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

Journal of Combative Sport November 1999

 By Joseph R. Svinth
Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved.

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995, 367 pages. 6-1/4"  x 9-3/8", $24.95 (Hardback). Note: A version of this review previously appeared in Journal of Asian Martial Arts.

 Grossman, a former Army ranger and ROTC professor, devoted five years to researching and writing this book about the social cost of teaching civilians to be soldiers. While Grossman admits that he himself has never killed anyone, he adds that he probably "could not be as dispassionate and objective as I need to be if I had to carry a load of emotional pain myself." Primary research involved interviews with veterans who had killed.  Secondary works listed in the bibliography include many useful historical and sociological texts. One minor drawback is that the text and bibliography focus almost exclusively on the American military experience in World War II and Vietnam. Readers curious about how the Japanese desensitized their soldiers during World War II might want to read Unit 731: Testimony by Hal Gold (Tokyo: Yen Books, 1996). On the other hand, for their peace of mind (especially if they practice a Japanese martial art) perhaps they should not.

 Grossman begins by discussing how historians discovered that three out of four U.S. Army combat infantrymen never fired their rifles at the Germans or Japanese. Although the exact percentages have been disputed  -- S.L.A. Marshall, the Detroit journalist turned military historian who first published these figures in 1944, was never above fudging figures to prove a point -- the U.S. Army accepted the principle as gospel following its disastrous performance during the first weeks of the Korean War. Significant changes were made to recruit training programs, and by the end of the Korean War, 51 percent of United States infantry were reported shooting their weapons in combat. Further refinements were made to recruit training programs during the 1960s, and by the end of the Vietnam War, almost 90 percent of United States soldiers were reported shooting their weapons in combat.

 Even allowing for organizational exaggeration, these improved firing rates were not without emotional costs to the men and women who learned them. These costs were minimal to those people that Grossman calls wolves and sheep dogs. [FN1] After all, they were the 25 percent who would have fired even before special training. However, the costs could be severe for the sheep that training turned into sheep dogs or wolves. While the Grinch might be able to return the presents to Whoville once his heart thawed out, there was no Dr. Seuss to restore dead souls to life. As sportswriter William Plummer (Buttercups and Strongboys: A Soujourn at the Golden Gloves, 1989, page 85) discovered after spending time with professional boxer Bobby Chacon, there was no way he (Plummer) would ever become a proper fighter. "There was something missing in me," said Plummer. "Or, better: There was not something missing in me. There was no lead-lined area of unfeeling in me, no cold and brutal place from which I could draw strength as a fighter."

 Grossman defines the stages of a killing using a schema based on Kübler-Ross's famous "Stages of Death." Self-defense instructors may find Grossman's model useful for blackboard instruction. Pedagogically, the place to present this information is immediately following the discussion about ethics and the law, and just before the discussion of  visualization techniques and vital points.  Grossman's Stages of a Killing are:

   Concern about being able to kill. Excessive worry is a problem – a disease, the Japanese sword master Yagyu Munenori would say -- and can cause greater trauma than the actual event. Some people even commit suicide rather than enter combat. Civilians often have this problem regarding criminal violence, and reassuring them that most violence comes from within the home rather than from without rarely helps.

  Killing. Although Stephen Crane pointed out in The Red Badge of Courage that each day is different, and John D. McDonald routinely had Travis McGee remind Meyer that none of us ever lives up to our own expectations and fantasies, when the time comes to kill, either you kill or you do not kill. Either way, the decision carries significant emotional baggage. To minimize the emotional burden, know in advance what you are willing to kill for, die for, and live with afterward.

  Exhilaration from kill. "It is vital," says Grossman, "that future soldiers understand that this [exhilaration] is a normal and very common response to the abnormal circumstances of combat, and they need to understand that their feelings of satisfaction at killing are a natural and fairly common aspect of combat." Unfortunately, some people become addicted to this natural high, and spend the rest of their lives dreaming of regaining it.

  Remorse and nausea from kill. Both killers and those who chose not to kill can suffer remorse and nausea. While normal, some people become fixated on the throwing up and the shame. Some of these people respond by becoming increasingly pitiless while others respond by swearing to never kill again. From both military and individual points-of-view, neither response is desirable.

  Rationalization and acceptance.  Rationalization and acceptance of killing are life-long processes. While group approval helps with healing, nothing works for everyone. Audie Murphy, for instance, won a Medal of Honor, then spent the next twenty years suffering from nightmares. Whenever the process of rationalization and acceptance fails, or the trauma is suppressed rather than confronted,  then post-traumatic stress disorders such as alcoholism, drug dependency, and suicide become probable.

 The chapter on "Desensitization and Conditioning in Vietnam," is also of interest, as it discusses the methods the United States military used to raise the number of shooters in a rifle company from 25 percent to 90 percent. Why is this important to martial art teachers? Because military studies have shown that it is far easier to teach Americans to kill using firearms than it is to teach them to kill using their bare hands or knives. No matter how bad the boys from the ‘hood say they are, hardly anyone likes feeling and smelling and hearing a living creature die in his hands. Even butchers may require or follow special cleansing rituals.

 "The triad of methods used to achieve this remarkable increase in killing," says Grossman, "are desensitization, conditioning, and denial defense mechanisms." Desensitization involves having trainees chant "Kill, kill," and watch movies showing Wile E. Coyote eat the Roadrunner. Conditioning involves having trainees shoot rifles at human silhouette targets, or ram their thumbs into oranges taped over a screaming partner's eye socket. Denial defense mechanisms involve stressing that soldiers do not shoot anyone unless authorized by their chains of command, or that police and armed civilians do not shoot unless they see someone clearly violating an appropriate criminal statute. In other words, trainees are taught the Nuremberg defense: "Ich musste." From an organizational standpoint, Grossman says that the chief problem of such training is that it can cause trainees to share the guilt of killing without ever having killed.

 Grossman concludes by noting that the greatest threat to society is not the restrained desensitization of soldiers and police, but the "unrestrained desensitization, conditioning, and denial defense mechanisms provided by modern interactive video games and violent television and movies."

 While not a book for everyone, On Killing nonetheless presents readers with a reasonable introduction to a topic rarely discussed  in polite society, and never discussed in seminars claiming to teach people how to "destroy any attacker using never-before-seen ‘killing' techniques." I recommend it.

FOOTNOTES (click your BACK button to return to the text)

FN1. According to Grossman, wolves are people who hunt sheep, while sheep dogs are people who hunt wolves.  Sheep are, well, victims. Of course, it is likely that everyone is to some extent a victim, and that no one is entirely innocent. For example, mothers sometimes hang gold stars or award white feathers, and  sheep are sometimes fed to sheep dogs. Furthermore, the Chinese, who have a lot of experience in these things, say that the only difference between a soldier and a robber is that one can more safely resist a robber. Therefore, without meaning to insult veterans or anyone else, I would add a fourth category to this  typology, that of dingoes or coyotes. These are feral dogs who hunt in packs under the direction of alpha males, a description that sounds much more like an army or a street gang than "sheep."

JNC Nov 1999.