Credit Photo to the National Museum of the USAF
When my dad was in Vietnam, he loved his fighter squadron. He thought highly of his squadron mates, had great respect for most every single one of them personally and professionally. He loved the competition to be the best, to ‘do the mission’ at your highest level, and learn from each other. The mission of a fighter pilot, put in PC terms, is to protect friendly personnel from enemy attack, to protect our freedoms, homeland, and national interests. And those are all true. But the technical aspects of the job often involve killing another human being before they kill you, or before they kill or maim one of your brothers in arms. You are trained to kill, and to be very good at it.
During one of his three trips to Vietnam, dad happened to walk past a briefing room and heard the cheers from the pilots and observers as they watched the Heads Up Display gun camera film showing the effective killing of enemy combatants. The excitement of having done your job well, of having killed the enemy before he was able to kill them or their brothers on the ground was a success, and it worked these pilots into a near frenzy, as if they were watching their Alma Mater beat their rival during a football game. My dad hurriedly walked away from the ‘home movies’ as he had his own mission to think about, but more so because their reaction bothered him.
As he thought about what bothered him, it was not a loss of respect for his squadron mates. And it was not a sadness for the loss of life on the part of the enemy. That WAS their job, and every time they did their job well, it decreased the chance that someone else would have to go back and risk themselves to kill the same enemy combatant. What bothered him was that had he been a part of that mission, he is not sure that his reaction would have been any different. An enemy was gone, and they were gone because of their precise weapons employment, their understanding of the combat situation, and their willingness to do what needed to be done. These were not blood-thirsty men, and my dad did not see them as any less than himself, and yet here they were cheering the loss of life. Would he have reacted the same way? He was afraid of the answer.
The enemy that his squadron mates killed that day were definitely the enemy. They would not have flinched, given the chance, to kill one of them. With their actions, some may even go so far as to say that they deserved to die. And the nature of war is exactly that–some will die, probably more on the losing side of the war. In protecting your freedoms and exerting your will over another, sometimes lethal force is necessary. But it is never to be celebrated. Even the death of the most foul person is a loss for humanity. Even a justified death should not be seen as some great event. That justified death was more than likely another soul following orders. And if not, if they were truly evil and a scourge on society, the loss of life represents a failure on the part of that individual and society to live well and happily together. Death in any form other than natural causes is a loss for all involved.
My dad is a compassionate, caring person who loves his fellow man, I’d say, more than average. He is known for his kindness and ability to think of the needs of others. He remembers names of friends and even acquaintances from years ago with regularity, recalling some personal attribute or memory of that person. And yet with all of his kindness and care for his fellow man, his chosen profession involved the killing of others. He was very good at it, very good at his craft, and throughout his 40–plus years in uniform, he recognized the occasional necessity of it.
I, too, have aimed a weapon at another and taken their life. Multiple times. I also associate with many exceptionally good and kind people who are also trained to do the same thing. Many have done so, and yet they are still good people in my eyes. They are also just good at their jobs, good at recognizing a need and putting the needs of the greater good above their personal needs. I remember one time during a combat deployment where a group of pilots were laughing about a particular mission in which they killed a number of enemy combatants. They had executed flawlessly, used their aircraft and weapons perfectly to end the life of these enemy personnel, and were celebrating their success. When I saw it, I had the same question as my dad–would I have celebrated like them had I been on the same mission?
This gets me to the problematic nature of killing, justified killing. In order to be a good cop, a good soldier, or any sort of enforcement agent, you have to be good at your craft and willing without flinching to execute when needed. Despite the sadness, the uncomfortable feelings, the dangerous euphoria of a job well-done in ending the life of another, you cannot hesitate when you need to pull the trigger. It is terrible, but very necessary in a society where all do not play nice. The problematic nature comes from the challenges of dealing with it appropriately. Will you have nightmares even if you know you did the right thing? Will you grow to like it, and develop a thirst for it? Will it hurt your ability to interact normally with others? Will you react improperly to the death, and regret your reaction? Will your thirst for excellence in your craft override your ability to use judgment regarding when and when not to pull the trigger? Those are all questions that even the young cop out of the academy must answer.
Relative to the whole of society, few people have aimed a deadly weapon at another human being and pulled the trigger or pushed the weapons release button. Thankfully, it is not a common occurrence relative to the overall population. Each of us should, however, ponder the significance of such an act, understand when it is important, and be willing to deal with the inevitable consequences of it.
Just like any other challenge in life, dealing with this type of act can ruin us or it can make us into better people. It can help us cherish more what we have, respect life even more, and understand the value of life. It can help us understand that cop who is faced with a life or death situation and is forced to pull the trigger. It can help us appreciate those who stand guard for our freedoms ever more. It can help us wish for that day when lethal force is no longer needed. For now, however, there is still a need.
I hope you never have to take the life of another, but I also hope you can come to get a glimpse of what it means, what it does not mean, and how challenging it is. We speak of police officers who ‘acted rashly’, of soldiers who were ‘criminal’ in their willingness to pull the trigger, but seldom put ourselves in their shoes and try and understand what they are dealing with before, during, and after such an ordeal. Like the person who loses their life, we should all respect the survivors and give them the benefit of the doubt before we judge them by our own paradigm.
Few books have adequately spoken about this topic. The link below is to one worth reading, even if I don’t agree with all of his conclusions: