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

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

The good news is that most soldiers are loath to kill. But armies have developed sophisticated ways of overcoming this instinctive aversion. And contemporary civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army's conditioning techniques, and, according to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's thesis, is responsible for our rising rate of murder among the young.

Upon its initial publication, ON KILLING was hailed as a landmark study of the techniques the military uses to overcome the powerful reluctance to kill, of how killing affects soldiers, and of the societal implications of escalating violence. Now, Grossman has updated this classic work to include information on 21st-century military conflicts, recent trends in crime, suicide bombings, school shootings, and more. The result is a work certain to be relevant and important for decades to come.

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  1. 143 of 149 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Exception work but disagree with the fundemental thesis, November 18, 2012

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    I’ve debated for several days after reading “On Killing” whether to post a review or not. I have tremendous respect for the author and his professional credentials but must disagree with his thesis and especially his use of two sources in particular. The author is a devotee of S.L.A. Marshall as were many until two works in the late 1980s cast serious doubts on Marshall’s methodology and even his personal character. This blew open while I was a graduate student, specializing in military history and therefore became a topic of intense debate within my circle of fellow students and professors, especially my mentor, who was a British Commando in WWII. The second source I would debate is some of the information the author took from Paddy Griffith’s works on the American Civil War.

    The underlying thesis of “On Killing” is that mankind is instinctively hard wired Not To Kill. How I wish that was true, and yet our bloody record across recorded history and plenty of evidence even prior to recorded history shows the exact opposite. We are, by instinct “killer angels.” Read “War Before Civilization” as but one counter argument. But directly to my concern about the author’s sources. “SLAM” Marshall’s reputation was built on alleged interviews, hundreds of them, immediately after combat during WWII in which he asserts that at least 75% of combat infantry never fired their weapons, thereby proving that soldiers, at least American soldiers abhor killing and try to avoid doing so even at the risk of their lives.

    Marshall’s work was called into serious doubt in the late 1980s by one history who simply ran a “time analysis” on how many soldiers Marshall claimed to have interviewed and came up with an impossible number of hours to have achieved the number of interviews he claimed, in other words falsified data which was turned about to fit his thesis. David Hackworth, who served with Marshall was scathing in his comments about serving directly with the man. When it comes to WWII I feel the author of “On Killing” neglected a near infinite number of variables that affect men in combat. . .green vs. veterans, nature of combat, open field vs. the terror of close up urban where indeed one or two of a squad are usually heavily engaged with the rest provide cover, hauling ammunition for machine guns and back up, etc. Even more significant, as Keegan repeatedly points out in his exceptional works, the level of brutality rapidly escalates due to such issues as defense, especially if defending one’s own country from invasion verse offense, difference in ethnicity and especially difference in race and religion which truly trigger the darker side of our nature. But one example, German troops transferred from the Russian front to France were actually briefed that this was now a different enemy and rules of war again apply. As to “our guys” in that war, I have yet to interview a vet of the Pacific War who said there was any civility or urge not to kill, the hatred ran that deep, fueled as well by racial difference. In the European theater any vet I interviewed would almost smile when discussing combat against Italian troops, but when confronting the Waffen SS it was to the death and usually no prisoners and fought by all with hatred.

    I know this is a long review but I must comment on a second topic the author covers at length and that is our Civil War and what I felt was his over reliance on the works of “Paddy” Griffith, yet another author I have respect for even when I disagree. The author of “On Killing” dwells repeatedly on the fact that on average between 200-250 rounds were fired for each casualty inflicted and thus again leaps to the conclusion that this demonstrates his thesis that soldiers on both sides, either deliberately aimed high, or even went so far as to mimic loading their guns and not firing at all.

    I must counter on several points. The author asserts that the typical range of Civil War combat was 30 yards. Definitely not true! (a belief shored up by such films as Patriot or even the opening scene in Glory). Typical range, especially as the war dragged out and killing effectiveness increased, was typically two hundred yards or more. Close in volley fights, at fifty yards or less, such as Groveton, August 1862 were indeed rare, except when opposing sides tangled into each other in woods such as at the Wilderness.

    I’ve personally run some live fire tests with others and not just reenactments with everyone running about shooting blanks. The biggest factor affecting aimed fire. . .smoke, and smoke and more smoke, carpets of it that within minutes all but blinded both sides. At two hundred and fifty yards a mis-aim of even a few millimeters too high translates into a minie ball into the tree tops four hundred yards away. Third, try putting a percussion cap on the nipple of a rifled musket when all is confusion and terror, and finally something…

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  2. 131 of 163 people found the following review helpful
    1.0 out of 5 stars
    Terribly overrated, January 14, 2011
    G. R. (Texas) –

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    This review is from: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Paperback)
    I cannot recommend this book to anyone. I hoped I would find in it a well-documented, well-thought-out treatment of the subject matter. To my surprise, I found instead a sensationalized polemic advocating the censorship of violent video games.

    The author was unconvincing in his arguments. It is clear from his cherry-picking of statistics that he wants us to believe that we live in a society of ever-increasing violence. Unfortunately for Grossman, US Department of Justice statistics contradict this assertion. According to DOJ numbers easily found through a Google search, violent crime rates (including homicide)in America skyrocketed from about 1960 to the early 1990s, but have been falling steadily since then. Would anyone argue that the use of violent video games in the US is falling steadily as well? He also fails to mention that certain societies with arguably even more violent video games than the US have much lower rates of violent crime than we do, for example Japan.

    The author seems to rely heavily on a few secondary sources, particularly John Keegan’s Face of Battle and Richard Holmes’ Acts of War. His few primary sources include articles from Soldier of Fortune magazine; he appears to take them at face value that they are true, accurate first-person accounts of combat experiences. He claims that he himself conducted several hundred interviews of combat veterans, but didn’t seem to use their accounts as sources.

    His personal bias in on display here, but he seems unaware of it. He lionizes the American soldier. I served as an American soldier for two decades before retiring in 2001. I came to view my fellow soldiers as ordinary fallen beings sometimes performing unpleasant tasks in unpleasant places. Hero worship is a poor tool when one seeks the truth.

    Most troubling is Grossman’s frequent citing of controversial assertions by Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall. Marshall, better known as SLA Marshall, or SLAM, a newspaper columnist and US Army officer, claimed to conduct hundreds of interviews with US combat veterans in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. His claimed insights about the reticence of men in combat to fire their weapons were influential in how the US Army shaped its training in the latter half of the 20th Century. As an enthusiastic young Army officer in the 1980s, I eagerly read his works.

    In the early to mid 1990s, several people began to re-examine Marshall’s assertions (google Roger J. Spiller and Harold Leinbaugh). Attempts to confirm Marshall’s claims of how he conducted his research have cast serious doubts on the accuracy of his assertions. First-person accounts of people who were present during his claimed interviews in WWII and Korea differed dramatically from SLAM’s accounts of how many interviews were conducted, how they were conducted, what subjects were discussed, etc. Attempts to confirm SLAM’s accounts with physical evidence have been unsuccessful. At some point, he claimed to have filled about 800 notebooks with the results of his interviews, but only two of his notebooks have surfaced, despite the fact that his voluminous personal and professional papers are in the possession of the University of Texas at El Paso library, and have been extensively searched.

    Marshall established a reputation for exaggerating his personal accomplishments, including those in wartime. He claimed to have won a battlefield commission in WWI but records indicate he was commissioned in 1919, after the war ended. He claimed to have been an infantryman leading other infantrymen in combat in WWI, but records indicate that he was instead a sergeant of engineers, attached to the 90th Infantry Division, doing construction and repair work on roads.

    In the Introduction to the June 2009 edition of On Killing, Grossman quickly addresses the controversy over Marshall and simply dismisses it out of hand. This suggests much about Grossman’s mindset. An objective writer simply seeking the truth might have been hesitant to continue to rely heavily on a figure such as Marshall whose credibility had been so called into question. Instead Grossman charges forward, continuing to rely on Marshall, despite the serious doubts about his credibility.


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  3. 39 of 49 people found the following review helpful
    2.0 out of 5 stars
    Over hyped underbelievable, September 18, 2011

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    This review is from: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Paperback)
    This book is found on many reading lists to include the Commadant of the Marine Corps. I have heard great things from several sources and when I finally sat down and read it for myself I found it to be hard to really get through. As a combat veteran serving with the USMC during OIF in several tours many things Grossman talks about I feel are valid. Conditioning and realistic training making it reflexive to kill without weighing all of the peramiters set in a previous chapter in the book, Unit cohesion being important not only in combat but during a work up and even post deployment. I do like the stories used to convey the messages he is trying to get across but feel that some of them are a stretch. That being said I really have a hard time believeing that any trained military force when engaged in close combat only 15-20% in previous wars would engage an enemy with legitimate intent to kill. And furthermore in my own military experience (in which Grossman brands my entire generation “pseudo sociopaths” thank you rambo and playstation) killing was excepted as a part of the job and the idea of a woman or adolecent shooting at us and having to return fire had no greater psycological effect then a military aged male.

    He further talks about the distance involved making killing easier the farther away and less humanized a target is which i guess has makes some sense however, to use a hypothetical example. A trained soldier underneith an enemy at knife range is going to clearly go into condition red, revert to the lowest level of training (and survival) instinct and react to that situation in kind. What they will not do, is lay there and identify the enemy as some poor kid like them scared out of their mind too, analize how hard it is to kill another human being because it is wrong and that since they are so close that instict is even stronger “so i am going to lay here and hope that you have the same underlying anti killing their own species feelings inside of you I do.

    Overall there were some alright charts that were backed up with alright theories but I would encourage anyone who reads this to not look at this book as the end all on the subject.


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