Dave Grossman’s “On Killing”

For a student playing Call of Duty in the Common’s Lounge, killing is easy.

The gun fires pixels of realistic looking bullets that spray realistic looking blood out of a mannequinn who crumples and dies. Or flies out of a window. Or explodes. The fake man dies easily. Killing a real person – not so easy.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman begins his visceral dissection in his new book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” of how humans bring themselves to kill another with a warning that it is “a nigh-insurmountable psychological obstacle for the combatant”. Grossman bases most of his statements upon the large body of works of Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, a famed combat historian of World War II and the Korean War. Throughout the book, published by Back Bay Books in 1996, Grossman details a variety of factors, triggers and other elements that impact the human psyche when exposed with the supreme horror of war: the conscious taking of a life.

Grossman’s definition of killing is detailed simply as “The act of killing another human being, the act of destroying another bundle of ideas, emotions and histories.” One of the formost details of the book, one which Grossman repeats again and again, is that the justifications that a soldier gives himself and the rationalizations that his peers give the soldier are important factors in the mechanism of killing. The amount of psychological training that it takes to kill another human being in an informed and reasoned way is very considerable.

Grossman explores many other considerations in the killing of a human: the demands of an authority figure, promised absolution by a peer, and the predisposition of the killer towards the subject, as well as many other exemplified factors. Grossman’s writing style is militaristic yet informed. He cites his sources and uses graphic examples and stories that best illustrate the psychological, sociological and physical consequences of killing. Often abstracted factors like the range between a soldier and his target, different cultural considerations, and other “points of fortitude” all shape up to an image of the human mind put under immense strain at the taking of a life.

Grossman touches on propaganda and mass media at times, citing that our current society is home to a rampant desensitization of violence. Grossman warns that such thoughtless killings may soon be a thing we think only secondary to actually playing a game. Grossman draws on Milgram, Pavlov and Jung, all famed psychologists, in his discussion of the aftereffects that war can have on the fragile human mind, as well as on the justified and seemingly guiltless psyche.

Grossman also notes the empowerment that one can obtain in killing and terrorizing another, noting in a chapter on “The Dark Power of Atrocity” that “once a combatant has accepted his enemy as less than human, he has fallen into a psychological trap.” Much like the dehumanization and systematic torture of inmates at Guantanamo Bay and Zimbardo’s Prison experiments, Grossman cautions strongly against robot-like genocide perpetuated ad nauseam. The analyses Grossman makes in “On Killing” extend to many other arenas of psychological preparation as well, and Grossman compares and contrasts human killing to the killing of animals and the killing of the world and our environment throughout the book.

In all, “On Killing” is an amazing read. Grossman gives us rampant insight into the world of a military man faced with soldiers who on an unconscious level don’t want to shoot and kill other humans, but must do so to stay alive. Grossman’s book fills in the blanks on what we do not, and cannot, know or understand about a soldier’s mindset in a combat situation. The taking of a life is a measured and important psychological process that requires careful justification. Grossman gives us a boost on the ground glimpse of what it is like to be in a combat situation, to be the killer “over there”.

“Why can’t Johnny kill?” Grossman asks the reader. “Because Johnny wasn’t made to kill.”, he answers.

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