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

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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 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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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 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.

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

  1. 4 out of 5

    Quinnp1

    As a combat vet myself, I can't say I learned anything new from this book as I have lived it all myself,. Yet I strongly suggest you all read it carefully.It will enlighten you to a very important aspect of humanity and the survival instinct that few understand. There is a price for killing and there is a very effective "military machine" to teach the acceptance and support of killing that is a thousand years or more old.That mind altering thousand year plus mind forming machine is set against a As a combat vet myself, I can't say I learned anything new from this book as I have lived it all myself,. Yet I strongly suggest you all read it carefully.It will enlighten you to a very important aspect of humanity and the survival instinct that few understand. There is a price for killing and there is a very effective "military machine" to teach the acceptance and support of killing that is a thousand years or more old.That mind altering thousand year plus mind forming machine is set against a person who has often only been alive about 19 years.The machine thus almost always wins. The author is not a killer himself, yet he explains it all quite well as I have been there and done that.He is a trifle naive in hiws apparent belief that man is not a natural killer, and he does tend to exaggerate the truma of killing for most soldiers. The reality is that the average soldier is far more concerned with saving his own life than any "guilt" or "PTSD residue" of killing even a thousand of the enemy. That is a natural reality that escapes him, but on the whole this is definitely a must read, most especially for those out of touch or expereince with death and killing.You need not have any intrest in the military at all to gain a lot of rare and valuable insights from this book.You only neede an intrest in the human mind, and the male mind itslef to get a great deal indeed out of this academic work.On the whole, and even though he has never been there himself, he is on the mark with this best selling work.

  2. 4 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    Unmaking Civilisation Grossman’s thesis is that we should take better care of those whom we prepare for war. This was unexpected. My presumption had been that the book would be about the permanent psychological damage done to soldiers through their training and experience in combat and consequently pacifist. Instead the book makes what is primarily a political point: if a society makes men killers, it has a responsibility to provide the necessary therapy to undo the inevitable psychopathic conseq Unmaking Civilisation Grossman’s thesis is that we should take better care of those whom we prepare for war. This was unexpected. My presumption had been that the book would be about the permanent psychological damage done to soldiers through their training and experience in combat and consequently pacifist. Instead the book makes what is primarily a political point: if a society makes men killers, it has a responsibility to provide the necessary therapy to undo the inevitable psychopathic consequences. While this point is difficult to disagree with, I suspect Grossman’s agenda is actually somewhat darker. The American war in Vietnam, according to Grossman, had one undeniable success: it taught the American military how to train its members to accept and execute the act of killing as normal, responsible behaviour. The techniques which the military developed during that period added to the environment of growing media violence to which recruits had already been subjected. This directed indoctrination and diffuse influence created the perfect storm of what is effectively brainwashing. The effects are visible not only in the soldiers involved but also in the increasing level of gang violence and international terrorism, phenomena that depend on the same training techniques. The maladies of combat for soldiers in Vietnam were, therefore, both more diverse and more intense than in previous wars. Despite the political and strategic incompetence of their leaders, these men did what they were meant to do, namely kill other human beings. Body count was not merely some arbitrary measure of success imposed by senior officers, it was an accurate expression of the function of a soldier. So, for example, while something less than 20% of front-line troops in World War II ever fired their weapons at the enemy (even at the risk of their own lives), upwards of 95% did so in Vietnam. A great triumph, one supposes, for the Training Command. It is difficult to train men (Grossman’s data are all from men) to kill efficiently and consistently. The inhibitions to murder seem to be not just culturally generated but also genetic in most people. Breaking those inhibitions demands traumatic psychological and sociological adaptation as anyone who has seen films like Oliver Stone’s Platoon or Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket will have already guessed. Effectively, recruits are taught to hate, to mistrust everything around them except direct orders, and to exclude moral considerations from consciousness. They are trained as psychopaths. And yet they are expected to ‘reintegrate’ into society as if their psychological rewiring were an incidental event in their lives. This it is clearly not the case given the levels of suicide, mental illness, and criminality among soldiers who have been in combat. The experience of being the object of murderous aggression by an enemy is understandably agonising. But it is the training for this experience which creates more or less permanent damage. Grossman makes the case that historically soldiers were subject to ritual purification before they re-entered civilian life. He suggests a modernised version of this for today’s soldiers. The paradox of course is that the effectiveness of military training is such that any therapeutic purification would have to be equally intense. The expense of such a de-programming effort would be immense. So it’s a political non-starter. In the meantime, society undermines its own well-being by purposely creating maladaptive human beings. Postscript: Another GR reader alerted me to the latest on Grossman. He is indeed much darker than he appears in this book. Apparently he has gone completely over to the idea of a ‘warrior culture’ among the police as well as the military, making society even more violent than it already is: https://newrepublic.com/article/14167... Additional postscript on the individuality of the gross statistics: https://www.thedickinsonpress.com/obi... Postscript 30/11/20: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/ned-d...

  3. 4 out of 5

    Marcus

    Funny how a little more than 10 years can change one's perspective. When I read Grossman's "On Killing" for first time, I found it deep and profound. Upon second reading a decade later, I find his conclusions sometimes unfounded, sometimes rather badly argued. I've also noticed that he also likes to hammer home same points over and over again; frankly, those repetitions became increasingly annoying the further I've got into the book. Most importantly however, several of Grossman's points just do Funny how a little more than 10 years can change one's perspective. When I read Grossman's "On Killing" for first time, I found it deep and profound. Upon second reading a decade later, I find his conclusions sometimes unfounded, sometimes rather badly argued. I've also noticed that he also likes to hammer home same points over and over again; frankly, those repetitions became increasingly annoying the further I've got into the book. Most importantly however, several of Grossman's points just don't ring true to me anymore. Let's start with the fact that Grossman bases his thesis almost solely on Marshall's "Men against fire". This alone should be cause for the author to tread carefully. Neither Marshall's numbers nor conclusions are by any means uncontested. The fact is that "Men against fire" remains to this day to be a very controversial document. Indeed, there are those who claim that the entire study is nothing but a sham. Yet, Grossman expects us to accept this study without any reservation. In my opinion, therein lies the greatest and perhaps fatal flaw of principal idea presented in "On Killing". Grossman's use of works of Noseworthy and Griffith in regard of American Civil War combatants is another thing that awakened my suspicion. True, effectiveness of rifle musket fire, or rather lack thereof, is discussed extensively by both of those authors. But... both of them give a multitude of reasons for that seemingly surprising fact (Noseworthy spends several chapters on that topic), while Grossman makes it into factual proof for his thesis almost in a blink of an eye. Perhaps even more importantly, in several ACW engagements musket fire was indeed murderously effective, while in Franco-Prussian War that followed shortly thereafter the Chassepot rifle was used to absolutely horrifying effect by well-trained French infantry in battles such as that of Gravelotte-St Privat. The simple truth is that for every example author uses to question an individual's willingness to aim a firearm and fire at another human being, anyone with knowledge of military history of 19th century can easily point to an engagement where well-aimed rifled musket/bolt action rifle fire was shockingly effective. Another thing that made me raise an eyebrow are his multiple references to snipers and fighter aces. The first is his prime example of "killers" enabled by distance and barrier of technical aids between themselves and their victims (telescope and thermal sights). But... I have read several memoirs of snipers of various nationalities and if there is one commonality between them, then it's the sensation of the kill being extremely personal experience for the shooter. It is often described as deliberate act of taking someone's life, sometimes after observing the victim for extended period of time (thus making the victim much more human for the sniper than for a common grunt taking potshots at fleeing shadows). It is worth observing that it is this unique intimacy of sniper's "kill" that makes the sniper loathed by the enemy to such degree that it is "common knowledge" that no sniper survives capture. Dislike for snipers is so intense that it is even displayed by soldiers on his own side! As for the fighter pilot aces with multiple digit kills, Grossman puts them into the 2 percent that are natural killers (people who don't exhibit hesitation for killing other human being) who may actually derive pleasure from the act. What he doesn't take into consideration is the fact that shooting down an airplane during WWI and WII was no easy task by any means and doing it repeatedly required a combination of many rare skills. That in itself limit the pool of possible fighter aces to a very small group of people. As for enjoyment of the kill, I invite both readers of this review and Mr. Grossman himself to study films and images of pilots made immediately after their return from successful sortie. My impression is always that as they demonstrate with their hands the maneuvers they and their opponents made during the dogfight, their joy seems to derive from outwitting a skilled foe and proving that they were better than the opponent, not from the fact that they possibly killed another human being. The last gripe of historical nature that I have with this book is this - there are several occasions where Grossman refers to Greek and Roman military organizations. As a student of military history since more than twenty years ago, I found those references uniformly suspect or just plain wrong. His conclusions in regard of Vegetius lack any credibility (the comment makes perfect sense, when considering the fact that it was made during the period when spatha was replacing gladius hispaniensis) and Grossman's comment about Roman soldier's unwillingness to thrust his sword into an opponent is pure speculation. Supposition that centurions were equivalent of modern officers, controlling and motivating common soldiers from the rear lacks, to our best knowledge, any factual foundation. In fact, if one is to draw any conclusions from primary sources that on several occasions mention disproportionately high casualty rates among centurions and optios, it is easy to come to the conclusion that Roman "commissioned officers" led by example and from the front. Grossman's references to Greek warfare are equally incorrect- it was common praxis (as proved by contemporary military manuals that survived to our days) to place file leaders (i.e. officers) at the front and the rear of the phalanx. It is also incorrect that Greeks refused to use missiles - Rhodian archers and Cretan slingers were regarded as professionals of highest quality, while every Greek city-states fielded significant numbers of peltasts, light infantry missile troops equipped with javelins. Last part of "On Killing", where Grossman dooms all of western civilization and USA in particular to the fate similar to that of Lebanon or former Yugoslavia, all because of violent movies and video games needs to be mentioned, but not analyzed. Fourteen years have passed since this book has been published - teenagers that grew up with Freddie Krueger and Doom are now grownups and in key places of our societies. Violent videogames sharing commonality with military training have become even more realistic, even more engaging and are even more popular than ever before. And yet, the armageddon of violence failed to occur. I feel that in itself is proof enough that Grossman was incorrect in his assumptions on that specific point. After this massive critique it may come as a surprise that I think that "On Killing" is very valuable book. My reason for reading this book was on both occasions to try to gain better understanding about why men fight in armed conflicts. To my best knowledge, this book (together with Keegan's "Face of Battle") is the sole attempt to answer that question in layman terms. So while I remain unconvinced by many of author's arguments, I recognize uniqueness of his book. It manages to a certain degree to make a very difficult topic a little bit more understandable to "common audience". For that fact alone it needs to be recommended for anyone with the interest in the topic. Additional note: prior to reading 'On Killing', I've read one of the books about American Civil War that Grossman refers to - "Crucible of courage" by Nosworthy. Now I have also read Paddy Griffiths "Tactics of American Civil War" and I must say that Mr. Grossman must have read a very different book than I did, if he on basis of its contents makes claim that ACW soldier was one of the most well-drilled and trained of his times. If anything, Griffith states quite emphatically that this was anything but the case.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Dee Arr

    This is my second reading of “On Killing,” and I came away with a slightly different perspective. Overall, I still agree with many of Lt. Col. Grossman's thoughts. He presents his opinions on killing and backs them up with quotes from soldiers and authors of similar books. I was beginning to be swayed with his final arguments on how violent media trains our children to become anesthetized to killing. The downside, however, is that too few other authors are mentioned in the text (we see the same na This is my second reading of “On Killing,” and I came away with a slightly different perspective. Overall, I still agree with many of Lt. Col. Grossman's thoughts. He presents his opinions on killing and backs them up with quotes from soldiers and authors of similar books. I was beginning to be swayed with his final arguments on how violent media trains our children to become anesthetized to killing. The downside, however, is that too few other authors are mentioned in the text (we see the same names over and over), and some of the book is based upon data that has since been questioned (S.L.A. Marshall). For me, there are not enough direct references to scientific studies to back up some of the statements. On the other hand, the author provides hundreds of references to books and magazine articles, as well as his personal conversations with soldiers who have experienced the emotions detailed in the book. What my seesaw thoughts represent is that the book has been well-researched and presents ideas that may or may not resonate with your current perceptions. Those who choose to read it should approach with an open mind, and if you strongly disagree with some aspects of this book, leave them behind when you are through. I found much of the book to be fascinating and informative, though I can see both sides of the “violence in the media” debate. Be aware that there is repetition of some of the data throughout the book – not enough to become nauseating, but just enough to cause you to notice. Last note: Writers who dream up stories about killers and their actions and reactions might find this book to be an eye-opener, or at least a good reference when creating characters. Not every person in law enforcement is an indiscriminate killer who can calmly kill the bad guys and then immediately sit down to dinner. Four stars for “On Killing.”

  5. 4 out of 5

    Théodore

    I must admit that the profession of the author ( lt.col.) - somewhat influenced my appreciation of his study, (an killology study) - classifying it a study done "from inside". From my point of view, this brings an extra-truth, but does not necessarily place it in the area of objectivity. It's not quite the same thing Fromm did, in his " Anatomy", for ex.,analyzing the phenomenon on the edge, and in a much more biological way . "Why should we study killing ? One might just as readily ask, Why st I must admit that the profession of the author ( lt.col.) - somewhat influenced my appreciation of his study, (an killology study) - classifying it a study done "from inside". From my point of view, this brings an extra-truth, but does not necessarily place it in the area of objectivity. It's not quite the same thing Fromm did, in his " Anatomy", for ex.,analyzing the phenomenon on the edge, and in a much more biological way . "Why should we study killing ? One might just as readily ask, Why study sex ? The two questions have much in common. Peace will not come until we have mastered both sex and war, and to master war we must study it at least the diligence of Kinsey or Masters and Johnson. Every society has a blind spot, an area into which it has great difficulty looking. Today, that blind spot is killing. A century ago, it was sex...)" Personally, I think I got a much clearer idea from watching " Schindler List", - where there is an excellent passage, interpreted by Liam Neeson, in Schindler role : " Power is when we have every justification to kill, but we don't . That's what the Emperor said. A man steals something, he's brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground.He begs for his life, he knows he's going to die.. And the Emperor.. pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go. That's power. "

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ethan

    On Killing has a great book hidden away some where inside, but it is a marred by a lack of rigor, inaccuracies, constant repetition, and chapters that have no relevance to the book but are instead a chance for the author to rant. The book is full of things that Grossman made up to support his beliefs and which Grossman refers to as if they are historical fact. for instance Centurions were known for leading their men by example, fighting in the front lines. Yet, Grossman claims that Centurions, l On Killing has a great book hidden away some where inside, but it is a marred by a lack of rigor, inaccuracies, constant repetition, and chapters that have no relevance to the book but are instead a chance for the author to rant. The book is full of things that Grossman made up to support his beliefs and which Grossman refers to as if they are historical fact. for instance Centurions were known for leading their men by example, fighting in the front lines. Yet, Grossman claims that Centurions, like modern officers, led but didn't kill, giving the Romans a tactical advantage. His claim completely contradicts all historical accounts. At one point in the book Grossman has a multi-page rant about how the US really won the Vietnam war because the Berlin wall fell. Even if he was right, which he clearly isn't, his rant has no purpose in this book; it adds nothing. While he is willing to talk about war crimes in an objective, unemotional state, he has only vile things to say about the left and "hippies". He also calls violent video games and rap music a 'genocide against black people'. Where was his editor? This book is less of an academic work on "killology" (his term, he even owns the domain name killology.com) and more of the philosophic musings of a intelligent military psychologist. For instance Grossman makes the absurd claim that soldiers are repulsed by bayoneting other soldiers because it similar to the act of sex.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Brooke

    Ok I loved and hated this book. I guess you could say I hated it because the truth hurts.. but I loved it because It REALLY opened my eyes to how(my hubby) feels everyday. It really helped me understand him and the thoughts that he has more clearly. I was let down though, the reason... I was really hoping that it would tell me how to handle all of this and it doesn't it only explains the effects, not how to deal. So in some ways fantastic others a let down. I do recommend others read it though i Ok I loved and hated this book. I guess you could say I hated it because the truth hurts.. but I loved it because It REALLY opened my eyes to how(my hubby) feels everyday. It really helped me understand him and the thoughts that he has more clearly. I was let down though, the reason... I was really hoping that it would tell me how to handle all of this and it doesn't it only explains the effects, not how to deal. So in some ways fantastic others a let down. I do recommend others read it though it will let you into the mind of all of the men and women back from combat. AND I TRULY BELIEVE ALL OF US SHOULD UNDERSTAND THEM BETTER!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Dino

    The book should not be taken as absolute, peer reviewed fact. While it starts out in an academic fashion and explains the basis for its theories, it later derails into chapter-long rants and moans about how American society is to blame for its treatment of returning veterans of the Vietnam war. Exaggerating and making very emotional, biased arguments. And if that was not enough Grossman, decides to squander his credentials by attempting to perpetuate the disproved myth that violent video-games an The book should not be taken as absolute, peer reviewed fact. While it starts out in an academic fashion and explains the basis for its theories, it later derails into chapter-long rants and moans about how American society is to blame for its treatment of returning veterans of the Vietnam war. Exaggerating and making very emotional, biased arguments. And if that was not enough Grossman, decides to squander his credentials by attempting to perpetuate the disproved myth that violent video-games and movies condition kids to become killers, or somehow makes the groups that take part in violent cultural expressions more liable to commit acts of murder and cruelty. The nonsensical notion that violent media makes violent media-consumers has been buried and forgotten in academic circles ever since the 90s. And to beat that dead horse serves no purpose but to flaunt the ignorance of the person doing the beating. Same goes with the entire “sheepdog” concept. All and all I would recommend reading the first half of the book about the psychological mechanics and factors in killing, skip the rants about Vietnam vets and ravings about media-violence.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nick Marsh

    By turns fascinating and overly moralising; amazing insights into how normal people can be made to commit atrocites, the average soldier's (reassuring) reluctance to kill (at least, up close and personally) are mixed with poor research and referencing, repetition and generally uninspiring writing. Throughout the book we are repeatedly told of the massive increase in violent crime throughout America - but this isn't referenced. When I finally tracked down one reference to crime studies in the 'fur By turns fascinating and overly moralising; amazing insights into how normal people can be made to commit atrocites, the average soldier's (reassuring) reluctance to kill (at least, up close and personally) are mixed with poor research and referencing, repetition and generally uninspiring writing. Throughout the book we are repeatedly told of the massive increase in violent crime throughout America - but this isn't referenced. When I finally tracked down one reference to crime studies in the 'further notes' section, it only talks about two statistics - the FBI violent crime statistics (which shows that violent crime is actually reducing) and the crime survey. It's a shame because the author is clearly a passionate man, and I'm very prepared to believe that violent videogames may cause an increase in violence... but there's no evidence for this presented in the book, despite the author repeatedly telling us that there is. A fascinating book - but would be much more satisfying with better research or, at least, a clearer division between fact and the author's personal opinion.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Kelly B

    People don't like to kill each other. But they might start changing their minds.... No but seriously, this is a great read. I mean, if you're interested in how people are conditioned to kill, and how they actually behave after they are conditioned to kill. Honestely, I have a hard time believing some of the stuff he asserts, but I think there's a lot of valuable information in there that you wouldn't find anywhere else. The part I love is when he examines the history of using bayonets in warfare, People don't like to kill each other. But they might start changing their minds.... No but seriously, this is a great read. I mean, if you're interested in how people are conditioned to kill, and how they actually behave after they are conditioned to kill. Honestely, I have a hard time believing some of the stuff he asserts, but I think there's a lot of valuable information in there that you wouldn't find anywhere else. The part I love is when he examines the history of using bayonets in warfare, and that really, there are hardly any examples of it actually happening, because guess what? Humans HATE the idea of piercing another human's body with a long sharp object. We are much more likely to slash and cut each other than we are to actually stab someone, to run someone through with a spear. Apparently (and I swear I'm not a violent person) the most effective way to kill someone quietly is to stab them in the kidney from behind, because it's so paralyzingly painful, a person cannot make any noise. This is what they teach those special forces guys, and yet still they are more likely to go up behind someone, put their hand over the person's mouth, and cut their throat. Even though this is noisier, less effective, and in all liklihood a good way to cut one's own hand, this is somehow more natural than stabbing someone in the back. People are also less likely to kill people the closer in proximity they are to each other. Bombing towns from a plane 20,000 feet in the air is much easier than shooting a long range rocket from the ground, which is much easier than shooting someone who is only a hundred yards away with a machine gun, which is much easier than throwing a grenade into a building and running away, which is much easier than using an edged weapon in a hand to hand fight, which is much easier than killing someone with one's bare hands. Makes sense intuitively, but is truly gruesome to read about--which makes another important point--most of us haven't experienced this, thus it is not fair to judge those who have had to. In my opinion...

  11. 4 out of 5

    Samantha

    I would have given this book more stars but Grossman's own blind patriotism and anti communism got in the way of his scientific theory. I thought the first half of this book was great. I learned so much on the act of killing and how extraordinarily hard it is for people to kill one another. The problems I had with this book: -Grossman only goes into detail about gruesome atrocities that are committed by communists or non white people. He never gives examples of US soldiers committing atrocities. -G I would have given this book more stars but Grossman's own blind patriotism and anti communism got in the way of his scientific theory. I thought the first half of this book was great. I learned so much on the act of killing and how extraordinarily hard it is for people to kill one another. The problems I had with this book: -Grossman only goes into detail about gruesome atrocities that are committed by communists or non white people. He never gives examples of US soldiers committing atrocities. -Grossman feels that Vietnam veterans have PTSD worse than other wars because we, as a nation, didn't approve of the war. Grossman doesn't even discuss Fragging. -Grossman says the Vietnam War was just and ultimately we were right in entering it. First off, it was not a just war. In 1954 86% of the Vietnamese people (before the country was divided by the colonists) would have voted for Ho Chi Minh. It would have been a socialist republic. We should have never been in that war. The US and CIA during the cold war toppled so many democratically elected governments and replaced them with brutal capitalist dictatorial regimes. This created a blowback we are feeling today in places like Afghanistan. I am getting off topic. I am just so extremely frustrated with the short sightedness of this book. I realize Grossman is an ex Ranger and maybe all that indoctrination makes it hard for him to come to terms with the US committing horrendous atrocities in other nations. I thought the point of this book was the study of killing in war. Period. Not some flag waving "we are better than you" tome. This book could have been great if he stuck to the topic and didn't interject his right wing beliefs.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Eric S

    The following is a way too long review and/or polemic. I’ll give my reason for it at the end. There are several things the author of this book seems to be unaware of but which bother me when people ignore them. 1. Lack of proof is not proof to the contrary. 2. Correlation is not causality. 3. Do not assume what you are trying to prove. 4. Logical fallacies like appeals to authority, straw man argument, etc.. The author relies heavily on the work by S.L.A. Marshall. People like John Whiteclay Chambers The following is a way too long review and/or polemic. I’ll give my reason for it at the end. There are several things the author of this book seems to be unaware of but which bother me when people ignore them. 1. Lack of proof is not proof to the contrary. 2. Correlation is not causality. 3. Do not assume what you are trying to prove. 4. Logical fallacies like appeals to authority, straw man argument, etc.. The author relies heavily on the work by S.L.A. Marshall. People like John Whiteclay Chambers II, and Robert Engen have cast very serious doubts on Marshall's work. The 2009 edition should have addressed those shortcomings but didn't. In general there is a tremendous lack of proper attribution for "facts" and concepts that are frequently used. This book addresses an important subject with all the scholarly effort and scientific rigor of the Star or National Enquirer. The author also is very repetitive and uses the rhetorical trick of initially identifying something as a hypothesis and then later referring to it as a fact. NOTE: my 2009 copy has 377 pages not the 416 listed for this edition. Here are some of the various problems that jumped out at me. In section 1 he contrasts the number of bullets fired versus the number of "hits". He implies that 1 "hit" = 1 casualty so that the number of bullets fired per hit is very large. There are no quotes by authors that tell of bodies that were riddled with bullet holes. You could look up some Civil War photos, though generally the dead are at a distance, some exist showing 2, 3 or 4 holes. In chapter 2 the author states his hypothesis that soldiers don’t willing shoot to kill the enemy. He uses data from the battle of Gettysburg to support it. The stated number is the 25,574 muskets recovered in which "nearly 90 percent" were loaded. He claims half were improperly loaded. He then states "The obvious conclusion is...” which is his hypothesis that soldiers weren't trying to kill anyone. That might be true but what if I could point to, oh lets say about 6840 men crossing an open field. Further what if this took less that an hour and most of them never getting close enough to shoot before they became casualties. Then all those weapons would be loaded when found. Of course one might say I'm cherry-Picketting my data at this point. Math is hard, especially when it comes to statistics. Then there's Cold Harbor. We know approximately how many casualties there were and that the firing went on most of the day. He assumes the death rate is evenly spaced out over the day. Why, because it support his hypothesis. If say 75% get hit in the first 20 minutes well then things don't fall into place. Section 2 has trauma in it. On page 54 he claims the London Blitz was as bad as ground combat. On page 58 he makes the assumption that distance make killing easier therefore there is little to no stress. He will contradict himself on this several times later. There are plenty of anecdotal quotes/stories but not a lot of hard fact. At best there’s just an assumption that correlation is causality. Section 3 is on killing and distance. On page 98 there's chart which has a "sexual range" for killing which is closer than knife or hand to hand combat. I think this says more about the author than I want to know. He has an interesting "fact" about most US fighter pilots not shooting down enemy planes. He apparently never heard of "green" pilots getting killed before they learned to survive. There’s no mention of kill ratio or enemy to friendly pilot ratio changes from 1942-45. (hint as a US pilot you'll have less chance to shoot at an enemy in 1945 then 1942 but you'll live longer) Section 4 shows how bad his knowledge of history is. He starts with ancient Rome and Greece. He isn't up on Wake Island either. He claims that only 15-20% of individuals in the US Army in World War II fired their weapons. This is one of those "theories", which by this point in the book have magically changed into a fact. It will be brought out numerous times again and again and again. Chapter 3 in Section 4 was one of my favorites. I loved the phrase "The veil of denial that makes war possible." I always thought that what made war possible was people and PR. I mean some ancient politician had to figure murder rallies aren't going to get the crowds in. Let alone trying to sell murder bonds. No, what we need is to call it WAR. Short, easy to spell, something everyone can get behind or look cool being against. (Like who's going to organize an anti-murder parade?) Then on page 162 we find out that mental conditioning was the reason the Germans could inflict 50% more casualties on the Americans and British. Guess those Tiger tanks, 88s and MG42s were a waste of time. On page 167 we find out the General Eisenhower viewed the war as a Crusade AFTER the concentration camps were liberated. Boy don't show this author Ike's D-Day order of the day. No, let's not have a few facts get in the way of a beautiful theory. Chapter 6 in Section 4 mentions variables and equations but math is hard so there's no use actually putting any numbers or formulas down. Section 7 has a neat killing response diagram which shows that everyone gets PTSD. It also points out that 18-54% of Vietnam Vets have PTSD in one way or another. (Gee what's the margin of error on that one?) Math is hard. Section 8 (and no I won't make a sick WWII joke) claims we would have 3 to 4 times our current death rate from attempted murders if it weren't for modern medicine. Never heard of the 80-20 rule I guess. Also in this section you'll learn that violent video games and TV with all its violence correlates to higher violence. So if the electricity and internet go out in your neighborhood you can expect hordes of the socially inept nerds and couch potatoes roaming the streets in a frenzy of mayhem. Someone else has pointed out that we’ve had violent video games for over 20 years during which the violent crime statistics have gone down and up. Finally on page 336 we are faced with no choice but to change or face total destruction which ALWAYS happens later, usually after the royalty checks are cashed. So that's pretty much what you get. A lot of disconnect stories and quotes but not a serious study. There was also another nit that bothers me. In Section 5, with no good external references, he describes a horrific atrocity in the Congo in 1963. The author quotes at length someone he describes as a Canadian soldier. Canadian army history has zero mention of Canadian combat units there in 1963. All units mentioned were signal and support. The maximum number of people at one time was 461. The quote talks about Katangan uniforms for the perpetrators though the atrocities that happened like that were mostly by the ANC and in Kivu. Something about the whole thing just doesn't pass the "smell" test. The lack of attribution and support may not be important but it’s just another potentially critical flaw. WHY: I think the subject is IMPORTANT. I believe this is something that should be seriously looked into. We send people off to war and don't really understand all that can happen. Books like this just do damage to any real scientific work. So end of rant and if you're going to write something like this remember what my grandpa used to say. "Don't assume what you're trying to prove. Unless you're trying to prove you're an idiot."

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jake

    I first became aware of On Killing when Tony Blauer referenced it at one of his PDR seminars, and have heard a fair amount of good press since then. It’s one of those books that martial artists/self-defense junkies seem to like to talk about, or at least, claim to have read, and I figured it was time I finally saw what all of the fuss is about. On Killing is the first of Col. Grossman’s works on “killology”, which he defines as “the scholarly study of the destructive act, just as sexology is the I first became aware of On Killing when Tony Blauer referenced it at one of his PDR seminars, and have heard a fair amount of good press since then. It’s one of those books that martial artists/self-defense junkies seem to like to talk about, or at least, claim to have read, and I figured it was time I finally saw what all of the fuss is about. On Killing is the first of Col. Grossman’s works on “killology”, which he defines as “the scholarly study of the destructive act, just as sexology is the scholarly study of the procreative act. In particular, killology focuses on the reactions of healthy people in killing circumstances (such as police and military in combat) and the factors that enable and restrain killing in these situations.)” (http://www.killology.com/). On Killing focuses primarily, but not exclusively, on examining the techniques and methodologies that militaries have used to condition soldiers to kill, and the effects of those techniques (and of killing) on the minds of soldiers. Grossman starts from the perspective that killing is something that most humans are naturally predisposed to avoid, and that it is only the influence of a variety of other factors that will compel human beings to kill under most circumstances. He cites a variety of sources, some of which are very convincing (a comparison of firing rates between soldiers in the second world war and in Vietnam, respectively), and some of which are wholly unconvincing (a passage in Vegitus [I think?] which seems to refer more to the difficulties of training people to fight in a technical manner than any revulsion to killing, particularly). The whole book, in fact, seems to flip-flop between some very well reasoned, well-thought out arguments, and some not so well supported assertions that, if not out of left field, are at least, not particularly compelling. The last portion of the book is the most sudden turn, as Grossman suddenly veers from talking about the psychology of killing into talking about the dangers of violent videogames and television shows. I have to admit—it was very hard for me to approach this section with anything resembling an open mind; I have a huge problem with the mindset that blames videogames and movies for what often amounts to shitty parenting, and I have no sympathy for those parents who expected the television to raise their children, and are then unhappy with the results. At the same time, Grossman does make some convincing comparisons between certain types of games and the sort of “operant conditioning” used by the military, and I think it’s worth considering that he may at least be right about some of the effects of exposing children to these sorts of games and movies, which any sensible parent ought to consider. Ultimate, I find that I have the same issue with this book that I have with other, similar sorts of, “science for lay-people” books, which is that they seem to rely a lot on careful research and study, but don’t necessarily give you a lot of details about that research. The result is that you’re sometimes forced to take the author at his or her word about what a particular study proves, because they aren’t even showing you the parts of the study that serve to back up their point (never mind the parts that might refute it). Still, it is a good, thought-provoking book, and is certainly worthwhile reading for anyone who is interested in the effects of learning to kill (and killing) on the human mind. There’s also some interesting discussion of how society treats its soldiers, which has a lot bearing on our current socio-political climate. Not a book for everyone, but definitely a worthwhile read.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Aaron

    This is the first book I've ever logged in Goodreads where I was genuinely upset by the number of 4 & 5 star ratings. I've never cared before if other people liked a book that I didn't, or vice versa. But Jesus Christ folks, really? Really? I waded through some of them and found some good criticisms in 3 star reviews and lower, but if you gave this a 4 or 5 star then you've read 300+ pages without using any critical thinking skills at all. I've probably rated this 1 star instead of 2 as a reacti This is the first book I've ever logged in Goodreads where I was genuinely upset by the number of 4 & 5 star ratings. I've never cared before if other people liked a book that I didn't, or vice versa. But Jesus Christ folks, really? Really? I waded through some of them and found some good criticisms in 3 star reviews and lower, but if you gave this a 4 or 5 star then you've read 300+ pages without using any critical thinking skills at all. I've probably rated this 1 star instead of 2 as a reaction to those people. I will state that there is some interesting material presented in this book, but that material would be more appropriately presented in novella length instead of the 300+ pages of poor scholarship and occasional weird culture warrior bullshit that I slogged through here. You will get an interesting breakdown on how authority, mentality, conditioning, method, & distance all affect human beings in the act of killing, contemplating killing, and subsequent rationalizations. Lots of interesting discussion on emotions in combat. And along the way the author will be repeating ad nauseum discredited (and insulting) statistics that only like 15-20% of front line infantry soldiers ever fired their weapons. One wonders how anyone ever gets hurt in a war (it's all Artillery says the author). This misinformation is basically the thesis of his book, which upon Googling the man you find it's also the basic concept for his business running training for Law Enforcement in developing a Warrior Mentality. Thanks for contributing to the Militarization of our Police while making a buck. And when you are in one of the interesting parts of the book that doesn't seem like bullshit, he'll usually drop some nugget of wisdom like video games are destroying America, supporting Mass Incarceration, "Sheepdog" BS, how the Vietnam War has since been vindicated, and several others that pulled me right out of the book. I checked this book out with high expectations and was disappointed. I knew nothing of author beforehand and now I wish I still knew nothing about him.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jamie

    TL;DR version: Offers insight, but is not science and becomes a preachy old geezer at the end. Referenced many times by military historians I enjoy reading, On Killing starts on an academic footing and caught my attention with statistics that tell a story about the historical willingness to kill in combat. And I still recommend it for offering at least some insight into a soldier's mind leading up to and following the order to kill. Yet there is an asterisk to my recommendation, as it becomes inc TL;DR version: Offers insight, but is not science and becomes a preachy old geezer at the end. Referenced many times by military historians I enjoy reading, On Killing starts on an academic footing and caught my attention with statistics that tell a story about the historical willingness to kill in combat. And I still recommend it for offering at least some insight into a soldier's mind leading up to and following the order to kill. Yet there is an asterisk to my recommendation, as it becomes increasingly clear that the book is largely agenda-driven (understandably given the place the author is coming from) and is the equivalent of firing an arrow and drawing the bullseye around it. Lt. Col. Grossman ends the book with doom-and-gloom "we're going to hell in a handbasket" preachery of the first order. He also demonstrates huge gaps of historical ignorance or overly romanticizes earlier periods. (His one mention of American occupation of the Philippines seems completely ignorant of the horrific treatment of natives putting down the insurgency, including American atrocities against women and children.) He ends on a solidly pro-censorship message that puts him squarely on the opposite line of the intellectual battlefield from myself, longing for a 1950s nuclear family America of black-and-white sitcoms that never really existed in real life. And crime statistics since the book was written have only proven his message wrong.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    Grossman, a former Army Ranger (who, ironically, has never actually killed anyone) collects myriad stories from those who have killed, and comments on society's collective aversion to the action. In wwii, only 15% of men were willing to fire their weapons, in korea it rose to 50%, in vietnam, the american military was able to persuade 90% of combat troops to fire on the enemy. Grossman comments on how the military was able to accomplish this, and discusses impacts of the operant condition, and o Grossman, a former Army Ranger (who, ironically, has never actually killed anyone) collects myriad stories from those who have killed, and comments on society's collective aversion to the action. In wwii, only 15% of men were willing to fire their weapons, in korea it rose to 50%, in vietnam, the american military was able to persuade 90% of combat troops to fire on the enemy. Grossman comments on how the military was able to accomplish this, and discusses impacts of the operant condition, and other methods used. really an eye-opener and an interesting read. hard to put down. i lent the book to a marine corps major (super cobra pilot) who has, unfortunately, had to kill other human beings. i'll let you know what he thinks. i'm as interested in his reaction to the book as i am in the content.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Beth Cato

    I have seen this book recommended more than once as a resource for writers to understand the true costs of war upon the human psyche. I well understand why. It is a book that is intense, frank, and fascinating as it breaks down the psychology and physiology of what warriors endure during and after war. Where it strayed for me was at the end, when he looked to the future, and among other points, presented an argument on video games as murder-training simulators. The book is incredibly strong (and I have seen this book recommended more than once as a resource for writers to understand the true costs of war upon the human psyche. I well understand why. It is a book that is intense, frank, and fascinating as it breaks down the psychology and physiology of what warriors endure during and after war. Where it strayed for me was at the end, when he looked to the future, and among other points, presented an argument on video games as murder-training simulators. The book is incredibly strong (and disturbing) when it focuses on the history and personal stories, and I will be keeping it on my shelf for future reference.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Suzanne Stroh

    One of the most profound books I've ever read. Recommended by an ex-military friend of mine who is a female combat veteran, a former U2 pilot, and a graduate of both the Air Force Academy and the prep school that feeds it. Some of the deepest ethical discussions in my life have been related to the philosophical questions raised by, and in, this book. Until I read On Killing, my favorite work of military history was The Face of Battle by John Keegan. Army Ranger Dave Grossman (not a combat veteran One of the most profound books I've ever read. Recommended by an ex-military friend of mine who is a female combat veteran, a former U2 pilot, and a graduate of both the Air Force Academy and the prep school that feeds it. Some of the deepest ethical discussions in my life have been related to the philosophical questions raised by, and in, this book. Until I read On Killing, my favorite work of military history was The Face of Battle by John Keegan. Army Ranger Dave Grossman (not a combat veteran) reviews the role of killing in human history and relates it to a military statistic called the firing rate, drawn from data compiled by Richard Holmes and others. These findings will shock you. And the implications go way beyond predicting what warfare will become. Seems to me that the best military historian struggles with more internal conflict than almost any other practitioner. There's almost no work of military history that doesn't glorify war, and yet the social costs usually (and clearly) far outweigh the gains, as Grossman argues powerfully in this book. The military historian's task is to "normalize" this abhorrent behavior, to explain armed conflict in terms of societal norms and values that soon begin to seem absurd, if not perverse, once innocent casualties are tallied, no matter what the war being studied. And yet Grossman argues that nine out of ten combat veterans are not perverse. He argues that the firing rate shows that nine out of ten soldiers in combat will do almost anything--up to a point--to avoid taking human life, even if their own life is under threat. How, then, can we account for such widespread destruction? I won't spoil the book for you. This book, like all other modern military histories, must ultimately apologize for wars waged through a command structure which trains soldiers based on "values" that are trampled every time. The best military historians draw from their deepest humanity in telling their stories, and after great reads like this, I am always left wondering: is military history really only a folly, or is it a supreme indulgence, or is it possibly the widest window into the dark soul of our species? And I am always convinced that for civilization to advance productively, more of us should be reading more in this genre.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Crofut

    Interesting idea, horrific execution. The Good: the thesis that most people have an innate desire not to kill other human beings, and that this power is so strong that soldiers will often intentionally not kill the enemy even in battle. Things that can be done to overcome this predisposition include psychological training, group pressure, diffusion of responsibility, praise by society, and distance (both physical and cultural). Some interesting thoughts on why casualty rates have been so low in Interesting idea, horrific execution. The Good: the thesis that most people have an innate desire not to kill other human beings, and that this power is so strong that soldiers will often intentionally not kill the enemy even in battle. Things that can be done to overcome this predisposition include psychological training, group pressure, diffusion of responsibility, praise by society, and distance (both physical and cultural). Some interesting thoughts on why casualty rates have been so low in Civil War battles where mathematically they ought to have been much higher. The Bad: there isn't much research to back this idea up, save for SLA Marshall's World War II study, which will be cited ad nauseam. Perhaps Grossman thought he was practicing some sort of classical conditioning by mentioning the 15% participation rate in battle (which rises to 90% or so in Vietnam due to improved training techniques) somewhere around 50 different times, but this clearly shows the difference between psychology and rhetoric, because now I question how strong this argument is if this is the only real reed it is leaning on. This book is thin on research, thick on repetition. The Ugly: the random rants about society. In a book about the psychology of battlefield killing, Grossman somehow found time to say on the third to last page that lebensraum, free-market economics, and the 1st and 2nd Amendments are "noble-sounding concepts" used to mask responsibility for killing innocent people. Saying parents should monitor what their kids watch and are influenced by is the most racist concept in America. I mean, good lord, dude. Also, despite the media expanding its reach and pitch of violence, crime rates have gone down significantly since this book was published, the exact opposite of what his last section/rant is predicting. Ultimately, the good is interesting but thin, and the bad and ugly are so bad and ugly that I can't recommend this book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Toshali Gupta

    Verdict: Definitely recommended. This book was picked out from one of the goodreads lists and I’m so glad I spent those 30 odd minutes going through all the options and choosing this book. On Killing is insightful and impactful, informative and emotional, gripping and painful. I’m not sure if I’m doing justice by saying that it has managed to bring out the human element (at least a glimpse) to all the war documentaries and stories I have read as a history buff. What works: It’s clear outline of Verdict: Definitely recommended. This book was picked out from one of the goodreads lists and I’m so glad I spent those 30 odd minutes going through all the options and choosing this book. On Killing is insightful and impactful, informative and emotional, gripping and painful. I’m not sure if I’m doing justice by saying that it has managed to bring out the human element (at least a glimpse) to all the war documentaries and stories I have read as a history buff. What works: It’s clear outline of the (limited) scope of the book – killing on the battlefield. The brilliantly touching and relevant anecdotes of veterans which not only helped stress on the point but also made it real. A detailed account of factors involved, supplemented by instances and analogies wherever applicable. The author’s background in psychology, teaching AND military surely reflects on the style of putting across his arguments. Writing style is colloquial and extremely easy to read. Just the right amount of use of jargon which leaves you with enough knowledge on the subject and also doesn’t make you feel you are reading an academic textbook. What did not work: Contradictory at times, a few unexplained loose ends and felt it digressed from the topic towards the end.

  21. 5 out of 5

    David

    I’m not going to do this book justice in this review. It demands to be read if you ever ponder the nature of evil, human nature, and the coercive powers that go into controlling (or losing control of violence). With that said.... Despite the very disturbing subject matter, this book was a smorgasbord of information on the aversion of humanity to take human life, the history of combat including some anthropology, a sociological lesson about violence, a huge dose of psychology into psychiatric and I’m not going to do this book justice in this review. It demands to be read if you ever ponder the nature of evil, human nature, and the coercive powers that go into controlling (or losing control of violence). With that said.... Despite the very disturbing subject matter, this book was a smorgasbord of information on the aversion of humanity to take human life, the history of combat including some anthropology, a sociological lesson about violence, a huge dose of psychology into psychiatric and physical trauma caused by taking human life, and description of ways in which warlords, gangs, and governments have attempted and succeeded to overcome this inborn aversion to killing with remarkable results, but often catastrophic psychiatric results on the soldiers returning from conflicts. A monumental study on violence and why it has been perpetrated in many, many forms. Extremely persuasive from a veteran who became a professor at West Point.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy

    One of the main conclusions in the book is that basically most human beings do not want to kill other human beings. In order to teach people to kill other humans, that barrier must be broken. In WWII, many soldiers could not fire at the enemy and chose to fire high so as not to hit anyone. By the time of the Vietnam War, training methods had to be changed to overcome that reluctance.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Peter Martuneac

    This is a heinously overrated book and is not an accurate appraisal of the psychological effects of killing in warfare. Lt. Col. Grossman founds basically his entire work on a single, faulty survey conducted on some few returning American GI's after WW2, and applies it across the entire globe and throughout all history. Really not a good work.

  24. 4 out of 5

    James Imelda

    In writing this review of the book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, I found myself writing a preemptive defence against any attacks that might arise against this book when I recommended it. But given the title (the subtitle is key, but likely missed), and a couple comments I received on Goodreads regarding my reading this book, I find necessary a preemptive, apologetic justification, for this is one of the best non-fiction secu In writing this review of the book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, I found myself writing a preemptive defence against any attacks that might arise against this book when I recommended it. But given the title (the subtitle is key, but likely missed), and a couple comments I received on Goodreads regarding my reading this book, I find necessary a preemptive, apologetic justification, for this is one of the best non-fiction secular books I have read, and I highly recommend it to a wide audience. To go into the details of all I learned would reduce the work that the author put into his research and would thus nullify his arguments, and because what he argues is controversial and novel, I shall not risk this. Moreover, to analyse the book point-by-point would require restating much of it and would thus result in a shorter book, so I shall not waste our time with that. This shall instead be an evaluation of the areas which especially engaged me, the merit of his writing, the questions he asks, and the importance (to me and, likely to you) of the answers. Finally, I shall explain why give this only four out of five stars. Surprising Statistics and the Science of ‘Killology’ Lt. Col. Grossman does not perform a cold, merely scientific study of the process of killing and its psychological effects solely for the sake of an academic endeavour. Rather, he evaluates everything with a purpose: Under what conditions do persons come to the decision and act of killing and what are the effects of killing, so that we may better understand the human person, the military as composed of individuals, the current state and the future of military training, and how these questions are not only relevant but essential to the health, healing, and building up of society. (All these are related especially to American society.) His extensive study of human beings’ natural aversion to killing, seen throughout history and especially in the last century when such studies were performed, makes up much of the first portion of this book, creating the groundwork for the remainder. Grossman then deals with how people overcome this aversion to killing, and how militaries over millennia have trained or conditioned men to overcome it. He goes through these topics with a fine-toothed comb, analysing firing rates in different wars; bullet-to-kill ratios; psychological casualty rates; military training in different countries and different periods of history; the different psychological effects of killing at different distances (from bombings to sniping to rifle range to knifing to hand-to-hand combat), as well as the effect on would-be targets at such distances; the factors that come into play in atrocities, and what allows even ordinary men to commit atrocities; and the social factors that help soldiers deal with the traumatic act of killing or being in combat. Some interesting findings, the arguments for and conclusions to which you shall have to read the book to learn yourself, are the relatively low psychological casualty rates of both bombers and survivors of bombings (such as the firebombing of Hamburg); the difference in firing rates between WWII and Vietnam, a difference of going from 10-15% in WWII to 90-95% in Vietnam; and the terrible effect that individual replacement (versus replacing an entire squad at a time) and one-year deployment periods (versus several years long) had on Vietnam soldiers. The section on Vietnam, near the end, to which Grossman devotes a significant portion of the book, is especially important, and much more so for Americans. These men are still alive, many of them, and Grossman shows how what we as a society did to these men continues in its negative effects through generations. The uniqueness of this book, besides the above comments, and the merit of the author come from Grossman’s background: an undergrad in history, a Master’s in psychology, and 24 years of military service. He uses each of these areas of personal knowledge and expertise to give a thorough and balanced view of the questions he is asking, questions of human nature, tradition, history, military procedure and training, and the importance of his work to us, individual and likely non-military members of society. Part of why I shall not comment in detail on his conclusions—particularly his final section, 'Killing in America’, which uses the book’s prior 90% of research and analysis to then give us an understanding of how these psychological phenomena and military conditioning practices are responsible for the great increase of violence in the US—why I cannot explain this is because there are likely many articles and books that deal with certain conclusions he makes (especially the ones just referenced, on violence in America and its causes), but Grossman made the great effort to first establish a science of ‘killology’—the processes, hindrances, exceptional phenomena, and common phenomena of killing, especially but not limited to killing in combat. It is on this large and firm base that he makes his conclusions toward the end of the book. To do otherwise would result in flimsy arguments to answer difficult questions. And to his great credit, this book is stock full of quotes—from the many subjects he interviewed, from experts who evaluate in detail what he must spend only a portion on, and from many other subjects ranging from textbooks to poets and philosophers. Finally, his writing style is engaging and articulate for his profession and intent. The audiobook, which he narrates, is a good option as well (this is what I read). A ‘Virus of Violence’ — Addressing the Wounds I have named some of the questions he asks, but his overall goal in establishing this science of ‘killology’ is to come to an understanding of why people kill, why they don’t, how their natural aversion is overcome—both in healthier ways and in detrimental ways—and how this helps us to make decisions not only in how our military is run, but in how we raise our children and in how we portray violence in film and video games. Grossman is not afraid to ask deep and pertinent questions regarding violence, killing, and PTSD—nor does he neglect to show how these questions and answers are relevant to all members of society. We live in a violent world, and violence in the form of war, school shootings, and gang violence surrounds us. And we must face it, come to understand it objectively, and address it honestly and directly—to do anything else will lead not only to its continuance but its increase. I think it should already be clear why I recommend this book so highly. But I shall emphasise that there is, in Grossman’s words, a ‘virus of violence’ in our world today, and especially in the US. I recently was in a conversation with someone who said that we are in a time of unprecedented peace in the world. To say this so shortly after the atrocities of blood, mass murder, and genocide of the 20th century reflects, in my opinion, a morbidly narrow understanding of human nature and of history. If we do not come to better understand not only the symptoms of the ‘virus’ but its sources, it will only grow worse. To address only the symptoms is, as Grossman writes, like giving morphine to a man with a gunshot wound and then telling him to go back into battle while he’s still bleeding out with a bullet inside him. Now I shall clarify that this ‘virus’ as Grossman calls it is not a literal disease to be cured—the problem lies in individual decisions, conscious or unconscious, for which we are accountable (his emphasis on morality, and not simply on psychology, makes me think he would agree). But there are factors that incline us as individuals to one choice or another, and we must understand them. This book, more than just a study on killing, has given me insight to the usage of drones, the usage of torture methods, the importance of society’s attitudes toward wars, the concepts of honour and glory in war, and the prudent usage of pharmaceuticals for mental illnesses or trauma. I think I can say with confidence that at least some of these issues are relevant to you. If you live in the US, a country where we can vote to affect these things, where we have high violence, and where the usage of antidepressants and other related pharmaceuticals is common, then I think you would benefit from reading this book. I would recommend it especially if you have children or teach children. The section on war and atrocity is graphic, but not unduly so. Grossman describes real events and occurrences accurately for the sake of understanding how they could have happened. It is graphic and explicit, but not gory nor grotesque. If you are the type who does not watch violent films or read violent books, I think you still might well appreciate this book. In fact, it gives us reasons to think more carefully about what we watch and what content we produce. A final compliment to Grossman: I think he does not fall into the attractive and easy world of extremes. This book does not encourage pacifism; it does not justify atrocities nor shame soldiers for killing; it will not tell you that video games or violent movies are bad, nor will it give you license to be careless in your views on or consumption of the entertainment industry’s products. It is well-considered, and Grossman’s arguments can be solidly chewed on before either being swallowed thoughtfully or deliberately rejected, whether in parts or in wholes. And that is a sign of a good argument. Nobody’s perfect, not even Freud Now why does it have only four stars? There are two primary problems I had with the book, the first of which I must discuss a bit and the second of which is more my preference. The first is that Grossman references and holds as an authority Sigmund Freud, without really questioning him or referencing any other ideas of philosophy and psychology (that is, in relation to Freud’s ideas that he mentions—he does mention other psychologists elsewhere). Grossman therefore makes some marked errors in the study of human nature with regard to killing and sex—both of which he holds as natural. While death in general is natural (that is, in accord with the world’s design), death of human beings, who are rational soul-body composites, is not natural. Yet sex is. This and other basic misunderstandings of human psychology and philosophy lead Grossman to some erroneous conclusions regarding the relationship between killing, death, and sex. I do not criticise him for disagreeing with my views on this. Rather, he simply made many assertions using, it seemed to me, only the authority of Freud as his basis (which Aquinas held as the weakest argument—the argument from authority). I believe he did this because it would have so expanded his book and formed too long a tangent than he wanted to deal with. However, I think my criticism a fair one, because this is one of the most important points of his book—human nature, and how killing and death, which he relates to sex, relate to human nature—and because he could have removed every comment on sex without detracting from the book (in fact, I think it would have improved it). I also want to note his assertion, early on in the book, that by removing the veil under which sex was formerly hidden as something ‘dirty’, we (western society, presumably) have been able to face sex directly and address the issues we developed in hiding it. He relates this to killing, how we do not want to look at it because it is uncomfortable and even repulsive, but it is still necessary for us to understand it. I disagree with his comparison, because killing is a sad necessity, and more often a tragic evil; but sex is mysterious, natural, and beautiful—and while we ought not to hide it as something dirty, we do need to protect it and not analyse it as something less than sacred. Reverence does not preclude, but rather enables, a deeper understanding of something. And so I find the sexual revolution not to have solved the very real problems we had regarding sex in the previous epochs, but rather to have created new and different problems. Grossman does not address this. Again, he is free to disagree with me. But his lack of comment on the problems which remain or have increased regarding sex—pornography, child pornography, sex trafficking, sexual abuse, marital infidelity, sex among minors, contraception—leaves his assertion naked and odd-looking, as though he thinks by making sex something common and totally unhidden we have not gone over into some other horrid place at least as bad as the one we sought to escape from. I have so spent my words here not just to criticize, but to provide a brief alternative to his views, so you might read him still, but with better clarity as you form your own thoughts. Family Remedy My second criticism is of his conclusion. The final section, ‘Killing in America’, was excellent, except for his remedy to the problem. I do not know whether I disagree with his remedy, but I found it all too briefly argued, when it needed much more thorough discussion. Moreover, he stated that the remedy, which was based on policy reform, would likely not truly remedy the ‘virus of violence’ in America. I agree. Yet he argued for no solution that I recall other than policy, and I feel quite free to say this is inadequate since he himself said that it likely isn’t enough. I further consider the final section unsatisfactory given that he came so close to yet sorely missed the real answer, which is raising children well and healing, promoting, and protecting the family. He hinted at the real answer in his subtitle for the section: ‘Violence in America: What are we doing to our children?’ Teachers and other role models shall have to instill in children the values and principles that help form them into virtuous men and women. They must exemplify these traits themselves and form good relationships with children, protecting them from the dangers Grossman warns us against. But most of all the family must be where this is done. The family has always been the primary educator, and where the family is lacking or broken we see the effects as deep wounds and terrible scars in individuals and in society as a whole—for the family is the ‘original cell of social life’.1 Perhaps Grossman did not argue this, or something else besides policy and law, because he knows that no policy can serve as a real remedy (although the government can defend marriage and the family to an extent); and perhaps he does not know how it shall be done. But I’d rather him have said that, if he so thinks, rather than give a weak argument for a partial solution and leave it at that. Yet in the end this was well worth my time, and, I think, quite likely worth yours. His questions are pertinent, his research enlightening, and his arguments thought-provoking and well worth considering.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Maas

    Great book, disturbing in most senses – but gives us hope. Why is it hopeful? Because it argues that for the vast majority of humanity, killing another human is a vastly unnatural act. Societies may find a way to battle at every opportunity, but individual humans have a hard time killing another human being. One of Dave Grossman's arguments is that – to paraphrase – ‘the recruit doesn’t want to kill, but only has 20 years of total life experience, while the army has the breadth of history on their Great book, disturbing in most senses – but gives us hope. Why is it hopeful? Because it argues that for the vast majority of humanity, killing another human is a vastly unnatural act. Societies may find a way to battle at every opportunity, but individual humans have a hard time killing another human being. One of Dave Grossman's arguments is that – to paraphrase – ‘the recruit doesn’t want to kill, but only has 20 years of total life experience, while the army has the breadth of history on their side.’ Against this, even the most soft-spoken the recruit may turn into a killing machine. Their acts might haunt them for the rest of their lives afterwards, but in the moment – they can kill. The recent shade of war has gotten recruits over many psychological barriers they might have. Distance helps – the farther you are from your target, the easier it is to kill psychologically. Roman soldiers gained dominance through fighting with pikes – and today’s solders go even further back with drone fighting. Technology helps – many battles go on at night now. In night fights, you see a green shape moving, and not a face. Verbiage helps – The enemy is labeled the enemy, or some sort of racial epithet. The enemy is not killed, but rather hosed, zapped or fired on. If you can take away the enemy’s humanity, it helps. And Grossman notes that this is common in war. The North Vietnamese called the American’s Hairy Monkeys. Here are some other insights Mr. Grossman had – The concept of ‘courage’ should be thought of as a ‘well of fortitude’ He argues that everyone – everyone can be broken in war. Some have more fortitude, some have less. But it can and will all run out for everyone. You can refill the war with a good leader or a win, but in general, time is not on the soldier’s side. Even the bravest runs out of fortitude sooner or later. Group pressure is the primary driving force behind soldiers Most soldiers that fight do so to avoid letting their comrades down. Not the country, or an ideal – but the soldier in their troop. If they kill, it’s often in defense of their comrades. Personal involvement brings PTSD, not just action Grossman looks at data on the bombing victims in WWII in England and also in the firebombed German cities. He looks at medics, and war reporters. He finds that the incidents of PTSD in these people is low, often non-existent. Why? It’s not personal. There is something about the person on the other end personally trying to eliminate you that kicks of PTSD. Psychopaths – the right kind of psychopaths – are enormously valuable to an army I am paraphrasing so might have the numbers wrong – but 1% of all fighter pilots account for 40 percent of all kills. If a soldier exhibits no remorse, but can be turned into an order-following soldier – the military will put them in the right position. One more quote that I’ll leave you with One veteran I interviewed told me that he thought of most of the world as sheep: gentle, decent, kindly creatures who are essentially incapable of true aggression. In this veteran’s mind there is another human subspecies (of which he is a member) that is a kind of dog: faithful, vigilant creatures who are very much capable of aggression when circumstances require. But, according to his model, there are wolves (sociopaths) and packs of wild dogs (gangs and aggressive armies) abroad in the land, and the sheepdogs (the soldiers and policemen of the world) are environmentally and biologically predisposed to be the ones who confront these predators. Do I believe this? Somewhat. I still believe the best way to fight a war is to bring diplomacy, a robust economy, opportunity and an assortment of other things so you don’t have a war in the first place. Grossman doesn’t quite believe this view either, at least not entirely. Still – it’s a way of thinking about it. And if I’m a sheep – which I may be, because I don’t engage in any sort of aggression myself, then I’m thankful for those sheepdogs who keep the wild dogs at bay. In any case – fantastic book. It should be required reading for just about everyone.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Alexia

    I had originally planned to review this book right once I finished it. Then I planned to write my review on Memorial Day. And I still don't feel like things are settled enough in my mind to properly write this review, but I need to do it sometime so here goes. I picked this book up on a whim. I rarely, -RARELY- read anything to do with war. When I do, it's a story with a war in it. I've never read anything about war itself. This might sound strange, but being a woman, I've had the incredible priv I had originally planned to review this book right once I finished it. Then I planned to write my review on Memorial Day. And I still don't feel like things are settled enough in my mind to properly write this review, but I need to do it sometime so here goes. I picked this book up on a whim. I rarely, -RARELY- read anything to do with war. When I do, it's a story with a war in it. I've never read anything about war itself. This might sound strange, but being a woman, I've had the incredible privilege of never having to consider the possibility of personally being involved in combat. I realize women do participate in combat in Israel and that they now have this opportunity here, but I'm not forced to. I don't plan on joining the armed forces and don't have to register for selective service. So even men who don't plan on joining the armed forces have to consider it, even remotely, when they go to register for that. Or even when they watch a war movie, it's all people who look like them fighting. It's a whole range of experiences I had never really considered or done a good job of "put yourself in their shoes"-ing. This book corrected some of my misconceptions about combat stress. I thought that stress mainly comes from being worried about your own personal safety (I would be worried about that). Instead, it comes from worries about letting people down, being expected to kill and seeing hate. Soldiers encounter people they've never seen before who *hate* them. Hate them enough to try to kill them. That's jarring. Even though you know abstractly that this whole thing is two abstract countries having problems, you didn't do anything personally to this guy, so why can't we both just do our jobs since I don't really have a problem with you personally...? That can't happen, even though that's what emotionally makes sense. Having to cope with that disconnect is tough. I will never understand what it's like to be expected to kill somebody, or what it's like to actually kill somebody. Try as I'd like the entire book to empathize, I have limits. This is my limit. I can't understand, but I think I'm now better able to listen and consider that experience. The main thing I'm still churning and considering, is how to be against a certain war and remain supportive of the people who fight in it. This was a huge disconnect in Vietnam and it hurt men who had fought. So I think it's a good idea to work on balancing the two elements, but this book comes out very negatively on the possibility doing that. When soldiers are sent to fight and kill, to psychologically justify what they're doing, they have to believe in the cause. So disbelief in the cause means you're taking that psychological harmony away from innocent soldiers. I don't want to do that and put more stress on regular people who've been asked to do a hard job. But I can't pretend to support a military initiative that isn't well thought through. I want to turn the same arguement around and say, since the job is so hard maybe the answer isn't harmony for harmony's sake but considering whether sending soldiers on this mission is justified in the first place. Knowing how hard it is for the people involved should make us quadruple check whether it's necessary. Didn't agree with all the positions put forth in the book, but this book opened my eyes to a set of experiences I had never considered. That's what traditional art is supposed to do. This book had some "conservative" rhetoric that I didn't agree with, but since it had a viewpoint broadening effect I still really enjoyed it.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Alexander Kosoris

    I honestly don’t remember where I first heard about On Killing, but it sure intrigued me at the time. Grossman’s book is about the conditioning employed by modern militaries in order to persuade reluctant soldiers into effectively killing, the emotional and psychiatric toll killing has on soldiers, and––I didn’t realize this, then––how we’re effectively conditioning members of society to become murderers through violent media. To be perfectly frank, I likely would not have searched far and wide I honestly don’t remember where I first heard about On Killing, but it sure intrigued me at the time. Grossman’s book is about the conditioning employed by modern militaries in order to persuade reluctant soldiers into effectively killing, the emotional and psychiatric toll killing has on soldiers, and––I didn’t realize this, then––how we’re effectively conditioning members of society to become murderers through violent media. To be perfectly frank, I likely would not have searched far and wide for the book had I known that last bit was part and parcel of the text, but search far and wide I did, eventually tracking it down at some obscure Toronto used book store. And so, after it lived on my shelf for some time, I undertook what turned out to be the hefty task of reading it. Don’t get me wrong: I tried to give On Killing a chance, as much as it may be hard to believe after an introduction like that. And the author presents compelling concepts throughout, gleaning important, first-hand information from veterans of combat, but he not only brings up the same quotations and figures time and time again, he also hammers out points and examples long past any semblance of necessity for clarity’s sake. This effectively takes what feels like an essay’s worth of information and extends it into a long-winded, repetitive chore. And Grossman comes across as constantly being on the cusp of understanding as we move along, but his text is marred with numerous oversimplifications. He too often examines concepts through too narrow a lens and seems to attribute things to either the wrong cause or an erroneously singular cause, and I can’t tell if this is done knowingly––narrowing discussions in an attempt to give his argument more weight––or if he actually sees the world from such a limited perspective. Most memorable to me now is when psychiatric trauma for Holocaust victims was attributed to the up-close, personal nature of their tormentors, while I’ve been led to believe from reading other, reliable texts on the subject that this is undoubtedly only a small part of it. Oversimplification here comes across as callousness toward victims of such atrocities in the name of his militaristic and nationalistic exercise––as does simply defining atrocity as “the killing of a noncombatant.” By the end, I struggled to understand why On Killing seems to be held on such a lofty pedestal by so many, but then I became reminded of Lee Strobel here, that Grossman’s probably preaching to an audience that really, really, really wants to believe what he’s selling. (Though, it’s probably unfair to compare Grossman to Strobel, as I have no real reason to doubt Grossman’s sincerity here, even if I find his arguments to often be misinformed.) But it’s not all bad. I found the section on PTSD in returning Vietnam veterans to be most enlightening––particularly when standing beside his discussion on violence in the media. (The latter actually got to be so preachy, I started to think I was reading Robert Heinlein for a minute there.)

  28. 4 out of 5

    David M

    On Killing opens on a fascinating and provocative note. While it's common to speak of killing as a reversion to barbaric instinct, the author presents evidence to suggest just the opposite may be true. In fact most people have to overcome enormous instinctual resistance to become killers. Grossman cites a truly eye-opening statistic: in World War II only 10-15 of all soldiers were willing to fire to kill, even when given a direct order, and even if doing would improve their own chances of surviv On Killing opens on a fascinating and provocative note. While it's common to speak of killing as a reversion to barbaric instinct, the author presents evidence to suggest just the opposite may be true. In fact most people have to overcome enormous instinctual resistance to become killers. Grossman cites a truly eye-opening statistic: in World War II only 10-15 of all soldiers were willing to fire to kill, even when given a direct order, and even if doing would improve their own chances of survival. War has always been a part of human society, but it's form has changed drastically in the past few centuries. In many ancient or "primitive" cultures war was a kind of ritualized showmanship, a sport only slightly more violent than American football. War as total mobilization and mass slaughter appears to be a modern, post-Enlightenment invention - not just technologically but morally and ideologically too. To speak of modern war as a "reversion to barbarism" is really an insult to barbarians. Or at least this is one possible line of interpretation. It's an ambiguous story. No doubt the jury is still out on humanity. What disappointed me was the author's unwillingness to really grapple with the data he presents. A door is opened but ultimately Grossman doesn't walk through it. He quickly backs away from the radical conclusions implicit in the early chapters. Generally I try not to judge a book based on whether I agree with it politically. The problem here is that Grossman's total acceptance of Cold War propaganda severely limits his ability to engage with history. He has to uphold that no matter what our military did in the end it was just. This leads to some pretty tortured logic at times. For instance, he asserts that the Vietcong campaign of targeted political assassinations was a clear atrocity, where the mass US bombing of civilian populations in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia somehow was not. I have a hard time taking his critique of violence seriously when he employs such a transparent double standard. * Were Vietnam veterans spit on when they returned home? Grossman uncritically accepts that they were, even suggesting this was the main reason so many of them have lived in psychological hell ever since. He blames "society" for not celebrating their heroism and sacrifices. I guess I'd make two points in response; first, "society" does not speak in a single voice; our country was deeply divided over the war, which many saw (correctly) as an unjust act of aggression; we the people have no moral duty to support every aggression sanctioned by our government. Second, to blame the general population for the trauma suffered by soldiers denies the actual responsibility of the military as an institution; it was the military that forced teenage boys through brutal training to process them into killers, then sent them to an ungodly war zone. A third point: soldiers weren't spit on. http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/07/0... Get your fucking facts right.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bernie Gourley

    Grossman's work reports on a line of research started by Army historian and author of "Men Against Fire" S.L.A. Marshall. Grossman not only brings us up-to-date on this thesis, he shows us its ramifications for modern society-at-large. A two-part thesis was advanced by Marshall and continued by Grossman and others. First, humans, like other species, are reluctant to kill within their species. (Marshall noted that in World War II about 75% of soldiers would not fire on the enemy when they had the Grossman's work reports on a line of research started by Army historian and author of "Men Against Fire" S.L.A. Marshall. Grossman not only brings us up-to-date on this thesis, he shows us its ramifications for modern society-at-large. A two-part thesis was advanced by Marshall and continued by Grossman and others. First, humans, like other species, are reluctant to kill within their species. (Marshall noted that in World War II about 75% of soldiers would not fire on the enemy when they had the opportunity. There is evidence this was true for earlier wars as well. Second, the percentage of soldiers firing on the enemy could be increased by training that conditions them to shooting targets that look more human. i.e. Instead of shooting bulls-eyes, they should at least shoot a shape that looks like the silhouette of a man's head and shoulders. It turns out that the ability to condition combatants proved correct. There was a progressive increase in genuine engagement of the enemy by soldiers in subsequent wars (i.e. the Korean and Vietnam Wars.) Grossman goes on to say that this type of conditioning is not limited to soldiers and police officers. He suggests that video games in which gamers shoot at humans and humanoid creatures will desensitize players to trigger pulling. Many scoff at this idea because they think that he is saying that such games make killers. What he is suggesting is a bit more subtle than that. He is saying that a person who is pre-dispossessed to go on a killing spree will be less reluctant if they have undergone the conditioning of this type of gaming. In essence, an high barrier to going on a killing spree will be lowered. Grossman covers many other issues related to killing, such as the importance of distance. One intriguing fact is that an infantryman that kills a single enemy soldier in war is more likely to have problems such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than a bombardier who drops bombs that may likely resulted in hundreds or thousands of deaths. The book also talks about the role of authority, famously addressed by the Milgram experiments. Stanley Milgram found that most people would turn a knob that they believed was delivering a severe shock to a complete stranger, if they were told to do so by someone who seemed to be an authority figure. I highly recommend this book for those interested in the subjects of: - PTSD - the role of violent video games in mass killings - the psychological effects of killing

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tamora Pierce

    This is an interesting book, written by a man who is not only a Vietnam combat veteran, but also a retired teacher of psychology at West Point, and a teacher and trainer of military and law enforcement organizations regarding the reality of combat. He bases his book on studies and on the research of other scientists regarding combat, mental stress in combat, and psychiatric casualties of combat; on observations made by combat professionals, and on anecdotes from those who have undergone combat. I This is an interesting book, written by a man who is not only a Vietnam combat veteran, but also a retired teacher of psychology at West Point, and a teacher and trainer of military and law enforcement organizations regarding the reality of combat. He bases his book on studies and on the research of other scientists regarding combat, mental stress in combat, and psychiatric casualties of combat; on observations made by combat professionals, and on anecdotes from those who have undergone combat. I don't buy his conclusions lock, stock, and bubblebath: that there are more men who did not shoot to kill in combat, particularly in wars before Vietnam, than there are men who did. On the other hand, I do know of the frequent discovery, during the Civil War, of rifles found with multiple bullets in the barrel. Other historians have written this off to excitement, saying the soldiers simply forgot they had not fired off the last bullet; Grossman's construction is that this is the way that the soldier dealt with not wanting to kill someone. They kept up a make-believe load-and-fire sequence so their buddies would think they were shooting when they were not, as the bullets piled up in the rifle. One real shot would have cleared the barrel, according to Grossman. There are other accounts of men who chose not to kill when given the chance, and accounts from their generals and doctors that confirm it was simply two hard for many of the men to look at another human being and kill him. Grossman tracks the wars from WWI to Vietnam, where, he says, the change in training methods from a circular target to a human-shaped silhouette, and rewards for best marksman (and other techniques), broke down soldiers' resistance to killing. He also covers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and its increase, as well as research that shows which soldiers will be most affected by it. He even includes a chapter on growing rates of violence in youth of America, blaming the traditional villains: entertainment and games. The book's repetitive, and when a man draws anecdotal material from Soldier of Fortune magazine, I have to question some of his methods, but I still think most of his conclusions are sound. It's really thought-provoking, and some of the stories here will really raise a reader's eyebrows.

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