A common question that veterans sometimes get asked is “have you ever killed someone?” For what it’s worth, veterans virtually never ask this question of each other. It is almost always a cringe-inducing question, one that inevitably leads to a nagging discomfort.
And yet, I understand the impetus to ask it.
Humans are fascinated by killing and death. Some believe that humanity originally invented and embraced religion as a means to come to terms with, and even sidestep, our inevitable death. The concept of one’s own consciousness forever being snuffed out is not an appealing one. We can be obsessive about it, and at our worst, we fetishize killing and death, and celebrate its violence. We revel in the stylized death we see on screen and page, spending billions every year to be entertained by it.
I am not immune to that same impulse. However, I am sometimes struck, when I watch action movies or shows, at just how sanitized the violence and killing can be. Fictional killing is often clinically simple, ridiculously tidy, and incredibly un-messy. Victims often die somehow simultaneously dramatically and peacefully.
You rarely ever see agonal breathing, or snoring respirations when a person’s body is fighting to the death to acquire any air at all to go on. You almost never see a head deflated of its contents to become merely a mask of its former living soul, as a result of an explosion. That horrifying likeness is sometimes all that remains of what was once a living and breathing person.
You also hardly ever see bones cracked and splintered, protruding from a limb like a shark’s fin emerging from the surface of the sea, and evoking the same sickening horror. Just seeing what a car accident can do to a human body is enough to disabuse anyone of the false serenity often found in fictionalized traumatic death.
Violence and death are usually more shockingly gory than it is quick and clinical. Skin and tissue can be violently ruptured like a pillow that has been torn, the stuffing that emerges not down or feathers, but raw and crumbled pieces of human fat. These grotesque morsels are released from the container that once held them. The fat is then freed to spread on the ground and stick to the skin of the human that once wished it gone from their body, but surely not in this manner. You don’t ever see that in fictionalized accounts of even violent death.
Some humans abruptly cease living as a result of pure blunt force trauma that somehow miraculously fails to leave any exterior sign of its power, but which nevertheless ravages the vessels inside. This blunt force trauma can cause the human to bleed out internally. Those deaths are often quick and the outward signs muted. In less time than it takes to listen to a pop song, nothing is left but a false impression of a peaceful death. The interior devastation will only be witnessed by those commissioned with an embalming or an autopsy.
When inflicted on adults, all of these terrible indignities are haunting enough. But when inflicted on the very young, they become the stuff of unimaginable nightmares and emotional devastation. The complete and total incomprehension of seeing a young body beset with such physical calamity sends a lightning bolt of psychological disruption through the mind of those witnessing it. It is one thing to process the violence inflicted on a grown human: It is a wholly different injury to the psyche to witness it inflicted on the innocent young.
And yet, some humans are forced to witness these horrors, and some do so regularly. They witness them in hospital emergency departments, somewhat sanitized and clinically censored. They witness them on city streets and in homes, the result of the day-to-day episodes of violence. And they witness them on battlefields near and far, the horror of which is never adequately or even remotely conveyed in stylized works of fiction or video games. Only the lucky few among us are spared witnessing at least some form of this terrible violence in our lifetimes. Many of us have to face it at least once.
Some of us witness it frighteningly often, as a matter of course. We choose a life beset by this violence, ordained to somehow mitigate its effects. We choose a path that offers us the chance to respond to the violence and its depredations on its victims. We struggle in blood and gore, staunching the bleeding, stopping the march of death, if we manage to do our job well. Police, fire, and EMS are often called to witness, and mitigate the worst of human violence. In war, at least there is a reason and the participants are not oblivious to the looming threat. In civilian life, such violence is shocking, reality-altering, and a wound inflicted on those called to address it.
Sometimes I think we’d be better off as a society if we were forced to face the reality of what violence and death really look like. Maybe we would not embrace it so cavalierly in our fiction, or fetishize it so often in our daily lives. At the same time, I do not wish on anyone the burden of witnessing some of the things that humans inflict on one another, both inadvertently and with deadly purpose. As human beings, we are destined to sometimes come face to face with the horror that befalls us.
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