Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Cost of Killing

Attack through No Man's Land
In the First World War, the most frequent cause of death was from artillery missiles aimed and fired from a distance.  French soldier Guilliaume Apollinaire captures the detachment of long-range gunners in this excerpt from his poem “Nothing Much”:

How many d’you reckon we’ve killed
It’s weird it doesn’t affect us….
Each time you say fire! the word becomes steel that explodes far off….

Captain Reginald James Young,
 winning Military Cross 1916
by Stanley L. Wood 
But what is the psychological toll for infantry soldiers who kill a man at close range? In his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman writes, “The dead soldier takes his misery with him, but the man who killed him must forever live and die with him. The lesson becomes increasingly clear: Killing is what war is all about, and killing in combat, by its very nature, causes deep wounds of pain and guilt” (93).

Researchers who study Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have long understood that distance plays a key role in the trauma of taking another life: “if one does not have to look into the eyes when killing, it is much easier to deny the humanity of the victim” (Grossman, 128).  Close-quarters killing of the enemy may be one of the least understood horrors of war. 

While it is indescribably traumatic to see one’s fellow soldiers and friends die, the psychological damage that results in taking a life may be just as great. A mental health counselor from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says, “When your friends are dead, it’s a real loss. It’s a loss of your friend that you trusted and you loved in a very intense way.  When you personally take another life and you go up to that lifeless body with a hole in it and you look down on it, and you say, ‘I did that,’ I think it is a loss of yourself at the same time.”*

Frederic Manning, fighting with the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, saw some of the most brutal fighting of the Great War at the Battle of the Somme in the fall of 1916.  His poem “The Face” describes a close encounter with a young German soldier. 

The Face
German soldier, WWI

Out of the smoke of men's wrath,
The red mist of anger,
As a wraith of sleep,
A boy's face, white and tense,
Convulsed with terror and hate,
The lips trembling. . . .

Then a red smear, falling. . . .
I thrust aside the cloud, as it were tangible,
Blinded with a mist of blood.
The face cometh again
As a wraith of sleep:
A boy's face, delicate and blond,
The very mask of God,

Caught up in the blood-lust of battle, the speaker of the poem blindly charges forward through the smoke of the attack. He is startled by the sudden appearance of an enemy soldier emerging out of the fog, and instinctively, the soldier shoots to kill.  Almost simultaneously, he recognizes that the “red smear, falling” is a blond boy whose face mirrors his own: angry, tense, and terrified. 

Frederic Manning
The short, fragmented lines of the poem capture the disjointed chaos of combat and the recurring horrific memory: the delicacy of the young boy’s face marred by wounds resembles that of the crucified Christ. The last line of the poem – a single word – sums up the tragedy that affects every soldier: all is forever broken. 

Frederic Manning survived the war, and in 1929 published a novel that drew heavily upon his own war experiences, The Middle Parts of Fortune (later expurgated and republished as Her Privates We).  In the book’s Prefatory Note, Manning writes, “War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity.  To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.”**
*Jim Dooley, quoted on website from American PBS Frontline documentary The Soldier’s Heart.
**Another Manning poem “Relieved” is featured on this blog at this link. 


  1. Powerful poem. The things we ask our soldiers to do.

  2. My eyes just keep going back to the parallelism between the last 3 lines of the first stanza and the last 3 lines of the second. What was 'convulsed with terror and hate' has become 'the very mask of God'. What horror.

    1. A very disturbing mirroring, isn't it? Thanks for reading and responding, Tom.