On Killing Book Review

On Killing

I finished Lt. Col Dave Grossman’s book On Killing recently. It’s about soldiers’ resistance to kill, how the military overcomes that instinct, and the larger reprecussions of that type of training on society. It is not a “how-to” book as I feared many people might’ve thought whenever I read it in public.

At the start I should say that Grossman presents a good case. He backs it up with hundreds of interviews with soldiers and his personal impressions from being in the service. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a lot of hard data to support his point. Why? Because for the most part there just haven’t been a lot of studies on how to get someone to kill another person. It ranges into the unethical territory of psychological studies. The data he does have is convincing.

Modern warfare started in the 19th century with the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon trained tens of thousands of peasants to fire muskets and serve as infantry for the French “Republic.” While gunpowder had been used in previous wars, Napoleon used it to a greater magnitude than anyone else, changing the way that terrestrial  combat would work forever.

As gunpowder became more common, commanders began to notice a strange phenomenon. Infantry would often fire their weapons over the heads of the enemy unless their commanding officer was directly observing/ordering them to do otherwise. Based on diaries and accounts it’s estimated that over 90% of soldiers avoided firing directly at the enemy.

This fear extended to hand-to-hand combat as well. Bayonet charges were often abandoned at ridiculously close ranges of twenty feet. The soldiers would pull up short and then begin loading and firing a tad too high rather than go in close. This was for two reasons, fear of death/injury and fear of being forced to kill another human being.

Armies remained unaware of this until after WWI when more concrete data was collected. New training regimes were instituted to acclimate people to firing at and stabbing human targets. Instead of practicing with a bullseyes, soldiers practiced firing at target dummies and silhouettes.

Firing rates improved in WWII. About 50% of troops were now firing at the enemy. This was made easier by dehumanizing the enemy with propaganda.

Pacific Theater War Propaganda
A tamer example of the tailored racism used during WWII to make the Japanese look like monsters.

The training process was perfected by the time the USA got involved in Korea and Vietnam. Firing rates increased to more than 90%. Unfortunately, these results were not without consequences.

Humans have a natural revulsion to killing people. Most soldiers describe the experience of getting their first confirmed kill where they can see the body and know that they killed that person as sickening. Overcoming this resistance has consequences, PTSD.

Grossman describes how during the large World War conflicts there were incrimental steps to remove a soldier from the combat zone and reacclimate them to civilian life. Units trained, fought, and left the service together. The camaraderie provided a sort of therapy that reduced the incidence of PTSD.

Additionally, the World Wars were seen as just wars. The Nazis and the Japanese were the aggressors, had killed civilians, and attacked the US first. The country as a whole was proud of the soldiers for defeating the Central Powers in WWI and the Axis in WWII.

The same did not hold for Vietnam and to some extent, Korea. Soldiers were sent to Vietnam alone and left alone. There was no transition back to civilian life, just a day-long plane ride and a dropoff back in western civilization. The people of the States provided little in the way of support for the returning soldiers. In fact, many soldiers were spat on and called baby-killers by protesters.

The reasons for such protests are complex and not the focus of On Killing. Instead, Grossman discusses how this rejection of the soldiers intensified their guilt from killing other humans (and yes, in some cases, babies). The guilt became PTSD. The PTSD became an abnormally high suicide rate among Vietnam War veterans. Even now after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most veterans who kill themselves are veterans of the Vietnam War.

Grossman talks about how the problems that led to the high rates of PTSD from the Vietnam War have since been addressed, somewhat, in the military. Soldiers are kept in supportive units and come home together. There are counseling resources, limited as they are. PTSD is no longer seen as entirely shameful, or a coward’s reaction to war as some might call it, but there’s a long road ahead on that.

Grossman’s final point is that violence in television and particularly video games is causing an increase in violent behavior in the US.

For TV this is pretty clear. As TV was introduced to different areas of the world those areas would see a dramatic rise in the murder rate after a few months. Entertaining one’s self with violence, desensitizes the brain to killing in the same way that boot camp does for a soldier.

Video games are a little different. The player takes an active role in the violence their character is committing. This becomes a particularly visceral experience in first-person shooter (FPS) games where the player experiences the simulated violence from the perspective of the protagonist.

There isn’t as much data on how video games affect violent behavior compared to television. One reason why that might be is that the rise in video game popularity is correlated with so many other things, internet use being the most obvious alternative factor.

As of now, there are two competing theories. One is that video games act just like television. They desensitize people to violence making them more willing to use violence against others. The other theory is that video games “sublimate” violent behavior. They provide a socially acceptable outlet for violence and actually reduce violent behavior.

Grossman takes the stance that video games encourage violent behavior. The research is inconclusive with a slight leaning towards video games encouraging violence.

Given the prevalence of video game playing among children, Grossman is understandably concerned that this may be causing an increase in violence in our society. There is hard data on that, and the violent crime rate is not correlated with video game popularity.

I really enjoyed the book. Grossman is a great writer and the personal accounts throughout the book were gripping and informative. His conclusion isn’t solid, but it has a decent level of support.

My main issue with the book is that Grossman doesn’t address warfare prior to gunpowder. Did PTSD affect more people thousands of years ago when wars were fought almost exclusively hand-to-hand? Were people conditioned to be violent in childhood through the ubiquitous practice of abusive pedagogy? Were PTSD symptoms just not recorded? Did people just approach war differently before gunpowder?

To Grossman’s credit, there are a lot of unknowns there. Additionally his book had a purpose of illuminating the causes of violence and PTSD, and how those factors could be affecting our society as a whole. He probably just didn’t want to address something that was purely speculative.

Anyways, good book. Rather specific topic though. If you are interested after reading this review, I recommend it to you! You’ll learn a lot.

– GoCorral

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