This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.
The experience of military violence during the German ISAF operation has not only been essentially new to German society and the armed forces but also and particularly to the Bundeswehr soldiers. For the first time since the end of World War II, German servicemembers actively used kinetic violence during combat. The question in focus here is how do soldiers deal with combat situations, the fear, the permanent tension and how do they cope with killing and death? Killing is still one of the best hidden phenomena of modern wars, because social scientists generally hesitate when it comes to discussing and investigating the act of killing. It is a challenging research undertaking to not per se classify violence as something evil (or something good) but, in defiance of the moral challenge, to examine how people can inflict violence upon others or even kill them and how they evaluate the significance of such an act. When ISAF soldiers returned to Germany, friends and relatives often tersely enquire: “Did you kill anyone?” instead of asking the usual question: “So what was it like?”. Due to certain spatial distances given in most combat situations, the soldiers most often than not do not know whether they have actually injured or killed someone. Having certain knowledge in this respect is very rare in military conflicts. This not-knowing can lead to equally irritating feelings of guilt and shame as being sure to have shot somebody. In most combat situations, soldiers do not face each other when they shoot; on the contrary, the view on the other soldier (who is moving and taking cover) can be blocked by (large) distances, the terrain, bushes, buildings etc. This is also called the “fog of combat”. A (fatal) hit on an opponent can only be noticed by the ceasing backfire – in most cases, the only ones who have a clear view on the enemy to be killed are the snipers (if at all) or movie heroes. Therefore, the experience of killing another person seems to remain rather abstract to most of the German soldiers with combat experience. Interestingly enough, even snipers are protected from a too direct confrontation with the act of killing by looking through their rifle scopes.
Therefore, the soldiers experience killing in highly contradictory ways (cf. Bar/Ben-Ari 2005: 133). This may lead to a range of (emotional) reactions between desire for combat and triumph on the one hand and seeking of sense, feelings of guilt, compassion and remorse on the other hand. Directly after a fight, the soldiers are happy to have survived and maybe to have even killed the enemy. In most cases, unsettling thoughts, questions of meaning and feelings of guilt only arise after some time has passed, because the soldiers also may see “an ominous component of hopelessness” in the bloodshed and killing.
Soldiers can be morally unsettled by these questions. Most studies in the context of social sciences are focused on the victims of violence rather than on the perpetrators. During ISAF’s mission in Afghanistan, however, the soldiers not only became victims but perpetrators as well. This perspective can be hard to bear for some soldiers and, apart from moral questions, can also lead to feelings of guilt, shame and aggressiveness as well as to speechlessness and helplessness. Additional consequences may include disturbed social behaviour as well as impulse control disorders. The majority of soldiers are nevertheless dealing quite well with the killing in battle – especially if the enemy has been identified unequivocally and if servicemembers can be sure to have successfully fought against insurgents. However, our natural biological scruples to kill another person have to be overcome again and again. People do not want to kill, and soldiers are no exception. Apparently, in World War II, 80 to 85 per cent of the American soldiers did not shoot at the enemy. This psychological barrier has been lowered considerably afterwards by better training during the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
When soldiers kill another human being, this act can call our inherent humanity into question. The legitimization of the use of violence by society is thus of particular significance. If one’s own group approves of the collective killing (imperative to kill), the cultural concept of the prohibition of killing can be overcome and adequately processed. As indicated by German ISAF soldiers during personal interviews, they sometimes not only questioned the meaning and purpose of the mission, they were also aware of the poor legitimization of this robust operation on the part of German society. This awareness burdens soldiers. Additionally, war is not an endeavour of a few but, instead, “war is a state of society” and therefore affects everyone.
With regard to the psychological wellbeing of soldiers from a combat mission, it is vital for the soldiers to be reaccepted and readmitted by society as ‘people like you and me’ and to not be perceived as ‘psychopathologized strangers’ or “marginal women/men” as often the case in Western societies.
In the German society, soldiers are often marked as being special so that their experiences may be excluded as particular ones. This way society does not have to integrate war experiences enter into a direct confrontation with the experienced violence. In other words, experiences of violence are not being integrated into society; instead, the affected soldiers are being repulsed by focusing on psychopathology. However, war and warlike conflicts cannot be individualized. Combat experiences cannot be excluded by so-called post-heroic societies, which send their soldiers into conflict or war scenarios. Experiences of violence are not only stored in narrations and archived in language. They are also incorporated into bodies, movements, gestures, (unofficial) rituals and objects.
Personal interviews with Bundeswehr soldiers with combat experience have demonstrated that, even in the military context, violence is being interpreted in highly different ways. It can have both abominable and positive aspects. As unsettling as experiences of violence may be in that particular moment, for many soldiers the confrontation with violence is only part of a more complex experience during a mission as well as afterwards. Externally, the armed forces represent the state’s monopoly on the use of violence. As members of this organization of the state, the soldiers are trained in the use of violence and sent on sometimes robust missions mandated by parliament. During these operations they will have to make use of the learned violence in combat situations. For the soldiers, violence is the ‘gravitational centre’ which is not only the basis for core military training but also for the emergence of a soldierly identity. The training and performance of military violence is an essential part of a professional soldier’s view on his profession. Therefore, we need to understand that for many members of the military, violence is nothing that automatically traumatizes but it is part of their profession as well as of their professional self-perception. In most cases, soldiers are able to deal quite well with experiences of violence as an integral part of their soldierly assignment in the country of deployment.
The experience of violence is not automatically traumatizing and is not taken as an opportunity to distance oneself from the values and norms of the native peaceful society. In many cases, soldiers with combat experiences who have been directly confronted with their own mortality often appreciate their home more than they did before. In many cases they also experience a strengthening of their value system – virtues such as honesty, politeness, reliability and taking care of each other now (once again) have a higher importance. Combat experiences can trigger a certain self-assurance which helps to regain one’s “own wholeness”. Suppressed or dormant facets of one’s own personality can be revived/lived out under the challenging conditions of a violent confrontation.
Bar, N., & Ben-Ari, E. (2005). Israeli snipers in the Al-Aqsa intifada: killing, humanity and lived experience. Third World Quarterly, 26(1), 133-152.