Learning a Soldier's Core Competency: How to Kill

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EDITOR'S NOTE: TIME Daily writer Frank Pellegrini, at a ripe 27 years, has taken a leave of absence to join the Army Reserve. He is undergoing basic training boot camp and then will spend time in an Army journalism school. Given the difficulty the armed forces are experiencing in recruiting young people these days, we think his experiences and impressions are worth sharing. Here is the twelfth missive; others will be posted as they arrive.

I can shoot now. The Army taught me. And it wasn't much fun until I finally got good at it.

We spent weeks at rifle range after rifle range, first with three bullets, then 10, then 20, then 40. We shot from foxholes, over sandbags, lying in the sand with only our elbows to guide us. We shot day after day, time after time, and when we missed we were reminded that our big scary drill sergeants were teachers after all.

BRM — Basic Rifle Marksmanship — is perhaps the centerpiece of our training, as it is the one skill that makes a soldier truly useful. Some of us were already good at it; the rest had to learn that it was more art than science. Get comfortable. Aim straight. Stop breathing. Squeeze the trigger, gently. Targets pop up? You knock 'em down. Simple as that, and damn satisfying.

They're just green plastic silhouettes, but the symbolism is obvious when you've got to get the close ones first: Kill the enemy before he kills you.

One guy here (who can really shoot, incidentally) has printed "Pax Americana" on the back of his helmet. It's at once a noble and cynical thought, if you know how the Romans did it — by stamping out the little fires, and viciously. It can work if you need to rationalize what we're being trained to do, but of course we're not supposed to need that. The Army is a tool, just like the rifle, and it's the excellence, the honor, the individual braveries of combat that are supposed to drive us. Whether they occur at Normandy or in Haiti doesn't matter here, only that a soldier killed whom he could kill and saved whom he could save. I can shoot now, and I really like hitting what I aim at. I have lost much of my old lust for gun control, because the Army also teaches — assiduously — when to shoot and when not to.

So much of soldiers' hidden reserves of strength — to run faster, to push harder, to scream louder — is tapped by the learned belief that quitting is simply not an alternative. So when a civilian asks me whether I could ever really kill, whether I feel it's sinful or acceptable now that I'm a soldier, my answer is usually that killing is probably easier when someone orders you to do it, when you've promised someone you will.

And it's undeniably a part of the world, this killing of man by man; am I so lofty that the job should never fall to me? It probably won't; wars are too small these days to require the trigger fingers of a journalist in the Reserves. The Army's real warriors are in the infantry, the Rangers, Special Forces. Hard core. But if the enemy ever gets close enough for the likes of me, don't forget — I'm a pretty good shot, and I've got the little medal to prove it.

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