Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 3: Learning to Kill

This is a paper about how infantrymen in the United States Marine Corps handle combat deaths. It was researched and written by Stephen Smith, Th.M., in partial fulfillment for a seminary course on Death and Dying. While Steve has never experienced the dark side of man, his twin brother – me – has. Together, we offer this paper in eight parts. Footnotes follow at the end of each section. Part 1 dealt with the physical and psychological casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ending with the question of whether there is a causal link between combat and PTSD. Part 2 demonstrated a clear link between combat experiences and PTSD, particularly because of the Potentially Traumatic Events witnessed by infantrymen, and asked the question about how Infantry Marines prepare to handle death.

Part 1: Post 9-11 Casualties

Part 2: The Link Between Combat and PTSD

Part 3: Learning to Kill

Part 4: Preparing for Death

Part 5: When the Metal Hits the Meat

Part 6: Memorials and Unit Healing

Part 7: When the War Continues – PTSD

Part 8: Conclusion and Bibliography

How Marines Prepare Physically and Mentally to Handle Combat Death

There are two types of combat death: deaths inflicted and deaths incurred. Marines prepare for the first through desensitization and for the second by trying to prevent them from taking place. But since friendly casualties do occur in combat, Marines are also trained to desensitize themselves even to friendly casualties in the midst of combat. The goal of such training is to maintain combat effectiveness despite encountering traumatic death. This goal—combat effectiveness, or being able to function in the chaos and blood of combat—is primary. Every other goal, such as processing grief or integrating experiences, is secondary to accomplishing the mission. And herein lies part of the Catch-22 of Marine infantry training: it prepares Marines very well to function in combat despite casualties; but it does little to help Marines achieve cathartic grief or give them the time to effectively process traumatic death. The two are largely seen as incompatible. The result—predictably—is a crop of infantry Marines who accomplish their mission in combat but walk away with unhealed emotional wounds and natural physical triggers (PTSD) from the trauma they have experienced. This is because Marine training currently focuses on desensitization to trauma, rather than integration.

Desensitization to Physical Pain: Physical Toughness

One of the hallmarks of Marines is their physical and mental toughness. In part this is due to the nature of being a Marine: the Marines are used as the U.S. military’s shock troops.

A Sergeant Instructor addresses a Candidate at Marine Officer Candidate School

A Sergeant Instructor addresses a Candidate at Marine Officer Candidate School

Marines are an expeditionary force designed to project power from the sea (i.e. amphibious capability) or to be used as assault units. Every Marine is trained as a rifleman, and every Marine officer is first trained as a platoon leader. Because the Marine Corps is a smaller branch of the military with very high standards, it enjoys recruiting advantages when it comes to attracting physically fit, mentally tough young men and women.

Through training and simulated battle, Marines acquire the mental and physical fortitude to withstand the chaos and suffering of actual combat.[1] “The more we sweat in peace,” a common Marine aphorism goes, “the less we bleed in war.” Realistic training is designed to instill discipline, toughness, and inoculate Marines against stress.[2] The goal is to turn out tough, smart Marines who will function in combat the same way they function in training. This maximizes enemy casualties while minimizing friendly casualties.

If the purpose of training is to toughen Marines, by all accounts it works. Karl Marlantes, who served as the lieutenant of a Marine rifle platoon during the Vietnam War, remembers that his tough training as a Marine prepared him for the unspeakable chaos and suffering of combat. “In Vietnam, I was in situations where any reasonable person would have quit, but I had become a Marine and Marines aren’t reasonable people. Quitting is unthinkable and pain is just weakness leaving the body.”[3]

Benjamin Busch, currently a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Reserves, remembers his training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. “When I came in from a run, I couldn’t stop sweating…. Lejeune is always unnecessarily humid. It is a relentless, unforgiving environment. We called it ‘the hate factory.’ It was the perfect hell in which to forge a being that just doesn’t give a fuck. A Lejeune Marine.”[4]

Nathaniel Fick, who left the Marines as a captain after leading elite Marine Recon infantry during the invasion of Iraq, recalls that Officer Candidate School (OCS) was designed to inflict stress and weed out incompetent recruits. He quotes one of his instructors at OCS:

A Marine Officer Candidate on a conditioning hike at OCS. Hikes more than anything else are about mental toughness and the ability to endure.

A Marine Officer Candidate on a conditioning hike at OCS. Hikes more than anything else are about mental toughness and the ability to endure.

“In trying to identify Marine leaders who may someday face combat, we want to see who can think and function under stress. Stress at OCS is created in many ways, as you will see.”[5] The purpose of every aspect of Marine officer training—no matter how menial—is to shape officers who will accomplish their mission while keeping their Marines alive. “You want to get your Marines killed?” screamed one of Fick’s instructors after Fick failed to pass an inspection. “No sir!” Fick replied.[6] He knew that the instructors wanted to “kill” bad officer candidates before those officers got Marines killed through carelessness or incompetence.[7]

Desensitization to Inflicted Death: Learning How to Kill the Enemy without Remorse

But physical toughness alone is inadequate to prepare Marines for combat death. Mental toughness is also required. All Marines are trained first as riflemen. As part of their training, they learn how to shoot to kill.[8] And not just to “slay paper” at the firing range, but how to kill a living, breathing enemy combatant.

The challenge with killing another human being, of course, is that society has (rightly) conditioned its members that arbitrary killing is wrong. That it is murder. Associated with killing are the emotions of guilt and remorse. Very few people enjoy killing.[9] Since the job of Marine infantrymen is to kill at society’s behest, however, Marine instructors have developed several strategies to desensitize Marines to the killing of enemy combatants.[10] In his seminal work, On Killing, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman explains the psychological cost of learning to kill in war. In the past, Grossman says, Marines fired at square paper targets and had little conditioning in the killing of a human person. This resulted in high rates of guilt and remorse among Marines who were forced to kill.[11] Yet Grossman describes several ways that the military has improved its ability to condition men to kill the enemy with little remorse.


First, the role of authority is emphasized. Marines are bound within “Rules of Engagement” (ROEs) and may only fire when certain clear conditions are met. These usually involve being fired upon or seeing an enemy combatant with a weapon during a firefight, and even then Marines will often wait for the command to fire from a superior officer or NCO. Because of this, the responsibility for killing moves up the chain of command and leaves the individual rifleman with a sense of absolution.[12] Instead of moral grayness, the ROEs provide black-and-white standards which describe when a Marine’s society gives its approval for him to kill another person.[13]

Role of the Group

Second, the role of the group is emphasized. Marines in combat generally function in fire teams (three or four men) or squads (ten to twelve men). Thus multiple Marines may fire simultaneously at enemy combatants, leaving a question as to whose bullet actually killed a man. This reasonable doubt allows Marines to allay guilt by thinking that it was another Marine’s bullet which killed an enemy. “I can’t be sure if I did it” a Marine might think to himself.[14]


Third, Marines may sometimes view their enemy as less than human.[15] After all, it is easier to kill a “thing” than it is to kill another human being. Marines may consider the enemy as morally inferior, or as committing atrocities which deserve death. Or Marines may refer to the enemy in pejorative terms which caricatures or dehumanizes him. In World War II, for example, Germans were referred to as “Krauts,” and Japanese soldiers were referred to as “Japs.” In Vietnam, the Viet Cong were “VC” or “Gooks.” In Somalia, enemy soldiers were called “Skinnies.” And in Iraq and Afghanistan Marines call their enemies “Muj,” “Towelheads,” “Hadjis,” or simply “targets.”[16]

The “target” handle is particularly apt, since Marines train at rifle ranges using targets that

Recapture Tactics Team Marines train to standard on silhouette targets at Yakima, WA. Winter 2010

Recapture Tactics Team Marines train to standard on silhouette targets at Yakima, WA. Winter 2010

look like human silhouettes.[17] Using such targets accustoms Marines from their earliest training to feel comfortable shooting at a human form. This desensitization seems to have worked exceedingly well. Few Marines from Iraq and Afghanistan report remorse after killing an enemy combatant. Indeed, Nathaniel Fick once told his Marines during the invasion of Iraq, “The bad news is, we won’t get much sleep tonight; the good news is, we get to kill people.”[18] Fick was not particularly bloodthirsty; he was merely stating the obvious: Marines are trained to protect the innocent and prosecute violence against the wicked.

Former Marine Captain Nathan Smith notes that “My Marines never hesitated to fire their weapons when they had a shot. And they never had remorse over a dead insurgent.”[19] Dr. Hoge notes that warriors are trained to kill, and that in Iraq, Marines usually took

A grenadier with 3rd Platoon, K/3/2, fires on insurgents during Operation SPEAR in Karabilah, Iraq. June 17, 2005.

A grenadier with 3rd Platoon, K/3/2, fires on insurgents during Operation SPEAR in Karabilah, Iraq. June 17, 2005.

professional satisfaction in killing insurgents: “One NCO (noncommissioned officer) in Iraq said: ‘Two days ago I killed an Iraqi for the first time. He was a triggerman and had an IED 500 meters down the road. I shot his ass with 60 rounds of coax 7.62 [machine gun] and then 15 rounds of the 25MM. I have not been this happy since I’ve been in Iraq. This fuck was going to kill us and I killed him.’”[20] Such an attitude indicates successful training at acclimatizing Marines to controlled violence and the use of deadly force within Rules of Engagement.[21]

(Next Post: Part 4 – Preparing for Death)

[1] An official leader’s guide for Marines states: “Service in the Marine Corps is challenging and stressful. It is intended to be. Stress that does not exceed Marines’ capacities to adapt makes them stronger and tougher, which is why Marine Corps training ranks among the most stressful on the planet. As the Nation’s ‘shock troops,’ Marines are repeatedly called on to perform tough and challenging missions in remote locations. Frequent deployments away from home and family have always been the norm for the Marine Corps, and Marine Corps leadership has always excelled at managing stress to get the job done while preserving fighting strength. However, since combat and operational stress cannot always be controlled or kept within the capacities of Marines to adapt, combat/operational stress injuries (COSIs) will always be a risk and consequence of Marine Corps operations.” Accessed 11/15/12.

[2] Karl Marlantes explains the importance of tough physical training for Marines: “The uninitiated often think that Marine boot camp is stupid or even sadistic. Clearly, getting bitten on the testicles by mosquitoes wasn’t training me to shoot straighter or attack smarter. But before society sends these high school kids to do our killing in battle, those kids have to transform the way they think about themselves, or they are not going to be very effective killers.” Karl Marlantes, What it is Like to Go to War. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011. P.11.

[3] Marlantes, p.16.

[4] Busch, Benjamin (2012-03-20). Dust to Dust: A Memoir (p. 195). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[5] Fick, Nathaniel. One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. P.8.

[6] Ibid., pp.16-17.

[7] Ibid., p.20.

[8] “Infantry Marines are enlisted for the purpose of, trained in the practice of, conditioned emotionally for, and recognized publicly for: killing. There it is.” Nathan Smith, The Soldier’s Load,

[9] Psychologist Lt. Col. Dave Grossman notes that only 1-2% of soldiers or Marines seem to exhibit a natural “killer” instinct. This seems to hold true in overall society as well. The challenge then is to condition the majority of Marines to kill the enemy despite their natural and societal disinclination to do so. See On Killing by Dave Grossman, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1996, pp.177-185.

[10] “The Marine Corps recruits young, aggressive men and subjects them to Spartan living conditions, draconian discipline, and months of charismatic indoctrination into a warrior culture. By the end of Boot Camp they have become more than men: they are Marines. Out in the Operating Forces new Marines are rigorously trained in the practical application of targeted violence. Their bodies are conditioned to endure the grueling hardships of war and their minds are conditioned to operate above a survival level in the most terrifying, brutal, and unforgiving environment known to man. The Marine Corps does this because it is expert at fighting and winning our Nation’s wars and it knows that in order to win you must have trained men willing and able to kill.” Nathan Smith, The Soldier’s Load,

[11] A World War II U.S. Marine, William Manchester, describes killing a Japanese sniper at close range, and the associated feelings: “He was entangled in the harness so I shot him with a .45 and I felt remorse and shame. I can remember whispering foolishly, ‘I’m sorry’ and then just throwing up… I threw up all over myself. It was a betrayal of what I’d been taught as a child.” Grossman, p.116.

[12] But there is always a psychological cost to killing, especially in a war like Iraq where enemy militants dress like—or use—civilians. Nathan Smith, a former Marine captain, describes the moral anguish he experienced when he had to order a sniper team to kill an Iraqi child who was planting an IED: “My responsibility as an officer is to ruthlessly eliminate any shades of gray from entering into the black and white worlds of my Marines. But even savage, war-torn Iraq is not a black and white world: God created shades and shadows, temperature and degree. The only possible way to eliminate the gray is by artificial decree – by forcing a man to believe that the gray that he sees is really black or white. How is this done in a rifle platoon in combat? It is done by me – the officer – who embodies the sanction or censure of the U.S. Government to my men. What relief – when a Marine is in doubt – to obey a lawful order that cuts direct to the heart of any situation, regardless of how ambiguous or uncertain the situation may be. The balance of black and white remains and with it the Marines’ mental stability and moral certainty is safeguarded. But at what cost to the officer? It dehumanizes me, strips me of feeling, emotion, and isolates me from the rest of my men who operate placidly in worlds of stark contrast. To save my Marines I must sacrifice my conscience.” From The Soldier’s Load blog, “The Greatest Good,” January 4, 2012.

[13] Grossman, 147.

[14] Grossman, 149.

[15] “Dissociation of one’s enemy from humanity is a kind of pseudo-speciation. You make a false species out of the other human and therefore make it easier to kill him.” Marlantes, p.40.

[16] Grossman, 161. And Nathan Smith writes in The Soldier’s Load that: “Each of us is aware of the importance and influence of a label – our names are precious to us. By labeling an enemy with a derogatory term, infantrymen are able to simultaneously dehumanize him and begin to hate him – not as a human being, but as an object of wrath and the author of his own misery, fear and pain. Dehumanization of the enemy is effective at numbing the conscience and reducing emotional turmoil after a kill, but it also taps into primal areas of hate and rage, which are usually suppressed by the conscience and social conditioning.”

[17] “Officially, the military has structured all of its infantry training into conditioning men to break the social taboo of murder by viewing the enemy as a “target.” Firing ranges have green “Ivan” silhouette targets so that infantrymen learn to associate an enemy’s head and shoulders with a standard target shape and subsequent reward and recognition. This clean, clinical approach has much utility and has been an often-documented factor in the increasing effectiveness of the US military after World War II. The emotionally-detached prosecution of enemy “targets” within accepted parameters as stipulated by the local rules of engagement (ROE) is the infantry ideal.” From The Soldier’s Load blog,

[18] Fick, p.368.

[19] From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.

[20] Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 472-475). Kindle Edition.

[21] Fick remembers that during OCS the candidates would shout “Kill!” in response to their instructors’ prompting. It was all just part of acclimatizing the candidates to violence, Fick recalls. Fick, p.18.

About Nate

A 2003 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and former Marine infantry officer, Nate is the Chief Operating Officer of Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans get jobs. He holds a Master's in Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Nate lives with his wife and dog in Alpharetta, Georgia.
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4 Responses to Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 3: Learning to Kill

  1. Pingback: Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 4: Preparing for Death | The Soldier's Load

  2. Pingback: Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 5: When the Metal Meets the Meat | The Soldier's Load

  3. Pingback: Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 6: Memorials and Healing | The Soldier's Load

  4. Pingback: Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 7: When the War Continues – PTSD | The Soldier's Load

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