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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

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

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

Dave Grossman
Publisher: Back Bay Books (November 1, 1996)
ISBN-10: 0316330116

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.)”

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.