We will fight for peace, but we will do no violence.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Recruits by David Wood




Is she comfortable with her son becoming a warfighter, with American troops still being killed in Afghanistan and trouble brewing elsewhere in the world? “Oh, we prayed about it and he prayed about it – he knew it was what God wanted,” she said. “We are good with that.”

It’s a proud and painful scene to watch, for it’s clear that there will be more wars, and that there will always be young Americans eager to sign up to fight. In three months, these recruits have earned the right to be called Marines. More training will come later. But there is no way, really, to prepare them for the emotional extremes of war: trauma for some, including moral injury, a violation of the sense of right and wrong that leaves a wound on the soul.

 “You just can’t communicate the knowledge of war to somebody else. It’s something that you know or don’t know, and once you know it you can’t un-know it and you have to deal with that knowledge,” explained Stephen Canty, a thoughtful 24-year-old who went through boot camp here in 2007, before his two combat deployments to Afghanistan.


All this may sound like the moral ideals by which most Americans strive to live. But the military’s moral codes are different: They are issued to each recruit along with a weapon and the training, and eventually the authorization, to kill. Success on the battlefield may call for the suspension of basic notions of civilian morality in order to accomplish the mission. Thus the military codes add dimensions of loyalty, duty and personal courage, and back up those values with a requirement of rigid and unquestioning discipline and obedience to lawful orders. The Army’s Soldier’s Creed demands that troops “always place the mission first.”

The entire military is “a moral construct,” said retired VA psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay. In his ground-breaking 1994 study of combat trauma among Vietnam veterans, Achilles in Vietnam, he writes: “The moral power of an army is so great that it can motivate men to get up out of a trench and step into enemy machine-gun fire.”

The military’s moral structure is intended to help guide troops through “morally ambiguous situations,” said Marine Col. Daniel J. Haas, who commands the recruit training regiment here.


During a gun battle outside Marjah, Afghanistan, in early spring of 2010, a Marine squad of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion 6th Marines (“Charlie One-Six”), was pinned down in a gully, taking intense fire from an adobe compound. Unable to move forward or to retreat, the squad leader OK’d an attack and Lance Cpl. Joseph Schiano, a 22-year-old on his second combat tour, lifted a rocket launcher to his shoulder, took aim and fired.

The blast blew apart much of the adobe building. As the dust settled, the Marines could hear shouting and wailing. Their interpreter said, “They want to bring out the wounded.” And as the torn and bleeding bodies were dragged out, it became clear that the Taliban had herded women and children into the building as human shields.

“And Schiano is leaning against wall, just sobbing,” recalled Canty, who was Schiano’s squadmate at the time. “The thing is, you couldn’t have known.”

But as Canty himself often says, once you know the truth of war, you can’t un-know it. After that tour in Afghanistan, Schiano left the Marine Corps and went home to Connecticut. The war still weighed heavily on him. He couldn’t fit back. Daytimes, he felt he didn’t belong. At night, he had screaming nightmares.

One Sunday afternoon several weeks after he returned, Schiano went off the road in his 2003 Volkswagen Jetta and rammed a utility pole. At his funeral in Riverside, Conn., Marines of One-Six carried the casket. He was 23 years old.


“The bright line between murder and legitimate killing is something that our most junior enlisted person cares deeply about. When they kill somebody who didn’t need to be killed, they are really wounded themselves.”- Dr. Jonathan Shay, retired VA psychiatrist


Canty’s little brother, Joe, joined the Marines in 2010 and recently deployed to Afghanistan. “I know what he’s getting into; he’s going back to Helmand Province less than 20 miles from where I was, and he’s got a grin ear to ear,” Stephen said. “And there’s nothing I can do to wipe that grin off his face because, that was me, you know? Three years earlier. Nobody could have told me.”


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