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Saturday, March 1st, 2008
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On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

by Dave Grossman

The Difficulty in Making Killers of Us All

A review by Doug Brown

From the book's title and the author's rank, one might think this is a gung-ho commando killing manual or an apologia in defense of lethal force. I certainly received some sideways looks while reading it on mass transit. But despite the disturbing subject, On Killing is actually a somewhat reassuring book; Grossman's main thesis is most people, even in the military, are not killers.

During World War II, Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall interviewed troops that had seen action and collected data on firing rates. His results, published after the war in the book Men against Fire, were a shock to the American military establishment. Marshall found that among soldiers who were in combat situations, only 15-20% fired their weapons. The majority of soldiers, when it came right down to it, refused to kill; even to defend their own lives. The non-firing majority were not cowards. They did not throw down their weapons and flee; they just refused to pull the trigger. Grossman offers data suggesting much of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) seen in veterans derives not so much from having been in danger, but from having had to kill.

The military learned from Marshall that in order to train soldiers, it is not enough to teach them to shoot. They have to be trained to kill. During WWII, soldiers learned to shoot on flat rifle ranges where they aimed at paper bullseye targets. After Marshall, they changed to human-shaped targets on more realistic terrains. As a result, the firing rate among combat troops rose to 50% in Korea, and to 90% in Vietnam. But the long-term result was higher PTSD rates for Vietnam veterans than any previous war. Grossman emphasizes the psychological benefit of a "decompression" period before troops go home. At the end of WWII troops took slow boats back home with their units, giving them time to talk with people who had the same experiences. In Vietnam, troops rotated out alone and were flown straight home, sometimes arriving home within 48 hours of when they had been in battle. Welcome home, kid. Oh, by the way, we all hate you for doing what we trained you to do.

Grossman makes the (seemingly obvious) point that it does nobody good to wage unpopular wars. The veterans receive little to no support upon returning home, and are often subject to abuse from the general populace. The poor reception Vietnam veterans received played a large part in the high PTSD rates. Vietnam should have been a lesson learned, but sadly it doesn't seem to have been.

Rather than focusing energy on not getting into unpopular conflicts, America has spent the last 30 years distancing soldiers from the act of killing. Physical distance is the most obvious distancing mechanism: launching guided missiles from hundreds of miles away, or dropping bombs from thousands of feet. Grossman also discusses what he calls "mechanical distance"; night-vision goggles, heads-up displays, and bomb sights all reduce killing to a video game wherein the victims are never seen with the soldiers' own eyes. The Nazis went through a similar evolution in carrying out the Holocaust; they switched from guns to gas not so much because it was more efficient, but because it psychologically distanced the perpetrators from their victims. It made it easier to convince people to kill. Diffusion of responsibility is another method that can lower people's resistance to killing; granting absolution through shifting guilt away from the individual. This can be achieved by moving guilt to authority figures, spreading it across a group, or by distancing the perpetrator from the victim.

Like the infamous last chapter of E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology, the last section of On Killing veers off course to make broad claims about society that aren't nearly as well supported as the rest of the book. Grossman argues that media is to blame for increased murder rates, but the primary evidence offered is that more people are watching television and movies, and there is more murder, so problem solved. However, more people also now own microwave ovens and iPods, but no one is suggesting those trends are responsible for violent crime rates; as Grossman acknowledges in the endnotes, correlation does not prove causation.

Despite the speculations of the last section and some repetition of quotes and anecdotes throughout the book, On Killing is still a quite readable discussion of a topic that gets commonly talked around, but is rarely directly talked about. A large part of America's military budget goes into training and psychologically conditioning people to kill other people; this book shows where some of those tax dollars are going, and why veterans' benefits (particularly psychiatric) are so important. I myself am a pacifist and don't think wars should be fought at all. I am enough of a realist to acknowledge that war is far from being an endangered species, but On Killing offers hope that it might be easier to eradicate than previously thought.

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