Don’t you know it is wrong to kill? Yes. But you do it? Yes. And you still believe absolutely that your cause is right? Yes.
It is right, he told himself, not reassuringly, but proudly. I believe in the people and their right to govern themselves as they wish. But you mustn’t believe in killing, he told himself. You must do it as a necessity but you must not believe in it. If you believe in it the whole thing is wrong.” – Ernest Hemingway, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”

At this point in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the protagonist, Robert Jordan, is on the eve of a major battle and is having an inner debate about the act of killing. He is performing a Green Beret-type mission, where he is working with local indigenous people to take out a bridge during the Spanish Civil War just before WWII. He has discussed the act of killing with several of the locals that have been fighting there for a long time, and Robert Jordan is somewhat of a seasoned soldier himself. They all have different points of view, but the more senior of them tend to feel similarly: that killing is wrong, but sometimes necessary.

There is a certain naïvety around a society that is never willing to kill for any reason whatsoever, and those societies are usually built and protected by those who do the killing on their behalf. I have a great respect for pacifists who would die for their beliefs, but that sort of pacifism is a rare breed and most who claim such ideals simply have never been tested. Once they are hungry enough or their families are threatened, the heat of the moment — “the demon” — will take over and they will likely follow that same killer instinct buried deep within all of us.

However, just because a thing is necessary does not make it right, and therein lies the contradiction. It is wrong, but it is, at times, necessary. Those who would never in any conceivable way permit violence would allow rapists and murderers to do what they do. Non-lethal force is not always possible, and even the countries with the strictest weapon control laws know this, and have police forces on standby, armed to the teeth, for this reason.

If a man is holding a child hostage, a sniper has a choice to kill or not to kill. Killing is wrong, but it is more wrong to let the man kill the child. So the sniper shoots. He will probably sleep just fine at night because he knows that, despite the fact that killing is and always will be wrong, that wrongness was far out-shadowed by saving the life of the child. And that wrongness isn’t necessarily resting on that sniper’s head — the world is fractured and broken, and we are players moving from crack to crack, navigating as best we can. Sometimes all we’ve got are wrong options, and that’s okay, but it is a mistake to call them “right” when there’s nothing right about it.

That’s where you begin to delve into sadism. You build a culture where killing is always preferable because it’s a positive thing. In most warrior cultures, this line of thinking bubbles up from time to time — people tell themselves that killing is good and an innate way of life because that’s what you’re training for. To train so much to kill and then say it’s wrong is too much for some people to chew. And with that, they forget that being a warrior sometimes means not taking the shot; it might mean pulling security down some obscure alleyway. Being a warrior means serving your country and doing whatever is necessary. And sometimes that means killing.

The irony of combat

Read Next: The irony of combat

The sadist thinks that his sadism is necessary to being a successful warrior (and they love to sit around and brag about how hardcore it makes them sound). But a killing machine is just that — a machine. They could just as easily be programmed to fight for the enemy. After all, there is killing to be had on both sides and if the enemy starts winning, why would someone who is primarily concerned with killing stay on the losing side? You don’t have to do a lot of thinking before you realize how serving next to a sadist in combat could go sideways in more ways than one.

You have to know when to pull the trigger, and when that time comes you can’t hesitate. Not even for a millisecond. But you also have to know when to show pause and restraint.

Killing is wrong, but at times it is necessary. When that time comes, the killer doesn’t have wake up in cold sweats or shake his fist at the sky, but if he does that’s okay too. It is what it is, that’s just how the world works. There will be time for redemption, rebuilding or healing later when it too is necessary.

You never kill any one that you want to kill in a war, [Robert Jordan] said to himself. Well, hardly ever, he amended and went on reading the letters.”

Unorganized troops wait behind walls which have been converted into barricades simply by chipping holes in the wall for rifles in Madrid, Spain in November 1936. | AP Photo

Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press, taken during the Spanish Civil War.