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On Killing: The Psychological Cost of…

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995)

by Dave Grossman

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Grossman's study provides some needed insights into the process of killing and the impact on the individual and society. His understanding of PTSD is helpful and rounds out the picture of how a nation's attitudes towards the soldier can either heal or damage a fighter returning from combat.

Grossman never really penetrates to the source of what he calls "guilt" (is it objective: according to an absolute law; or simply subjective: being either real or false?). He assumes that in every engagement guilt will always be present, which implies that all killing has an aspect of wrong in it regardless of circumstance or intent. His model of evaluation is based in ancient Greek mythology and modern Freudian psychology. Although these models provide some metaphorical maps they do not provide any clearly defined ethics for a man to deal with the act of killing in war. Grossman provides shallow and superficial models of rationalisation, and so there is little clarity in regards to actual right and wrong. This is not a book on the casuistry of killing or war, and so will provide little ethical guidance for those trying to understand the subject from this angle. In this way, the book may be of little help to the returning soldier or to those who are seeking to understand their role in the military or police force.

One of the odd methods that Grossman employs is "counting bullets" as a measure of a willingness to engage the enemy. He does not take into account cover-fire, suppressive fire or fire and maneuver tactics as used in modern engagements. In most of these instances bullets are being used to control a battle environment and not necessarily to engage an enemy directly. This is an odd accounting that is never justified as a way of supporting his thesis.

It's a relatively valuable book, but I was looking for something a bit more penetrating in it's analysis and ethics. ( )
  chriszodrow | Nov 8, 2015 |
This is an exploration of the societal and psychological influences that can aid or hinder one human being to kill another, especially when one is close enough to see the actual death. Bombing or artillery fire are covered only peripherally but, they are easy to explain once you've read this book. Grossman was a serving soldier in the USA, and this gave him access to real professional soldiers and access to psychological sources for the intellectual part of the work. It certainly was an eye opener, and should be read by those engaged in the creation of adventure fiction. I also understand that Dr. Grossman now crusades against the proliferation of "Point and Shoot!" video games. He believes they are useful in desensitizing humans so as to make them easier to train to fatal violence. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Oct 11, 2013 |
It was interesting until he described video games as murder simulators, maybe about 10 pages into the book. I checked out after that, and really couldn't find the willpower to push myself much further. I skimmed a bit, but wasn't very impressed overall with what I'd read. Some of it felt like he was rehashing what he said in the previous paragraph(s).
It's really odd - I usually LOVE nonfiction. This one, I'm just not a fan. ( )
  audreydc | May 27, 2013 |
I don't agree with some of what Grossman says--he seems for example not to have read the literature on suicide bombers, but his book convincingly describes the psychology of lethal violence: the innate abhorrence almost all humans have for killing one another, the methods used to train soldiers to kill and the causes of post-traumatic stress disorder. Grossman also offers in this context a persuasive critique of violence in film, television and video games. This is an essential book, one that is required reading at West Point and one I would make required reading for anyone who, like me, is working to create nonviolent alternatives. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society is a great subject with books far and few between. Perhaps it is because of the subject's rarity that this particular book falls short. Lacking in much evidence and reference, this seems to be an extremely biased book. Aside from the word "killology", Grossman does not contribute much new thought or experimentation. While the majority of what Grossman says may be true, it is difficult to stand behind without sited evidence or experiment. ( )
  Sovranty | Feb 9, 2013 |
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Our first step in the study of killing is to understand the existence, extent, and nature of the average human being's resistance to killing his fellow human.
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Drawing on interviews, published personal accounts and academic studies, Grossman investigates the psychology of killing in combat. Stressing that human beings have a powerful, innate resistance to the taking of life, he examines the techniques developed by the military to overcome that aversion.… (more)

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