Grappling with emotional fallout of killing the enemy
Soldiers unprepared for taking lives, retired combat leader says
The aftermath of his troops’ first firefight in Afghanistan was a rude awakening for Dave Quick.
Clearly, the soldiers were superbly equipped for the physical demands of their combat “christening,” but when the Canadians approached the insurgents they had just killed, that levelheaded confidence seemed to crumble.
Some giggled nervously, gagged or trembled at the sight.
“In those instances around the dead, they looked like insecure little kids,” says Quick, who commanded a Royal Canadian Regiment company that would see numerous firefights over the next six months. “Their voices changed, their hands were — some of them — shaking.”
It was a harbinger of the emotional fallout — including deep unease over experiencing actual sexual arousal during combat — that many of Quick’s soldiers would feel around their core business: killing the enemy.
Intense training made them effective at taking Taliban lives, but never prepared them for the psychological after-effects, the now-retired officer details in a surprising, unpublished master’s thesis for the National Defence Department’s staff college.
As hundreds of Afghanistan veterans grapple with mental-health troubles, and Canadian troops are again seeing action in a far-off land, Quick says training needs to ready infantry troops for what they may feel after they kill — as well teaching them how to do it efficiently.
“Armies succeed in tricking soldiers into killing with modern training methods,” he wrote in his thesis. “I realized that I had failed to prepare my soldiers properly when I watched them react to the realization that they had killed a man for the very first time.”
Quick, 41, has since retired as an army lieutenant colonel and is starting a new career in the somewhat tamer world of investment banking. He and his troops had lots of experience with inflicting death, however.
During a six-month stint in 2007 — assigned to ferret Taliban out of Zhari District west of Kandahar — they had 24 planned operations and many other impromptu ones with “lethal effect.”
I briefly met Quick, then a major, when I joined India Company on one of its operations in the district’s atypically muggy and jungle-like farmland. Padding around in sandals and T-shirt between missions, the engaging, boyish-looking native of Trenton, Ont., seemed almost as much surfer dude as crack combat leader.
Remarkably, all 400 of his soldiers went home alive, a feat that helped earn him the Star of Military Valour, second only to the Victoria Cross in Canadian military honours.
But he clearly remains disturbed that a quarter were injured both psychologically and physically.
Across the army, it is estimated that hundreds of Afghan veterans are suffering some kind of “operational stress injury,” the blame often attributed to the trauma of being severely injured or seeing friends hurt.
The impact of having to kill others has received relatively little attention.
That impact was hard to avoid during the in-your-face combat Quick and his troops fought in Zhari. Their opponents set off bombs that killed and maimed indiscriminately, terrorized civilians and pushed an uncompromising, harsh brand of Islam. Yet the fighters themselves were often no more than 17, frequently jacked up on stimulants and, dead on the battlefield, seemed less than fearsome.
“They’re not like our kids. They’re not strong, well-nourished people … They’re teeny,” says Quick. “When you see them laying there, it’s surreal. They’re little, frail drug addicts.”
After that first firefight, he made sure that the soldiers who did the kills would not have to “process” the same bodies — remove material that could offer up intelligence and place them in body bags.
Yet even when there was no direct link between killing and the resultant corpse, the act resonated.
Fighting was so close, one of Quick’s captains dropped a grenade over a wall and virtually on top of a Talib. A Canadian sniper had to shoot an insurgent high on drugs repeatedly from close range to bring him down.
“The intimacy was always there,” Quick says. “There was very much a connection, listening to them change magazines, listening to them talk while you’re sneaking up on them. Listening to the prayers. It’s not a target at that point, it’s not a paper target.”
One time, they discovered a slain Taliban commander had been recording his own voice as the Canadians converged on his position. “He was speaking as a commander and at the same time giving thanks to Allah and finding peace. Until there was no more talking.”
Quick says some soldiers were “very freaked out” after experiencing a bizarre side-effect of combat: sexual arousal during firefights that can include erections.
Others, including a devout Christian who seemed to be questioning his faith, just “really wrestled” with having to kill.
One of Quick’s platoon commanders, Eddie Jun, now a major, agrees that the killing could be difficult, though he says negative thoughts tended to form after the fact.
“It was very chaotic, especially when there’s bullets flying at you. You’re almost numb,” he says. “An act of killing while you’re doing that, you don’t really think about it until you come back and wind down.”
Still, he questions whether instruction about the possible emotional reverberations of killing — only one part of combat’s sensory “overload” — would be valuable. To stave off operational-stress injuries, he favours inoculating soldiers to the “battlefield effect” by having more realistic live-fire training exercises.
It appears the military is addressing some of Quick’s concerns in its mental-readiness training — to a point. The 30-minute “psychological preparation” module includes “understanding the complications of combat and killing,” and “common reactions to killing and adverse situations” — as well as eight other topics.
The ramifications of taking adversaries’ lives may still be something of a taboo among Canada’s professional warriors, but Quick believes there is no downside to airing the issue.
“I don’t think you can make someone soft,” he says. “Who you are, you bring to the battlefield. Modern warfare is not about being a Neanderthal. Modern warfare is being smarter than the enemy.”