Killing Unveiled

In Japan, sacrificing a woman at a rushing river would placate the spirit who lived there, allowing for the construction of bridges and the safe passage of boats. In Greek myth, king Agamemnon kills his daughter in exchange for a favorable wind on the way to Troy. The Egyptians buried their pharaohs with dozens of servants when they died, ensuring they would be well served in the afterlife. Bodies entombed in bogs across Europe were probably slain as gifts for higher powers.[1] Hernán Cortés describes Aztec priests slicing open the chests of sacrificial victims so as to offer their still-beating hearts to the gods. A conquistador, Andrés de Tapia, describes two towers made entirely of thousands of human skulls. In 2015 and 2018, archeologists working at the Templo Mayor excavation site in Mexico City discovered the skull towers and skull racks that conquistadors had described in their accounts. Human sacrifice seems to have been a universal practice, yet modern warfare has outpaced every form of religious sacrifice leaping from deaths in the thousands to death in the hundreds of millions.

In the New Testament, mythos is exposed by truth – aletheia and the logos of the world is countered by the Logos of Christ. Aletheia comes from the root letho, which is the verb “to forget.” The prefix a is the negative, giving the literal meaning for the Greek word truth, “to stop forgetting.” It is the opposite of myth and it is the exposure, through the Logos of Christ, of the forgotten victims of myth and murder. Biblical truth is the exposure of killing and the history of killing, and this is the way Jesus describes his work – to expose the history of killing (Lk 11:51). Jesus’ teaching in Luke, as with his own death, is not focused on the tomb or on the dead, as this is declared empty, but it is on the killing. Jesus is indicating that it is the act of killing that produces guilt and which needs exposure.

The cross is an exposure of killing, as Christ life and death and his teaching lift the veil of myth surrounding murder. His was a murder carried out by the state in which it was presumed his death was necessary to save the nation, but at a very basic level his death exposes what is always obscured in killing. Killing, whether it is a sacrifice to the gods, a sacrifice in war, or simply a personal killing, tends to be obscured by religion, by the justifications of war, or through personal justification, so that the act itself remains hidden. Prior to the advent of Christianity religious myth was effective in scapegoating and then sacralizing the victim so that every victim somehow satisfied the gods. In the modern period, the rise of nationalism and the nation state have required nearly endless sacrifice, but I believe Christ also lifts the veil on the reality of every form of killing.

Colonel Dave Grossman has written the definitive work on killing in war and his conclusion, that of all the factors which go into causing long term psychiatric damage, it is not fear of being killed, it is not simply exposure to danger and death or even slaughter, but it is the act of killing which is psychologically unbearable for most humans. After examining the percentage of soldiers that were not actually firing their weapons in battle (75%-80% in WWII), indicating most would rather be killed than to kill (confirmed throughout history and in a series of studies), he concludes that the great overlooked factor of the battlefield and of human nature is the intense resistance the vast majority of humans have to killing.

Overcoming this resistance is possible but it is inevitably accompanied by severe psychological damage. Richard Gabriel maintains that “in every war in which American soldiers have fought in [the twentieth century], the chances of becoming a psychiatric casualty— of being debilitated for some period of time as a consequence of the stresses of military life— were greater than the chances of being killed by enemy fire.” In one study quoted by Grossman, it was determined in World War II that after sixty days of combat, 98 percent of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties and the two percent able to endure sustained combat showed a predisposition toward “aggressive psychopathic personalities.” While there have always been psychiatric casualties associated with war, war before the modern period was not a sustained period of combat, and it is only in the twentieth century that the logistical capability to sustain combat broke the capacity of the majority to endure it. As Grossman points out, psychiatric casualties were being discharged, at one point, faster than new recruits could be drafted in. “Looking another human being in the eye, making an independent decision to kill him, and watching as he dies due to your action combine to form one of the most basic, important, primal, and potentially traumatic occurrences of war.”[2]

 The effort that goes into creating those that will kill is nothing short of the creation of a national myth in which instinctive human values are overturned so as to create systems of honor, bravery, and value, as part of a narrative that goes against the fundamental human disposition. The truth about killing and what it means to one’s humanity is a fact that is hard to arrive at as it contradicts the ethos or logos our culture thrusts upon us. “If a professional soldier were to see through the fog of his own self-deception, and if he were to face the cold reality that he can’t do what he has dedicated his life to, or that many of his soldiers would rather die than do their duty, it would make his life a lie. Such a man would be apt to deny his weakness with all the energy he could muster.”[3]

Every effort is made to reshape the act of killing into something other than what it is. Soldiers do not simply kill, “instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Kraut, Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, slope, or raghead. Even the weapons of war receive benign names— Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, and Thin Man— and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.” The language is full of denial and an attempt to depersonalize and separate oneself from reality. The soldier is shaped by a culture built upon the lie that killing is necessary to life, freedom, bravery, and nobility and this lie must be given a grammar so as to shape his mode of language and thought.[4]

The necessity of killing comes with the narrative weight of the national myth reinforced by countless forms of entertainment in which killing is glorified as the business of heroes. There is such resistance to ascertaining the truth about the impact of violence that, “Nowhere in the [psychiatric and psychological] literature is one allowed to glimpse what is actually occurring: the real horror of the war and its effect on those who fought it.”[5] Grossman quotes the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius to articulate a realization of many soldiers: “Every individual dispensation is one of the causes of the prosperity, success, and even survival of That which administers the universe. To break off any particle, no matter how small, from the continuous concatenation— whether of causes or of any other elements— is to injure the whole.” As one Vietnam veteran described it, he “came to see the young Vietnamese they had killed as allies in a bigger war of individual existence, as young men with whom they were united throughout their lives against the impersonal ‘thems’ of the world.” In other words, “in killing the grunts of North Vietnam, the grunts of America had killed a part of themselves.”  The recognition of the basic inhumanity required to overcome the resistance to killing brings home a deep sense of shame. As one World War II veteran put it, “I, too, belong to this species. I am ashamed not only of my own deeds, not only of my nation’s deeds, but of human deeds as well. I am ashamed to be a man.”[6]

It is this shame associated with killing, more than any other factor, which produces long term psychiatric effects. Those exposed to war time conditions, such as medics or civilians subjected to bombing raids, prisoners of war, sailors on board ship during combat, soldiers sent into the most dangerous situations behind enemy lines, and officers, who are not called upon to kill do not become psychiatric casualties. It was discovered that prisoners of war experienced a strange peace as they were not in a position to do anything about their situation, while their guards, who still had a capacity and responsibility to fight, suffered greater psychological harm – though they were all exposed to the same incoming artillery. As Grossman concludes, “In most circumstances in which nonkillers are faced with the threat of death and injury in war, the instances of psychiatric casualties are notably absent.”

During World War I, in which there was greater risk of becoming a psychiatric casualty than being killed by the enemy, it was assumed that civilians exposed to bombing would produce vast numbers of “gibbering lunatics.” This became part of the justification for attacking civilians as it was assumed this would prove demoralizing and it played a key role in Germans in World War II bombing Britain and the Allies doing the same to Germany.  The presumption was that there would be mass psychiatric casualties resulting from bombing civilians. In spite of the horrors visited on these populations the psychiatric casualties remained similar to that experienced in peacetime. The Rand Corporation study of the impact found “there was only a very slight increase in the “more or less long-term” psychological disorders as compared with peacetime rates.”[7]

Grossman’s conclusion: “The dead soldier takes his misery with him, but the man who killed him must forever live and die with him. The lesson becomes increasingly clear: Killing is what war is all about, and killing in combat, by its very nature, causes deep wounds of pain and guilt.”[8] For the guilt to be dealt with, for the sickness of killing to be addressed, it must be exposed for what it is.

To memorialize the dead, according to Jesus, runs the risk of hiding their killing: “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. So you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs” (Lk 11:47-48). Tomb building and memorializing the dead, whether those prophets killed by the Jews, those sacrificed to the gods, or those killed in war, can cover over the reality and futility of killing. In Jesus description, those who build the tombs shared in the guilt of those who do the killing, apparently because this memorializing obscures the reality. Jesus sees himself as the exposure of the reality of the blood “shed since the foundation of the world” (Lk 11:50). Blood guilt will now be charged from the generation that heard his teaching, presumably into the indefinite future, as the reality of killing is demythologized, unforgotten, disentombed.

Gil Bailie opens his book Violence Unveiled with a story told by Whittaker Chambers. Chambers tells of a conversation he had with the daughter of a former German diplomat in which she was trying to explain why her father had become disillusioned with Stalin’s regime. “She loved her father and the irrationality of his defection embarrassed her,” Chamberlain writes. She said, “He was immensely pro-Soviet – you will laugh at me – but you must not laugh at my father – and then – one night in Moscow – he heard screams.” That’s all, simply “one night he heard screams.” Chambers remarked: “She did not know at all that she had swept away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, the myth of the 20th century, with five annihilating words: one night she heard screams.”[9]

Christ has forever countered the logos or logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, and the myth that would hide the victims. Now we can hear the screams, the blood shed from the foundation of the world cries out and the guilt is now laid at our feet. But with that guilt comes the possibility of hearing the healing words meant for each of us, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”


[1] See the article in the Washington Post, by Sarah Kaplan, “The ‘darker link’ between ancient human sacrifice and our modern world” (April 5th, 2016) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/04/05/the-darker-link-between-ancient-human-sacrifice-and-our-modern-world/

[2] Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (p. 55). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid. 57

[4] Ibid. 104

[5] Psychologist Peter Marin quoted by Grossman, Ibid, 59.

[6] Ibid. 61-62

[7] Ibid. 74

[8] Ibid. 105

[9] Whitaker Chambers, Witness (New York: Random House, 1952) 14. Quoted in Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroad, 1995) 35. Thank you Leigh for the recommendation.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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