On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Grossman’s work reports on a line of research started by Army historian and author of “Men Against Fire” S.L.A. Marshall. Grossman not only brings us up-to-date on this thesis, he shows us its ramifications for modern society-at-large.
A two-part thesis was advanced by Marshall and continued by Grossman and others.
First, humans, like other species, are reluctant to kill within their species. (Marshall noted that in World War II about 75% of soldiers would not fire on the enemy when they had the opportunity. There is evidence this was true for earlier wars as well.
Second, the percentage of soldiers firing on the enemy could be increased by training that conditions them to shooting targets that look more human. i.e. Instead of shooting bulls-eyes, they should at least shoot a shape that looks like the silhouette of a man’s head and shoulders.
It turns out that the ability to condition combatants proved correct. There was a progressive increase in genuine engagement of the enemy by soldiers in subsequent wars (i.e. the Korean and Vietnam Wars.)
Grossman goes on to say that this type of conditioning is not limited to soldiers and police officers. He suggests that video games in which gamers shoot at humans and humanoid creatures will desensitize players to trigger pulling. Many scoff at this idea because they think that he is saying that such games make killers. What he is suggesting is a bit more subtle than that. He is saying that a person who is pre-dispossessed to go on a killing spree will be less reluctant if they have undergone the conditioning of this type of gaming. In essence, an high barrier to going on a killing spree will be lowered.
Grossman covers many other issues related to killing, such as the importance of distance. One intriguing fact is that an infantryman that kills a single enemy soldier in war is more likely to have problems such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than a bombardier who drops bombs that may likely resulted in hundreds or thousands of deaths.
The book also talks about the role of authority, famously addressed by the Milgram experiments. Stanley Milgram found that most people would turn a knob that they believed was delivering a severe shock to a complete stranger, if they were told to do so by someone who seemed to be an authority figure.
I highly recommend this book for those interested in the subjects of:
– the role of violent video games in mass killings
– the psychological effects of killing