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The Ethos and Skill of Killing

Part of this article was originally published in SWAT Digest, September 2006.

Warriors don’t need to be or become evil to combat evil. It goes against laws of life and living to, for example, be amoral or immoral to stop immorality. No principle of civility gives way to uncivil manners or unprincipled precepts. It is impossible to be bad and good at the same time.

Or is it?

There is some bad in each of us. We all fall short of perfection; no one is perfect. To me, there was only One who was and is perfect. But each of us can maintain perfection in certain aspects of our lives. For the modern-day warrior—those in military, law enforcement or private security—the question arises do I have to be bad to stop bad?

I again refer to my initial sentence: You don’t need to be or become evil to combat evil.

A few years ago I published an article with an online magazine, called SWAT Digest, that gained wide attention. I believe it struck a chord with those who carry weapons for a living. I titled it, “The ethos and skill of killing.” I will include it here for the reader with a few minor changes. While the piece is written for law enforcement special operations personnel, there are great similarities to those in the Armed Services.

At the tactical level you and I have had to make the conscious decision to kill, if necessary, in order to preserve life. Saving lives and sustaining liberty is, after all, the purpose of just war.

Moral Justification

It is interesting to note that the motto of the U.S. Army Special Forces is De Oppresso Liber, or to liberate (or free) the oppressed; the U.S. Air Force special operations Pararescue jumper’s (PJs) motto is “That Others May Live”; and the motto of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team is Servare Vitas, Latin for “To Save Lives.” These mottos denote selfless service and love for mankind.

Those in the profession of arms must visit moral and psychological justifications in order to win deadly force confrontations. Often the important aspect of religious or spiritual justification is not taken into the equation or it is meshed with the moral theory of just war or jus ad bellum. Warriors with a Judeo-Christian or otherwise civil heritage need not abandon the tenants of their faith.

Years ago at a military training exercise an Army Ranger told a group of us to “murder” all of the role players. At the right moment, I took the opportunity to confront his choice of words.

There is a serious difference between killing and murdering—not only legally, but religiously. Literally translated, the word for “kill” in the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is the Hebrew word ratsach. Ratsach means to dash to pieces or kill, especially murder.

When I lived and worked in Israel long after that experience I didn’t learn Hebrew, but I did learn that there were other words for kill or put to death in the Torah and Old Testament, like katal or muwth. Yet these words were not used in the sixth commandment.

I believe that modern-day warriors, like those civilly and morally religious warriors of old, can have charity—or pure love in our hearts—and still act properly in the position of our duties. Although we despise the many actions of criminals and terrorists, we do not need to hate them personally, even against those persons who we may use deadly force to stop.

Dangerous Hesitation

There is a tacitly dangerous feeling that pervades among law enforcement, the criminal justice system and the civilian population. We too often feel obliged to get seriously injured or have innocent people die before we feel fully justified to use deadly force. It is often legally and tactically unnecessary to pause or hesitate. This is dangerous. It is precarious. It is foolish and it could get us killed.

This philosophy of waiting beyond the last second—beyond the point of being justified legally and tactically—will turn potential winners into losers. And winning and losing here could be the difference between living and dying.

A friend of mine who spent many years in the German Spezialeinsatzkommando, SEK for short, told me several years ago about a pivotal moment in his life and career. His police special operations team responded to a barricaded situation in which the male suspect murdered his wife and dragged her bloodied, lifeless body into the basement. My friend, Thomas (I’m choosing to leave out his last name), was chosen by his team leader to take the shield/bunker, walk down the slippery blood-bathed wooden stairs and apprehend the suspect.

As he turned the corner at the bottom of the basement, Thomas saw the suspect holding a pistol to his own head. As Thomas walked toward the suspect, the man turned his gun and fired at my friend. Thomas instinctively fired back. Both of them missed. The suspect was apprehended after the veteran German tactical officer slammed the shield into him and wrestled him to the floor.

As Thomas told me the story I could tell that he had rehearsed the possibilities of what could have been a disastrous, fatal ending. The suspect, for instance, could have shot Thomas’ legs or exposed arm. Worst of all the suspect could have very easily wrapped his arm around the ballistic bunker and shot my friend.

Thomas rued his actions. He told me with all seriousness that next time he would not miss. I took it to mean that if he was ever presented with a similar situation, the suspect would receive multiple—and I would add, justifiable—lethal injuries.

Usually we come close to dying before we really decide to kill. We get lucky and live. We think next time I won’t hesitate or next time I’ll be more aggressive. What we fail to put into the equation is that there may not be an alibi. We may only have one chance to get it right. All of our training and experience boils down to a split-second decision that will undoubtedly come when we least expect it.

The more experience we gain, the less willing we are to take chances. But it doesn’t have to be that way. From the moment of tactical infancy to warrior adolescence we can make up our minds who will win the fight and how it will be won.

Self-Introspection and Preparation

We shouldn’t necessarily be eager to fight. Those who long for confrontation invite trouble. But we should be morally, tactically and psychologically ready for a deadly force situation. We must know the use of force well. We must be prepared, and this may mean combating any religious, spiritual, moral or psychological qualms about justifiable killing. We won’t have time to decide whether or not to use deadly force when that fateful moment comes.

Self-introspection and serious soul-searching should begin long before the police academy, but still there are too many officers who have rarely, if ever, gone there frequently enough. This cannot be avoided if an officer expects to win a deadly force confrontation. If we are not 100 percent ready and willing to kill—to aggressively use deadly force when warranted—then we are a danger to ourselves, our partners, our teammates and the community.

Societies’ protectors, regardless of individual religious beliefs, need to get prepared psychologically, emotionally, and morally in order to help win up-close deadly force encounters. This development, I believe, may also help those who get into a deadly force confrontation to function well socially and emotionally thereafter.

Ensure that you are more lethal than your enemy. (Note: He’s not merely an opponent if he’s bent on killing you.) Act with controlled aggression and violence of action. Believe in winning long before the test. (To achieve we must first believe.)

Although we may not espouse all of the same beliefs as those in the Russian military, we certainly have some things in common as warriors. Well, the motto of the Russian special forces group, Alpha, is: “If not me, then who?”

You are the warriors. We need you. You have what it takes. No one can take your place personally, and very few have what it takes to get and keep a job in law enforcement. You have the capacity to kill, if necessary, in order to save lives. Learn about it. Think about it. Prepare for it. Or it will prepare for you.

Jeffrey Denning

Jeffrey has written award-winning articles for the Washington Times,, and other publications. He is the author of seven books, including Warrior SOS: Military Veterans’ Stories of Faith, Emotional Survival and Living with PTSD. He teaches courses on peer support, suicide prevention, and other mental wellness and resilience to public safety professionals. If you would like Jeff to speak at your event or training please contact him HERE.

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