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Intimate Killing – by Sydney Freedberg

 © National Journal Group Inc.

Friday, Jul. 21st, 2007

Intimate Killing

By Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., National Journal

The Army is spending more time studying how to create effective, disciplined soldiers who can kill men face-to-face and yet return from combat without permanent psychological wounds.


‘‘I guess I’m just one of the luckier people,” Chris Morris, a captain in the Army Special Forces, said over the phone from his base in Afghanistan. “Gunfire does not bother me significantly. We shot at the enemy, killed them, and moved on—which you go over and over and over again in training, so it’s pretty simple.”

Capt. Morris was talking about the first, and worst, firefight in his career, a battle with Baathist holdouts clad as civilians—the first stirrings of the insurgency—after the fall of Baghdad in 2003.

“I’ve shot a lot of people,” the two-time Bronze Star recipient said bluntly, “but I’ve never [since] had four guys on top of me at the same time.” He had charged over a low hill and come face-to-face with four armed Iraqis. But they were carrying their rifles casually at the hip, while Morris already had his to his shoulder. “I came up looking through my sights, so that gave me the extra second or two,” he
explained. “The first guy, I put my rifle on his chest and pulled the trigger twice—we’re within a foot or two—and the guys following
him, same thing; there’s just enough time to shift to the next guy, to the next guy, to the next guy.”

This is not the sterile, standoff, high-tech warfare of “shock and awe.” After the United States has spent billions of dollars and invested decades of know-how on stealth aircraft, precision missiles, and long-range sensors, its battles against elusive, low-tech enemies increasingly have to be fought the old-fashioned way, face-toface. It is what retired Army War College commandant Maj. Gen. Robert Scales calls “intimate killing.”

“I really get angry” about the mismatch in Pentagon investment between men and machines, Scales told National Journal. About 80 percent of all U.S. casualties since World War II have been infantrymen, he noted. Yet the Defense Department is about to spend, to name just one example, $15 billion to buy 141 combat-search-and-rescue helicopters, at more than $106 million apiece. The mission of these aircraft is to rescue pilots and air crews trapped behind enemy lines, and they do a good job of it—the current aging fleet has
rescued roughly 500 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the average cost of an Army grunt’s protective gear, counting full body armor (but not his weapon), is just $4,600. The Pentagon could buy a new full set of this gear for all the troops in Iraq and the tab would be only $736 million. Yet 96 percent of all U.S. casualties are killed on the ground.

The investment gap extends beyond equipment to basic research. “We’ve stuck scientific devices up every orifice in every pilot and every astronaut we’ve ever had,” Scales fumed, “but where are the studies on finding those who have the right stuff for, and keeping them alive in, close combat? The strategic success or failure of America [is] on the shoulders of those we understand the least well.”

The Pentagon knows it needs more Chris Morrisses, but it doesn’t know how to make them. “To some degree, this is a trainable thing, but we’re not guiding this with a whole lot of science,” said Col. Casey Haskins, commander of the 198th Infantry Brigade at Fort Benning, Ga., which trains all Army infantry recruits. “We’re guiding it with some science-based insights and a whole lot of art, gut feel, and experience.”


Calm Under Fire

After decades of training reforms to help troops fight more effectively, the latest annual survey of troops in Iraq by the Army surgeon general’s Mental Health Advisory Team reported that only 13 percent of soldiers and 14 percent of marines said they were “directly responsible for the death of an enemy combatant.” Even accounting for support troops who rarely leave their bases and for the difficulty of telling whether you have hit your target in a hit-and-run war against well-concealed guerrillas, those figures are strikingly low. Morris’s own former commander in Iraq, retired Lt. Col. Steve Russell—who received a Bronze Star for shooting three insurgents at close range—calls Morris “unique,” one of the two best officers he has ever known. Said Russell, “I would put much of his ability into the ‘born with it’ category, [rather than] ‘trained to it.’

”Yet clearly many soldiers and marines do get trained to it, if not to a Chris Morris level, at least to where they can overcome their fear and function with extraordinary focus in circumstances that would paralyze most people. “I got to where I didn’t mind,” said Sgt. 1st Class Paul Powers, a Fort Benning drill sergeant. On what Powers recalls as the worst day of his life—November 7, 2003, when a rocket-propelled grenade tore through a truck crowded with his fellow soldiers, and then insurgents opened fire with automatic weapons—“I went right for the first aid” and started trying to save the wounded until medics arrived.“The gunfire didn’t scare me.”

In interview after interview, combatants spoke of a surreal calm in battle. “When you talk to soldiers and marines who’ve been in combat,” explained Lt. Col. Carl Castro, chief of military psychiatry at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, “they say, ‘My training kicked in,’ or ‘I went on automatic pilot and did my job.’” But, added Castro, an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder, when you ask, “ ‘How did you feel afterward, when you went off autopilot?’—that’s something different.” In the Mental Health Advisory Team survey, 17 percent of all soldiers, and 28 percent of those who had the most combat experience, reported“acute stress” symptoms suggestive of some level of PTSD.

One of those symptoms is difficulty in relating to loved ones after returning home. “I love my children to death, but I don’t hug them and kiss them as much as I used to,” said Powers. In Iraq, at first, “I was always letting kids come up and giving out candy, toothbrushes,” he said. “If I was to go there now, I think I’d be so cautious, so nervous, I wouldn’t trust anyone within 35 meters of me. I’m afraid I would become more a problem than a solution.” But at Fort Benning, Powers is part of the solution when it comes to preparing young recruits to go to the war zone. “I get e-mails from soldiers that are there now, that I trained,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ve set them up for success.” And for all of Powers’s reluctance to talk with his wife about his wartime experiences, his marriage, unlike those of many troops back from war, remains intact.

As for Morris, even he acknowledges, “Sometimes I don’t sleep as well as I probably would have in the past, but that just kind of comes with the job.” Yet Morris is not emotionally detached. Between his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan he married a friend who had closely followed his service in Iraq. “She worries enough,” Morris told National Journal. “Some of the details I’ve shared with you, I won’t share with her. One day I will.”


Preventing PTSD

No amount of training or natural aptitude can make war less than horrifying. Indeed, some degree of horror is the only appropriate reaction, said Dr. Jonathan Shay, a leading veterans psychiatrist. “If you look at the menu of PTSD [symptoms]”— the hair-trigger response to sudden noises, the sudden waking, the swift anger, the suppression of gentler emotions— they all are signs of “the mobilization of the mind and body for danger,” Shay said. “The primary injury from war is simply the persistence into civilian life of those absolutely valid adaptations that let you survive other human beings’ trying to kill you.”

But Shay, controversially, draws a sharp distinction between simple psychological injury, which he considers inevitable in war, and compound fractures of the personality, such as “the expectation that everyone is out to get you, drinking, drugging, and danger-seeking—the things that truly wreck a veteran’s life.” According to Shay, “While you can never totally prevent the primary injuries, I do believe the complications can largely be prevented by cohesion”—the intense bonds of loyalty between comrades—“and especially by ethical, confident, expert leadership.” Units in which officers and grunts alike consistently look out for one another can take some relatively simple steps to prevent complex trauma later.

One of the most abiding sources of trauma, for example, is having to handle bodies and body parts. Especially if a soldier knew those who were killed or wounded, having to clean up friends’ flesh and blood compounds the mental agony of their loss. Sgt. Powers recalled an incident in which one of his men had an arm blown off by a roadside bomb. “We were going back out in four hours, so the vehicle had to be cleaned,” he said. “I had to clean all night to get all the stuff out, and I couldn’t clean everything, so a lot of [equipment] had to be thrown away.”

But although death and injury cannot be prevented in war, an ordeal like Powers’s can be. In Capt. Daniel Sean Naab’s unit, a military police company that served in Baghdad in 2005 and 2006, soldiers never had to clean up their platoon-mates’ blood. The mechanics performed the gruesome task with a conscientiousness that helped bond the unit. “Our mechanics— and I’m biased because they’re mine—they turned the wrenches and they filled the oil and they did all that stuff, but they were also combat guys who went out on patrol every day, and they knew there was no way that lone M.P. squad could clean up that crap when their brother had died,” said Naab. “So [the mechanics] cleaned all the weapons, they cleaned the night-vision goggles, they cleaned the entire Humvee.”


Personal Growth

That the Mental Health Advisory Team survey found that 17 percent of soldiers showed signs of PTSD is certainly disturbing. “That gets a lot of press, as it should,” said Michael Matthews, a psychology professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. But all the attention given to it may be a little misleading. “I was teaching my cadets and [they said], ‘From what we hear, we feel like it’s inevitable that we’ll get PTSD,’ ” Matthews said. “If we’ve planted that expectation, it’s so far from the reality that it’s a disservice
to these soldiers.”

So doctors and researchers are paying close attention to the remaining 83 percent of soldiers to find out why they don’t suffer from PTSD. Scientifically rigorous studies of combat are still rare and incomplete. Besides the sheer practical difficulties of conducting research in a war zone, noted Gen. Scales, “killing people face-to-face is an unsavory field to study, particularly among academics—
although I think that’s changing.” At West Point, for example, Matthews and colleagues from civilian universities have been giving
incoming students a survey assessing their self-confidence and persistence—they call it “grit”—that predicts better than any of 204 other measures how likely a cadet is to pass the academy’s grueling entry training.

Col. Castro and his Walter Reed colleagues, meanwhile, have come up with a new training program for troops deploying to and returning from the war zone. Called “Battlemind,” it emphasizes that combat stress is both normal and controllable, and it coaches soldiers to apply the military virtues they already know, such as self-discipline, self-confidence, and comradeship, to help them readjust to life with their families. “In a post-deployment study,” Castro said, “those soldiers who had received the Battlemind training reported fewer mental health problems than those who had received traditional stress education.” The Army announced on July 17 a crash 90-day program to push Battlemind training throughout the force, including for all troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What little research there is on soldiers back from combat has yielded some surprising results. “What we know is [that] the typical
response to trauma is not PTSD—and it can be growth,” said Christopher Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of
Michigan. For example, in a 1994 study of 1,287 older veterans, mostly from World War II and Korea, more than 90 percent reported
having 10 positive psychological outcomes as well as negative ones from their combat experiences. “They reported being braver, kinder, more religious, having a greater appreciation of beauty,” Peterson said. And in one of his own studies, Peterson added, “People who’ve experienced traumatic events were more likely than people who hadn’t to score high on some of these character strengths.”

Even Sgt. Powers—who recounted more firsthand experiences of combat trauma than any of the 78 other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans whom National Journal interviewed— treasures some legacies from his combat experience. “It sure made me appreciate my family more and what I have here in this country that you take for granted,” Powers said. Above all, echoing the sentiments of countless soldiers through the centuries, Powers spoke of his abiding bond with his military comrades. Since he came back from Iraq, he is in constant e-mail touch with many of them, and as the younger soldiers move on with their lives, he has been to a fair number of his friends’ weddings.


Riding the Tiger

For most Americans, the only dangerous part of the day is their commute, and the worst trouble that their fight-or-flight instinct can get them into is a momentary and rarely-acted-on outburst of road rage. For combat troops, however, that explosion of fury and fear is a tiger that they have to ride: too little animal instinct and they lose their fighting edge; too much, and they endanger themselves and their comrades through headlong flight, uncontrolled anger, or, in the long run, PTSD.

The fighters who perform best “are aggressive, but they don’t lose their cool,” explained Morris, the Special Forces captain. “It’s a controlled rage. You have to go kill your enemy, but you can’t let that rage get to the point where you do something stupid.”

Research on combat identifies an optimum zone of physiological and psychological response—what retired Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his book On Combat, calls “condition red”— and combatants who undershoot or overshoot that zone are in serious trouble. As fear, anger, and heart rate all rise, the body rushes blood to the major muscles, increasing strength and speed, while simultaneously restricting blood flow to less critical areas, such as the digestive tract—which explains why warriors have lost bowel control since Homeric times. Fine motor skills can also deteriorate during stress—which explains why pilots and snipers must remain
unnaturally calm. Meanwhile, the senses cut out secondary stimuli and hyper-focus on the immediate threat. If these responses go too far, the result is literally blind panic, as tunnel vision and uncontrollable shakes set in. If body and mind stay in the optimal zone, however, they can fight with extraordinary power and ability to survive.

Drill sergeant Michael Lacey, for example, recalled wrestling with an Iraqi who was holding a hand grenade. “I was completely focused on the grenade,” Lacey said. “I was not even looking at his hand.” The grenade itself was the only thing in Lacey’s universe as he bashed the man’s fingers against the ground with all his strength, over and over, he said, “until it was bloody, and he dropped the grenade.” Moments later, Lacey had to switch off the adrenaline as he took the chastened Iraqi into custody. “You were so pumped and ready to hurt this person,” said Lacey, “you want so bad to hurt them because you know what they were trying to do—but you can’t. It would be doing the wrong thing.”

Only the most deeply encoded patterns of behavior can survive the flood of fight-or-flight responses. Combatants need what psychologists call “over-learned, over-practiced training,” explained Dr. Jim Stokes, a psychiatrist at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. “It gets down there in the deep brain—not the cortex—where it doesn’t require any thought.”

It is the imperative to “over-learn” skills, rather than merely learn them, that drives the military’s obsessive focus on repetition,
standardization, and detail. Take Timothy Nein, a staff sergeant in the Kentucky National Guard who led a military police squad in Iraq. On his troops’ weekly day off, “they would empty everything out of their vehicles and check all their equipment to make sure it was stacked exactly right, down to the last detail,” Nein said. When the squad was issued a new kind of ammunition bandoliers, the soldiers figured out a way to hang them on the back of their seats and practiced passing them to each other in a hurry. “I had a guy laugh at me while we were doing that,” Nein said. But on March 20, 2005, the squad of nine men and women found itself fighting off 50 insurgents. “[Medic] Jason Mike ran out of ammo pretty quick,” Nein recalled,“and [machine gunner William] Haynes reached down,grabbed the bandolier,” and flipped it to Mike, “exactly what we’d rehearsed.” Nein and two of his squad members earned the Silver Star for their actions that day.


Avoiding Atrocity

The irony is that combatants such as those in Nein’s squad had to think hard about what they might have to do before they could
do it without thinking. So in addition to the obsessive repetition of drills, the instructors at Fort Benning now emphasize creativity
and flexibility—they want to encourage soldiers to find their own solutions. “Lots of times they’ll do something that’s just silly,” said
Lacey, “but lots of times they’ll pull something out of a hat and surprise you, and you’ll learn something from the privates.”

Lacey and his fellow drill sergeants are rolling back four centuries of military history. In the days of sword, spear, and longbow,
an army lived or died largely by its individual soldiers’ skill and aggression in handling their weapons. Then came the musket: less reliable, less accurate, and shorter-ranged than the longbow but requiring much less strength and skill as long as the recruit robotically followed step-by-step instructions. Armies packed their musketmen shoulder to shoulder to make the most of the inaccurate weapons, and stationed sergeants behind them to literally shove men forward into the gaps left by the dead.

But weapons improved, and these dense formations became fatally vulnerable as early as 1863, when Confederate Gen. George Pickett’s men, who were ordered to charge at the center of Union formations, were shot to pieces at the battle of Gettysburg. By World War I, the invention of the machine gun forced troops to disperse and go to ground. Many times, soldiers often couldn’t even see their comrades, let alone the enemy. The result was often psychological and tactical paralysis, characteristics of trench warfare.

“In the ‘empty battlefield,’ a lot of people just lie down and fire in the air,” said Bruce Gudmundsson, an author and a retired Marine Corps major. The Germans, with their specialist Strosstruppen—literally “assault detachments” but more often translated as “storm troopers”—invented tactics in which small squads of well-trained men moved forward, widely dispersed and on their own initiative, with the sergeants in front to lead by example instead of behind to push men into line. “We’re still on the same trend line that begins with the German storm troopers of World War I,” Gudmundsson said. “That places an even greater burden on the individual, and fewer and fewer individuals are capable of this.”

That burden becomes ever greater in an insurgency, in which the “empty battlefield” of the World Wars becomes a crowded city street or marketplace where enemies and innocents intermingle, and the same aggression that produces victory one moment can create an atrocity the next. After the roadside bomb cost one of Powers’s men his arm, he recalled, Iraqi civilians gathered to gawk and jeer. “The locals were clapping and cheering.” A machine gunner on one of Powers’s Humvees began to lose control. “He was getting ready to open up with the .50-caliber into a crowd of about two or three hundred,” Powers said. “I had to yell and yell, but he was very angry, with tears in his eyes, and he couldn’t hear very good because he had some liquids coming from his ear [from the concussion
of the roadside bomb]. I had to hit him in the leg and pull him down out of the hatch to get him away from the weapon.” Powers physically hauled the man off the machine gun, calmed him down, and then had to put him right back on the gun to watch for insurgents. “He was mad, he was shaking, but he didn’t fire.”

Sometimes, however, there is no one to pull men back from the brink. In November 2005, in the Iraqi town of Haditha, a Marine unit that lost one of its comrades to a roadside bomb retaliated by killing 24 men, women, and children. “We’re killing too many people we shouldn’t be killing,” said Haskins, the training brigade commander. “It’s very hard to stop human beings who are angry and have just taken casualties from shooting. The most important thing we do is instill the Army’s values, teamwork, and a sense of discipline. If we don’t do that and [instead] jump right to shooting and blowing things up, all we’re doing is making better criminals.”


Staying Human

Since World War II, when the United States suffered, by some estimates, a half-million “psychiatric casualties”—more than the number of men killed—the military has assigned psychologists to its units to care for troops as close to the front line as possible. But most care still comes as it has since ancient times: comrade to comrade. “They had combat stress teams, and it was nice they were there,” Powers said. “But when people are talking like they understand what you went through, they don’t.”

The first line of psychological defense is comradeship among the combatants themselves. “You get back with your guys [after a
firefight] and you calm them down,” Powers said. “It usually takes four to six hours. I never went over six hours before they were focused, their heads back in the game, going like it never happened.” But Powers and other leaders get less opportunity than
their troops to talk through their own hard experiences. “You have to hide your true feelings and not let your soldiers see you
afraid or distraught,” Powers said. “There are times when you have to go away by yourself to let it out, especially when you’ve lost
one of your own.” After the ambush on November 7, 2003, when Powers saw one man from his battalion killed, two others get their
legs blown off below the knee, and others badly burned, “I was kind of out of myself,” he said. He recalls hurling his helmet at his
superior officer, then going off to a motor pool to cry amid the empty Humvees. Afterward, he said, “you start coming down. You
need to talk to somebody, and it’s the guys within your platoon.”

Comrades form intense bonds—especially since 2001, when the Army, following the Marine Corps’s lead, worked to end individual
transfers from unit to unit and instead kept fighting teams together for six, nine, or even 18 months of training before a deployment.
The unit cohesion is now so strong that the midtour leaves back to the States that the Army has instituted to break up a soldier’s
arduous 12-to-15-month tour sometimes add to the stress. Powers, for one, didn’t want to go on his midtour leave. “I couldn’t
really relax for those 10 days with my family,” he said. “My biggest fear was something would happen in Iraq while I wasn’t there. I
was actually happy, believe it or not, to be back with my platoon.”

The same emotions that make combatants anxious for one another can also help them heal. Marine Sgt. Jason Sanders was a few
steps behind three of his squad mates when a grenade went off, wounding two of the men and killing the third, Cpl. Jason Dunham,
who had thrown himself onto the grenade to shield his comrades from the blast. Dunham was awarded the Medal of Honor. (See NJ, 1/13/07, p. 16.) “It wasn’t until I was all the way back at [base] that it started sinking in,” Sanders said. “I—I just went to my damn cot and lay there for a few days. Everybody left me alone.”

Three days later, Sanders could see his unit preparing for a major offensive to clear insurgents out of a nearby town. “I was, like, ‘I can’t do this. If they’re going in it, I’m going in it,’ ” he recalled. “I could’ve stayed at base. Nobody told me to get up. But I ran out and jumped in the Humvee.”


Three Hots and a Cot

Sanders’s recovery from an experience that could have easily caused disabling PTSD underlines the importance of simple things in keeping troops mentally fit to fight. First is that his fellow marines knew him so well, and so understood his anguish, that they gave him time to grieve without guilt or pressure. Second is the value of sleep. In fact, the time-tested first resort of military psychologists is “three hots and a cot”: three hot meals a day and as much sleep as the combatant requires. “People can look incredibly crazy, completely gone, wildly psychotic,” Dr. Shay said, “but you let them sleep for 12 or 14 hours, and they wake up and say, ‘Hey, hey, where’s my unit? I need to get back.’ ”

In World War II, the military found out the hard way that most troops collapsed completely after about 100 continuous days in combat. Except for a handful of major battles, such as Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in 2002 and Falluja in 2004, U.S. forces in recent years have rarely experienced days on end of continuous battle. After raids or ambushes, most units get to return at least to an austere “combat outpost,” where they may have to relieve themselves in garbage bags and go without showers, but where they can sleep indoors and with a reasonable chance of uninterrupted rest. Nevertheless, in several interviews, combat troops spoke candidly of losing their fighting edge after nine, six, or even three months. Even for those working support jobs at well-provisioned major bases, exhaustion accumulates over their year-plus in theater.

“You [gain] experience and you get better, and then you hit a plateau,” Haskins said. “At some point, you begin to deteriorate and go down and down. I’m not sure that in some cases you can ever recover,” he continued. “When I was in Iraq the last time, I was a staff officer, but I went [with hardly any sleep] for a 10-week period in the summer of 2004, and at the end of it I was running on fumes. By the end of the 18 months, I was down to just a few usable hours a day. I’m never going to get back to where I was before. I will never have that energy again.”

As more and more troops return to Iraq and Afghanistan for second or third tours of duty, and as the Army extends the standard tour from an already-grueling 12 months to 15, sheer fatigue becomes a strategic problem. Fatigue compounds the likelihood of sustaining wounds, mental and physical alike.

“PTSD is a real thing,” said Sgt. Nein, the Silver Star recipient who has seen one of his soldiers suffer disabling symptoms.“That is one thing I wish I would have understood a little bit before this. We should prepare the soldier before the fact. You need to let them realize they’re going to see bad things.” But that does not mean, he said, that soldiers and their leaders stop doing their jobs. “I would tell my guys, and I would tell them a lot, that if I’m killed today, you’re going out tomorrow,” Nein said. “This is what we do. We’re professional soldiers.”  SJF


Sydney Freedberg (


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