How a Soldier Thinks

March 06, 2012

Multiple Pages
How a Soldier Thinks

There are over seven thousand dead in Syria now. What are the Syrian soldiers thinking? The last post Marie Colvin made before her death tells us they’re “shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”

Soldiers are taught during basic training if they feel an order is unlawful they need not carry it out; well, they are in the British Army, at least. I can’t say the same about Middle Eastern militaries.

Some soldiers will only be following orders, doing what everyone else is. Some of them will be thinking it’s wrong. Some of them will be thinking about their own families. In 2003, I crossed the border from Kuwait with the United States Marine Corps and we were told the Iraqis had to fight because Saddam had kidnapped the generals’ families.

Some of them will worry so much about killing innocent people they’ll silence their guns. If they’re brave enough they may go one step further—change sides and fire back on former comrades. Then there will be those who are not thinking at all as they fire metal and high explosives into Syria’s sky. Sometimes you don’t have to if you’ve been taught properly. All you do is point, aim, and shoot.

“You’ll shoot until it gets boring, monotonous, and routine.”

During basic training a corporal will take you down to the ranges. He’ll have been in the army a good number of years and look like he’s done this a million times. You’ll look at him and think, “I want to be like him one day.” He’ll look so comfortable with guns and killing. Something of the animal in you will respect him. He’ll give you bullets and you’ll load your rifle.

“READY,” he’ll shout.

Three hundred meters in front of you will be a target. In the British Army we used one-and-a-half-meter wooden ones showing a man running and screaming at you. You’ll pull back the cocking handle. This puts a bullet in the barrel and makes a satisfying noise. You’ll feel nervous and dangerous.

“AIM,” he’ll shout.

“Shit, this is it,” you’ll think in English, Syrian, or whatever language you speak where you are being taught how to kill. You’ll close one eye and stare with the other through the sights at the man screaming at you. Corporal will tell you that’s the enemy and you’re to kill him. You’ll play out a situation in your head where that man in front of you is real. “Could I really do this?” you’ll ask yourself. 

“FIRE!” he’ll shout.

You’ll squeeze the trigger like it’s a water pistol. Don’t snatch at it; remember your training. The bullet will spin violently out of the barrel, staying straight and true on its way to do some damage. It takes less than a second for it to hit cloth, leather, or skin.

For those on the receiving end, if you hear the crack of the bullet breaking the sound barrier, you’re still alive. If you don’t hear it, it won’t matter to you anymore.

The target goes down. You’ve done it. You’ll smile. You’ll laugh. You’ll look at the corporal and think, “I can be like him one day.” You’ve killed the enemy.

You’ll do this hundreds of times. You’ll shoot until it gets boring, monotonous, and routine. You’ll have to clean the weapons upon getting back, and all that hardened carbon is a real bitch to remove. Corporal won’t let you go until it’s spotless. You’ll cheat by dipping rifle parts in Coca-Cola or spray them with WD-40, and the corporal will catch you. He’ll make you do push-ups “until your eyes bleed” and then he’ll make you clean your rifle properly.

Some will fall in love with this. Some will become snipers and join the Special Forces. Others will tire of it. Others will barely pass weapons tests.

When you get closer you’ll use a pistol and the range will go from three hundred meters to thirty. You’ll see that guy screaming at you close-up and you’ll put 9mm holes in his head or his heart. You’ll do this hundreds of times.

Closer still, you’ll use a bayonet to kill a sandbag. You’ll stab him screaming from a meter away.

Let’s now remove ourselves from all this intimacy. Mortars can be fired from thousands of meters away. You won’t even see the enemy.

During the Iraq War in 2003, I reported to my boss about enemy transmissions I’d picked up. Someone I’d never met used some equipment to find where these soldiers were. Somebody else I never met then ordered these people killed. Someone else bombed them.

A few days later I was told twenty or so Iraqi soldiers were dead as I made myself a brew. I remember thinking that I preferred the tea from the ration boxes over the coffee. I remember thinking it was weird that it was cold at night in Iraq. I remember thinking how boring it was at times.

So there you are, a Syrian soldier. Someone who is paid a lot more than you are shows you a map with targets marked on it. You nod that you understand and then go and mortar the targets. You may never see the people you’re bombing.

They may be innocent, guilty, civilian, military—none of that may ever register. You’ll aim, breathe in, hold steady, fire, wait, breathe out. Aim, breathe in, fire, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.

What are you thinking?


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