The tragic news of the Navy Yard shootings is sobering. Reading about the victims and their families has given me pause. I ask, how can people in their right mind go on a killing spree? How can anyone decide to wantonly gun people down?
Then I remember. I fought in a war in Vietnam almost a half-century ago. I was trained and constrained, and didn’t try to kill anyone who wasn’t trying to kill me. But I know the feeling of intentionally pulling the trigger.
That’s the horror of war. It takes normal young men and women with families and loved ones and overrides their natural reluctance to kill. I know this because of my own experiences.
What can I write about Vietnam? The truth is, I never wanted to write anything. I don’t talk about it. To this day, I’m not certain that I am even allowed to say anything. I haven’t made up my mind as to whether what I did was right. I did nothing illegal, but that in itself does not make it right.
Most of what I did I was trained to do. Part of the training I went through was a conditioning process. Unlike the Navy Yard shooter, most people cannot kill another human being. Their brain is hardwired against it.
The training we received rewired our brain, and that was a good thing. In our line of work, hesitation is the surest way to be killed. On cue, we stop thinking with the forebrain — the part that makes us human — and we start thinking with the midbrain, the primitive portion of our brain that is indistinguishable from that of an animal. Implanted in the midbrain is a powerful resistance to killing another.
The only way to silence this resistance is through conditioning. We called it “kill drills.” We rehearsed realistic combat situations over and over again, using pop-up, human targets that included catsup for blood. These kill drills build muscle memory and condition the brain to killing others. The training accomplished the objective: once in-country, no one hesitated.
Was I scared? Yes, more than anyone can imagine, but it was a complex fear. I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid that, when the time came, and all hell broke loose, that I would turn into a coward and forever face the consequences. That fear was far greater than the fear of dying. I wasn’t worried about upstaging Lord Jim (protagonist of the great Joseph Conrad novel), but I was afraid.
It was a long time ago. Still, I remember with sadness the men who were just boys, grown too old, too fast, and who died too young before any of their dreams could come true. I recall the fear so thick you could taste it. A company commander and I drank a little too much one night and he swore that fear smells like burned bacon. He should know. He had three purple hearts.
There were good soldiers who became killers. These were not psychos or mentally ill. They just excelled at their training and then excelled in the field. Every squad leader knew who his killer was. He knew he could count on him not to flinch, not to panic, not to turn and run. He would go in and do his job, then come out and be as normal as the next guy.
That’s the difference between those of us who were trained for war and those who are mass murderers. We were expected to turn off the conditioning, return to being civilians, and be normal. Still, that might be hard to do. Some returned filled with guilt, terror and remorse. The result could be full-blown PTSD and a rocky adjustment to civilian life.
Unlike the Navy Yard shooter, we didn’t kill for thrills. We did what we had to do. We did it in an effort to protect our country. Now that we’re back home, we can no longer understand why someone would kill another. And, being from a small town in south Georgia, I loved to hunt and fish growing up. But when I returned home after Vietnam, I never picked up another gun. Go figure.
Chuck McDougald headed the Veterans Coalition, first for California, then for the Western Region, when Sen. John McCain ran for president in 2008. In 2010, he served as Statewide Volunteer Chair for Carly Fiorina’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. He is currently the Western Region director for ConcernedVeteransforAmerica.org and is a member of the National Rifle Association. He lives in South San Francisco with his wife and two kids.