Good Guys

Act Four. Deep Dark Open Secret

Ira Glass
Act Four, The Deepest, Darkest Open Secret. More than four years ago, back in 2009, a US soldier got in touch with our program. And he was attached to a special operations combat unit. He was getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan.

And he offered to do a story for us about what it's really like to serve. One of our program's producers, Sarah Koenig, started talking to him. His one condition is that we would not use his name. So for this story that you're about to hear, we're calling him Adam, which is a pseudonym that he chose.

And a disclaimer-- Adam says some disturbing things about himself, but also about his fellow soldiers. We want to be clear that this is just his own experience. This is his own thoughts. This is his own perspective, his own story. He does not speak for the military in general. He is speaking for himself.

We think also that this story about war probably is not something that children should be hearing. And a warning-- also we quote some people who use an offensive term at one point in the story. OK, here's Sarah.

Sarah Koenig
When he first got in touch with us, Adam said he wasn't like the other guys in the Army. For one thing, he was almost 30 when he joined, about a decade older than most people. And he'd had a good career in the tech world as an engineer. But he had been unhappy doing that. He wanted to try something difficult and frightening and unknown.

He decided he wanted to go to war, even though he thought the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were bogus and even though the other guys in his unit considered him-- and this is their language-- a "liberal fagot." So yeah, he said he'd give us an outsider's perspective. And I said, sure, let's see what happens. So he started sending me recordings from Afghanistan like installments in a diary. And then, not too long after he deployed, Adam sent me a recording I found jarring.

Adam
In infantry school, I would be shocked of the reasons that people were there. People-- well, I wouldn't say "people." Men want to kill other young men. That's why they were there.

Sarah Koenig
It seemed to Adam that the way they talked about it, a lot of macho bluster about wanting to kill the bad guys, was just a cover for a much more basic desire they had-- that deep down, these guys didn't want to just kill the enemy. They wanted the opportunity to kill another human being period.

Not everyone was like this, he said, but most of them. And at first, Adam said, this kind of disturbed him. But then, after a while, it didn't.

Adam
So I've really realized, building up to my deployment, that I'm not any different than most of these people. Regardless of the noble aspirations I say I have for joining the army, I'm pretty sure I just want the opportunity to kill someone too. If I'm being honest with myself, it's there.

Sarah Koenig
Take a moment to compile all your stereotypes of a Public Radio producer. And now apply them to me. And you're right. I'm exactly who you think I am. I'm a peaceful sort. I don't come from a military family. I've not been in a lot of bar fights. I haven't lived in the South, playing violent video games.

That makes me very different from Adam, who did all those things. So I recognize I'm coming to this a little more wide-eyed than a lot of other people might. Still, I don't know what to make of Adam. I like him. I like talking to him. I think he's smart and weird and honest.

Here's a rational man saying he wants to kill someone just to see what that's like. What are we supposed to make of that? But this isn't a story where I'm going to get to the bottom of that question in the next 15 or 20 minutes. This is a story where I just ask that you hear him out.

Some things you should know before we start-- Adam ended up doing three different tours in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011. And he never did kill anyone. Being in war messed him up in certain ways. He's been seeing psychologists weekly for a couple of years. He's been diagnosed with severe PTSD. He has dramatic mood swings. And he barely sleeps, maybe three or four hours a night.

Adam's not on active duty anymore. He's back in the US working on a Ph.D. And so recently I played him back some of the recordings he'd sent me. I wanted to find out what he made of his 2009 self.

And he said, yeah, what I said back then about wanting to kill someone, that wasn't an exaggeration. And it had surprised him to realize it, he said, because he was in his late 20s when he joined. He thought he knew himself pretty well. But the army and the training, it changed him.

Adam
You do learn to-- they do teach you to want that. You yearn for that in basic training, or at least infantry basic training. Just over and over again, the only success you ever have is hitting a target or winning a fight in basic training.

Everything else you do you're criticized for. But if you do those things, you're doing good. And the interaction you have with the drill sergeant, most of it is based on killing somebody.

Sarah Koenig
I want to play you another piece of tape. It's when you get some prisoners that you're in charge of. OK. Here, I'm going to play it.

Adam
We recently just rolled up two high-valued targets. And we didn't kill them. We captured them. And we brought them back to base.

And we have a temporary holding facility-- temporary jail, really-- where we kept them until they could be transferred to Bagram. And while they were being held here, which was like three days, we had to rotate shifts just to guard them. It's just a basic sit outside their cell, make sure that they don't hang themselves type of thing.

And at least two other people came up to me and said it was really hard for them not to shoot them while they were in the cell. Now, don't get me wrong. One of these guys was a Taliban leader, and another guy was his little deputy. These were bad people.

But they were really nice. I mean, personal interactions with them-- I felt bad for them. Because they're crying. They miss their families. They were very polite.

But even I wanted to shoot them, even though they were unarmed, behind bars, uncombative. Something-- it's not a revenge thing. It's not a hey, you killed a bunch of my buddies thing, hey, you're a threat to society thing.

It's a hey, I want to shoot you, because I want to know what it's like, what it feels like to shoot you. It sounds sick. But it's probably much more prevalent than most people care to believe.

Sarah Koenig
Um-- do you remember that?

Adam
No. It's completely accurate. I remember feeling those things. I don't remember that specific situation, just because I can't remember those specific people. But that's just because that situation happened so many times.

Sarah Koenig
Oh, really?

Adam
Yeah. More times than I can count. Half the people we rolled up were probably innocent. But we would have killed them all if we could have got away with it.

Sarah Koenig
But see, that really sounds just homicidal, like straight-up homicidal.

Adam
That is straight-up homicidal. It was simply fear of repercussions that stopped those people from being murdered.

Sarah Koenig
And you're saying that was the norm?

Adam
Yeah, this is not an abnormal mindset.

Sarah Koenig
How do you know that's not abnormal?

Adam
Because I've been around hundreds of men that have the same mindset. This is not me. I am merely a representative of the community that I was working in.

Sarah Koenig
And you're saying that's because these are the enemy, and they're going to kill us, and so--

Adam
That's-- I mean, people can say it in those terms. But it's not like that. It's very much-- you have the power to do it. And you're on the verge of having the permission to do it. So you want to do it.

Sarah Koenig
So it's just more primal than that, you're saying.

Adam
Oh, yeah.

Sarah Koenig
I have to say, before you talked about this, I had never heard anybody say this, really.

Adam
Say?

Sarah Koenig
That I wanted to go kill somebody and admit it.

Adam
Yeah, I've never heard anybody say it either.

Sarah Koenig
(LAUGHING) And so I can't tell if he's just crazy, or if he's the bravest bastard out there. And he's just willing to admit something that nobody else will admit.

Adam
I would say there's probably no chance that I am on one side of that spectrum or the other. It is probably somewhere in between. I can't give you an accurate estimate of which spectrum I fall closer to.

Sarah Koenig
Oh, so you don't know yourself?

Adam
I've seen four psychologists in the last 24 months. No, I don't know if I'm crazy. Some people seem to think so.

Sarah Koenig
Was it a situation where-- at this point, you're saying you're a few months in-- where every day you were kind of thinking, I wonder if today's the day I'm going to shoot someone? I wonder if today's the day.

Adam
Every day, yes. Every day-- every mission we went out on, I was hoping I'd get to shoot somebody. This was actively talked about. Everybody wanted to get their first kill. Not everybody-- many people already had their first kill. But if you didn't have your first kill yet, everybody was talking about, OK, is this the day you're going to get your first kill?

Sarah Koenig
Because people know when you have it?

Adam
Yeah.

Sarah Koenig
It's a thing?

Adam
Of course they know. But if you do have a kill, people have a greater amount of trust in you. People know you're dependable. People know that you're willing to cross that threshold. And there's just some benefits to that.

Sarah Koenig
Because you've been tested, kind of?

Adam
Yeah.

Sarah Koenig
The next piece of tape I want to play you, it's about being on a mission one night and having the opportunity to shoot at someone. Do you remember how long you'd been there at this point when this happened? Do you have a memory of this?

Adam
I remember in detail everything about this situation.

Sarah Koenig
OK, how long had you been in Afghanistan when this happened?

Adam
A few months.

Sarah Koenig
A few months, OK. And up until that point, it seems like you had sort of indirectly caused the deaths of people by kind of sighting people, and those guys got killed. But it was indirect, is that right?

Adam
I had shot at people. And I knew those people that I shot at died. But everybody was shooting at them. So I have no idea if I shot them. And I called out targets to aircraft.

Sarah Koenig
OK, so let me play this. Here we go.

Adam
It's almost 1 o'clock on Sunday, November 8. It's the day after a mission. And if my voice sounds a little weird, it's because I'm on a lot of drugs. It was night, last night, and we were coming down to land. And apparently the pilot thought the ground was actually 50 to 100 feet lower than it actually was. So we came slamming into the ground pretty hard. And I hurt my back pretty good-- nothing structural, just some muscle.

But anyway, the worst part about this mission was I was on a security element. So people breached the door and went in there and looked for bad guys and stuff. I'm looking for bad guys out in fields and around the buildings, just trying to make sure nobody's coming to get us.

But I actually saw-- it's late at this point. There shouldn't be anybody awake walking around. And I actually saw a guy. And so this guy pops up in my sites. And I want to shoot him, but I didn't. He didn't have a gun, and he wasn't coming towards me. But I knew he was a bad guy. And I still didn't shoot him.

I don't know what that says about me. I don't know if it means that I'm either afraid to kill somebody or just that I want to kill somebody for the right reasons. Or maybe it just means I'm a puss, and I hesitate to pull the trigger.

Sarah Koenig
Do you remember that incident?

Adam
Oh yeah, vividly.

Sarah Koenig
What do you think about it now?

Adam
I still would have shot that guy. Well, I know a lot more about that guy now. He turned out to be a very bad guy. So I definitely would have shot him on sight.

Sarah Koenig
Why do you think you didn't?

Adam
I think I was still worried about the repercussions of shooting somebody that was unarmed.

Sarah Koenig
Repercussions meaning just sort of morally to yourself or that you could actually get in trouble with your superiors or something?

Adam
Yeah, there would actually-- I thought there might be some trouble with my superiors, which there would not have been.

Sarah Koenig
Right. But you're saying in the tape, maybe I just want to shoot someone for the right reasons, or I don't want to shoot somebody who's unarmed. Or maybe I'm just a puss. You seem to be questioning more than that.

Adam
Yeah, I was. I was wondering if those were actually the reasons. They are not.

Sarah Koenig
What do you mean? How do you know?

Adam
I've thought about it for about three years and five months.

Sarah Koenig
And so you never did kill anyone.

Adam
No. I messed some people up, but I never killed them.

Sarah Koenig
And how do you feel about that?

Adam
Um-- yeah, I think I missed the boat on that one, missed my opportunity to do that. I think the opportunity to kill somebody in the United States, to have the experience of taking another life, is going to be pretty slim unless I want to go to jail or a mental institution.

Sarah Koenig
But I'm never hearing you say, it's just wrong to kill other people. You're not saying that.

Adam
Is it wrong to kill other people?

Sarah Koenig
I think it is.

Adam
Regardless of motive?

Sarah Koenig
No, I guess not regardless of motive. But it is wrong to kill someone for the experience of killing them.

Adam
Yeah. So yeah, I would say maybe it is a bit sociopathic. I wouldn't change how I characterize it at all, though. I would say that my threshold for violence is much lower now. And I would kill people in situations much more readily or much more quickly than the normal person would. And I actively hope to have those situations.

Sarah Koenig
Do you think you're seeking them out?

Adam
Am I putting myself in those situations?

Sarah Koenig
Yeah, like getting in bar fights or something where somebody could get killed.

Adam
No. I mean, I started drinking quite a bit there for a while. I have got into some confrontations with some less than polite people. My temper is very short if somebody was to be impolite or rude to me. I don't go around looking at people and saying, I want to kill them. But if I have a good excuse to kill somebody, I'd definitely take that opportunity. I would-- yeah, I think I would.

Sarah Koenig
I mean, is this what you're largely discussing with psychologists? I mean--

Adam
No.

Sarah Koenig
Are they hearing this and having the reaction I'm having, or no?

Adam
They don't hear any of this. They want to talk about my mother, for God's sakes.

Sarah Koenig
Oh, you're not talking to them about this?

Adam
No.

Sarah Koenig
Oh.

Adam
I literally-- I tried to guide them there at first. But now, they just really want to talk about my relationship with my mother.

Sarah Koenig
Oh, for real-- like, you're not saying it as a cliche. Like, actually they're trying to talk about your mother.

Adam
No, it's not a cliche. It's true. This is absolutely true.

Sarah Koenig
But it doesn't also sound like you're worried about this impulse in yourself.

Adam
Why would I be worried?

Sarah Koenig
I don't know. Because what if you end up killing somebody?

Adam
That is entirely possible, yes.

Sarah Koenig
But why aren't you worried about that?

Adam
I don't know. It just never crossed my mind that I wouldn't be able to justify it.

Sarah Koenig
I spoke to other men who trained with Adam and who also served in Afghanistan doing the same job as Adam's. And I asked them if it was real, this mindset of wanting to kill just to kill. And they all said, yeah. Maybe not to the extent Adam experienced it, but yeah. They said it was common.

They said things like, quote, "It's not pretty to talk about. And nobody wants to hear that back home. But that's part of it." Another guy said, "I didn't join to go out and kill people. But once you do the training, I don't know, it's almost like a job. And your job is to kill people. And you do want that experience."

I talked to a psychiatric expert on war trauma and PTSD. And he also agreed. "This is true," he said. "This is a part of war that people like to ignore, the pleasure of killing. Killing is our society's most basic prohibition. So that's what military training is for," he said, "to get people to the point where they can cross that line."

Of course, the US military doesn't want sociopaths or would-be murderers in its ranks. Doctor Michael Matthews, a psychology professor at West Point who studies how soldiers react in dangerous situations, said in his experience, soldiers who truly think that way, who really just want to kill for killing's sake, those people are uncommon. And if they do surface, he said, they should be screened and probably kicked out of the military, which Adam would agree with.

But what Adam is saying is that there's a subtler thing that happens. There's some other class of people who aren't sociopaths but who go through military training, and the desire to kill is suddenly there. It seems natural to him that this happens, normal. But just because bloodlust is normal, that doesn't mean Adam thinks it's OK. In fact, he thinks he shouldn't have been allowed to go to Afghanistan at all.


 

PRI-- Public Radio International. © 2014 Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass