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

by Dave Grossman

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1,3662410,490 (3.93)16
The twentieth century, with its bloody world wars, revolutions, and genocides accounting for hundreds of millions dead, would seem to prove that human beings are incredibly vicious predators and that killing is as natural as eating. But Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a psychologist and U.S. Army Ranger, demonstrates this is not the case. The good news, according to Grossman - drawing on dozens of interviews, first-person reports, and historic studies of combat, ranging from Frederick the Great's battles in the eighteenth century through Vietnam - is that the vast majority of soldiers are loath to kill. In World War II, for instance, only 15 to 25 percent of combat infantry were willing to fire their rifles. The provocative news is that modern armies, using Pavlovian and operant conditioning, have learned how to overcome this reluctance. In Korea about 50 percent of combat infantry were willing to shoot, and in Vietnam the figure rose to over 90 percent. The bad news is that by conditioning soldiers to overcome their instinctive loathing of killing, we have drastically increased post-combat stress - witness the devastated psychological state of our Vietnam vets as compared with those from earlier wars. And the truly terrible news is that contemporary civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army's conditioning techniques and - according to Grossman's controversial thesis - is responsible for our rising rates of murder and violence, particularly among the young. In the explosive last section of the book, he argues that high-body-count movies, television violence (both news and entertainment), and interactive point-and-shoot video games are dangerously similar to the training programs that dehumanize the enemy, desensitize soldiers to the psychological ramifications of killing, and make pulling the trigger an automatic response.… (more)
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» See also 16 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Compelling
  samba7 | Feb 27, 2021 |
NA
  pszolovits | Feb 3, 2021 |
This was a book on a great and important topic, with a productive line of research, which unfortunately succumbed to two major flaws.

The two big problems are quite serious. First, the data/research he relies on is a limited set, and primarily from now-highly-questioned sources. The SLA Marshall "non-firer" data from WW2, and the civil war musket studies, are specifically highly questioned. Second, he spends the last 10-20% of the book pushing "video games are turning children into killers" through a weak link with military conditioning techniques, and crime/murder statistics.

There are some parts of the book which don't "ring true" to me, but they were addressed and may have been due to the changes in how training was conducted after WW2. I'm not sure, though. I have never been a sniper and have never fired a scoped rifle at a human being, but from reading about them pretty extensively and talking with a few, the idea that it's somehow "less intimate" than regular infantry combat seems false. Most of the long-range snipers are observing their targets for longer than most regular infantry ops, and a similar argument could be made for UAV operators (who might be monitoring a target for days or weeks before firing). They have a clearer view of the target than a few instants behind a red dot at 25m. As well, I don't know of anyone in Iraq/Afghanistan or modern counterterrorism/counterinsurgency who would hesitate at all to fire, and most who actually wouldn't be particularly "torn up" by dropping an adversary -- maybe this is due to the effective depersonalization which happened in spite of official policy, or maybe I've somehow just been around the 2%, but reflexive/automatic and without particular moral concern would be how I'd characterize it.

However, the core of the book was still solid. The most interesting to me was how fucked up our policies were in Vietnam (individual replacement vs. unit-level rotation, plus tolerance of anti-war activity directed against soldiers returning from Vietnam), as well as how bad pre-Vietnam military training was (bullseye ranges vs. current instruction on known distance ranges), and how we did some things right in Afghanistan/Iraq largely by accident. A topic of particular interest to me is how as a contractor I ended up experiencing some of the "high risk of PTSD" activities or lack of mitigation (constant low-grade risk, and going from war zone to a 5 star hotel or Michelin starred restaurant or hypermarket after a 2h flight on a weekly or more frequent basis; acting alone; zero other support; zero legitimacy by a larger organization), and yet aside from "fuck these people" as a general belief (for a large set of "people"), and a desire to shop for things in bulk and stockpile, no lasting consequences. My "peak risk" only happened a few times, and wasn't so much "active firefight" as "situation which almost turned into the Alamo but was defused at the last second", unlike infantry combat, but that's not particularly different from the 90% of non-combat-arms personnel involved in the wars.

It does seem like one could design a superior training, deployment, and re-integration program for participants in "20 year long wars" like Afghanistan, vs. what we've evolved from the military contractor communities, and this book provides some of the arguments. Still, a better solution is to go back to short, well-defined, winnable wars. ( )
  octal | Jan 1, 2021 |
Although some of the statistics and research cited in this book are a bit dated at this point, I enjoyed it. This book gave me some new perspectives and understanding that I hadn't had before now. ( )
  JonOwnbey | May 28, 2020 |
The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. This seems to be the definitive book on why soldiers do and don't kill in battle. Author's thesis is that most infantry don't shoot because of inbuilt resistance to killing. That seems very hard to believe and the stats, while convincing, aren't verifiable...e.g. 85% of civil war soldiers did not shoot, not because they're scared, but because they have inborn resistance to killing. It's a difficult book to read because of the subject; not fun reading. If you read it, be skeptical. ( )
  buffalogr | May 21, 2019 |
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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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The twentieth century, with its bloody world wars, revolutions, and genocides accounting for hundreds of millions dead, would seem to prove that human beings are incredibly vicious predators and that killing is as natural as eating. But Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a psychologist and U.S. Army Ranger, demonstrates this is not the case. The good news, according to Grossman - drawing on dozens of interviews, first-person reports, and historic studies of combat, ranging from Frederick the Great's battles in the eighteenth century through Vietnam - is that the vast majority of soldiers are loath to kill. In World War II, for instance, only 15 to 25 percent of combat infantry were willing to fire their rifles. The provocative news is that modern armies, using Pavlovian and operant conditioning, have learned how to overcome this reluctance. In Korea about 50 percent of combat infantry were willing to shoot, and in Vietnam the figure rose to over 90 percent. The bad news is that by conditioning soldiers to overcome their instinctive loathing of killing, we have drastically increased post-combat stress - witness the devastated psychological state of our Vietnam vets as compared with those from earlier wars. And the truly terrible news is that contemporary civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army's conditioning techniques and - according to Grossman's controversial thesis - is responsible for our rising rates of murder and violence, particularly among the young. In the explosive last section of the book, he argues that high-body-count movies, television violence (both news and entertainment), and interactive point-and-shoot video games are dangerously similar to the training programs that dehumanize the enemy, desensitize soldiers to the psychological ramifications of killing, and make pulling the trigger an automatic response.

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Hachette Book Group

3 editions of this book were published by Hachette Book Group.

Editions: 0316330116, 0316040932, 1600245935

 

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