When being taught to use the M249 belt-fed machine gun, I was told that the optimal string of fire is just long enough to pull the trigger and yell, “Die-Motherfucker-die!” Anything longer than that risks overheating the weapon. Anything less and you lose your potential for lethality. But I get ahead of myself: Vocabulary matters. How we use a word changes our understanding of the subject.

In boot camp, the word “kill” took on a much more diverse roll as an everyday word. When we were given orders our answer would be a very primal, “Kill!” Questions were no longer answered in “yes” or “no”. It was “Kill!” or “No Sir!” To eat we’d have to scream, “Attack the chow-hall, Kill! Kill! Kill!” and everywhere we ran we would sing songs about killing and death. When the songs were over and there was nothing left to sing we would just chant it, over and over as our left foot hit the ground.“Kill… Kill… Kill…” We were being taught that everywhere we went, death must follow. We learned the enemy was not something that deserved compassion, and that the greatest mercy available to us was to kill him as fast as possible. I was seventeen and impressionable; I ate it up.

Years later, a fellow Marine and I were sitting under the Iraqi sun, leaning against a wall of sandbags. He would smoke his cigarettes and we would talk about how the Marine Corps is different from the real world, and how we became what we were: indifferent. We heard explosions and gunfire everyday, but never slowed to think of the implications. What may be on the receiving end of it. Before our current assignment, Greg was a Tactical Air Controller. Whenever a bomb is dropped these days, the pilot may fly the plane and point the bomb, but it doesn’t get dropped until someone like Greg looks at his laptop with a satellite uplink and says to the pilot, “That’s the target, you’re cleared hot.” He was the one that made the call. Greg was telling me about the first time he dropped a bomb on a person, or in this case several.

“I saw the scud missile site, and there were five guys standing around it, talking or whatever it is they were doing. It’s weird to think they’re dead because of me.”

Almost every person has a natural aversion to killing another person. The military, a tradition of thousands of years, has had ample time to figure out what works as a tool to help their soldiers overcome this, and to make them more aggressive killers. One of the largest factors has been the language that a military uses when it trains its young men and women to kill other human beings. You can give someone a gun and teach them how to use it, but unless you can
“re-program” them from what they’ve been taught by society, you can’t be sure that they will.

“You know how it is, man.” Said Greg. “We give these guys names like ‘Rag-head,’ ‘Haji,’ you know- back in Vietnam: ‘Nipper,’ ‘The Zips,’ so it dehumanizes them so it’s easier to kill ‘em. But the first time you take a life—and especially if they don’t know it’s coming…” He gave an uneasy chuckle. “That guy coulda’ been there—you know, writing a letter to his wife, his kids. He was just trying to get by like everybody else, and in an instant, Lance Corporal Greg erased… years.” We sat in the silence while I waited for him to continue.

A final cigarette, as viewed through infrared.
A final cigarette, as viewed through infrared.

“After the bomb dropped we went up to do what we call ‘battle damage assessment.’ So we actually go up to where we dropped the bomb. And to see what a two-thousand pound bomb can do to somebody—You know how when you think of a grenade, you think of shrapnel like this?” He pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and offered it up as an approximation. “Well, shrapnel from a two thousand pound bomb is about this big,” he said, drawing his hands wide apart in a “big-fish” motion, “and when the bomb blows up, it twists into jagged edges and spins around like a helicopter,” he said whirling his finger through the air. “It goes through something like five solid brick walls before the velocity slows down. That shit will tear a person to pieces.

“The explosion of a bomb isn’t what kills people. The explosion blows up all the machinery, the walls, the roof; anything close, including the rocks and ground around it, they all become super-sonic projectiles, bouncing off of each other, and anyone nearby—that is, if it doesn’t go through them.

“When we get down there the guy was severed in half. It cut him clean. He was cauterized at the waist; no blood on his pants, but no upper half…”

Imagining the group of marines standing around and staring at half a corpse, I asked him what broke the silence.

“What broke the silence is—I pull out the guy’s wallet, and I start handing out money; old Iraqi Dinar with Saddam Hussein’s face on it. So I’m handing it out and someone finally says, ‘Hey, you think we should be taking this?’ And I shrug and I say, ‘Uh… I don’t think he needs it anymore, so it doesn’t really matter.’ So some guys took his identification, some guys took his money… Looking back on it, it’s kind of weird, but at the time it made it easier to dehumanize it.”

I took a special note to the fact that he called the man “it”. This didn’t bother me. I was of the same mindset, but by this point in my career, I was keenly aware that this was not normal. We were conditioned to think like this. The obscene and profane were twisted to the point of parody. When conditioning young fighters, the military likes to yell at the recruits until they have a ringing in their ears, berating and dehumanizing them in an effort to simulate as closely as possible the isolation and despair of combat and teach them to function in that environment. In the Vietnam era it was not uncommon to see recruits being hit or kicked, beaten into submission and hardened for battle. In the almost forty years since, however, advocacy groups have demanded concessions from the military in the treatment of these recruits. The only effective technique left for conditioning recruits is environment, physical stress, repetition, and verbal debasement, though rules are now in-place that forbid Drill Instructors from swearing. To Greg, the idea that someone is expected to go out and fight and possibly die in combat, but is simultaneously too sensitive to hear profanity is absurd.

“I don’t understand why we can’t cuss at somebody. People lose sight of the fact of what we do: We-train-to-kill-people. Saying ‘fuck’ is not as bad as pulling the trigger and sending hot steel through somebody’s chest. Yet, they want to make it this nice, comfortable,” he puts his hands defensively, “Train him how to do his job, but be nice to him. You know?” He mocked the concerned parent, stiffly moving his whole body with each syllable. “’We don’t want our son to be uncomfortable. We don’t want him to deal with reality.’ Reality in the Marine Corps is pretty fuckin’ nasty. The reality is you’re going to spill someone’s blood if you stay in long enough. That some of the people you know are going to die and you’re going to see it. You’re going to watch them die. It’s inevitable. If you stay in long enough you are going to experience that. You have to prepare people for that. Death and war and those things are ugly things. Cussing isn’t ugly. I mean, yeah, it’s ugly to mainstream America; people say it’s pedestrian, whatever. Who the fuck cares? You got to come to the realization that what these recruits are preparing for can’t be trained or taught without being a little… mean.

“People have no fucking clue what’s going on. It’s combat. We’re not going out to pick flowers. We’re not going to bake cake. It doesn’t matter how this person interacts with other Marines; if he’s nice to him or polite to him. Fucking combat’s not polite! People aren’t polite!” Under the Iraqi sun he mocks like he’s pointing a rifle at someone. “Hey Sir, can you get out of your fighting hole? I don’t want to have to shoot you—No! It’s Die-Motherfucker-die!”

 

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