces build into communities and communities build into movements that carry cities, states, regions, nations. But, for that to happen, we must hope to heal ourselves faster than the bullets come to take us away. We can never erase our long, violent histories. Still, if we are to survive, we must learn to bear this mark of Cain together.
Editor’s note: On July 24, CNN reported the U.S. had surpassed 400 mass shootings in 2023, a number that set the stage for a record-breaking year in gun violence. The most recent numbers from the Gun Violence Archive show there have been 441 mass shootings as of August 14, 2023, in the U.S., and 28 mass murders. 26,753 people have died of gun violence incidents, including homicide, murder, suicide, and accidental shootings. There is no significant gun-control legislation being considered at a federal level at the time of publishing.
Ben Weakley is the author of the full-length poetry collection Heat + Pressure (Middle West Press, 2022). He lives and writes in Northeast Tennessee with his family and a well-meaning, but poorly-behaved blue-tick hound named Camo. Find him online at www.jbenweakley.com.