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Trained to Kill

When you look down your rifle, you find death at both ends. Conclusion of the memoir 'Little Sins.'

By Chris Cannon 29 Jul 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Chris Cannon is a regular contributor to the Tyee, a contributing editor at Vancouver magazine, and a former columnist for the Vancouver Sun. He is the author of four books on music and travel, and has written for publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the Journal of Visual Anthropology. Chris wishes to acknowledge the generous support he has received from the British Columbia Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Banff Centre in publishing his memoirs. He is currently developing a documentary television series in Vancouver. Find his website here.

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Chris Cannon working on his memoir, 'Little Sins.'

[Editor's note: Find the first two parts of this memoir 'Little Sins' here.]

If I had seen the movie Full Metal Jacket when it came out in 1987, my life might have turned out very differently. If I had seen what boot camp was like -- Kubrick captures it perfectly -- I might have gone straight for the Air Force recruiter's office, aiming high for a post manning a control tower in Germany.

Kubrick's realism owes a debt to the actor R. Lee Ermey, a real Marine drill instructor who was hired as a consultant for the boot camp sequence. The story goes that Ermey was unimpressed by the actor cast as the drill instructor, felt he was unfit to wear the uniform even in make-believe, and wanted to play the part himself. He gave Kubrick a videotape in which he ad libbed insults at the top of his voice for fifteen minutes while being pelted with oranges and tennis balls, never once flinching or breaking stride. When he went to talk with Kubrick about the part, Kubrick turned him down, prompting Ermey to bark, "Stand up when you're addressing me!" -- which Kubrick instinctively obeyed, thus earning Ermey the part.

When I finally saw the film midway through my enlistment, it was too late to turn back -- I was a different man, and all I could do was relive the three months of boot camp that, largely thanks to Ermey's terrifying authenticity, made the film's later battles seem like a weekend at Disneyland. In one scene the recruits lie in their bunks at the position of attention, their rifles snug to their chests, reciting the Rifle Creed (slightly modified for the film), to which I found myself absent-mindedly chanting along.

"This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it, like I master my life. Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will. Before God, I swear this creed... My rifle and myself are defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life. So be it. Until there is no enemy, but peace."

This is not melodrama -- an infantry Marine can be court-marshaled for leaving his rifle unattended for just a few seconds. I once served with a sly Gunnery Sergeant who would sneak around camp during maneuvers and try to steal weapons from distracted soldiers, even coaxing rifles out of their owners' grip as they dozed in their sleeping bags, just to force young privates into a bond with their weapons.

An infantry Marine knows his rifle backwards and forwards, inside and out -- not just the statistics he is forced to memorize in boot camp (its length, firing capacity, muzzle velocity, and so on), but the intimate details that accompany a long-term relationship (how smoothly the bolt slides into the chamber, how much lubricant keeps her happy, the weight difference between fully loaded and fully spent). If the relationship seems erotic, it is -- many Marines even give their rifles female names, and a favorite adage warns: "Never touch a Marine's weapon, food, or woman -- in that order."

Like most of my fellow recruits, I had only seen people killed in the movies -- sparingly by Gary Cooper, selectively by John Wayne, and indiscriminately by Bruce Willis, heroes all, protecting Grace Kelly, Katherine Hepburn, and Madeleine Stowe from the evil cattle barons and international terrorists. I had seen equally cinematic war documentaries, shaky cameras catching the real thing, but still a pane of glass separated me from the action.

What movies don't show is what a soldier sees when he looks down the sights of his rifle, or rather, what he is trained to see. From the beginning, he is taught not to look at his target, only to get a sense of it, then focus on the front sight of his weapon, to center it in the rear sight, then slowly squeeze the trigger. If the front sight post is not perfectly centered inside the rear sight, the shot will be off target. Conveniently, the last thing a soldier sees is the front of his own weapon rather than the face of his enemy.

The human war machine discovered long ago that the further you remove a soldier from the reality of his decisions, the easier it is for him to act on them. Studies from WWII have shown that the majority of soldiers (one study claims as high as 85 per cent) could never bring themselves to fire on the enemy. "Fear of killing, rather than fear of being killed," read one report, "was the most common cause of battle failure in the individual. At the vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector."

To combat such "battle failure," the American military embarked on a campaign to dehumanize the enemy -- i.e., if you want to kill more people, you have to train your soldiers to stop thinking of them as people. A rifle instructor will not tell you to "kill your enemy," he will say "engage your target," your target being a black circle on a white background, or from longer ranges, a faceless, limbless black silhouette who is not murdered with a shot to the head or the heart, but "engaged with a round placed at center mass." In combat, it is difficult to ignore the nature of your target, and epithets such as "towel head" and "gook" replace the word "target." While it's easy to dismiss such labeling as small-minded racism, let us remember that to be a soldier is to be willing to kill your fellow man, and pseudospeciation -- the ability to reduce your own species into distinct categories -- is as effective a strategy as any for numbing yourself to the awful truth of your actions.

But this is the "before" and the "during," the training and self-delusion that carry you to the point of execution, when you can sight in on the enemy and see no more than a paper target. There is no training for the aftermath, the spiritual reckoning that comes with killing someone who looks, in flashbacks, suspiciously like you.

I've written it down a dozen times, recycling the memory with each attempt. Sometimes it's the palm trees that stick out, fat and round and rough at the base. Sometimes it's the smell of my own sweat, so thick it soaked through a quarter-inch of Kevlar. But the event, the moment I took a life, was painfully routine. We surprised them, two men at an intersection of footpaths. They raised their weapons and fired into our ranks. I dropped to the ground and rolled through the sand, just as I was trained, so I would pop back up in a different location. The words of my instructors even echoed through my head: "I'm up, he sees me, I'm down." My canteens and spare ammunition dug into my bony hips, just like they had always done in training. My helmet dropped forward, covering my eyes, just like always. I drew back the bolt, thumbed the selector switch to fire, squinted behind the rear sight, and, like always, jerked the trigger when I should have squeezed it. Three hasty shots, and a quick glance at the target in time to see him fall.

When I play the memory, I tend to invent details, grasping for adjectives to make it seem like more than it was -- perhaps there was an entire squad nearby, perhaps we prevented an attack on civilians. Perhaps they were not simply two men, poorly trained and poorly armed, smoking cigarettes and talking of home. If he had tried to run, or simply dropped to the ground, I might have lost my nerve -- motion is life. But he just stood there, firing his weapon, otherwise still as paper.

I've read first-person accounts from soldiers who survived horrific situations in combat. Mine matches none of them. It was ordinary, like I was taking the car in for a tune-up. The enemy was not a human being, he was a job to be done. The biggest event of my life seemed, somehow, tragically uneventful.

I hope this is another trick of memory. That I have simply over-intellectualized the incident with each echo. That I did not find the enemy in my sights and, well-trained, adjust my vision to see only a blurry, faceless silhouette, a paper target brought low by a round placed at center mass, creased and lifeless in the red, wet sand. I hope that I simply distanced myself from the reality of my actions, my violation of the sacred pact between human beings to live and let live, the soft-wired promise to my next door neighbor that when he steps out to get the morning paper, he will not be harmed.

At the same time, I can't pretend that killing is not an integral part of our nature. The promise of life is temporary, like all promises, made to be broken when the situation dictates. Who hasn't driven two miles an hour over the speed limit on a deserted highway? Why not three? Why not 20? There is guilt, to be sure, but we easily rationalize it away: I am a skilled enough driver to handle this speed; the clerk should have counted my change more carefully; it is a faceless corporation -- nobody gets hurt.

So when we choose to draw a line, to eat a grape while standing at the checkout counter but not to commit insurance fraud, we are not denying our capacity for darker possibilities, we are merely limiting the lengths to which we will allow them to consume us. Even the smallest violation of trust is an admission that we are capable of larger ones. Our aversion to killing is based not on moral repugnance, but on a fear of being okay with it, of rising the next morning, looking square in the mirror, and having no trouble meeting our own gaze, of realizing that our moral base is but a thin layer of gauze masking a deeper, preternatural acceptance of killing as simply a fact of life. Our aversion to killing may be, in the end, not an expression of our basic humanity, but a fear of coming to terms with our capacity for inhumanity.


What would you do to be special? To find yourself in a position where you know, with absolute certainty, that you did something good that no one else could do?

On December 23, I was handed the results of my marrow biopsy -- "CONCLUSION: There is no detectable immunophenotypic evidence of a T-cell or B-cell lymphoid neoplasm, or acute leukemia." I drew circles and arrows to make sure I was reading it correctly: "There is no... leukemia." My illness was just a fluke, something as innocuous as a remnant from a recent cold. I was judged to be in good health and told the procedure would be rescheduled for January. I exhaled, and felt warm.

Less than 24 hours later, on Christmas Eve, I received another call. I was told, simply, that the recipient no longer needed my marrow, and thank you for your troubles. The caller was not allowed to give me any details, but from the solemn tone of her voice and the abruptness with which this ordeal ended, the reason was clear.

The marrow donor program is shrouded in secrecy to protect both donors and recipients -- they are told nothing about each other beyond age, sex, and type of illness. For two months I had been connected to a 39-year-old woman dying of leukemia, a singular bond more powerful than any I've forged before or since. Was she a dancer? a postal worker? a housewife? an inmate? an heiress? Was she married? Did she have children? Did she pledge to have children, if only she could survive this? Did she lose her virginity in the back seat of a Vista Cruiser after a high-school football game? Had her illness led her to Jesus, or perhaps wrenched her from his arms? I would have known more about her if we had chatted for two minutes at a cocktail party. I would have felt less empty at this loss had she been my own blood.

When I was 10 years old, playing in the back yard one evening, I noticed something moving in the abandoned house next door. Shadows bounced off the window covers, rolling in even waves -- a chorus of dancing flames. I ran into the kitchen and called the fire department, who massed on my street within minutes. As it turned out, a convent of nuns had taken over the house and burned candles in every room, creating the illusion of an inferno behind the drawn shades. My mother apologized to the fire department and our new neighbors, and I got the beating of my life. I was told never to put out fires until I hear someone else scream first or feel the blistering of my own skin. I've always ignored this lesson -- if anything, being punished for good intentions just made me want to try harder.

But I had invested too much this time. After the call on Christmas Eve, I hung up the phone and limped back to bed. I slept, but a small part of me -- one of the good parts, I believe -- never woke up. My wandering continued, and it was years before I found Vancouver, a soft city that has since become my home. What the Marine Corps gave me in strength, Vancouver has tempered with a kindness and generosity of spirit that requires a community to impart. I find myself daily.

I have taken much from my fellow man -- through sheer impulse, misplaced humor, and sometimes in knowing cooperation with my darker self. But I have also attempted to make good on the unwritten promise to my neighbors, to balance my offenses with acts of virtue when it's in my power to perform them, to stave off numbness to the pain of others, to find something to hold on to when I feel myself being drawn down into the cold, wet darkness. I discovered, that Manhattan fall, that the harvesting of good intentions does not always lead to redemption, and unlike the human body, the human spirit will not necessarily replenish your supply.

But if I do not get to be the hero when I am called to make the great sacrifices, neither am I the villain when I am beckoned to face my darkest potential. This is my only defense for my actions that early morning, more than a decade ago, on a nameless stretch of ugly sand, when I shot a total stranger in the stomach. But what haunts me still, what my unfathomable psyche has yet to reconcile, is how soundly I slept that night, and why, if I had any nightmares at all, they were about first dates, podiums, and my mother's trembling hands.

Find the first two parts of the memoir 'Little Sins' here.  [Tyee]

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