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What Does It Feel Like to Kill?

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What does it feel like to kill?

That question’s been on my mind a lot, lately. With my nephew going off into the Marine Corps later this year, it came up at my brother’s party last weekend. We were talking, and I said to him, “The one thing you have to be prepared for, is you may be put into a position where you have to kill someone.”

But what does that mean?

I’ve been asked the question many times, starting just a couple of days after I got home from Iraq. It was three a.m., and I was sitting in a Waffle House in Macon, Georgia, with a girl I liked, and I had the misfortune to be wearing my uniform. Somebody had to ask:  Did I just get home from the war? Yeah. That led to the question, the big question...the one I didn't want to answer, even to myself:  "So what did it feel like to kill somebody?"

"None of your god damn business, and who the hell do you think you are to ask something like that anyway?!"  I didn't, actually, respond that way. In fact, I don't remember what I said. In due course, the girl I was with became my fiancé, then my ex-fiancé, and life rolled on. But let's face it: the question never went away, did it?

In fact, it's come up again, once or twice. People too stupid or misguided to know better always ask. Did you kill anybody? What was it like?  Bastards.

So how did it feel?  This time, I think, maybe, I'll actually answer the question. But first, let me lay the background.

My life is logically divided into a before-and-after. The "before" is everything up until about two in the morning on February 26, 1991. Up until that time, I'd shot at targets, on the range, and even in a lengthy battle on the afternoon on February 25. But to be honest, I was so scared out of my mind on the 25th, I barely looked where I was aiming. Bunker that way? Yeah, pull the trigger and hope for the best. Keep firing, the spent brass falling from the machine gun with a rattle, then jump down into the turret to reload a main gun round. Surely, some of those main gun rounds killed, but it's not the same when you can't see it.

Then came the moment that neatly bisected my life, and not-so-neatly ended someone else's.

The tactical details (that's a lot easier to discuss than the emotional): our company was stopped just on the north side of Highway Eight, not very far from Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. It was just about as far north as any American forces got in the 1991 Gulf War. We'd had no sleep to speak of, and the situation was incredibly tense after that lengthy rolling battle through, what I later learned, was called "Battle Position 102."

I was drifting, asleep in the loader's seat when someone (I think it was our Company Commander) called over the radio. Trucks to our front. We all jumped up in a panic, I think, and the first shot fired hit one of the trucks, and it exploded, spraying burning fuel all over the other truck, which also caught fire.

For the record, when the first guy ran out, I pulled the trigger, and discovered the hard way that my safety was on. I fumbled with it until my platoon sergeant, with more than a little impatience, reached over, hit the safety, and walked the stream of bullets until it hit the guy and he went down.  The second one didn't have as much time. As soon as he was in sight, I opened fire. Just like training, except that this guy was running away and on fire--I had to chase him down with the tracers.

Another one ran out, and his end was quicker. Our wingman tank opened fire, but the gunner forgot to switch the computer to the coax machine gun. The Iraqi was cut in half by a main gun round.

Then it was over, in one sense. In another sense, it never ended, because that moment never ended, not for me and certainly for the families of the Iraqis we cut down. I've been worrying about that moment in my mind for a decade, rubbing my tongue against it like a bad tooth, every once in a while discovering some new aspect of it to keep me awake at night.

A few days later, not long at all (in objective time), but a lifetime, it seemed, for me, we had a cease-fire, and I took a long and healthy look down the barrel of my .45. It was a model M1911A1 Colt, with extremely worn palm grips, a rifled barrel, and a heft completely absent in the 9mm Berettas we'd trained with in basic training. At fifty feet, it shot about six inches to the right, but I'd learned to compensate.

It didn't matter, anyway, jammed up in the mouth, whether it shot to the right or not.  It's actually kind of awkward to shoot yourself with a .45, at least that model. Along with the regular thumb safety, and the half-cocked position, the .45 features a third safety, on the back of the pistol grip, to prevent it from being fired unless it's actually gripped in someone's hand. But you can work around that, and I almost did, but I was a bit of a coward after all, and though I wanted to do it, and didn't really have much reason not too, I just couldn't bring myself to pull the trigger. It would have made a god-awful mess in the turret, which my crew would have had to clean up.

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Charles Sheehan-Miles served in combat with the 24th Infantry Division during the 1991 Gulf War, and was decorated for valor for helping rescue fellow tank crewmen from a burning tank during the Battle at Rumayla. He is a former President and (more...)
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