By Drew Pham
I keep telling the same story over and over, but I can never get it quite right. Sometimes I start by saying that no one ever told me how it would feel to kill. The power of the act, the biochemical euphoria of it. No room for feelings, of course, in all the hours of training for one lethal moment. I pulled the trigger and I didn’t even have to think about it; my body just did it for me. No one ever told me how fleeting that euphoria would be, either. Blissful omnipotence followed by a lifetime trying to make sense of one moment. People I fought beside have said I did my duty. People I don’t even know told me that I got what I volunteered for. Whatever other people say, I’m still the only person who has to grieve for the man I shot to death one August day in Afghanistan; I’m the only person who has to carry the weight of him wherever I go.
One of the first people I told after that firefight was a combat-stress specialist, this Air Force Captain with big, soft arms and a corn-fed smile. She spent most of her days counseling soldiers who’d been ordered to see her—myself included—and handing out bottles of melatonin for the rash of insomnia in the task force from which no one seemed immune. She ran out of pills often.
I did the right thing according to her, so there was nothing to be sorry for. It was true. Him or me. Yet I refused to take her words or her smile seriously. It was her job to keep us in fighting condition. Though I’m sure she drew from a deep well of empathy for the soldiers in her care, she was just another cog in the same machine that kept us fighting. She never asked me about the man I killed. I had learned his name by then, pieced together what scraps of his identity I could from the dossier the Intel Officer compiled on him. I could have told you his tactics, where he fit into the enemy hierarchy, even his home village—but I’ve never learned the names of his parents, or what his favorite subject in school had been. I’ve never learned if he had a wife or children. This captain sat across from me in a plywood shelter with her perfect white teeth, her clean, crisp uniform, and told me that it was good that I’d shot this man dead.
My men, my peers, my superiors all said it was a good kill. When my Squadron Commander pinned a Combat Action Badge to my jacket, he said I’d earned it many times over and that I was good at shooting bad guys. Strange, I thought, I only ever shot one. He pounded the sharp prongs into my chest, called me a killer. It was as if he savored the enemy KIA as his own. I looked my Commander in the eye. There are these details I still can’t shake: I couldn’t close the dead man’s eyes. He still smiled, as if to mock me. He had this red prayer cap sticking out of his pocket. I could have let him live, told him to surrender, but I shot him five times. I wanted to kill him, and he left me with these threads of memory that I can’t shake. I don’t think my Squadron Commander will ever understand that. I saluted him as he pinned two more medals to my chest. Most days, the man I killed is just another hilltop in my memory’s landscape. Others—when I know I took away someone’s father, brother, son—he’s a sheer cliff face that I could never overcome.
When I got out of the Army, I told this story to anyone who would listen. I thought that the act of telling would lessen the burden, that compassion might move others to carry it with me. My friends said that the violence hadn’t surprised them. I was a soldier at war. One friend called me a hero for what I’d done. Another said she expected me to kill, as if it were the same as a postman delivering mail. Others never spoke to me again. Most said I did what I had to do and changed the subject. At the dim bars and crowded parties where I found my old friends, it didn’t seem like the war existed outside the 15-second sound bites on the news. There was no space at home in the States for the the man I killed. My friends were more worried about the growing recession, their burgeoning careers, and the ever-present burden of student loan debt.
Their concerns were as valid as mine, but the enormity of what I’d done blinded me to that. I caught myself constantly saying, but people are dying. I turned down the invitations to brunch, Groupon hot yoga sessions, whiskey tastings at the ironic hipster dive bars. I thought that coming home meant facing what I’d done, that the people I loved would face it with me, but they didn’t. So I held on to my victim like a talisman, the one thing that definitively separated me from my friends. I thought of a line from James Jones’ The Thin Red Line: “He had done the most horrible thing a human being could do, worse than rape even. And nobody in the whole damn world could say anything to him about it.”
The harder I held on, the further I felt from home.
The war stayed in my heart, but it lingered in my bones too. Six months after I’d left the Army, I developed leukemia—a cancer in my blood-producing tissues. The doctors said it was likely a result of exposure to the many carcinogens that come with modern warfare, like depleted uranium in air-dropped munitions, the jet fuel in our vehicles’ engines, or the toxins emanating from our burn pits. The doctors told me that my cancer was connected to my service. Pounds sloughed off my body. My hair fell out in clumps from chemo and radiation. My mind slowed. During the worst week of treatment, I thought, I deserve this. I asked to see a rabbi, not as an article of faith, but because—as my wife said of her religion—Judaism embraces doubt. I wanted this man of God to take these details lodged in me like shrapnel—the dead man’s eyes, his smile, his red prayer cap—and help me grieve. When the rabbi came, he looked at the black tattoos snaking up my arms, my tan T-shirt inscribed with unit insignia, and said that he presumed that I served in the defense of our country. I told the same story again. He sat across from me in my antiseptic isolation room, a host of machines feeding me, killing me, marking my heartbeat. He looked at me with his red-rimmed eyelids and said he absolved me. No questions, no qualifications, just a cheap, unearned forgiveness. I want to say he quoted the prophet Joshua who was himself a soldier. I wondered if the destructive extent of Joshua’s conquest ever gave him pause. How often did he think about his slain foes? I’ve been cancer-free for three years, but that meeting with the rabbi still lingers. Would he have absolved my enemy had our roles been reversed?
I keep telling the same story; some days I think I’ll go on telling it for the rest of my life, trying to get it right. I want people to yearn to know the man I killed, as I yearn to know him still. Some days I think I will go on waiting for the people around me, the people I love, to help me shoulder our war and the people we kill. Other days, I return to a story in The Things They Carried: O’Brien’s hero thinks back on a man he killed, an act he still can’t sort out. Then he imagines sparing him. He stays his hand and lets his enemy pass into the morning fog.
Drew Pham is a Brooklyn-based writer and contributing editor at The Wrath-Bearing Tree. In 2010, he deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. Follow Drew on Twitter @Drewspeak.