On Killing: LTC Dave Grossman
This is a study of the psychological factors that enable a soldier to kill in battle and the mental cost of having done so. LTC Grossman is a career infantry officer, military historian, and psychologist; however, he has no personal combat experience. He relies on others to report their personal experiences of killing in combat.
The author?s basic premise is that men have an innate aversion to killing other men and that doing so causes mental anguish and harm. He backs this assertion up with many interviews of veterans. He also takes at face value the claims of S.L.A. Marshall about the firing ratio of American infantry in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. These assertions have been shown to be false; indeed, it has been shown that Marshall inflated his own combat record.
I should preface my analysis by claiming that I am not a big believer in Psychiatric or Psychological theory. It has been my experience that mental health professionals bring their own host of preconceived notions about the human condition to counseling and analysis that render their conclusions suspect in my eyes. I find it hard to believe that somebody can tell me how I am feeling or thinking on the basis of a few hours of interviews. This is not to say that I do not think mental health professionals are useful, I do, I just think their pronouncements and diagnoses need to be taken with a grain of salt.
In the initial chapters of the book Grossman comes off as a closet pacifist and I got the impression that he thought that everyone is a coward and those that are not are certifiably insane. He claims that 98% of soldiers kill only reluctantly while the other 2% are actually psychopaths. This is contrary to my own experiences.
He goes on to expound on modern training methods being able to overcome this reluctance to kill. This trained ability to kill he claims leads to mental illness later in life specifically PTSD. He cites example of Pavlovian conditioning and Skinner?s operant conditioning being present in modern training methods. He claims that this explains the massive disparity in kill ratio when modern forces fight insurgents.
I was incredulous throughout most of the book. However, the last few chapters made me rethink the author. The final chapters are a discussion of the Vietnam experience of American soldiers. He decries the lack of support soldiers received upon their return and blames this lack of support in part for the alarming number of mental health problems Vietnam vets experienced. He ends with a call to action to ensure that future soldiers are never treated the way Vietnam vets were. This is a sentiment I can agree with unreservedly. It is also the only portion of the book with which I agreed.
He also includes a section blaming escalating violence in America on video games and movies. He makes a persuasive argument, but one I find hard to accept. He also makes the claim that violence in the media is part of some unwitting racist conspiracy because he claims that media violence is somehow more virulent among minorities and blacks in particular. This argument I find especially ludicrous.
I personally thought the book was mostly a joke. I agree with the author?s premise that support on the home front is crucial but disagree with his reiteration of the firing ratio numbers. My own experience and research by others proves the lie of the low number of soldiers firing. I also do not buy his 98% afraid to kill numbers. This based on experience as well. Almost every soldier in my section got a kill while deployed in 2004, I do not remember any of them being anguished then nor have any confessed this to me since, and I am in contact with most of them. I personally only feel bad about one of my kills, and he was an innocent caught in the crossfire. However, I am by no means anguished over it.
Lastly, if men are so loath to kill how does this explain mans predilection for war. I have to call foul on this one. It is ludicrous to think that men are afraid to kill given the wealth of historical examples that show otherwise. I took special offense at his claims of latent racism. He obviously approaches his subject from the political left and this view permeates everything that he has written.