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"On Killing II: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill"

You Are Only as Sick as Your Secrets

If we understand that the “universal human phobia” is close-range, interpersonal aggression, and that we are systematically enabling our combatants to kill in combat, then we can also begin to understand that aggression from a human enemy will result in a magnitude of trauma that is generally unlike anything else that a human being can encounter. If you have never experienced such a trauma, you are apt to try to place it in terms of your own experiences and traumas, but the reality is that this will be a fundamentally flawed exercise.

Perhaps one of our greatest handicaps in attempting to identify with the victim of human aggression is the fact that we cannot help but be influenced by Hollywood. I like to ask my audiences or psychology classes, “All’s fair in...what?” And they always answer, “Love and war.” “That's right,” I respond. “You see there are two things that men will often lie about. They will lie about what happened on that date last night, and they will lie about what happened to them in combat. And therefore that means that what we think is happening in combat is actually based on 5,000 years of what?” And the answer is always, “Lies.”

Truly, Hollywood lies to us, and we cannot help but be influenced by these lies. There are a wide variety of profoundly distressing physiological and psychological responses to close-range interpersonal aggression. These include loss of bowel control, sensory gating, loss of fine and complex motor control, and memory loss. For example, in one major survey conducted during World War II, a quarter of all combat veterans admitted that they urinated and defecated in their pants in combat. (Those are the ones who would admit it. The actual number may be quite a bit higher.) Among those wounded, defecation and urination are almost universal. But you never read about that in the books or see it in the movies, do you? Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg of deception and lies that we must confront when we begin to examine the impact of close-range interpersonal aggression.

To fully comprehend what happens to an individual in such a circumstance we have to realize that sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation has become completely ascendant, shutting down all parasympathetic processes such as digestion. Furthermore, and most importantly, a frightened or angry individual has a shutdown of the forebrain, resulting in a powerful midbrain, or mammalian brain ascendancy, which is purely and absolutely focused on one thing: survival. One result of this is that the midbrain (which is a relatively simple mechanism, incapable of denial or transference) says “Hey! Something very bad just happened, figure out what it is and don’t ever let it happen again!” Of course the midbrain does not speak to us in words, but rather in bursts of emotion, and those emotions are translated, all too often, into a sense that, “It is all my fault.” During the critical incident debriefings after the Jonesboro shootings, many of the survivors (including 11, 12, and 13-year-old children) said, at some point, “It was my fault.” And the ones who were best able to convince them that it was not their fault were the individuals who shared the experience with them.

Perhaps the most distressing response of all is the common, immediate, "survival instinct" reaction of intense relief after witnessing violent death, even the death of a loved one, which is often articulated as, “That could have been me!” or, “Thank God it wasn’t me.” The midbrain can be mercilessly logical, and it is intent on survival. In order to be able to help someone else survive you must, generally, first survive yourself. It is like the passengers on an airplane, who, “In case of loss of cabin pressure,” must “...put your own oxygen mask on first and then assist any small children traveling with you.” In a mercilessly logical system you must acknowledge that in order to help your children survive you must, with few exceptions, first survive yourself. Of course, afterward, this initial, self-centered impulse can result in powerful guilt feelings if not addressed.

During the initial inbriefing for the teachers who survived the shootings in Jonesboro, I outlined to them: what would be happening, the moral obligation to participate, the need to “de-link” the memory of the event from anxiety, the breathing exercise that would help in this “de-linking,” and some miscellaneous things that they needed to know up front. One of the things I addressed was the loss of bowel and bladder control, the memory loss, sensory gating, and visual narrowing (tunnel vision) that was very common and perfectly natural. Then I outlined the irrational acceptance of responsibility and the common human reaction of “Thank God it wasn’t me,” after witnessing violent death. After I told them this last item, this “Thank God it wasn’t me response,” and told them that it was a perfectly natural and common response, several of these teachers laid their heads in their arms and began to sob uncontrollably. They had experienced the intense relief of having their deepest, darkest secret laid out on the table, only to find out that everyone else had the same secret in common, and it was OK. They were perfectly normal. There was nothing wrong with them if they felt this way.

Perhaps half of the essence of counseling is that you are only as sick as your secrets, and until we begin to address some of these secrets we will never truly be able to assist fully in the healing process. The other half of the essence of counseling may be that pain shared is pain divided. And the means by which this “sharing” can occur is in a group critical incident debriefing, shortly after the trauma, in which each individual works completely through what occurred and receives the acceptance, forgiveness, and support of their fellow victims.

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