Book Review: On Killing

On Killing, Dave GrossmanTitle: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society
Author: Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Back Bay Books (revised) 2009
Language: English

This is a fascinating read which ultimately tries to cram too much into too small a book. Depending on which of its many and sometimes conflicting aims you are considering, it either succeeds marvellously or fails dismally. At its heart, however, the book explores what happens to men on the battlefield, what it takes to make them kill and how they live with the knowledge that they’ve taken the life of some poor bastard just like them.

The core of the book looks at what is required to make soldiers kill in combat. It relies heavily on the now generally discredited work of Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall which showed that in World War II only around 25% of front-line infantry, even when directly engaged in combat, fired their weapons. Grossman extrapolates this data back in time to account for similar statements made about armies during the American Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars. He then claims this as the basis of changes in training procedures which raised the fire rates from the World War II lows to highs of around 95% in Vietnam. I’m not equipped to comment directly on his argument other than to note that there is a significant body of research which disagrees with him.

The telling point for me is that, when describing the emotional resistence to killing another human being even in battle which needs to be overcome, he appears to echo the thoughts and feelings of veterans. This is the reason why no one who has not been in that situation can truly understand what it is to experience the battlefield. Grossman goes so far as to suggest that there is a genetically in-built prohibition to killing another of our own kind in all of us that needs to be overcome by soldiers on the battlefield who then need to be ritually healed before being welcomed back into society.

One of the benefits of of the book is in the valuable addition it makes to the clichéd schema of the supposed “fight or flight” instinct. Grossman proposes two other points on the line between these two poles which he calls “posturing” and “submission.” I’d like to see some research to back up his claims but these two poles make a great deal of intuitive sense to me. Fights almost never happen. In a conflict situation, one side puffs itself up to look bigger and more threatening than the other. In the end, one submits and slinks away rather than taking the comflict to the fight stage.

Grossman suggests, and I tend to agree, that these additions to the schema make sense of early gunpowder weapons, known for their unreliability and inaccuracy. They are a means of making a bigger and louder posturing gesture than can be made without them. In these terms, battles are not so much won by the victors as they are lost by the defeated collectively submitting to this display of agression.

However, I reckon he loses the plot completely when he steps away from the narrow focus of the battlefield and extrapolates to violence in modern life. In short, he claims that video games, especially, first-person shooters follow the same Pavlovian training techniques used by the military to overcome the soldier’s innate resistence to killing without applying the rigid discipline that prevents soldiers from becoming murders. Such simplification of a stupendously complicated topic makes me wonder whether the same principle is at work in other sections of the book.

In short, the book is a fascinating read which has opened discussion on a previously taboo topic. I hope the discussion continues and some real research is done to put Grossman’s coherent and intuitively appealing claims to the test.