Do soldiers sometimes enjoy combat?

The horrors of war are well documented, but less well understood is how soldiers can miss, and even enjoy combat.

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A soldier patrols a village in eastern Afghanistan. (Jad Sleiman/WHYY)

A soldier patrols a village in eastern Afghanistan. (Jad Sleiman/WHYY)

Tony served two tours in Afghanistan as a Marine Corps machine gunner. At first, he was scared.

“On the way out to the patrol base I was kinda like ducking down, hunkering down and, you know, thinking like that sniper he’s sitting there waiting for me,” he said. “That happened for probably about two, three days, and then I kind of just kept telling myself like, ‘hey, listen, like, you’re going to die out here. Just pretty much face death. If it happens, hopefully it’s quick.’”

Tony quickly got the hang of serving in Afghanistan, learning what to do during enemy contact.

He learned you hear a kind of firecracker snapping sound when supersonic rounds pass directly overhead.

He started listening for the snapping, and before long, he started looking forward to it.

“You kind of get used to it. You kind of started enjoying it, almost. You want to go out, you actually want to get into things,” he said. “It just becomes your daily thing as opposed to sitting around doing nothing. Just saying, ‘let’s go out there, let’s get into something tonight.’”

Tony’s a private guy, and he doesn’t want to use his last name because he worries people will look him up on Facebook.

Like Tony, I’m a Marine vet. I’ve also reported from conflict zones in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

I wanted to talk to people with combat experience to explore something I noticed while covering war: the way soldiers can sometimes really enjoy the thrill of combat.

I met Tony at a famous Marine Corps birthday celebration in Philadelphia at a place called Cookie’s Tavern.

He stood out because he was wearing two ribbons every veterans knows instantly: the combat action ribbon, and the purple heart. The first is awarded to those who are exposed to enemy fire and fight back; and the second is awarded to those injured in battle.

Tony calls getting into firefights a kind of “rush.” It’s something he actually misses now that he’s a civilian again.

“You see people nowadays that are hooked on drugs, heroin, cocaine, whatever the case may be,” he said. “The biggest high you can ever get is a natural adrenaline rush. Somebody trying to kill you. There’s nothing that will ever come to that rush.”

Maybe you have to be there — experience it for yourself — but I agree with him. It doesn’t seem like anything could really recreate those feelings.

Tony skydives occasionally to chase the rush, but mainly he works out his restlessness at the gym.

Marines and Marine veterans gather for the annual Marine Corps birthday celebration at Cookie’s Tavern in South Philadelphia, Nov. 10, 2018 (Jad Sleiman/WHYY)

But if war is so horrible, what does it mean when you miss it?

I wondered if this may just be some symptom of the current generation, known as the post-9/11 generation.

But the accounts of veterans of both World Wars and the Vietnam War suggest otherwise.:

“One day I secured a direct hit on an enemy encampment, saw bodies or parts of bodies go up in the air, and heard the desperate yelling of the wounded or the runaways,” wrote a Belgian officer during World War I. “I had to confess to myself that it was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

And here’s a Royal Air Force pilot from World War II, writing after downing two enemy pilots:

“For the rest of that night it was impossible to sleep. I could talk about nothing else for days after,” he wrote. “There was nothing else.  I could think about it for weeks after. It was sweet and very intoxicating.”

Historian Joanna Bourke collected these and other war accounts for her book, “An Intimate History of Killing.”

She’d hoped to research trauma by examining the letters and diaries of soldiers, but she found something else.

“What really surprised me in this book was just the amount of exhilaration,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to see that, you know, in certain circumstances these men — often young men — got actually a lot of pleasure, a lot of exhilaration, a thrill out of the act of combat.”

She read terrified, miserable accounts as well. The joy of combat wasn’t shared by everyone on the battlefield.

“Well, of course, to be exhilarated you have to survive; you have to not be dismembered. You have to be on the winning side,” Bourke said.

But the joy of combat was unmistakably there, time and time again.

Her book caused immediate controversy when it was published in 1999.

“I think there this huge taboo, not around killing because we do it all the time. That’s what the military is there for,” she said. “The taboo is actually around admitting that our side can actually get pleasure from it.”

Bourke says that taboo may have lead some historians to ignore accounts of enjoying combat in favor of more sober accounts of suffering and shell shock.

But amid all the criticism Bourke says she also got letters from combat veterans thanking her for making them feel like it was OK to talk about these experiences of exhilaration.

“We need to actually look at not only to the terror but also the exhilaration,” she said.  “And see why is it that our people react to combat differently at different periods of time.”

There’s very little scientific research into this phenomenon, but I did find a recent study in the “American Journal of Psychiatry” that examined soldiers becoming, in a way, addicted to the the thrill of combat.

I reached out to the lead author, and found out this is still a really touchy subject.

The author works for a health agency related to the Department of Defense. She initially agreed to the interview, but then a public affairs officer from the health agency stepped in and nixed the whole thing, refusing to explain why, only saying he “wasn’t at liberty.”

After that the lead author told me it was too risky to talk, so with her permission I reached out to another author: Charles Hoge, a senior scientist at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

He explained that the lead scientist had noticed something about some of the veterans she was treating for post-traumatic stress disorder. They were improving in some respects, but Hoge says they also remained depressed, and in a state of “physiological hyperarousal or feeling amped up.”

They were tormented by their time at war, but they also missed parts of it.

“For instance, they might have distressing nightmares related to their combat experience, but then also have exciting dreams related to combat experience. Or they might avoid thinking or talking about distressing combat experience, but then engage actively and in thinking or talking about the more exciting combat experiences,” Hoge said.

The team found patients would constantly try and recreate the feelings of combat by playing war video games, watching war documentaries and scrolling through deployment photos. It was getting in the way of their work and social lives.

“Many of these service members who we studied they weren’t really even aware of that to the degree to which the number of hours that were spent engaging in combat related activities was negatively impacting their life,” he said. 

The researchers named this combat attachment behavior. Some veterans spent up to 10 hours a day doing these things.

The science is still emerging. But Hoge said researchers do know a cocktail of feel good fight or flight related chemicals flush the brain during combat, including one he calls a natural opiate.

Whatever causes this behavior, it complicates treatment. Veterans may also feel guilty about these feelings and Hoge says that can make it harder to connect with clinicians who don’t have military or combat experience.

“I think that, to the degree to which there can be better understanding of the broader picture of what it’s like to go to war, it might help the service member to feel a little bit better understood,” he said.

Hoge says that understanding might help chip away at the drop out rates seen in PTSD treatments. About half of Afghanistan and and Iraq vets leave too early.

Tony, the Marine from the party, told me he misses combat, despite getting injured and losing friends. I asked him if he’d do it all over again if he could.

“Anybody who says they wouldn’t isn’t a real Marine. They didn’t really enjoy the brotherhood,” he said.  “Are there things that I would change? I don’t want to see my buddies get hurt. I don’t want to see my buddies get killed, but I would do it again without a doubt.”

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