On Killing


There’ve been some recent forays into writing combat scenes on some blogs lately. A few fans reached out to me and asked why I didn’t join the con­ver­sa­tion. That got me thinking, and not in the way you’d expect.

I’ve said in many inter­views that nobody owns the mil­i­tary expe­ri­ence. My being in the mil­i­tary doesn’t make give me any more authority over a mil­i­tary story than anyone else. The same is true for writing combat. One doesn’t have to be a vet­eran brawler to write a great fight scene.

But I do feel like the end result of fighting, namely, killing, isn’t often treated in a way that res­onates with me. I can count on one hand the number of writers who get it right. Joe Aber­crombie springs to mind as one of them, a tiny band of authors, and I do not count myself among them, who evoke the con­se­quences of killing in a way that feels authentic.

My friend Hari sug­gested that writing dead folks is easier than live ones, and I think there’s some truth to that. I think the larger piece is that killing, like every­thing else in life, is immensely com­pli­cated, far more varied than any human art can cap­ture. But there is one thing in par­tic­ular that I think fan­tasy writers miss, and I want to dial in on that here.

Killing is a chain.

Fan­tasy seems to iso­late the act to two bel­liger­ents, the slayer and the slain, at least as far as the con­se­quences go. But the truth is that, in law-enforcement, coun­terin­sur­gency, and war, the ulti­mate act is the result of the efforts of dozens if not hun­dreds of people. Each is a par­tic­i­pant. Each owns the expe­ri­ence. Each is changed by it. Permanently.

Those changes are rarely positive.

I’ve never killed in the way hard oper­a­tors do. I’ve never gone toe-to-toe with an enemy, looked him in the eye, and put a bullet in him. I cer­tainly have the risk of deadly force sce­narios every time my boarding team turns out, but for­tune has spared me that for now. Inshallah, it always will.

But I have killed at a remove. I have been a piece, and a rather inte­gral piece, of a system that absolutely led to the deaths of other people. That these people were con­sid­ered “enemy com­bat­ants” doesn’t make a whit of dif­fer­ence. I have tried hard to own those deaths, and the truth is that, in the end, they own me.

I am still friends with a few hard oper­a­tors, SFOD-D guys mostly, who got out and went the con­tractor route after they got home. One of them texts me once every six months or so, largely to regale me with his exploits regarding quan­tity of drink or of women wooed, and usu­ally both.

It’s easy to see the line between hedo­nism and anes­thesia, and to know he’s crossed it. Make no mis­take, this man is dying, as surely as if he had cancer. He had it worse than me, much worse. I gave direc­tions. He pulled trig­gers. He was sup­posed to be trained for it, but what they didn’t tell him is that it’s not a thing that you can really train people for. In the rare moments when he’s honest with me, we dig around a little, try to get to the root of the problem. And when he’s finally out of excuses we hit the truth. It wasn’t that the enemy shot at him. It’s that he shot back.

There’s the old salt about humans being ani­mals. Mon­keys pro­tecting ter­ri­tory. We fight for dom­i­nance, for resources, we com­pete for mates. All true.

But that’s not what law enforce­ment is, where you might kill to pro­tect people you barely know, to whom you have no blood ties. And it’s not what war is. This isn’t the sudden burst of adren­a­line when a rival enters our ter­ri­tory. A bar­room brawl has much more akin with our bio­log­ical impetus to combat than war, when alcohol has sapped away inhi­bi­tion and the monkey reigns supreme.

That’s not war. War is cold, pro­fes­sional killing. It is indus­tri­al­ized extin­guishing of human life. It is an assembly line of death, com­plete with machines of ever evolving capa­bility and com­plexity to help us get the job done. There is no bio­log­ical impetus at work here. You didn’t kill your adver­sary because he threat­ened to take your mate. You killed him because a person you’ve never met signed a piece of paper telling you that you had to.

That’s not nature. That’s a thing we cre­ated all on our own.

I don’t see my friend in fan­tasy novels. I don’t even see myself. I don’t see these con­se­quences: that killing is per­ma­nent both for the slain and the slayer. That the event is a stone thrown in water, sending rip­ples through every con­trib­utor, every observer. That’s a piece of the land­scape of change that we call PTSD. It’s a sudden real­iza­tion that there are things you will always carry, no matter what you do. It is an event that colors every­thing you expe­ri­ence from that day for­ward. Forever.

Fan­tasy novels are ter­rif­i­cally, con­stantly vio­lent, and too many of them miss this. They don’t grasp that fact that the pro­fes­sion of arms is more akin to taking ascetic orders. Monks sac­ri­fice every­thing: mar­riage and prop­erty, free will and indi­vid­u­ality. Ser­vice mem­bers place them­selves in sit­u­a­tions where they could be killed, or worse, have to kill someone else. Its not a sacred calling, it’s a burden they take on in the hopes that others won’t have to.

You hear a lot about warfighters and cops giving the “last full mea­sure,” as though dying were the ulti­mate sac­ri­fice they are called on to make. It’s not.

In one of my many rumi­na­tions with my afore­men­tioned friend, he described an encounter with a Muf­sidin (“evil­doer,” I do not honor him by calling him Muji­hidin) who botched a dynamic entry, kicking halfway through a door and then trip­ping over the frag­ments, stum­bling into the “fatal funnel” that my friend had cov­ered down.

Uh oh,” I said, as he paused in his story.

Yup,” he replied. “Bad day for him.”

You zapped him?” I asked.

Two in the chest, one in the head,” he answered. “Dude fucked up. He paid for it.”

Yes, he did, I thought, and so did you.

We all did.

  • http://www.creativewritingtime.com Lord Zod

    I am hes­i­tant, sir, to thank you for sharing this. Because while for many of us — myself included — this is a pre­cious insight, this is a part of your life, and not a small one. Whether it is right to thank you or not, I am grateful for the oppor­tu­nity to attempt to grasp this idea.

  • tam­bo­jones

    My cousin was never the same after Iraq for this very reason. Thanks, Myke, for the post. {{hugs}}

  • P.

    This is an excel­lent post. Thanks so much for writing it. I wonder if the reason the gen­eral public is able to shake off tragedy in other coun­tries so easily is because we’re taught to think it’s just like a video game–shoot, kill, get the girl. No bag­gage to deal with, no guilt, no remorse, nothing. Maybe it makes for easier writing, if not reading. Hmm. Think you might ever write a memoir?

    I wonder what you’d think of the treat­ment of PTSD in this novel? http://​www​.amazon​.com/​L​a​u​r​a​s​-​W​o​l​f​-​W​e​r​e​w​o​l​f​-​M​a​r​i​n​e​s​-​S​i​l​v​e​r​-​e​b​o​o​k​/​d​p​/​B​0​0​I​U​1​9​D​HM/ And are there any books besides Joe Abercrombie’s–and yours, obviously–that you’d rec­om­mend as doing a good job with it?

    • Terry P. Rizzuti

      At the risk of bla­tant self-promotion, I think I’ve done jus­tice to this sub­ject in much of my work, par­tic­u­larly The Second Tour.

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  • Paul Weimer

    Pow­erful, Myke.

    I recall that you had mused that you want to do more than just Mil­i­tary Fan­tasy. That there might even be a ‘grim­dark’ novel in you.

    I think, after reading this, you could hit that pitch and bring some­thing new and inter­esting to it.

  • MC

    Thank you. When my nephew came back from his tours as a Marine, the change in him was unmis­take­able. I cannot even begin to imagine all that he has seen and all the things he had to do. Your posts on your expe­ri­ences and your thoughts about them pro­vide a rare insight for people like me. I sin­cerely hope you keep sharing. Please know that every single one of your posts is much appreciated.

  • Kiki

    Thanks, Myke, for giving us this insight. As Mr. Weimer says, I can see you dis­cussing these aspects and marks they leave on people in your future novels…

  • Kendall

    Pow­erful post. My mind and emo­tions shy away from thinking about what it would be like to kill someone. This is one of sev­eral rea­sons why–I’m afraid of how it would change me–not just of the obvious external result.

  • Deb E

    A-maz-ing post, Myke.
    If your fic­tion touches to the core like this, then I am missing out… time to fix this.

  • A.E. Mar­ling

    Thank you for sharing the insights, Myke Cole. In fan­tasy, vio­lence is often treated too joy­ously. It is nec­es­sary to show off those flashy swords and sparkly spells, but too often combat is treated as the only solu­tion (and the best). I find myself increas­ingly thinking, “But that poor guard had a family,” after the heroes drop him then drop a one-liner.

    Orcs and zom­bies are another issue, in that they give the reader per­mis­sion to not feel sorry for humanoid ene­mies of another race (or mental state). Dehu­man­izing enemy com­bat­ants is a pow­erful tool in empire building. I’d prefer such tac­tics stay in pro­pa­ganda pam­phlets than my fan­tasy. Other worlds are big enough for nuance and regret.

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  • DSci­en­tist

    The book On Killing by mil­i­tary psy­chol­o­gist David Grossman goes into great detail the effects killing has on our ser­vice mem­bers. I highly rec­om­mend it. To sum­ma­rize the book, the U.S. mil­i­tary was god-awful at training people to kill up until the Vietnam War. In pre­vious wars, com­bat­ants would have some­thing like 20 per­cent accu­racy since training only included shooting at bullseye tar­gets or sim­i­larly non-human looking ones. Now, the mil­i­tary trains sol­diers to kill by pop­ping up and down human sil­hou­ette dum­mies and have reached some­thing approaching 90 to 95 per­cent accu­racy. The dum­mies fall down after being shot, repli­cating the effect killing would have on a bat­tle­field. The training reduces kill shots to muscle memory so that there is no instinc­tual resis­tance to the act. Often­times, the sol­dier comes to grip with his or her actions after the fact. Granted, a small number of people don’t have this problem and are some variety of sociopath. The point of me writing this is just to add to Myke’s point that war is an indus­tri­al­ized crea­ture. It cer­tainly is.

  • Uncle Byron

    I think many sol­diers in days of yore didn’t feel bad about killing. They were used to it. During the Renais­sance armies often times didn’t take pris­oners. And if they took a city they were given three days to rape and pil­lage.
    If a Roman legion­aire admitted he felt bad over slaugh­tering some Celts he would have become a target of ridicule for his bud­dies. And if a Viking did like­wise he prob­ably would have gotten an axe in the head from his wife. I doubt Spanish Con­quis­ta­dores or US Cav­al­rymen felt too bad about killing Native Amer­i­cans. Not all of course. Cer­vantes seems to have felt bad about galley slaves. But a sig­nif­i­cant number would not care.

    And both you and your buddy are heroes in my book for killing terrorists.

  • Phil

    Great post Myke. It has been 42 years since I killed two men in Viet Nam. Yes, they were trying to kill me and my bud­dies. Kill or be killed. But still, I killed two men.
    The char­acter William Munny in the movie “Unfor­given” said that it’s a hell of a thing to kill a man. You take away all he has, and all he was ever going to have.
    In all these years I have still not been able to resolve the eth­ical and emo­tional dilemma inside me. Drugs and alcohol pro­vided some relief (more like escape I guess), but that stuff doesn’t work for­ever. I just have to live with it.

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