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…On On Killing

Posted by Steve on November 22, 2008

Over the past week, in addition to fucking up severely and repeatedly at work, I read the book On Killing: the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col. (Ret.) Dave Grossman. It’s an interesting book that I picked up at Barnes & Noble while trying unsuccessfully to find a copy of Hobbes’s Leviathan.

In this book (which was written in the mid-90s), Grossman appears to have… well, I can’t exactly say how many main points. That’s one of the problems with the book, from a “sit-down-and-read-this” perspective: it verges on the meandering in its breadth. I think this may have been intentional, though, as early on in it Grossman states that his intent is to write a seminal work to get the ball rolling in the field of “killology” (he parallels his work to Kinsey and Masters & Johnson in establishing the field of sexology). As a result, what the book contains includes hypotheses and attempts to entheorize that:

  1. Normal humans have an inherent reluctance to kill each other, and historically this has included the majority of soldiers in combat
  2. Factors for overcoming this reluctance to kill include distance (physical and social/moral/mental) between killer and killed; group activity; rationalization and denial mechanisms; desensitization; an authority to shift responsibility to; and behavioral modification through classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning
  3. Following World War II, the U.S. and similar militaries altered their training methods to incorporate more of these factors (particularly desensitization and conditioning) in order to overcome soldier’s unwillingness to kill in combat
  4. The act of killing (or being psychologically prepared and committed to killing) is a uniquely traumatic detriment to a person’s mental health
  5. During the Vietnam War, U.S. military training achieved unprecedented success in overcoming the vast majority of soldiers’ unwillingness to kill at the same time there was an unprecedented failure of the support structures and methods needed to prevent the trauma of being able to kill from causing lasting psychological injury, hence the unprecedented epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam War veterans
  6. American civilian society is replicating the desensitizing and behavioral-modification aspects of military training that create the willingness to kill but not replicating the “obedience to command authority”-inculcating behavioral modification of military training that controls the when and why of actual killing, and the result is a constant increase in violent crime.

Like I said, he touches on a lot, and I’m leaving out some of his points. Unfortunately, I think that in his quest for breadth he sacrificed too much of depth, and I also think some of his points are given in too conclusory a manner, with the evidence just sort of gestured at. Still, I think the book’s interesting, and Sections I-VI provide an interesting, if at times annoyingly freshman intro-course sort of not-in-depth, survey of the psychology of killing (in combat). Section VII is entitled “Killing in Vietnam: What Have We Done to Our Soldiers?”. And while Section VIII (the 5-chapter section on Point 6) does, in my opinion, reflect a little too much of moral panic directed towards Violently Anarchic Breakdown of Society and blaming that Catastrophic Problem on Film, Television, and Video Games, for the most part Grossman tries to steer well clear of Jack Thompson/Tipper Gore territory (though Wikipedia indicates he may have gone there in later years), clearly stating that the difference in degrees of violent content between different works does matter, and even going so far as to extol various virtues of video games in general.

Also, Section VIII includes the truly wonderful Endnote 3:

But the situation is more complex. Correlation does not prove causation. To prove that TV causes violence you must conduct a controlled, double-blind experiment in which, if you are successful, you will cause people to commit murder. Clearly to perform such an experiment with human beings is unethical and largely impossible. This same situation is the foundation for the tobacco industry’s continued argument that no one has ever “proven” that cigarettes “cause” cancer.

There comes a point when, in spite of this type of reasoning, we must accept that cigarettes do cause cancer. Similarly, there comes a point at which we must accept the verdict of 217 correlation studies.

Correct reasoning or not, I love that endnote. I’d love it more if it were a footnote, though – endnotes are a pain in the ass, what with having to flip to the back of the book. Also, the endnotes are sparse, and I’m thinking if he’d used footnotes there’d have been more of them and I wouldn’t have felt so much like the Wikipedian Protestor.

My understanding is that Grossman wrote a sequel, On Combat: [Subtitle I can’t be bothered to look up] back in 2004. I’m curious about that, to see if it contains any analysis of the current war in Iraq, in light of the Vietnam War analysis in Section VII.

Actually, I want to quote a paragraph from Section VII. On page 283/284, if you want to be specific:

During the Vietnam era millions of American adolescents were conditioned to engage in an act against which they had a powerful resistance. This conditioning is a necessary part of allowing a soldier to succeed and survive in the environment where society has placed him. Success in war and national survival may necessitate killing enemy soldiers in battle. If we accept that we need an army, then we must accept that it has to be as capable of surviving as we can make it. But if society prepares a soldier to overcome his resistance to killing and places him in an environment in which he will kill, then that society has an obligation to deal forthrightly, intelligently, and morally with the psychological event and its repercussions upon the soldier and society. Largely through an ignorance of the processes and implications involved, this has not happened with the Vietnam veteran.

I tend to think largely in physical, concrete terms. You know, “If you can’t poke it, it ain’t real.” As a result, I’ve had difficulty with the concept of “support the troops” in a non-materiel context. Grossman explained it well for me, right there.

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