Maintaining Empathy In The Hell Of War

When we send good-natured men to war, they get put into situations that put that good-nature under severe stress. Karl Marlantes talks about this in his book What It Is Like To Go To War.
Lets take one simple situation. In a fighting hole 15 feet above Karl, a Vietnamese grenade thrower rose and cocked his hand back to throw a grenade at him. The Vietnamese soldier threw the grenade, which missed, and an American soldier nicknamed ‘Ohio’, with his rifle on full automatic, sprayed the Vietnamese soldier with half a magazine.

My feelings then? It felt pleasurable and satisfying to see Ohio ripping that kid apart on full automatic. I was alive! That certainly felt good. Another obstacle was out of the way of achieving our mission. That felt good too. But it also felt just plain pleasurable to blast him. Take that you (choose a name that describes anything but a fellow human). In are in a fierce state where there is a primitive and savage joy in doing in your enemy.

Karl suspects we all have this primal side, and he says we should not deny its existence. “This denial is more dangerous than acceptance because the “killer”, that mad primitive chimpanzee part of us, is then not under ego control. “It’s why a good Baptist can get caught up in a lynching. It’s why a peace advocate can kill a policeman with a car bomb.”
Another time Karl saved some fellow marines by guiding two A-4s who napalmed the enemy soldiers who had been shooting at them.

In those smoking clearings I could see the charred burning bodies of the NVA who had died or were still dying. Some were crawling for the cover of the unblasted jungle, trailing smoke from their clothing and skin.
My feeling? I had been elated! I shouted to the team, “We got Crispy Critters all over the hill!”…
I didn’t kill people, sons, brothers, fathers. I killed “Crispy Critters.” It could have been krauts, nips, huns, boche, gooks, infidels, towel heads, imperialist pigs, yankee pigs, male chauvinist pigs…
You make a false species out of the other human and therefore make it easier to kill him.”

If he had to do it again, he would, but Karl says that there certainly would be no excited calls over the radio. “I’d hope that I’d remember to respect my enemy’s pain and agony.”
Since this blog is on evil, here are Karl’s direct statements on that subject:

Evil floats all around us like a ghost or an unseen, poisonous mist. It arises as the result of many rather ordinary things such as history, culture, attitudes, and child-rearing practices…Good floats all around us too. It’s all intermingled in this potential state. What we humans do is turn this potential into reality… We humans make evil and good concrete. In Vietnam I did both. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t done so, in war or in civilian life. It’s just that in war, the results are terribly magnified.

What about atrocities? Karl identified three types. They are:

  • The “white heat” atrocity – where logic reigns and there is no feeling or empathy.
  • The “red heat” atrocity – where rage rules to the exclusion of rationality.
  • The “fallen standard” atrocity – where there is a gap between the behavior that society back home expects and what the immediate society on the battlefield expects.

“White heat” led Karl to try to kill enemy soldiers who left to their own devices would probably have retreated or surrendered. (Pure logic might say that there was a small risk from enemy soldiers even in retreat, while empathy might say to let them escape.) “Red heat” led Karl to call soldiers to hurry up and get into position to get at the retreating soldiers. Two Americans, one a good friend of Karl’s, left the cover of the jungle to do so, and so exposed themselves to the enemy’s’ view. The enemy proceeded to fire 2 rockets which killed both Americans.

An example of the third category: “fallen standard” is when some Americans cut off the ears of NVA they had killed. These ears were kept as trophies.

There is more to the thinking and feelings behind these three categories and so I recommend reading the book if you are interested.

Karl’s Recommendations:

  • Karl recommends that there should be someone to help returning young people from war, before they turn to drugs, alcohol, and suicide. “We cannot expect normal eighteen-year-olds to kill someone and contain it in a healthy way.” There can be guilt, and there can be fear of grief, in the returning vet.
  • Karl says that the U.S. military policy in Vietnam was to win by “body count”, namely to kill as many enemy as possible. He says this was a disastrous and stupid notion.
  • He doesn’t use the word “willpower”, but he seems to say that it is required to avoid cutting corners that can get people killed – whether by being sloppy in protecting your own troops or cutting corners morally when dealing with the enemy.
  • He also recommends avoiding pre-emptive war.

I suppose he has our attack on Iraq as an example of pre-emption I think I would disagree to some extent with him on this one if he only counts violent acts as war. For example, Israel saved itself by a pre-emptive attack on Egypt in 1967. Then in 1973, Israel did not attack the massing armies on its borders, and one reason was that the Israeli PM, Golda Meir, did not want to be seen as an aggressor. This almost led to defeat.

The moral code for a warrior, in Karl’s view, should be one that reduces overall suffering. When injustice and suffering is inflicted on innocent people by violent people, then the “warrior steps in and persuades them, by threatening or inflicting pain and death, to put an end to their harmful behavior.”

Unfortunately, some societies would never adopt these and other of Karl’s recommendations, because they simply want to remove any of the moral restraints that their soldiers might have. I’m thinking of the Palestinians under the rule of Hamas, where they are told from an early age that dying in the process of killing Jews is perhaps the greatest deed they can do for Allah. And there are other examples. I think that a human being who was born as good as anyone else, can become a ruthless enemy beyond any reach of reason or empathy, and perhaps this is part of the tragedy of why we need warriors to begin with – to defend ourselves and our freedoms against the enemies that will forever arise.


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