Is War Ever Justified? “The Man i Killed”

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Updated: May 06, 2021
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There’s no beauty in war, in loss, or in suffering; war is a phenomenon that has caused the death of innocent lives, affected many families, and caused destruction. It can’t be justified. Soldiers who go to war do not only suffer on the battlefield but also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after the war ends. This disorder can take them years to regain their lives back after their return home because the trauma they saw, experienced, and witnessed, forever changed and caused fear in their lives.

In “The Man I Killed”, Tim O’Brien, a war veteran himself, explains the psychological impact of killing a man during the Vietnam War. After taking the life of a young Vietnamese soldier, he feels guilty because he realized that the man he killed is not the buff, wicked, and terrifying enemy he was expecting. Jason Hartley, another war veteran who served in Iraq after the 9/11 attacks write about his experiences at war and the mentality he used to prevent himself from being exposed to psychological trauma in his text, “I, Jailor.”

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Although both authors had different experiences at war and were affected differently, O’Brien and Hartley are fully aware that war can certainly alter a soldier’s sense of normalcy because they are greatly affected by Post-traumatic stress disorder, a disorder that affects one’s mental health and state of mind for a long period of time and possibly a lifetime. A soldier’s morality is also affected at war because they have no choice but to dehumanize their rivals, in the sake of protecting their sanity, their lives, and their friends’ lives.

Exposure to war causes serious psychological trauma, especially post-traumatic stress disorder. Out of all the consequences of war, the impact of psychological trauma is the most significant because it can affect a soldier’s mental health and well-being for a long time after the war. Post-traumatic stress disorder, known as shell shock or combat stress, occurs after soldiers experience severe trauma or a life-threatening event.

During this type of event, they believe that their life is in danger and fear anything that reminds them of their traumatic experiences. Some sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder cannot reset a soldier’s body to its normal state, but instead causes their body to function at the heightened state it adopted during the traumatic event; affecting both their behavior and their attitude (Paulson, Krippner 3).

Tim O’Brien is among one of the thousands of soldiers who experienced PTSD post-war as he is in somewhat of a nightmarish daze after taking the life of a young man. Even though his friends tried to get him to stop looking at the dead body and convince him that what he did was right, the guilt keeps growing for him as he continues to stare at the body. O’Brien states, “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole… he lay face-up in the center of the trail, a slim, dead man almost dainty young man” (O’Brien 172).

The detailed descriptions of the dead man’s body show the horrific impacts of war in a physical aspect and O’Brien’s guilt almost takes on its own rhythm in the repetition of phrases, and observations about the man’s body. The ideal of the dead soldier is a “slim, young, dainty man,” which shows that O’Brien’s killed someone who was innocent and not meant to be fighting in the war. In “Haunted by Combat: Understanding PTSD in War Veterans” Daryl Paulson, a psychologist and a veteran of the United States Marines who served in Vietnam and Stanley Krippner, a professor of psychology further explores the many effects caused by war and how veterans are haunted by them post-war. Using first-hand accounts, Paulson and Krippner overview the effects of trauma on the mind and the body.

In the text, it states, “Traumas are assaults on the human mind/body system that affects numerous subsystems, such as physiological, psychoneurological, social-emotional, and/or spiritual functions… this means that the original trauma, rather than being relegated to the past, is still a powerful influence on a person’s behavior in such a way that her or his response may be dictated by it” (Paulson, Krippner 3). This quote shows that experiencing trauma can affect one’s mind and body in ways that they no longer function the same and instead of the traumatic experiences fading away as time goes on, it remains present and interferes with one’s state of mind and their overall well-being. War strips away the idea of living a normal life because soldiers who are affected by post-traumatic stress disorder struggle against the traumatic events lingering in their minds, causing them to live their lives in poor mental health.

The behavior of dehumanizing people can eventually lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in the future. War promotes soldiers to dehumanize their rivals, all in favor of protecting their sanity, their lives, and their friends’ lives. To be specific, soldiers must dehumanize one another by negating the characteristics normally associated with human beings, such as morality and compassion. This is done because it allows them to kill another human being without feeling any remorse.

However, soldiers may not realize it but engaging in violent humanizing behavior can be a later trigger for PTSD. O’Brien’s texts emphasize the significance of dehumanizing during the battle at war but describe an occasion where he humanizes the man he killed, which caused him to be terrified. He writes, “He lay face-up in the center of the trail, a slim, dead, almost dainty young man… his chest was sunken and poorly muscled a scholar, maybe… he wore a black shirt, black pajama pants, a gray ammunition belt … his rubber sandals had been blown off” (O’Brien 172).

O’Brien describes the man’s face again and again and repeats the same details to show his grief and acknowledge his innocence. He continues to build a life for this dead man with his imagination to quell his guilt, predicting that he might have been a scholar just like himself. While O’Brien is grieving over the dead body, his friend Azar shows no form of compassion, but instead, he compares the dead body to ‘shredded wheat’ ‘oatmeal’ and ‘rice crispies.’ Unlike O’Brien, Azar has mastered the way a soldier should handle death showing no emotions. This shows how important it is for soldiers to dehumanize their rivals so that they are unable to feel guilty for taking the life of someone else, just like O’Brien felt. Similarly, to Azar Jason Hartley is willing to go the extra mile to protect himself from any future psychological trauma.

He writes that “The first step is to remove the person-ness from your enemy. Once you remove his humanity in your mind distance him from you, the human, it’s easier to kill him if it comes down to that” (Hartley 1053). Hartley believes that to be a soldier is to not think of your enemy as a person with feelings or emotions. By mastering this mentality, it will make it easier to kill without feeling any regret. Although soldiers try to protect themselves by dehumanizing the opposing country’s soldiers, it is hard to avoid the long-term consequences of PTSD. Dehumanization not only allows soldiers to kill innocent lives, but it also eliminates the soldier’s soul of any humanity.

Paulson and Krippner would agree that soldiers who go to war react differently to traumatic experiences. This is shown in the text as stated, “Some of them undergo brutal forms of torture immediately; others experience a more selectively applied torture, designed not only to fracture them physically but also to humiliate and degrade them and undermine their humanity” (Paulson, Krippner 65) Just like Tim in “The Man I Killed,” he kills an enemy and thinks about him non-stop and even tries to empathize with the dead man.

By performing this behavior, O’Brien might be better off long-term while other soldiers like Azar and Jason Hartley may have more guilt later on. This is especially because Tim is directly facing what he did and is immediately thinking about the consequences of his action. Whereas the other soldiers show no compassion and prefer to move on with their lives. Sometimes, soldiers try to close themselves off but what they don’t realize is by closing themselves off, they are more likely to develop something like post-traumatic stress disorder.

War is a phenomenon that has caused psychological effects on soldiers by stripping them of their sense of normalcy and morality. After the war, soldiers live their lives in fear, their mental health is damaged, and their state of mind is no longer the same. This happens because during the war they witnessed and experienced a great degree of trauma.

Just like Tim O’Brien who has flashbacks and cannot get over the fact that he killed an enemy nor can he get the image of the dead’s man body out of his head. Jason Hartley on the other hand was able to protect himself from future psychological trauma but still makes it aware that war can do serious damage to a person’s mental state of mind. O’Brien, Hartley, Paulson and Krippner texts establish that war is a destructor of both the physical world and the human psyche. The long-term effects of war should be acknowledged and perhaps future soldiers should educate themselves on these effects because war does not affect a person for a specific amount of time, it affects them for the rest of their lives. 

Is War Ever Justified? “The Man i Killed” essay

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Is War Ever Justified? “The Man I Killed”. (2021, May 06). Retrieved from