October 2005

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War by Theodore Nadelson

“They should have just left us in ‘Nam. We were used up and knew that we could have no life, beyond what we already had. After all the killing, we should have been left to die in Vietnam.”

It is difficult to review a work such as Thedore Nadelson’s Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War, using any words except those provided by the author and those of the military personnel he interviewed in the course of a lifetime spent working with soldiers suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is no effective way to distill the pure and heartbreaking essence of a statement such as the one above.

The author, a former chief of psychiatric service at Boston Veterans Administration Medical Center and a Korean War veteran himself, examines the mental, physical, spiritual, and social effects of asking and training human beings to kill other human beings. In the book’s first section he describes cultural forces, both in America and worldwide, which often encourage (primarily) boys to play at war and aggression, in attempts to “pass the test of manhood.” In the last two sections, “The Trauma of War” and “The Future of War,” he also discusses the effect of wartime experiences on veterans’ mental health, daily lives, and relationships, as well as discussing briefly the new role of women in the military and combat situations. As chilling as those chapters are, the central part of the book, labeled “Killing and Killers,” is the most profoundly unsettling of them all, as it explores how soldiers felt while killing in combat, and their common inabilities to forget or match those feelings (often described as a “high”) in civilian life.

Nadelson, who died in 2003, started work on the book in the late 1980s, and has produced an unimpeachably researched, well-organized, and readable book on a subject that is as abhorrent as examining what the actual act of wartime killing demands of the individuals asked to do it. What is perhaps even more impressive is his writing style, which is simultaneously succinct and haunting. That style is apparent in the great majority of his text, including such statements as “No matter how the business of war is adorned by parades, uniforms, and literary glorification of the warrior’s courage… the soldier’s real work is in killing. The soldier’s privilege to kill is unlike anything most other individuals have ever experienced, and the soldier who kills is permanently changed, fixed to the death he has made.”

Fortunately for the reader, the book is organized in four parts, divided first into chapters and then into short (one- to four-page) chapter segments, which are clearly labeled. This is helpful because the stream of quotes from soldiers Nadelson worked with, not to mention war and military memoirs and autobiographies, not only illustrate his points, but are honest to the point of brutality. Consider the Vietnam vet who provided the quote at the head of the review, or the soldier who tries to explain the sense of omnipotent “grace” killing gave him, whose interview concludes with his quietly asking God to forgive him.

Many other books exist to provide a hellish picture of war; Nadelson’s also succeeds in his calm consideration of ways to lessen veterans’ trauma, not only by exploring the comradeship of military units, but by making suggestions to implement programs to re-introduce veterans more progressively back into civilian societies. He also frequently makes the point that many soldiers find overcoming their natural human resistance to killing others the most stressful experience of all.

Perhaps most importantly, Nadelson quietly insists that the consequences of asking and training individuals to kill should not be borne solely by the soldiers themselves: “Our soldiers were caught up in war’s horror and wonder; they were intoxicated by it, wounded, killed, but not responsible for it. It is the nation’s responsibility; the loss of meaning would not have been the soldiers’ burden if we had not sent them away.”

If we weren’t still sending soldiers away, Trained to Kill wouldn’t be nearly as necessary reading. But we are, and it is.

Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War by Theodore Nadelson
Johns Hopkins University Press
ISBN: 0801881668
191 pages