Let’s get the “Killing Machine” argument out of the way. I don’t know about you, but I have successfully refrained from engaging in cold-blooded pre-meditated murder after I left the service, and I have twenty-two years of service and three combat tours.
It is human nature to fear what we don’t understand, and to dehumanize an individual in order to make neat explanations for what we already think we know. By saying, All _______ are _______, we are creating a bias in our own minds that we then act on as fact. To begin with, the absolutes of “all” and “are” will get us in trouble, because we start to believe it. We believe the exception becomes the rule, because that then allows us to give ourselves the answer to the question everyone wants to know the answer to: “Why?”
When incidents like what happened in Dallas, Texas on 7 July take place, and a veteran is involved, the impulse is to look to the individual’s military service as a reason for their actions, essentially claiming that the military creates “killing machines” that are heartless, soulless monsters that are simply focused on destruction.
There is much to be said about military training. It instills discipline. It builds confidence. And yes, it does teach us to overcome our basic fears and aversions in order to accomplish the mission, whether that mission is to attack or defend. As identified in the article, it does teach us to “take out the enemy” in a myriad of unique and specialty-specific ways. What it also does is provide a framework in which to use those specific skills, and a certain kind of morality and discernment about when to use those skills and when not to use them.
Military training also instills the ability to appropriately identify who the enemy is, and who it is not.
There is a basic concept in statistics that is taught in just about every entry-level course, and has been reiterated in nearly every psychology course I have ever taken: correlation does not mean causation. Just because two variables are connected does not necessarily mean that one event caused the other. An extreme example is the following statement: “as ice cream sales increase, the rate of _________ increases sharply. Therefore, ice cream consumption causes ________.” Replace the blank with what you’d like…homicides, shark attacks, drowning deaths, and you have great example of correlation and causation. Rather than what could be seen as the obvious variable…hot weather patterns during summer lead to both ice cream consumption and swimming, which leads to an increased chance of drowning and shark attacks, or summer means more gatherings in which conflicts may arise…the two correlated increases are linked as causation.
The same challenge is seen when a veteran commits a crime, or breaks down, or acts in some socially unacceptable way…their military service MUST have been a causal factor in the crime.
In the summer of 2008, I had a Solider in my platoon that experienced a mental breakdown, which led to us referring him to a local inpatient facility for a period of time. Myself and the Soldier’s squad leader took him to the facility, wanting to make sure he was all right. The Soldier was a young enlisted person, relatively lower-ranking and had only been in the service for a couple of years. He had deployed once, for a short period of time, during which he saw no active combat or was exposed to any traumatic events. By all accounts of those who had served with him, the deployment was as “uneventful” as any deployment could have been.
When we arrived at the facility, as the Soldier was filling out the intake paperwork, the intake coordinator asked, “have you ever been deployed” and when he answered, “yes”, she started writing down a paragraph of information without asking any further questions! The reality was, this Soldier had mental health concerns from BEFORE he joined the military. Certainly, some experiences in the military may have exacerbated these challenges, but this young man had been in and out of foster care and had a challenging relationship with his adoptive parents…each of which were a factor in the situation that led to his breakdown, NOT his military deployment.
Another challenge, in this particular instance, is assuming that this veteran received some type of specialized formal training in the military that “turned him into” a “killing machine.” This veteran was a Carpentry and Masonry Specialist in the Army Reserves…hardly a highly-trained Special Operations soldier, or even an advanced marksman like members of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit. The fact that he deployed to Afghanistan like millions of other veterans has less to do with what happened on that day in Dallas than what was going on with him personally.
It would be professionally unethical of me to conduct an analysis of this individual; he and I never met, and I am not trained in or specialize in personality assessment of public figures. For me to speculate on what his motives, reasons, or drives were, as a mental health professional, could be construed as expert opinion that should be taken as fact. Nothing could be farther from the truth…where my opinion does come into play, however, is through an understanding of human nature and the military mindset.
Labeling anyone as any particular thing is counterproductive to getting to the true understanding of the situation. There are very real issues that need to be addressed by our society, and creating division only leads to more division. To understand and change, we must listen for wisdom rather than a lack of knowledge, we must narrow the gaps and distances between each other, and we must raise and address the core issues that face us rather than getting distracted by the rhetoric and venom.
Veterans, the military didn’t just teach you to shoot straight and march far. It taught you how to solve problems, persevere in the face of overwhelming obstacles against you, and to be strong in order to prevent violence. Let’s try to use that to help each other and our communities.