Editor’s Note: This post has been modified from its original version on Don Gomez’ blog, Carrying the Gun.
There are a number of tropes involved with being a veteran. One of them says that if someone asks you if you ever killed someone, you are supposed to be offended. Like most veterans, when I was inevitably asked this question by some unsuspecting civilian, I indeed found myself offended, mostly because I thought I was supposed to be. As time has gone on, however, I’ve found that I’m less and less offended by the question and actually think it’s a pretty relevant one. The fact that we (veterans) berate others for asking says more about our own self righteousness than it does about the civilian population’s insensitivity or poor understanding of the military.
If you had to boil down what it is that makes the military unique, I think you would get past marching and rank and uniforms, and eventually arrive at the fact that the military enjoys society’s most generous monopoly on violence. The fact that you can join the military and potentially be given carte blanche to kill is fascinating, considering that under most other circumstances, killing will likely see you killed in return or thrown in jail. It is not strange, therefore, that someone who upon learning that you served in the military — especially in the combat arms — would be curious to know if you ever killed someone. In my experience, that question usually comes after a couple of cursory questions like “Where did you serve” and “Were you overseas.” Then, in whispered tones, that person will ask if you ever killed someone. Sometimes he’ll even obscure the question a bit, saying something to the effect of “Did you ever, you know, have to use your rifle?”
Thinking on it, I’ve never found myself truly resentful of the question, but being plugged into the veteran sphere, I know I am supposed to be.
No, instead I’ve always found the question more awkward than offensive, in the same vein of being asked about your sexual history. I don’t think I’ve ever demured from the question, instead rattling off a non-answer, speaking in generalities of things my unit had done or circumstances in which I fired my rifle.
Part of the awkwardness of responding to the question is the fact that by giving an answer you are destroying the mystery of your military service. A non-answer, as I like to to give, keeps the mystery alive. Answering in the affirmative and in detail may reveal the monster that some believe you to be. And to admit that you have used your rifle strips away that one thing that truly makes military service unique to other professions.
For most veterans, there is, in fact, a definitive answer to the question: No. Most service members will never fire a shot in anger or in defense while deployed, and of those who do, many of them will never know the result. Then, there are those who know that they did in fact kill. They may be eager to share and relish the opportunity to talk about it in living color and in great detail. Or, and as the trope begs us to do, there are those who will demure to the question because it is somehow inappropriate to talk about it. The act of killing is supposed to be deeply personal, regardless of how intimate or impersonal the actual act may have been. Whether the act excites your or repulses you, the only socially acceptable response is deflection.
I’m of the mind that as a group (veterans), we do a disservice to ourselves by closing ourselves off and telling people what they can and cannot say to or about us. That is exactly what we do, though. If everyone calls us heroes, we raise opposition and say no, not all of us are heroes. If the media paints us as rage-induced, PTSD-fueled ticking time bombs, we push back and say, “Not all veterans.” On the issue of “the question,” we say it is inappropriate to ask. All of this policing of what is appropriate and what is not fuels the chasm called the civilian-military divide that we love to regurgitate into. My take on it is that the divide is an imagined structure that exists only in the military mind, because your average citizen does not spend much time in his den pontificating on how distant he feels from his military (nor should he).
Boozy reunions and war stories make for a good time, but do nothing for the psyche. If someone wants to ask if you ever killed someone, maybe you should just answer the question and let them deal with the consequences. By infusing that question — which is only a natural one to ask — with the power that we do, robs us of our ability to think and act for ourselves, instead allowing our reaction to be guided by how we’re told we’re supposed to react.
Let’s just get over it.