Killing for a Living: The Rush and the Remorse

The Kill Switch, by Phil Zabriskie. Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

On March 25, 2003, Brian Chontosh was a 1st Lieutenant and platoon leader in Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion 5th Marines, which had crossed into Iraq from Kuwait a week earlier. Very few of these Marines had been in combat before. Fewer had taken a human life. Chontosh remembers that even amid concerns about chemical weapons, the capabilities of Saddam's armed forces and the chance that they themselves could die, the specter of killing resounded.

Their training was designed to prepare them to kill, to overcome the inherent resistance to killing that the vast majority of people have. And yet, unsure, they talked about it when they couldn't sleep, at meals, in classroom sessions or informal chats with chaplains or superior officers, even "when you're taking a shit and somebody's in the stall next to you," Chontosh says. "None of us knew."

"Tosh," as he's known and calls himself, radiates a swaggering, mine-is-bigger-than-yours confidence coupled with keen insight and a penchant for self-reflection. Back in 2003, at 29, he was older than most Marines in his unit and had more years in the Corps. He hadn't killed anyone, but he'd been in conflict areas in Bosnia and Liberia and was thus more familiar with the notion that killing was a fundamental aspect of waging war, part of the job, he says, "just business."

So it was on March 25, when he climbed into the front passenger seat of a Humvee and, along with the rest of Weapons Company, joined tanks, Amtrac personnel carriers and heavy trucks on a slow "motor march" north towards Diwaniyah. They'd had some firefights earlier but nothing for a while.

Chontosh was thinking it might be another uneventful day until the hard-packed desert started giving way to muddy farmland, funneling the vehicles towards a single main road. A sizable berm rose up about 50 meters to the east.

"That doesn't feel right," he thought, and, indeed, moments later, the tanks ahead started taking fire and volleys of rocket propelled grenades and mortars started flying out from behind the berm. They'd driven into an ambush and were now squarely inside the kill zone. A tank was hit. A Humvee, too. A medic was shot dead, a corporal badly wounded.

Chontosh ordered his driver, Cpl. Armand McCormick, to drive towards a small opening in the berm, working off the theory that "the best way to get people to stop shooting at you is to shoot at them," he says. McCormick floored it as Cpl. Thomas Franklin blasted away with the Humvee's mounted .50-caliber machine gun.

Seconds later, McCormick slammed their vehicle through the berm. There was a narrow walkway alongside a trench, a dry irrigation channel, in which dozens of Iraqi soldiers stood, armed with AK-47s and RPKs. Some came towards them. Some took off. Still more jumped down from the other side. Chontosh grabbed his pistol and his rifle "and I just started running down the trench," followed by McCormick and LCpl. Robert Kerman, who'd been behind Chontosh in the Humvee.

"It's nothing like TV. It's ugly. It's contorted. People fall how they fall. It's not like the bullet hits and they're blown back or anything like that."

All three started firing immediately. Kerman, Chontosh recounts, was squaring targets carefully, then shooting, as he'd been trained. McCormick was catching Iraqis as they dropped down from above. For his part, Chontosh says, "I'm just pulling the trigger," aiming for "center mass" and firing.

As he moved down the trench, Chontosh's rifle jammed, then he ran out of ammo, so "I shot my pistol dry twice," grabbed an AK off a dead Iraqi, shot every bullet in it, picked up another AK and emptied it, too. "It's just crazy," Chontosh recalls.

"We're shooting. We're killing a lot of people." And when they die, "it's nothing like TV," he says. "It's ugly. It's contorted. People fall how they fall. It's not like the bullet hits and they're blown back or anything like that."

Instead, he says, "they rock a little bit. They writhe in a lot of pain. And they hit the ground. A lot of wiggling." There was no time to ponder that, though. What mattered was killing the enemy and making sure he and his men survived. "I wasn't thinking in depth about what it meant to take another human being's life," he says, "or being sad because this guy is never… his son is never…"

They covered a few hundred yards, then saw more Iraqi soldiers ahead. McCormick hollered and pointed to an RPG on the ground. "What the fuck do you want me to do with an RPG?" replied Chontosh, who'd never fired one. "He was like, 'If you don't shoot it, they're going to shoot one at us.'" So Chontosh picked it up, aimed and fired. "It was a terrible shot," he remembers. "It went 50 yards, down, then went up in the air and exploded. We laughed." Then they ran back towards their truck.

On the way, McCormick shouted out again: there was an Iraqi soldier on the ground pretending to be dead and holding a grenade. "Shoot him," Chontosh yelled, because he was out of ammo, but McCormick was out, too. Chontosh looked down and saw some live M-16 rounds that must have dropped out when his rifle jammed. As he loaded a single bullet, his eyes met the Iraqi's. Then Chontosh shot him in the head.

They reached the truck and reversed out of the berm, but their day was far from over. They had to call in a medevac for the Marines who'd been hit. And the tanks were taking fire again. And a sandstorm was starting to roll in. And, weirdly, Oliver North showed up with a news crew. The pace stayed frenetic for many more hours. "Then I remember things settling down," Chontosh says, "and, holy shit, that was pretty wild!"

The episode lasted only a few minutes, but it felt much longer, as if time had slowed. Chontosh killed around two dozen people in that trench. The men with him killed more. He put them all up for medals, and McCormick and Kerman received Silver Stars, while Franklin received a Corps Commendation with a "V" for valor.

Chontosh himself was later awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor a Marine can garner, behind only the Congressional Medal of Honor. At the time, though, "I remember being really shaken," he says. "That was the most intense situation I'd been in in my life. Violent. Things going on. Glad to be alive. A whole host of emotions compressed into your body, and I didn't even know what to think."

He ran into Chief Warrant Officer John Ericson, a man he considered a friend and a mentor. "I remember him getting out his razor and some water and saying, 'Hey, just shave,'" Chontosh says, and as he did, something about the rhythm of it began winding him down.

"Killing comes with a price and societies must learn that their soldiers will have to spend the rest of their lives living with what they've done."

I met Brian Chontosh outside Fallujah in October 2004, after he'd received the Navy Cross, after he'd been promoted to Captain, just weeks before he led a company of Marines in a bloody assault on insurgents inside the city. I got back in touch with him last year because I wanted to talk about killing in war.

Having spent a fair amount of time in Iraq, Afghanistan, and several other places where a lot of people were tasked with killing, I was struck by how little it was actually talked about, how rarely it was examined.

How does one learn to kill, and what is it like to do it? What happens afterwards, and to what extent can killing harm the person who does it? A dozen years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and answers are still hard to find.

Not every kill is the same, nor is the impact; how they are processed in the short and long term can hinge on factors such as how close a person was; whether eye contact was made; the identity, age, gender, or affiliation of the dead; and the context in which the killing occurred.

And not everyone who kills in combat is ruined by it, or even affected by it in any significant manner. Many find ways to reconcile what they've done and have full, productive professional and personal lives. But at the same time, it's foolish to think that killing another human being, no matter how lawful or how well-rationalized, doesn't impact someone's mind, body, and soul. "Killing comes with a price," Grossman writes, "and societies must learn that their soldiers will have to spend the rest of their lives living with what they've done."

For many soldiers and Marines, though, trying to explain war, especially this part of it, can be exhausting; trying to hear others divide it up into neat categories of right and wrong, good and bad, doubly so. "War's ugly," says Chontosh. "I struggle with this with people. They try to make it so clean." That's impossible, he says.

There are too many inherent contradictions, even within individual soldiers. They are told that they must protect and destroy, that they must be brutal and careful, that they are doing something honorable but must contravene basic tenets of decent behavior.

"It's ugly, it's violent, it's disgusting, I wish it wasn't part of what we had to do," Chontosh says, but many soldiers get frustrated when they try to articulate these things to people who weren't there, or when others tell them how they should feel or that they're grateful for what they've done without really knowing, without really wanting to know, what they actually did.

"You kill a dude, you do get, in the moment, this excitement. What is it? A rush?"

Explaining these things to themselves can be just as tricky, and if they can't process it, if they can't find a narrative in which the things they've seen and done make sense, life at home can be extremely difficult. That can be especially hard when it comes to killing.

Even Chontosh, nearing 40, struggled to pinpoint the complex responses he had, which underscores the task Marines barely out of high school face when they try to comprehend it. "You kill a dude, you do get, in the moment, this excitement," Chontosh told me. "What is it? A rush? Is it a rush because you took pleasure in killing the person? I don't know. Is it a rush because you have some job satisfaction, that you actually did it, you passed the test, you're alive and he's not? I don't know. Yes? Maybe. Both? Maybe."

Later, he added, "In the moment, yeah, maybe you think you enjoy it, the excitement. But as the tempo slows down, a maturity kicks in. Yeah, I didn't really enjoy taking your life, seeing you die. I didn't really enjoy that."

Combat soldiers bring home all the "life-altering and life-ending decisions" they made just as surely as they bring their boots and their duffels, and yet there's little reason to believe there is any space to have frank discussions with people who weren't there about the what, the why, the how, or the who of it. If they respond when people ask what it was like, or if they killed anyone, they then may have to watch someone's face blanche when told the truth, or their attention wane or their eyes look elsewhere because they don't really want to know and can't bring themselves to care.

Bill Nash says these clashes of context—when one tries to explain here what happened there—are one reason that "the way they feel about [killing] at the time that it happened is not a good predictor of how they're going to feel about it when they reunite with their family and kids and play with the dog."

It's easy to blame a distracted public. Nash and others, however, also point the finger at the military itself, saying it trains recruits to kill but fails to help them understand what it means or to deal with it forthrightly. (His actual words when I asked if the military and the VA have a deep enough appreciation of the topic were, "Oh, fuck no. No, no, no, no.")

Aside from a few researchers, "The mental health field is largely clueless about it, the impact of killing and how it comes back to affect humanity afterwards. It's not something that's very easy to address and talk about. It's not something that the military in our culture, in our society, is able to deal with openly and publicly."

In some ancient societies, he says, civilians would greet returning soldiers and ritually wash their hands, cleansing them of the blood that their community asked them to spill, because it was their responsibility as well.

In this country, Nash laments, the message has basically been, "You're on your own with this."

Phil Zabriskie is a journalist and writer who covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a number of conflicts in other countries. The excerpt above is from his book The Kill Switch (Kindle Single)">The Kill Switch about soldiers and Marines taking life in combat and how they cope with the consequences of their actions.