Orders to kill from military superiors and the command not to kill that we receive growing up are a contradiction that confounds the understanding of the value of life. This mutual negation is a prime factor in the mental disorders suffered by returning soldiers. It is especially dangerous where the military action fails to meet the definition of actual self-defense (except in the right-now personal sense of kill-or-be-killed).
Because this moral impasse threatens effective military action, any thought or mention of it is taboo. Those in the military who are aware of the often contrived justifications for warfare, and those not drawn into the vainglory of war, must learn to live a morally compromised life. It does not matter whether a member of the force is aware of the jammed morality involved in warfare that does not in fact threaten family, home or country. Conscious of this or not, he has willy-nilly taken on the "damned if you don’t, damned if you do" job of killing. The overriding need to "kill or be killed" in a horribly chaotic environment settles the morality of the matter on the spot. And so every fighter is sworn to adopt a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde way of life for the term of his service.
This is not a hard path to take. The Army is expert at turning young people into fighting machines, regardless of their individual makeup. My ticket to war – the one in Korea – was an order from my draft board to report to an induction center. Like millions of others, I toughed it and learned how to "kill the enemy" – without giving it a second thought. During the training, our bodies and brains mutated into a new species of human being. A tender-hearted friend on Hill 867, whose killing was formerly limited to swatting flies and mosquitoes, wrote: "…the mortar is a deadly weapon and no doubt I have been the cause of many of them [the enemy] meeting their ancestors before they expected to. Blood thirsty, aren’t I?" I was lucky to have been assigned to a strategic support unit – doubly lucky to have returned intact. I was proud of my service, feeling that I owed my country the loyalty it deserved. America had been good to me, my family, my friends . . . It was with a profound sense of respect that I put my life on the line for the people and the land I loved.
My faith in a government that sent me and millions of others to war was implicit. What demon would send us to a killing field without a damned good reason? Years later, however, when I saw abundant documented evidence that the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II was instigated and expected by the President and his tight circle of top military officials, the respect I had for my government cracked.
The top secret strategy to provoke Japan into attacking us at Pearl Harbor was designed to win public support for entering World War II by declaring war on Japan, Germany’s ally. When I read, on page 203 of a carefully researched investigation,*"…In a postwar assessment of [Japan’s attack, Lieutenant Commander…] Rochefort said, ‘It was a pretty cheap price [2,402 Americans killed, 1,282 wounded] to pay for unifying the country…,’" I felt sick. The knowledge that the Commander-in-Chief and his hand-picked crew would condone a carnage at Pearl Harbor that they had a hand in, split me in two. Since that moment, half of me is proud veteran; the other half is . . . well, I don’t have the words for it.
I avoid bringing the subject up with anyone who might be offended or hurt by hearing that the "surprise" attack on Pearl Harbor was not a surprise at all – especially veterans and members of the active military. Some who have heard the facts nod in seeming assent (out of courtesy), with a face showing denial. Most deny it unequivocally. I can’t blame them – it’s too far out of the realm of belief.
Such shameless immorality at high levels of echelon taints the role of the military. Before these ugly facts came to light, my worst difficulty had been a mild guilt for having returned from the Korean war zone unharmed. Now my war-time hang-ups include a nameless hurt that will not go away.
*Day of Deceit by Robert B. Stinnett, a former Naval officer who admired President Roosevelt.
Anthony DeBlasi is a Korean War veteran, retired writer and culture warrior since 1980.