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.

  • 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/Lauras-Wolf-Werewolf-Marines-Silver-ebook/dp/B00IU19DHM/ 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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