Bugle and Bell
musings on the soul of war
Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.
by Anne Sexton ["The Saints Come Marching In"]
The Mark of Cain:
If You Have Taken Life in Combat,
Are You Forever Different?
It isn't a question of whether you've taken to eating your steaks
rare or have developed a nervous facial tic or have found your
storage shed to be haunted by a vengeful specter in black pajamas
and a coolie hat.
Are you still you? This is not entirely a dumb question
regardless of the fact that it is being asked by a
jarhead. This Bugle and Bell column
contends that, if you have taken life in combat, you are
definitely still you. Perhaps you are now more fundamentally you
than you were before you had blood on your hands.
In his classic study of traditional societies, The Golden
Bough, Sir James Frazier observed: "Among the Natchez Indians
of North America, young braves who had taken their first scalps
were obliged to observe certain rules of abstinence for six
months. They might not sleep with their wives nor eat flesh;
their only food was fish and hasty-pudding. If they broke these
rules, they believed that the soul of the man they had killed
would work their death by magic, that they would gain no more
successes over the enemy, and that the least wound inflicted on
them would prove mortal."
In some societies, it could get worse: "When a man has killed an
enemy in warfare ... with the Ja-Luo of Kavirondo [in Africa] the
custom is somewhat different. Three days after his return from
the fight, the warrior shaves his head. But, before he may enter
his village, he has to hang a live fowl, head uppermost, round
his neck; then the bird is decapitated and its head left hanging
round his neck."
Hmmm ... it's sort of like The Rime of the Ancient
Even our own society apparently attaches some sort of taboo to
those who must kill in the line of duty. When a firing squad is
called upon to execute a man, one of the rifles has in it a blank
round instead of a live round. And the slayers do not know which
of them is the non-slayer. Why go to that trouble to confer
anonymity unless there is some sort of stigma attached to
any taking of human life?
Often, if not most of the time, a warrior in modern combat is
uncertain as to whether he has killed. Multiple rifles are firing
in the same direction on automatic, artillery rounds are aimed at
grid coordinates rather than at human silhouettes, and the
retrieval of bodies by the enemy make it unclear as to whether
the man that you shot was wounded or killed. Your status as a
manslayer is based on probability. There is no mechanism inside
you that blinks like the light over a hockey net:
Let us, therefore, clarify what would qualify a warrior/killer
for being suspected of being "different" from his peers.
We are looking to see whether there is an ontological
difference between the killer and the non-killer; Webster's
Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines ontology as "a branch
of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being"
and/or "a particular theory about the nature of being or the
kinds of existents."[sic] In short, we are not talking about
whether some sort of psychological or social change has occurred
for the warrior/killer. We are dealing with the soul. Are you
Having the intent to kill or simply having the killer instinct
does not identify one as a manslayer. One must have slain,
whether he is certain of having slain or not.
It is not a question of how much of a killer one is,
based on a quantity of kills. You either have killed or you have
not. It is like a loss of virginity; any events beyond that event
which established the status thus attained ... are merely
This is not posed as a moral question. Biblical scholars are
uncertain as to whether the ancient Hebrew word, used in the Ten
Commandments, means Thou shall not kill
or the more narrow Thou shall not
murder. And in various religions, as with
some of Hinduism's devotees to Kali or those cults employing
human sacrifice, killing is considered to be good. Our emphasis
is not on whether the warrior/killer has become a better person
or a worse person. Is he fundamentally a different person –
different from the self that he was before he killed and
different from other persons who have not killed? And does he
have some ontological similarity to those who have also
killed in a combat situation – whether friend or enemy?
It has always seemed to me that the greatest resource for world
peace would not be the United Nations or a one-size-fits-all
religion but, rather, an international organization of veterans
from all armies. It would give new meaning to the term blood
The Nineteenth Century humanist, Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, USA
(retired), observed: "In nature there are neither rewards nor
punishments; there are only consequences." He also said: "It is
easier to make a saint out of a libertine than out of a prig."
Taking Ingersoll's logic one step further, it might be suggested
that it is easier to make a man of peace out of a warrior who has
killed than out of a noncombatant. This thought is central to
this subject. In fact, the term hardened killer would
seem to be less reflective of reality than the term softened
I would assert that those former combatants who have perceived a
heightened gentleness in themselves, subsequent to their having
taken life in combat, easily mistake that gentleness for
weakness. It is as if they have "shot their wad" and now have
difficulty sometimes in executing simple, mundane tasks.
The trick is to go inside the gentleness. Embrace it,
and in doing so embrace yourself as the gentle God embraces you.
Empower yourself as the gentle God empowers you. In doing so, you
will realize your true nature as a gentle man. Not a
gentleman but, rather, a gentle man.
This is not to imply that one has become neutered by one's own
bayonet; as Dag Hammarskjold said: "You have to be severe with
yourself in order to have the right to be gentle with others."
There seems to be a kind of toggle switch at work in the human
Swami Vivekananda said: "There is a time for expanding and a time
for contraction; one provokes the other and the other calls for
the return of the first .... Never are we nearer the Light than
when darkness is deepest."
Does mean that we, having tasted the true power of gentleness,
will eventually toggle back into our previous ability to kill?
No, we have never lost our ability to kill and never will. Not-killing is a choice, not a given.
It is easier for one who has killed to remain calm in a
confrontation. The tormenter who would attack you is shackled by
his ego; he is shackled by the ego that governs all of society
and its pseudo-killing that travels under the guise of
competition and notches on an imaginary bedpost. You have
fulfilled the number-one demand of the human ego; you have
already killed. So you need not seek pseudo-kills by giving the
tormenter the finger, kicking his ass, or questioning the
propriety of his mother. You can smile and walk away. And, if he
continues to lethally pursue you and/or your loved ones and you
do not have immediate recourse to the assistance of law
enforcement, you have the confidence of knowing that you can
– and will – kill him if necessary.
The lead character in the movie Rambo said: "Killing is
like breathing." And perhaps this is what differentiates the one
who has killed from the one who has not. It is not a fundamental
inner or outer change. Having had to kill in combat awakens the
combatant as to how easy it is to deal out death, literally and
figuratively. Life is fragile. It is almost as if it is life that
is unnatural, a metaphysical stranger in a strange land,
and it is death that is natural.
Cain, who has killed, is no different from his father Adam who
has not killed and is sort of a vacillating pussy. Mankind did
not fall with Cain's murder of his brother Abel. The mark of
Cain is an extension of the Fall in the Garden, a natural,
logical consequence of Adam's denial of his balls.
Our society pushes males to seek their balls – via sports,
bedroom expeditions, and becoming a top rat in the rat race
– when males are born with their balls right between their
legs. Likewise, it is not a matter of whether you have killed in
combat or not. You were born a killer. Your father was a killer.
Your mother was a killer. Pee Wee Herman is a killer. Killing is
the modus operandi of the human race.
Are you still you? Of course, you're still you. What has
changed is that you've realized that this always has been you.
Killing did not put any blood on your hands; rather, it washed
off the socially-approved camouflage which hid the blood that was
always there. The non-killer has this realization only
academically, at best. Your realization is, well, real.
Does this mean that all killing is relative? That "it ain't about
nothin'"? You decide. What do you think I am? Yo' mamma?
Seriously though, let's briefly look at the assumptions
underlying this inquiry. They are my assumptions, whether you
choose to make them yours or not. And perhaps you can and should
add to them. Possibly your insights can be incorporated into a
future column on this or a related subject. My e-mail address is
There has been no mention here of karma. In religions that
believe in reincarnation, death is not permanent. And dealing out
death may affect one's karma, for better or worse. As I said, it
is not my purpose to judge the morality of the individual who has
killed in combat, neither for better nor worse. And, although an
ongoing stipulation of my editor is that this column is to be
spiritual in the broad sense and not a podium for any particular
religious bias, my assumptions cannot help but be somewhat
affected by my experiences and by the myopia of my world-view. I
am treating death in this discussion as if it is a final exit
from this life. Adios. Been good to know you. Lights out. Taps.
If a pagan mythology were to be employed here, it would be the
cult of Janus – the god of two faces. That is sort of like
yin and yang. The rose symbolizes the warrior/killer who has
realized his non-shadow side. The rose has dangerous, sharp
thorns but is also fragile, beautiful, and mystical.
Aestheticism and the killer instinct are cut out of the same raw,
soulful material. The pen is not mightier than the sword. The pen
is an extension of the sword; the pen's Aestheticism is the
other face of the sword's two-sided blade. Welcome to
The warrior/killer is kind of like a sock inside-out. The coarse,
chaotically-designed side is his lethal side. The ordered,
tastefully-patterned side is his pregnant (yet wholly male
– like the seahorse who carries the eggs of his offspring),
Society often assumes that the man who has killed in combat has
changed in a psychological, emotional way and is deserving of our
sympathy. If a warrior/killer occasionally finds himself to be a
chick magnet, it is not because a lady necessarily looks at him
with admiration or deference but, rather, with a kind of
condescending poor baby perspective.
The rock musician/songwriter, Freddie Mercury, has taken as well
this sympathetic view of one who has killed. In the song
Bohemian Rhapsody, performed by his group Queen,
Mercury puts himself in our place:
Mama, just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger, now he's dead
Mama, life had just begun
But now I've gone and thrown it all away
Didn't mean to make you cry
If I'm not back again this time tomorrow
Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters
In other words, according to Freddie Mercury, it is as if it
don't mean nothin'. But what does he know – he's never
killed anybody and is exercising the poetic license that puts
bread on his table – and do we really need his sympathy?
What is the role, if any, of our sympathy? Yours and
mine, Brother Killer. In relationship with others – non-killers as well as killers – what do we do now? With some
of us having killed and some of us not having killed, are we
contributed by B. Keith Cossey