combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2007

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 Mariner.

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: Score!

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 still 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 footnotes.

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 brothers.

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 killer.

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 soul.

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 Bushido.

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), life-giving side.

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
      Mama, ooo
      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 still us?

contributed by B. Keith Cossey

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