Out in the Open

Sanctioned violence: when doing harm is just part of the job

Benjamin Hertwig volunteered to fight, but his experience with war and violence has left a permanent mark on his life.
Benjamin Hertwig volunteered to fight, but his experience with war and violence has left a permanent mark on him. (Geoff Turner)

For most of us, violence is an aberration, in our daily lives. It's outside the boundaries of the law and of acceptable behaviour. But some people — police, security, and especially soldiers — are expected to confront and to do violence as part of their job descriptions.

But even for professional soldiers, who are trained to do lethal violence, the actual reality of violence can be traumatic. Pete Kilner taught ethics at West Point for 15 years and he says militaries should do more to prepare their troops.

"Militaries around the world, or at least the United States military is very good at training people to kill the enemy, and it's not very good at helping them make sense of that experience."

Benjamin Hertwig came from a family with a long military history and he was pretty certain that he would have a career in the military himself. He signed up for the Reserves when he was just 16, and was shipped off to Afghanistan not long after his 20th birthday.

And pretty soon he had his first experience of combat.

He was riding along with an American logistics trucker when a call came on the radio. They could hear rifle fire over the radio and they responded to a firefight at a compound of mud houses. 

Hertwig admits that his feelings leading up to and during the firefight were real exhilaration. 

"It felt very natural, and I wanted to in all honesty because I wanted to be a soldier who had been in combat, so I was almost excited you could say."

But afterwards, a different feeling took hold.

"Only after it had all died down and I had gone to sleep at night did the sour energy of what had happened, only then did I feel that energy."

Hertwig can still recall the moment when the violence became too much.

"There was a double suicide bombing. Two Canadian soldiers died in the first attack and then maybe 20 minutes, half an hour later another suicide bomber on foot walked into a crowd of Afghan civilians."

Hertwig recalls a a truck stacked with bodies young and old.

"I felt like something within me broke, or snapped or changed in a way that could not be unchanged." 

And despite years of preparation and training for the role, Hertwig says the experience of violence left a permanent mark.

"I miss the person I was before I went to Afghanistan, who did not struggle with depression, who did not have anxiety. Who was unaware of some of those feelings. But I guess it's also allowed me to engage with the world in a different way and a way that I'm maybe more proud of."