A Very Sad Story: The Soldier Who Would Not Kill

One of the bravest men I have ever known was also one of the most foolish. While this is not an unusual combination, he did it in a unique, a very strange, and a very senseless way. After being in the field as a rifle platoon leader for over seven months, I was reappointed as A Company’s Executive Officer. In the normal course of things as XO, I assigned a young soldier as a replacement to the 2nd Platoon of A Company, my old platoon. After making sure he was sufficiently trained, that is another sad story that I will tell some time, I sent him to the field. When he came back from the field the first time a couple of weeks later I found out that well trained or not, he would not fire directly at the enemy.

He fired over their heads on purpose, even on point. Since his platoon leader, platoon sergeant and squad leader had all tried talking to him about this to no avail, some of his fellow squad members, who liked him, asked me to talk to him as well since he was literally placing all of their lives as well as his own at risk.

I talked to him about it for a long time during the three days or so they were out of the field for a routine stand-down. He had thought about it a lot, but he came to a very different conclusion from me. His mother’s training had made it impossible for him to participate in the taking of another human’s life. His father’s training on the other hand had made it impossible for him to try to avoid or evade in any way what he perceived as his duty. Therefore, he answered his country’s call (a draft notice); he even volunteered for Airborne School; he was well trained in the art and craft of soldiering by the Army; and in fact, he was an excellent shot on a rifle range. However, I, and his squad members knew that when he ran into an enemy that could tell the difference between effective and ineffective fire that he and those around him would have a problem, a deadly problem. It is the way of war.

Unfortunately, when his platoon ran into such an enemy during Tet III late in the summer of 1968 he was killed in action. I was saddened because he was a truly wonderful young man, but I was not surprised.

Under the law at the time, and probably still today if they ever bring back the Draft, he really had little choice. His views did not meet the guidelines set for a Conscientious Objector, so he had to go where the Army sent him. He was educated so he probably could have avoided the Infantry if he had really wanted to, but, probably because of his father’s training, he elected not to. During those three days, I used every argument a Jesuit education had provided-unfortunately to no avail. He would not kill—not to save himself, not even to save his fellow squad members.

Although he literally endangered everyone’s life, he was still well liked in the platoon. He really was just a nice kid; but he was also still a very young man that needed a little more exposure to life and then I think he would have made a better choice. It was just sad.

Some people really do have difficulty in “pulling the trigger” when doing so takes another human’s life.

My own experience was considerably different, I found killing in a sense “easy,” but also very costly over time. It is easy because the Army provided both excellent tools and training to do exactly that because it is the job of the Infantry. Originally, I had entered the Army expecting to make it a career. I left it because I liked everything about it — except killing people. Even when it is entirely necessary, and in every sense justifiable; even when it produces an importantly good result; it still hurts the killer to kill. Over time, it simply lacerates the soul to kill people. If you think about it; it is a good thing that it does.

I do not have an answer for what an honorable man faced with this young man’s kind of choice should do, but I consider that young man to be one of the bravest men I have ever met. I also consider him to be one of the most hardheaded and foolish.

Frankly, I blame now and I blamed then, his mother. She indelibly imprinted him with a view of life and morality that was romantic, utter nonsense, and it got her son, her only son, killed. However, when as Executive Officer I had to write her and her husband the “letter” after her son’s death I did not tell her that. I told her and her husband the truth—that their son had been a brave, even a courageous, young man and we were all very sorry that he was dead. The rest of the truth really made no difference anymore. He was, and would remain, dead.

Some who view the war in Vietnam think that the young soldier was playing in a rigged game that he could not win and that is answer enough for them. It is just another tragedy from a war that they believe never should have been fought. However, that is too simplistic an answer for such an important question. In war, good war—bad war, it really does not make a difference, a soldier must kill with an absolute absence of hesitation. If he does not, the enemy will probably kill both him and his fellow soldiers at some point because they will not hesitate. Therefore, almost all infantry training is directed at achieving this result; taking a nice young American and turning him into a reliable, un-hesitating, killer of men. And, the Army does this at least in part for the soldier’s own sake.

Based on my experience in the Army, it is clear that that good, realistic battle training can facilitate an appropriate, an infantry, response in combat. Strangely, probably the best, the most accurate description of the value of such training that I have ever read is set forth in the book “One Shot” (One Shot: A Jack Reacher Novel, by Lee Child):

“James Barr was a sniper. Not the best, not the worst, but he was one of ours, and he trained for more than five years. And training has a purpose. It takes people who aren’t necessarily very smart and it makes them seem smart by beating some basic tactical awareness into them. Until it becomes instinctive.”

Then, they become a soldier.

Except that the word “smart” is wrong. Good training teaches people the craft of the thing. Anyone, talented or not, can learn a craft, any craft. Only the talented that are fully versed in their craft can become brilliant, but anyone that knows the craft can beat even an otherwise brilliant player that does not know, or does not practice their craft.

When I was teaching in high school I compared this to the difference between two great basketball players, Michael Jordan and Allan Iverson. While Jordan is larger and you can’t teach size, from a purely athletic perspective Iverson is probably more talented, but the real difference between the two is that Jordan was always relentless in the pursuit of perfection of his craft as a basketball player and that made him the greatest basketball player ever. While Iverson was always a performer, a brilliant basketball performer, he was never a true basketball player because basketball is a team sport not a showcase for an individual’s talent.

Some jobs are inherently unforgiving. The Infantry is one of them. If all of the soldiers on your side are dead, it is hard to pretend that your side won the battle. In the best sense of the word this young man was a true gentleman, but that was just not enough this time.

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64 thoughts on “A Very Sad Story: The Soldier Who Would Not Kill

  1. papafreddie

    If his superiors knew he wouldn’t kill he should never been redeployed to the field. The was a danger to himself and all around him. Poor commanders I say

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Other than a court martial, which I do not think would have been useful, how would you redeploy him, where would you redeploy him? How would that help? He was an airborne infantryman by choice. He volunteered.

      Reply
      1. james

        The Author states that the soldier was extra bright, so I would have thought the Army would have made him a Medic. And I find it very hard to believe that he made it all the way to Vietnam without anyone knowing what his belief about war was.

      2. JohnEHarrison Post author

        You have to remember James, it was 1968, the bloodiest year of the war. By the rules of the time his belief did not make any difference because it did not meet the criteria for a Conscientious Objector. As a 11 Bravo, an infantryman, he was in high demand, and that was what he wanted.

  2. Diana

    I can’t even begin to understand the pain and confusion this young soldier was going through. He was doing what both parents expected instead of what he felt in his heart of hearts. How very sad he lost his life. His suffering is over now. I wonder how many like him there have been over the lifetime of our country. A gentle soul who did not want to kill another member of God’s people.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Thank you for your comment. I think he was doing what he wanted to do in his heart of hearts though–it just doesn’t make any sense for something like that to be there. It makes no sense at all to me.

      Reply
      1. Frank Gilbert, forme E-5

        LT: In my opinion he should have been pulled from the field. The red flags were there. He wasn’t a coward and no one looked down on our Field Officers who spent an average of 6 months in the field and then rotated back for S-2 or other specialties. As a platoon Leader in the field, walking to the front of an RTO and PRC-25 radio, they were high targets. I will give,” no names”, First Sergeants who never went into the field, except for a chopper in and out. Many were drunks and were the “over looked” senior NCO. The ultimate REMF. This young draftee soldier was honest with you and could have had bunker duty every night and burned “Sh.t during the day and been alive today. These are my thoughts not intended to offend anyone. Currahee.

        He

      2. JohnEHarrison Post author

        No offense taken Frank.

        He flat out refused. He wanted to be in the field, to “share” the experience. Remember the “romantic nonsense” part above? As XO I did not have the power to just order him out of the field, and remember as well, but for his refusal to shoot at the enemy, he was almost the perfect soldier. He volunteered for every dirty, or dangerous detail. Given his mind set, I don’t think this one has an answer.

        Thanks for the feedback. This kid, 2/2/68, and 2/19/68 live in my mind everyday.

        Airborne!

  3. B. Prahl

    Too bad he was not educated on the options…medic, air amb crew chief, cook, etc. I chose Dustoff as I had similar feelings.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      He was educated to the options. In the three days we talked, we talked about that too. He was not trained as a medic so that was out, but he had some college and was smart and could have been put in a clerk/staff position in a heartbeat. He refused, he was exactly where he wanted to be doing what he thought he had to do.

      Thanks for the feedback. I guess it is pretty clear, this kid haunts me.

      Reply
      1. JohnEHarrison Post author

        He was educated. As I said in the story he was a good shot and otherwise a fine infantryman. What surprised me after I wrote this was how common it was. Not only did a lot of men refuse to fire there have even been several books written on the subject. So, if you took everybody out that did this you have a very thin line indeed.

  4. Peter Stewart (pumpkinslayer)

    I stumbled over here looking for that quote from Jack Reacher but ended up reading the whole article.

    It sounds like the kid was where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to be doing. Others saw the issue, but it was his choice and nobody could change that for him, or force him to do something else.

    I can only imagine the torment he would have felt if he had been forced out. He lived (and unfortunately died) doing exactly what he wanted.

    And I don’t envy your position in the matter. That was a hard position for you to be in.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    PS. I have absolutely no experience with the military in any way, shape or form.

    Reply
      1. Virginia Porter

        This is my third try! Hope this one goes through!
        You made a decision appropriate to the time and place, and your position and regulations. The young soldier made his decision based on his moral and ethical beliefs. The soldier, his Mom, his Dad and you should all be at peace with your best done for the best reasons. The parents taught their son with love with the fullness of their hearts. The son learned their lessons of love and kept them both close to him as best he could. You taught and lead him with your heart and strength. He exercised his free will and at that last minute made his choice…not his Mom’s, Dad’s or your’s, his choice. I’m sure you forgive him and his parents, now, FORGIVE YOURSELF! You have nothing to forgive!

      2. JohnEHarrison Post author

        Thank you so much for your thoughtful post. As for me, you are right in a sense, I am haunted by this young man. I don’t believe I could have done anything else given the rules at the time.

  5. Dave Parks

    had a hard time making the decision to kill. when it was presented to me it was in anger.as I lost two friends in the blink of an eye. was in training for a door gunner in 15th Med e vac 1st cav. ! was the only person that I know that I killed. even today I feel bad about that . on the other hand saved an awful lot of our brothers . what is strange, I feel at peace with myself. sorry about that young man. he had a tough job trying to please his folks .

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      According to the feed back I am getting there are more like you and my young soldier than most people realize. I don’t know if I am at peace; the way I put it is that I regret the necessity that caused me to act, but I do not regret the act. It was necessary in that time and place. Welcome home

      Reply
  6. Richard Reynolds

    Has no one caught on to what this kid was trying to do to himself? Being a volunteer for every dangerous job that came along.He was probably so conflicted about something in his life that this is the way he dealt with it.He absolutely should not have been put back in the field.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Actually, he volunteered for everything dangerous or not. That was not really that unusual in our unit at that time so it did not create a red flag. We were still an all volunteer Airborne unit on jump status so that kind of thing was pretty common. I agree with you, he was certainly conflicted, I think reality was beginning to get through to him, however, in 1968 there was no way not to send him to the field. He was rational. He was not self destructive. He was very good at what he did. He just refused to shoot people. That is what haunts me.

      Reply
  7. Gerry Gudinas

    John Im sorry he lost his life and many of us are haunted by our time in VN– I was Infantry in the 1st Cav April 67 till Feb.68 my opinion if he refused to kill he definitely should not be walking point volunteer or not. Same with being in the field if he refused to kill he should not have been out there and risk the lives of his fellow soldiers. My time in the Army it was not what you wanted to do but what you were told to do by your superiors. John I mean no disrespect these are my opinions the officers had a tough job over there.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      I agree, but under the rules there was no way not to send him to the field. As far as I know once his platoon leader found out that he would not kill, he no longer walked point. However, if he had been pulled from the field for it, how many more would have had the same problem the next day? In any event, since he fit no category the Army recognized, he could not be pulled from the field. Anyone that did would have been relieved immediately and he would have been ordered back to the field right after.

      However, I have been surprised by the number of men that have privately expressed to me sentiments remarkably close to those this soldier held. They too held, or misdirected their fire, to ensure that they did not take a life. Apparently it was not as unusual a reaction to combat as I thought when I wrote this story. While I understand all of those that say he should have been withdrawn from the field because he was a danger to himself and others, it just was not possible under the rules that we were obliged to follow.

      One of the things I have loved about writing these articles is the feed back, the glimpses into other people’s story’s. I have learned a lot, thank you all.

      Reply
  8. Lobo

    Im not sure how to say this..I was in Nam in 69/70…a grunt in the central highlands. I saw several men taken out of the field for several reasons. Such as a driver was needed for some high ranking officer…or one guy could really sing…he also was taken to the rear. Another was able to type well…he too was taken out of the bush. Guess what Im trying to say is where there is a will there is a way. Yes I do feel for than young man…he must have been fighting his own demons but at the same time he was putting others in danger and maybe even some killed. I know this sounds callused but there are times when we have to do what we don’t want to do. Just to ensure that we and our fellow troops get home.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      We discussed this, but it was 1968, the bloodiest year of the war. He was a 11B. He said if I pulled him from the field he would request immediate reassignment to another line unit as an infantryman, and in 1968, he would have gotten it in a heartbeat. He did not want to leave the field, but he refused to try to kill anyone. The only way I could think of would have been to court marshall him, and I just could not do that.

      Reply
      1. Been there,

        I for one, think this individual should have been processed for a medical.How many died because of him ?, I find it hard to accept that he was doing what he wanted to do and was allowed to do it, and there was nothing you could do ?. I think he had a death wish, or this is a BS story. If true, why would any one want him in a combat situation where their life depended on him ?

      2. JohnEHarrison Post author

        Because we were down to about 60 men per rifle company. What would probably really surprise you is the number of people that wrote me to say that they did the same thing.

        There are also many books written on the phenomenon. Some histories, like SLA Marshall’s “Men Against Fire” and some scientific, like Grossman’s book “On Killing”.

        Whatever you may think, this did not qualify him for a medical discharge. It did not even qualify him for a court-martial since the only testimony of what he was actually doing would have to come out of his mouth, and he does not have to testify.

        He took the usual precautions against being killed so there was no death wish. And in any event he lasted through both mini Tet ’68 battles before he was killed.

        I will take your word that you have “been there” but any officer that removed a man from the field for this would have been immediately relieved and his replacement would have sent the kid back to the field because we were so short of infantry for months after Tet ’68.

        Thank you for your comment.

  9. Dennis

    By dieing in the field he knew he was obeying his Mother’s will by not taking a life. By dieing in the field he was obeying his Father’s will. He didn’t have to return home to lie to either his Mother or Father. 1CAV 66,67,68.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      I just read this again Dennis. I think you hit the nail on the head. That was probably exactly what he was doing. I do not know how I missed your insight the first time i read it.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and Welcome home.

      Reply
  10. Mark Manczuk

    If you read “On Killing” and “On Combat” by Dave Grossman, you’ll see how common this phenomenon has been throughout many wars. PTSD may be more clearly understood as moral injury. For myself, I realized it was kill or be killed. I pray for God’s peace for you, and for us all.

    Reply
  11. David

    They should have turned him over to mental health and they would have placed him in a hospital pending a discharge for inability to adapt.

    Reply
  12. steve broering

    Powerful story. Recalled hearing a stat about the Civil War in which many unfired muzzle-loaders were found on the battlefields with some even loaded with multiple charges/balls in the barrels. Tried to follow up on that recall and found the book, ‘The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War’. Chapter 8, Reluctant Killers, is what I “landed on” in my Google searching. Which also pointed to another book, ‘Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command’ which appears to be the “classic” on the topic.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Men Against Fire was written by Gen. SLA Marshall, USA. I read it either right before I went to Vietnam or right after I returned. The fields at Gettysburg were littered with rifles like that, but that was mostly excitement. He was a really nice kid.

      Reply
      1. Tamara Graydon

        So many with your same name. I couldn’t find yours on FB. I just thought you might know my dad after some stories I read. I didn’t want to put anything on here that might put my information out there for all to see. I can send you my email.

        Sent from my iPhone

  13. Elmer Knoderer (former SP5)

    When I went through “kill week” in basic training at Ft. Bragg in 1967, it changed me profoundly; but the Army made me a surveyor and sent me to ‘Nam to survey, so I never had to look down my M-14 sights and make the decision to kill someone. I don’t know how the guys who did have to do that lived with it afterwards. I’m surprised more weren’t PTSD, but maybe they were and just never diagnosed.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Many have been diagnosed with PTSD. On the other hand books have written about the phenomenon of soldiers refusing to fire. I thought that this kid was unique, it turns out he was the tip of a very large iceberg.

      Reply
  14. Pat

    First let me say thank you for your service. My son is army infantry and just from seeing and hearing things from his experience the position you were in was not a easy one as you too had the chain of comand to follow and had your hands tied. In my opinion you did every thing in your power to help this young man the best you could, however it was his choice to return to the field. I have a strong belief in God and believe we have a timed appt for our calling to our cessation of life. He wanted to honor his mother and father and that he did. I feel you did all you could and you should try to forgive yourself as I know that young soldier would certainly want you to do. Honor him by accepting this, I feel it is a great way to do this. God bless you and thank you for all you have done and sacrificed!!

    Reply
  15. Christina

    This is very sad. I was born in September1965 when this war was going on. I don’t understand stand how this young man couldn’t kill anyone especially if they are out to kill you. And volunteered for all for those dangerous missions. He should not have been out in the field he couldn’t be trusted to watch my back. How was he killed? I’m sorry but has any one thought he was killed on purpose of some kind of suicide action? I would hope not. That he was a hero and is RIP.

    Reply
  16. Dean Shultis

    I, too, was airborne infantry and served with 173rd and 82nd in Vietnam. I was specialist four rifleman. I understand the airborne mentality that every swinging dick needs to be in the field, so I would put the blame on the culture rather than any individual as to the cause of his death. There are jobs he could have done without risking other lives. Period. The attitude was, “If I have to be out there, so does everyone else.” Saying that others would follow is simply rationalizing; we were better than that, but I understand, given the airborne culture, that no field officer could have sent him back to the rear, but I was also in the 1st Cav, non-airborne, where they would most definitely have removed him and given him a job where he would not endanger others, whether he liked it or not. That makes sense and he would probably still be alive and you wouldn’t have had to write that letter.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      As you say hard to do given the culture. Harder to do when we were down to 70-80 company in the field after Tet ’68 instead of 150-160 with the FO and engineers attached that we were supposed to have. Harder still to do when he could have transferred to any other line unit in a heartbeat and there was nothing we could do to stop him from doing that. I would have liked to not write that letter. BTW hard or not we tried to move him out of the field. It did not work. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Welcome home.

      Reply
  17. Mario Ortega

    “…I was also in the 1st Cav, non-airborne, where they would most definitely have removed him and given him a job where he would not endanger others…”

    One of my uncles was with the 192nd Tank Battalion in the Philippines where he was captured and survived the infamous Bataan Death March and Hell Ships. He was a prisoner for three and a half years. In 1950, he was called up to go to Korea where he served with 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd ID. He approached his Company Commander to tell him of his not wanting to kill any longer. The Company Commander asked if he would march prisoners from the front to the rear which he said he would. This he did from Nov. 1950 till June. 1951.

    Reply
  18. Barry

    My medic, the one who saved my life, was a consciousness objector (Quaker) and never touched a weapon or carried one. He saw as much combat as us 11B’s and was the bravest man I knew

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      There were a lot of great medics over there. I wish my guy had been one. I think he would have been happier, but given the casualty rate for medics, he might not have lasted as long as he did. I’m glad you made it back, welcome home,

      Reply
  19. Tom Hooker

    He was useless in a fire fight except for drawing fire from those that could fire back. He chose to go into battle with a target on his forehead. He could have done a lot more good as a medic.

    Reply
  20. David Fetty

    Someone touched on this earlier, but trying to recap; he was a volunteer for 11B and it was his strongest desire to be in that position. IF he was pulled from that duty, forced to be in a position where he couldn’t fulfill his duty as he saw it, how would it have effected him? Would he be a suicide because he wasn’t allowed to do what he saw as necessary? Would he have a mental breakdown? Would he suddenly become a discipline problem? I know, hind sight is always seeing what might have been, after the fact, but from personal experience, being stopped from doing what you feel is right is so demoralizing it can certainly change your entire life. It may even have been more life threatening than leaving him to function in a position he was trained to operate and where he wanted to be. You did everything you could possibly have done, he did what his conscience dictated.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Wow. What a perceptive comment. That is him. Thank you for writing. It helps me understand him. I always thought that we both were in a box, but now I can see the walls a little clearer. Welcome home and go do something fun, because you did something good today.

      Reply
  21. Donnie

    I was 11Echo, armor crewman. However once I arrived in country, I was assigned as an M-60 machine gunner on an M113A1 APC. In a firefight, you just pointed down range and pulled the trigger, never seeing if you actually killed someone . You just prayed that the amount of bullets you were putting out was enough to keep “Charlie” at bay! Also praying that your flash did not make you a target for an RPG or a thrown grenade. I can honestly say, I never remember seeing the enemy fall, but with my rate of fire, in addition to my claymores and hand grenades, I was bound to get someone. If war has affected me at all, I would have to say that I try to find humour in everything. Once you’ve seen war, everything else just doesn’t seem that important. I’ll be 66 in three days! Some things just do not go away. But for the Grace of God, and a Loving Wife…….

    Reply
  22. Bill Rawlings

    John I was drafted in 68 and in VN by Oct by Mar 69 I was a Sq. leader in 1 Corp . I lost several of my Sq. over the next few months . There were three that I did what was expected but knew I could have handled differently. I took me the next 40 yrs to get peace of mind . Like you we were always short handed and did the best we could . I wasn’t a great Sq leader, I was the next man up and put in my position by an E-7 Plat Sgt. It was his opinion I was the best option at the time so I stepped up but clearly not ready for the position . It was the place and time we were placed in to cope as best we could ! I have reconciled and come to peace with my experiences as I hope for the same for you . Love your writing !

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. It seems I remember the questionable decisions much more than the ones that were unquestionably correct. It is not easy, and many times you literally have less than a second to decide on the course of action. If you were wrong, men died. Many times even if you were right, men still died. War sucks. The guys I felt most for were the medics. The guys expected miracles from the medics, and often they delivered exactly that, but I worry that some of them are too much like me and dwell too much on the ones that died.

      Thanks for the compliment too. Feedback is the reason i write. Welcome home. I’m glad you made it back.

      Reply

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