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

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Toronto: Little Brown, 1996. 332 Pages. $33.95.

By Polly Mann (reviewer)

"The basic aim of a nation at war is establishing an image of the enemy in order to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder." - The Warriors, by Glenn Gray

Author Dave Grossman spent five years researching this persuasive book intended for popular consumption. It confirms that there is a personal price paid by individuals who kill others, even though that killing may be done with the sanction of the state.

It has been assumed that the soldier kills in combat to defend his life and to obey his leaders. Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, an official U.S. historian of World War II, interviewed thousands of soldiers, asking them what it was they did in battle. The results were consistent: only 15 percent to 20 percent of the American riflemen in combat fired at the enemy. Marshall concluded that the average and healthy individual "has such an inner and totally unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility ... At the vital point the soldier becomes a conscientious objector."

Changes in training, however, increased this firing rate, which reached 55 percent in the Korean War and 90 percent to 95 percent in Vietnam. An example is provided by authors Gwynne Dyer and Richard Holmes in their book War concerning the language used during the Vietnam War at Parris Island, an American military training camp.

"Most of the language used to describe the joys of killing people is bloodthirsty but meaningless hyperbole, and the recruits realize that even as they enjoy it. Nevertheless, it does help desensitize them to the suffering of the 'enemy' and at the same time they are being indoctrinated in the most explicit fashion (as previous generations were not) with the notion that their purpose is not just to be brave or to fight well; it is to kill people."

Grossman examines the reactions of animals threatened by members of their own species, pointing out that they usually go through a series of posturings that, while intimidating, are almost always harmless. When the posturer has failed to dissuade an opponent, the options then become fight, flight, or submission - but almost never to the death. Claiming this is also true with human beings, he illustrates his point with many examples. He says soldiers find many ways to avoid killing and cites the experience of his grandfather, a member of a firing squad during World War I who always aimed poorly and bragged that he never killed a prisoner.

The question then is - why have we heard so little about the reluctance of soldiers to fire? In A History of Militarism Alfred Vagts says the military historians are responsible, for they have written "if not for the express purpose of supporting an army's authority, at least with the intention of not hurting it, nor revealing its secret, avoiding the betrayal of weakness, vacillation, or distemper." Grossman, though, says the military has not been alone in maintaining the silence about killing in battle but rather "it is a cultural conspiracy of forgetfulness, distortion, and lies that have been going on for thousands of years." The modern media fosters this misconception in films, television, and print.

An analysis of battle fears reveals that, even more than the fear of injury or death, the soldier fears the failure to meet the obligations of combat. If he overcomes his innate resistance and kills an enemy soldier in close combat, he will be burdened with guilt. If he elects not to kill, then personal shame lies heavy upon him. He is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't.

Evidence indicates that nonkilling military personnel on the battlefield suffer significantly fewer psychiatric casualties than those whose job it is to kill. Studies show that naval personnel have experienced almost no psychiatric damage. The reason is that most sailors don't have to kill anyone directly, and no one is trying to specifically kill them. Instead of killing people, modern navies kill ships and airplanes. A similar phenomenon occurs in aerial combat. A U.S. Air Force officer explained: "In the air, it's very clinical, very clean. … You see an aircraft; you see a target on the ground - you're not eyeball to eyeball with the sweat and the emotions of combat, and so it doesn't become so emotional for you and so personalized."

The intensity of the trauma suffered by an individual who kills another is proportional to the distance between the two. The soldier is disturbed less by the use of a grenade than a rifle, especially if the killer does not have to see or hear the screams of his victim. At hand-to-hand combat range the instinctive resistance to killing becomes strongest.

During World War II the U.S. Army lost 504,000 men due to psychiatric collapse. A World War II study showed that after 60 days of continuous combat 98 percent of all survivors become psychiatric casualties. The use of pre-combat drugs to cushion the psychological damage is today under consideration despite evidence that it could result in creating "armies of sociopaths."

How does the soldier overcome his unwillingness to kill? In a word, authority. A 1973 study investigated the factors that make soldiers fire. They found that the individuals with no combat experience assumed that "being fired upon" would convince them to fire. However, veterans listed "being told to fire" as the most critical factor. The bonding of the leader with the soldiers under his command is also important, as are his demands for kills. This places great stress on the leader, for if the men under his command withstand attack and engage in a heavy exchange of gunfire, he will experience guilt over the loss of lives incurred.

The willingness of individuals to comply with authority was borne out in Stanley Milgram's studies at Yale University on obedience and aggression. His experiments showed that people could be manipulated into inflicting a (seemingly) lethal electrical charge on a total stranger. The subjects believed they were causing great physical pain, but despite their victim's pleas for them to stop, 65 percent continued to obey orders, increase the voltage, and inflict shocks.

As war has become more efficient, the training and conditioning for it have resulted in increased kill ratios. The effectiveness of modern conditioning techniques that make possible killing in combat is irrefutable, and their impact on the modern battlefield is enormous. In addition, if men reflect too deeply upon the enemy's common humanity, they risk being unable to kill. Usually killing in combat is reflexive; the human being becomes a weapon. It is later that the psyche responds. This can be a lifelong process in which the killer attempts to rationalize and accept his actions. This process was described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her research on dying. Grossman contends that, as in dying, killers go through emotional stages to reach acceptance of their actions, including denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. So likewise, he says, do nations.

Anti-war demonstrations and the animosity expressed by some Americans against soldiers who had served in Vietnam made their process of acceptance most difficult. Another factor was that Vietnam combatants were significantly younger than in any previous American war. During the most vulnerable and susceptible stages of life, some turned to marijuana and, to a lesser extent, opium and heroin. In addition, psychiatric casualties were treated with drugs. Both varieties of drugs helped to submerge combat-stress reactions. At best they served to delay the inevitable confrontation with the pain, suffering, grief, and guilt that the Vietnam veteran repressed and buried deep inside himself. Several chapters of Grossman's book deal with post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by Vietnam veterans. "Statistics on the number of suicides among Vietnam vets, on the tragic number of homeless Vietnam vets, on divorce rates, drug-use rates, and so on, give evidence that something has occurred that is significantly, startlingly different from that occurring after World War II or any other war ever encountered."

Grossman sees a connection between battle deaths and the increasing violence in U.S. society. He asks: "Are the same processes the military used so effectively to enable killing in our adolescent, draftee soldiers in Vietnam being indiscriminately applied to the civilian population of this nation?" Grossman points out that young people see on television or at the movies detailed, horrible suffering and killings. They are learning to associate this violence with their favorite soft drink, candy bar, and the close contact of their date. Firing ranges with pop-up targets and immediate feedback, just like those used to train soldiers, are found in interactive video games. Gang leaders and members demand violent activity and create diffusion of individual responsibility and a loosening of family and religious ties. The author says we are learning to kill and we are learning to like it.

This tremendous book is made especially interesting by its many concrete examples and quotations of men in battle dating from the Assyrian destruction of Babylon in 689 B.C. through the post-Vietnam War years. It should be read by every young person considering military enlistment, school counselors, clergy, politicians, parents, and military personnel. What I found disappointing was that the author, after his years of research, could still say, "It may indeed be necessary to engage in a war." How can he make such a statement? His book provides conclusive evidence of the harrowing results of killing on a human being. Somehow each individual must find the courage to say "no" to killing and nations must find means other than war to resolve conflicts.

Reviewed by Polly Mann, a founder of Women Against Military Madness, a Minneapolis group with 2,300 members.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1996

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1996, page 26. Some rights reserved.

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