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May 12, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Editor's note: An earlier version of the story referred to a drill instructor as drill sergeant.
“It’s not a natural act to kill somebody,” Cpl. Dmitry Choukline, a 24-year-old Marine and Iraq War veteran, says. But killing is in his job description. It’s state-sanctioned killing, not the kind that society deems cold-blooded murder.
Still, it takes conditioning and training to prepare to pull the trigger. That conditioning starts the moment recruits show up for boot camp. Death becomes part of life before soldiers even touch their first military-issued weapon.Related Articles
Everyday objects receive new names: A garment bag is now called a “body bag.” Death rests on the tongues of every recruit. When a drill instructor gives an order, the verbal response is not “Yes, drill instructor,” as shown over and over in Hollywood interpretations of the military. Instead, the proper response is “Kill.”
“Kill was an ending point, like a period,” Cpl. Ryan Corcoran, another 24-year-old Marine and Iraq War veteran, says. “Run over there, go and do this — kill.”
The enemy takes human form as trainees shoot at practice targets shaped like silhouettes. Fledgling soldiers plunge bayonets into human-shaped dummies. Sometimes the targets and dummies have faces. They’re even given a name. Corcoran says when he was in boot camp, they called the practice targets “Ivan,” a stereotypical Russian-sounding name, a tradition that dates back to military training during the Cold War.
The point is to numb the sharp sensitivities that exist in the mind. Nobody wants to kill an actual person, so the enemy is no longer a person. The enemy is a dummy. The enemy is a silhouette. The enemy has a culture, has a way of life. The enemy is a group, not an individual. Don’t stop to think about what he or she does at home, Corcoran says. Just have a plan to kill him if it comes down to that.
“In a way, it’s brainwashing,” Choukline admits. “But in the reality of combat, it’s a good thing.” If someone threatens your life, you take him out and think about it later. There’s no time to hesitate. Choukline says if you feel some moral objection to killing someone who is a threat to you, the end result is your death. Or the death of your buddy.
Choukline says the biggest fear in combat is letting people down. The enemy isn’t just against you. It’s against all of you – all of the people with whom you have formed indelible bonds. The people who were once strangers to you when you started boot camp years before you shipped overseas are now nearer and dearer to you than your family, your friends back home, your wife or girlfriend. When it’s time to pull the trigger, you think about the people surrounding you in that very moment. You think about what they mean to you. You think about how they would do it for you. You think about what you owe them.
“As far as rationalizing, I didn’t question it too much because the people were shooting at us,” Choukline says. “I never lost any sleep over it.”