When I was in the Marine Corps, my issued weapon was an M4 carbine. It was light, compact, accurate and easy to handle. I put tens of thousands of rounds through my carbine and grew intimately familiar with its mechanical functions. The trigger was fairly easy to use its “weight,” or the pressure it took to fire, was only about six pounds. I could take my index finger, lightly squeeze and send out a bullet as far as I could see. Six pounds of pressure was all the weight required to fire that weapon and kill another human being.
That was the reason we all carried weapons to kill but we didn’t dwell on that thought much. We all knew our job as Marines was “to close with and destroy the enemy,” but even words like “destroy” and “kill” didn’t resonate with us outside of purely abstract terms. It was just expected that when we did have to “sight in” on an enemy combatant, we would fall back on our training and put six pounds of pressure on the trigger. And that was just what we had to do.
Now, as a civilian, I pick up the paper and read about President Barack Obama’s pledge to support Afghanistan’s military for the next decade, about how military intervention in Iran is a very real possibility and about the cries of the well-intentioned to “do something” about Joseph Kony’s atrocities in Uganda. But sending soldiers to protect America’s interests and values around the globe is a concept that remains abstract for most people. Whether those people are students protesting American imperialism outside of Collis or politicians and strategists placing battle groups on a world map, the idea of sending a human being to kill another human is typically the last thing on their minds.
I didn’t have to put that weight on my trigger. But I know a lot of people who did. It didn’t bother some people they either accepted their actions as they performed their duty or rationalized it with the simple logic, “It’s him or me.” But it did weigh on some people. One of my close friends, a sniper who outwardly seemed stone-cold, wrote a narrative about his actions during the initial invasion of Iraq, when he had to call in a night airstrike on a village from which insurgents were attacking American troops. When the morning arrived, his platoon moved in to assess the damage to the insurgents. They didn’t find any enemy fighters’ bodies. Instead, they found a yard full of children who had been sleeping outside and had been caught unaware by the bombing.
I had never heard this story from my friend before, and I realized that for all the time I had been by his side, he bore the crushing burden of what he had done. I don’t think less of him for that. On the contrary, I respect him even more for staying professional and keeping his mind on the job. But even though he was a Recon Marine, a sniper and a combat veteran who served multiple tours, he was still very human. He was good at killing but that didn’t mean he liked it.
We are sheltered from the harsh realities of life here at Dartmouth, and many of us will stay sheltered from those realities as we pursue careers in fields such as finance or government. Many of us will be the ones who make the decision to send soldiers into dangerous places in order to protect our country. I just hope that when we do make those decisions, we step down from our ivory towers and realize just what our actions entail. Soldiers’ wounds aren’t always physical some soldiers have to carry the weight of having destroyed everything that another human being was, is and will be. That’s a heavy weight to bear.
The weight of six pounds on a trigger can end a human life. So can a grand policy decision made in a Washington, D.C., think tank. I can only hope that our leaders consider that weight as they decide the world’s future, because that weight rests on their shoulders just as much as it rests on my friend’s shoulders. It’s a crushing weight that feels much heavier than six pounds.