RHC 2017: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book about war.

“Looking another human being in the eye, making an independent decision to kill him, and watching as he dies due to your action combine to form one of the most basic, important, primal, and potentially traumatic occurrences of war.” (Loc 883)

Well, this one was about as much fun as it sounds. I really wanted to just read Grunt by Mary Roach, but I accepted the mandate to read things that challenged me, and so I wound up with this book-length study of what killing someone does to a person – On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and in Society by Dave Grossman.

There were a number of things I appreciated about this book. Grossman is a former lieutenant colonel and West Point instructor, and this stuff is not theoretical for him. He writes with deep sympathy for the men and women who carry out violent orders (as well as for soldiers who are unable to do so) and recognizes the immense physical and psychological distance between the people giving those orders and the soldiers carrying them out.

Grossman also rightly calls out the role of language in distancing not only soldiers but the general public from the act of killing, thus rendering it more palatable. “Collateral damage.” “Casualties.” “Engaging a target.” He writes about his subject with an admirable balance of sensitivity and objectivity that allows him to write about what, for me at least, is unfathomable, coming at this from my incredibly privileged and civilian position (the closest to real violence I’ve ever been was a library fist fight, in which I was thankfully a nonparticipant).

Grossman spends a fair amount of time on what I’d consider good news – it’s really hard to get most people to kill other people. He cites research that found firing rates as low as 15-20% in World War II (the one we like to hold up as an uncomplicated struggle against evil). Civil War infantry inflicted a far lower casualty rate than you’d expect, given the front lines’ short distance from each other. Artillery was another story altogether, though that may have had as much to do with the fact that firing a cannon was a group effort as anything else. The book is also full of interviews with soldiers who refused to fire in firing squads, who let an enemy combatant go, who said things like “Let ’em go; we’ll get ’em some other time.”

But there’s bad news too. Military leadership has been devising ways to get around the average human’s repulsion for killing its own species throughout military history, and with great success. A large section of the book is devoted to the Vietnam War and its astonishing 90% firing rate, as well as the unprecedented number of PTSD cases that conflict produced. He suggests an update to the fight or flight stress reaction we’re all familiar with, adding two additional response options – posture and submit. These two responses to aggression are reserved for human threats, and they make a lot of sense to me. There’s quite a bit of posturing in the military as well, but the struggle is to translate that posture response into a willingness to harm. Distance is a key component – the further away you are from your enemy, physically, culturally, or technologically (it’s much easier to fire through a sniper scope or night vision goggles).

I did struggle quite a bit with the introduction and the final chapters, in which he makes very strident claims that horror movies and violent video games are contributing to an out-of-control death spiral of our civilization. I realize I’m only one point of anecdata, but I know that I’m one of the least likely people on the planet to commit a violent act, in spite of my genre preferences. Blaming video games for violence seems like a vast, vast oversimplification, and banning violent games sounds ridiculous to me when I can think of something else that could be banned for a much greater effect here in this ridiculous country. There were also some really squicky conclusions drawn about violent video games and black violence that made me feel like I was drowning in enormous and complex unconsidered factors.

I am also uncomfortable with analogies between sex and killing. I do agree that we’re horribly repressed when it comes to honestly confronting death, and I also agree that something is wrong when children don’t understand how their food becomes food. But I also think that death and carnivore diets are not at all the same thing as killing another human being. Sex, death, and food are fairly hardwired into our human bodies and brains. Killing each other is not, as his own text argues at length. I understand that he is advocating for a more honest and transparent reckoning with what our military is doing, but the metaphor still bothers me.

Overall, though, this book took me down an unflinching path to a dark place that I think I needed to go to. I live in a country that pours over $600 billion dollars into its all-but-unstoppable war machine, which is involved in seemingly eternal international conflicts. I do think that non-military US citizens have a very serious responsibility to be aware of what our country does and what we’re asking our volunteer forces to do, and this book cut straight to the upsetting primal heart of it.

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