The Killer's Sanity

The following stirring passage appears in Michael P. Ghiglieri's The Dark Side of Man: Tracing the Origins of Male Violence in the chapter titled "War".


All this gives us a final huge--and vital--lesson in war. The Vietnam War was an inadvertent "experiment" revealing the natural limits of the male psyche to "agree" to kill in a warlike situation. In short, as strange as it may sound, this war was not a "war" for most American combat troops. GIs were shipped to Southeast Asia to shoot the bad guys--as defined by some rather hazy principles--in order to help the good guys--who turned out to be one, then another political regime too corrupt even to help themselves. Few, if any Americans actually believed that anything of personal importance was at stake in Vietnam. Yet U.S. troops were ordered to kill NVA and Vietcong--or, again, go to jail. Under these conditions, U.S. troops did kill, but in so doing they exceeded their natural limits of acceptable violence in the context of what Vietnam meant to them, which was close to nothing. From the perspective of most American combatants, the war was unnecessary.

"We're the unwilling led by the unqualified doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful." This was the lament, a sad one indeed, of most U.S. troops in the field in Vietnam. But even this vastly understates the effects on the "guinea pigs" used in President Johnson's "experiment" in meaningless "war."

"Our rule of thumb;" writes Matthew Brennan, veteran of thirty-nine months of combat with the First Air Cavalry's "Headhunters," "was that the typical new recruit had about six months before he was killed, wounded, or pushed to the edge of insanity." It was this "unnecessary" killing that drove many U.S. combat troops crazy. Yet the psychological damage these men sustained was not due just to having followed insane orders to kill nearly a million NVA, Vietcong, and civilians, or even from seeing their own brothers in arms die horribly. Instead, it was because the killings and deaths and maimings on both sides were for nothing--"nothing" because no strategy or plan even existed in the Pentagon to win the war (and U.S, troops knew it), and "nothing" because there was nothing important at stake in Vietnam to any average U.S. combat soldier, except his own survival, which he could have more easily ensured simply by staying at home. In short, the lethal violence of U.S. troops made no sense at all in that delicate natural computer, the human male psyche.

One major lesson here is this: although young men can be convinced initially via propaganda and coercion to kill opponents (especially from other racial groups), unless these men believe their opponents to be true enemies, they will ultimately disobey orders, mutiny, or go crazy. The Vietnam War revealed this in spades. It revealed the instinctive limit in the human male psyche for killing: all killing must be fully 'justified" in the mind of the killer, or the killer's sanity slips away.

The structure of governments today fosters self-growth. Bigger government demands higher taxes--either in money or conscription. To justify higher taxation, some political leaders abuse their vested powers by "inventing" big enemies (drugs, poverty, guns, communists) from which we little citizens on our own cannot protect ourselves. If we fail to pay, politicians warn, we are doomed. This is political extortion. It leads to massive abuse of power.

Johnson's political war was a massive misuse of men's lives and spirits, one that scorched the patriotism of the entire baby boom generation to cold ash and replaced it with a supreme cynicism of U.S. leadership. Lieutenant Colonel Charles F. Parker explains:

A great nation, one that is conceived in liberty with a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, does not have the right to abuse the trust, courage, endurance, and sacrifice of its soldiers--who are its own sons and daughters--this way.

It is true that soldiers don't really fight for King and Country. They fight, first of all, to survive, and second of all, not to let their comrades down. Sometimes those priorities are reversed. But somewhere in the back of the American soldier's mind is a childlike faith that somehow this horror is worth it to the nation. To betray that faith, like the Johnson administration did in Vietnam, is contemptible. And that betrayal has probably killed that child-like faith of the nation's soldiers forever.

. . .

Bill now drinks cold Cokes-in therapy meetings with fellow Vietnam combat vets suffering from post--traumatic stress disorder. These meetings, he tells me, are sometimes worse than that damned war.


(italics his)

What I found especially compelling is the psychological claim conveyed in the italicized clauses above: that unjustified killing leads to a loss of sanity in the killer. Appearing at the end of a chapter on a gruesome topic, it gives an uplifting message, implying that man is ultimately a cooperative creature. It's all the more hopeful in this era of ubiquitous media. The humanizing effect of pictures, videos, and podcasts may be the best deterrants of war.

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Killers or victims?

: “ unjustified killing leads to a loss of sanity in the

I doubt if the killing of the enemy is more harmful to the
soldier than the loss of his comrades. The
idea that the volume of unjustified killing is determinant of sanity is
questionable at best. I know a bomber pilot who is perfectly sane. Neither he
nor I know just how many people he killed by dropping thousands of tons on
bombs. The same applies to infantry.(see below)


Other reasons for particular damage to vets in this war exists.
In Vietnam
there was a pervasive absence on the part of the government to give a
convincing reason for men to risk their lives in battle. Worse there was no
support for the soldier once he had done his job and returned home. Here area few quotes from soldiers I was able
to get from “Red Thunder Tropic Lightning” written by Eric Bergerud a military historian
I would trust.


Vet.1) Pity for the noncombatants. “When I look back on the war, I do
think of the Vietnamese people and how much they suffered. I sometimes ask
myself, did we do more harm than good? I wish I had the answer. I do believe
they were the pawns in this ugly game.”

Sadness for lost comrades “To this day, it
hurts to think about those guys who never got the chances in life that I did.
Why did I live, and they didn't? Surely, I wasn't a better per­son, nor a better
soldier. When it's your time, it's your time. I believe that.”

Vets find meaning
for their experience. “It hurts to think
that the guys I knew and those I didn't who were killed in Nam died in vain. I hope the lessons
learned from Vietnam
will make our country a stronger and better
place to live. That the Vietnam War will not make us weak and scared.”

“There is an old saying about Vietnam: I
wouldn't give up the experience for a
million bucks, but I wouldn't take a million bucks to do it again.”

Vet. 2) Nobody knew why we were there “We fought in a
war that not too many people can explain. I have never heard a reason why we were actually over there, what we were supposed
to accomplish over there. I was glad to see us out of Vietnam, but I didn't un­derstand
why we were out. Why we went over under one president, then an­other president pulls us out. Why?”

Combat no fun. “I lay shivering on those ambush patrols, mosquitoes
eating me up, praying to
God that no Viet Cong would come along. Those hot summer days of walking through the jungle saying,
"Please God, don't let us run into any Viet Cong today, don't let Charlie
be out here today." But he would be there, and someone would get
shot and killed.”

Vet.3) Why some served. “ I thought ( going to Nam.) was my duty, my patri­otic duty. It was my
turn to go. My father was in World War II, my grandfa­ther was in World War I.
It was time to pay my dues and prove that I was a man. But I went. When I got there, I
felt I did my job.”

His reward when he
got home. “When we got back, it wasn't the place we left. I was a
second-class citizen, the scum of the earth because I went. I want
people to know that it seemed like the newspa­pers and the media labeled us all
as drug-crazed killers. But there were so
many of us that weren't.-- When we came back, it was tough. People wouldn't
talk to us. It took me a long time
to get over it all, ten or fifteen years.”
Vets. “Whenever I go to any Vietnam
function, it seems like the news media picks out the dirtiest, nastiest-looking
vet they can find, and they use him to represent us. But that's not us. That's
a small part of us, but it's not us.”
Men are vicious killers?? “There is one asinine question people always
ask me when they find out I'm a vet. The
big question is, did you ever kill anybody? A lot of times, I don't know
how to answer that, and I walk away from people. Or I just tell them, ‘What the hell do you think you do in a
war?’ Why don't they ask me how many
people I saved, instead of how many people I killed?”


unless these men believe

unless these men believe their opponents to be true enemies, they will ultimately disobey orders, mutiny, or go crazy.
Seems doubtful to me. The Vietnam war went on a long time and we never had anything like the refusal of the French troops in WW1 to go over the top. The ability of mass numbers of ordinary Hutus in Rwanda to massacre their neighbors and then get along like nothing happened years later tells me human nature isn't as brittle as you think.