Archived Sections, Commentary

See in every face the face of the divine

One of my early vivid memories happened in the summer of 1952. After
finishing my freshman year, I took a job raising money and recruiting
students for my college. One day at noon, I stopped to get my shoes repaired
in a small town in southern Minnesota. The repairman recognized I was not
from the area and, for some reason, perhaps because he heard I was
representing a Lutheran school, began telling me his story.
He related that because as a teenager he had been a good shot and hunter,
at 17 years he volunteered to go into the army during World War II and was
assigned as a sniper.
“I was in a small room overlooking the streets. They couldn’t see me. But I
could see the faces of those German boys down below coming around the
corner in my telescopic sight.
“I always aimed for their heads and watched their heads explode.
“Now I can’t sleep at night. I keep seeing their faces.”
At that point he began sobbing and I realized how bloodshot his eyes were
and how haunted he appeared. I didn’t know what to say to him. I just wanted
to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Men and women by nature have an aversion to killing their fellow human
beings. During World War II, General S.L.A. Marshall did research on soldiers
returning from the battlefield and found that 80-85 percent of American
infantrymen admitted that they never shot at the enemy. They didn’t run or
hide. In many instances they risked their lives to save others. They simply
would not fire their guns at enemy soldiers. It was only a minority of soldiers
who actually shot at the enemy in World War II. This was also true for the
Germans, Japanese, and English, and is consistant with observations made in
previous wars.
This is documented in Marshall’s book Men Under Fire in which at one point
he summarizes, “It is therefore reasonable to believe that the average and
healthy individual — the man who can endure the mental and physical
stresses of combat — still has such an inner and usually unrealized
resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition
take life if it is possible to turn from that responsibility…. At this vital point
he becomes a conscientious objector.”
Secretly, quietly, at the moment of decision, the overwhelming majority of
soldiers found they were unable to kill a fellow human being, especially if they
saw their faces.
When the military saw Marshall’s research indicating that at least 8 out of 10
men didn’t do what they were trained to do — namely shoot enemy
combatants — they decided to make some changes in training. Army officials
and West Point instructors began developing techniques and strategies to get
men to fire at the enemy. These programs and techniques are documented in
Colonel Dave Grossman’s book On Killing.
Some of these techniques were part of my experience when I was drafted in
1953. At first we fired our M-1’s at bull’s-eyes. Then the infantry developed
silhouettes to condition us to fire at human forms; then they introduced pop-
up silhouettes so that we would begin to instinctively fire at humans. These
techniques proved successful — from the military’s point of view — so that in
the Korean War 50-55 percent of the men began firing at the enemy. As the
technologies to get men to kill became more sophisticated, by the time of the
Vietnam War, 90-95 percent of the men shot at the enemy.
But while approximately 58,000 American men were killed in combat in the
Vietnam war, more veterans have committed suicide since that war. When
intensified methods of deprogramming and desensitization are employed by
the military, to break down the natural inhibition to kill, the psychiatric
casualty rates of those who kill, especially in face to face combat, is
staggering. These are the men who, if they haven’t committed suicide, are
hiding in the woods; or they represent the nearly half of the homeless that
wander our streets today.
My friends in the Veterans Administration (VA) tell me they know how to treat
post-traumatic disorder and veterans who feel guilty for surviving when their
friends and comrades didn’t. But the VA staff doesn’t know how to deal with
men who killed, especially those who saw the faces of those they killed. My
theory is there is nothing in this world that is more sacred than the human
face. And when you destroy that face, it profoundly destroys something
within you, deep in your soul.
Soldiers who kill need absolution. The Church doesn’t offer absolution
because the Church doesn’t think they did anything wrong.
I failed my shoemaker friend in 1952. He needed absolution. He needed to
hear that his actions, terrible as they were, were not larger than God’s mercy
and forgiveness. He needed to hear that what he (or any of us) had done died
with Jesus on the cross.
Allan Bostelmann is a member of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, ELCA’s Joint
Peace with Justice Committee, the Every Church a Peace Church movement,
and a combat-trained infantry veteran.