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

In writing this review of the book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, I found myself writing a preemptive defence against any attacks that might arise against this book when I recommended it. But given the title (the subtitle is key, but likely missed), and a couple comments I received on Goodreads regarding my reading this book, I find necessary a preemptive, apologetic justification, for this is one of the best non-fiction secular books I have read, and I highly recommend it to a wide audience. To go into the details of all I learned would reduce the work that the author put into his research and would thus nullify his arguments, and because what he argues is controversial and novel, I shall not risk this. Moreover, to analyse the book point-by-point would require restating much of it and would thus result in a shorter book, so I shall not waste our time with that. This shall instead be an evaluation of the areas which especially engaged me, the merit of his writing, the questions he asks, and the importance (to me and, likely to you) of the answers. Finally, I shall explain why I give this only four out of five stars. 

Surprising Statistics and the Science of ‘Killology’ 

Lt. Col. Grossman does not perform a cold, merely scientific study of the process of killing and its psychological effects solely for the sake of an academic endeavour. Rather, he evaluates everything with a purpose: Under what conditions do persons come to the decision and act of killing and what are the effects of killing, so that we may better understand the human person, the military as composed of individuals, the current state and the future of military training, and how these questions are not only relevant but essential to the health, healing, and building up of society. (All these are related especially to American society.) His extensive study of human beings’ natural aversion to killing, seen throughout history and especially in the last century when such studies were performed, makes up much of the first portion of this book, creating the groundwork for the remainder. Grossman then deals with how people overcome this aversion to killing, and how militaries over millennia have trained or conditioned men to overcome it. He goes through these topics with a fine-toothed comb, analysing firing rates in different wars; bullet-to-kill ratios; psychological casualty rates; military training in different countries and different periods of history; the different psychological effects of killing at different distances (from bombings to sniping to rifle range to knifing to hand-to-hand combat), as well as the effect on would-be targets at such distances; the factors that come into play in atrocities, and what allows even ordinary men to commit atrocities; and the social factors that help soldiers deal with the traumatic act of killing or being in combat. Some interesting findings, the arguments for and conclusions to which you shall have to read the book to learn yourself, are the relatively low psychological casualty rates of both bombers and survivors of bombings (such as the firebombing of Hamburg); the difference in firing rates between WWII and Vietnam, a difference of going from 10-15% in WWII to 90-95% in Vietnam; and the terrible effect that individual replacement (versus replacing an entire squad at a time) and one-year deployment periods (versus several years long) had on Vietnam soldiers. The section on Vietnam, near the end, to which Grossman devotes a significant portion of the book, is especially important, and much more so for Americans. These men are still alive, many of them, and Grossman shows how what we as a society did to these men continues in its negative effects through generations. 

The uniqueness of this book, besides the above comments, and the merit of the author come from Grossman’s background: an undergrad in history, a Master’s in psychology, and 24 years of military service. He uses each of these areas of personal knowledge and expertise to give a thorough and balanced view of the questions he is asking, questions of human nature, tradition, history, military procedure and training, and the importance of his work to us, individual and likely non-military members of society. Part of why I shall not comment in detail on his conclusions—particularly his final section, ‘Killing in America’, which uses the book’s prior 90% of research and analysis to then give us an understanding of how these psychological phenomena and military conditioning practices are responsible for the great increase of violence in the US—why I cannot explain this is because there are likely many articles and books that deal with certain conclusions he makes (especially the ones just referenced, on violence in America and its causes), but Grossman made the great effort to first establish a science of ‘killology’—the processes, hindrances, exceptional phenomena, and common phenomena of killing, especially but not limited to killing in combat. It is on this large and firm base that he makes his conclusions toward the end of the book. To do otherwise would result in flimsy arguments to answer difficult questions. And to his great credit, this book is stock full of quotes—from the many subjects he interviewed, from experts who evaluate in detail what he must spend only a portion on, and from many other subjects ranging from textbooks to poets and philosophers. Finally, his writing style is engaging and articulate for his profession and intent. The audiobook, which he narrates, is a good option as well (this is what I read). 

A ‘Virus of Violence’ — Addressing the Wounds

I have named some of the questions he asks, but his overall goal in establishing this science of ‘killology’ is to come to an understanding of why people kill, why they don’t, how their natural aversion is overcome—both in healthier ways and in detrimental ways—and how this helps us to make decisions not only in how our military is run, but in how we raise our children and in how we portray violence in film and video games. Grossman is not afraid to ask deep and pertinent questions regarding violence, killing, and PTSD—nor does he neglect to show how these questions and answers are relevant to all members of society. We live in a violent world, and violence in the form of war, school shootings, and gang violence surrounds us. And we must face it, come to understand it objectively, and address it honestly and directly—to do anything else will lead not only to its continuance but its increase. 

I think it should already be clear why I recommend this book so highly. But I shall emphasise that there is, in Grossman’s words, a ‘virus of violence’ in our world today, and especially in the US. I recently was in a conversation with someone who said that we are in a time of unprecedented peace in the world. To say this so shortly after the atrocities of blood, mass murder, and genocide of the 20th century reflects, in my opinion, a morbidly narrow understanding of human nature and of history. If we do not come to better understand not only the symptoms of the ‘virus’ but its sources, it will only grow worse. To address only the symptoms is, as Grossman writes, like giving morphine to a man with a gunshot wound and then telling him to go back into battle while he’s still bleeding out with a bullet inside him. Now I shall clarify that this ‘virus’ as Grossman calls it is not a literal disease to be cured—the problem lies in individual decisions, conscious or unconscious, for which we are accountable (his emphasis on morality, and not simply on psychology, makes me think he would agree). But there are factors that incline us as individuals to one choice or another, and we must understand them. This book, more than just a study on killing, has given me insight to the usage of drones, the usage of torture methods, the importance of society’s attitudes toward wars, the concepts of honour and glory in war, and the prudent usage of pharmaceuticals for mental illnesses or trauma. I think I can say with confidence that at least some of these issues are relevant to you. If you live in the US, a country where we can vote to affect these things, where we have high violence, and where the usage of antidepressants and other related pharmaceuticals is common, then I think you would benefit from reading this book. I would recommend it especially if you have children or teach children. The section on war and atrocity is graphic, but not unduly so. Grossman describes real events and occurrences accurately for the sake of understanding how they could have happened. It is graphic and explicit, but not gory nor grotesque. If you are the type who does not watch violent films or read violent books, I think you still might well appreciate this book. In fact, it gives us reasons to think more carefully about what we watch and what content we produce. A final compliment to Grossman: I think he does not fall into the attractive and easy world of extremes. This book does not encourage pacifism; it does not justify atrocities nor shame soldiers for killing; it will not tell you that video games or violent movies are bad, nor will it give you license to be careless in your views on or consumption of the entertainment industry’s products. It is well-considered, and Grossman’s arguments can be solidly chewed on before either being swallowed thoughtfully or deliberately rejected, whether in parts or in wholes. And that is a sign of a good argument. 

Nobody’s perfect, not even Freud 

Now why does it have only four stars? There are two primary problems I had with the book, the first of which I must discuss a bit and the second of which is more my preference. The first is that Grossman references and holds as an authority Sigmund Freud, without really questioning him or referencing any other ideas of philosophy and psychology (that is, in relation to Freud’s ideas that he mentions—he does mention other psychologists elsewhere). Grossman therefore makes some marked errors in the study of human nature with regard to killing and sex—both of which he holds as natural. While death in general is natural (that is, in accord with the world’s design), death of human beings, who are rational soul-body composites, is not natural. Yet sex is. This and other basic misunderstandings of human psychology and philosophy lead Grossman to some erroneous conclusions regarding the relationship between killing, death, and sex. I do not criticise him for disagreeing with my views on this. Rather, he simply made many assertions using, it seemed to me, only the authority of Freud as his basis (which Aquinas held as the weakest argument—the argument from authority). I believe he did this because it would have so expanded his book and formed too long a tangent than he wanted to deal with. However, I think my criticism a fair one, because this is one of the most important points of his book—human nature, and how killing and death, which he relates to sex, relate to human nature—and because he could have removed every comment on sex without detracting from the book (in fact, I think it would have improved it). 

I also want to note his assertion, early on in the book, that by removing the veil under which sex was formerly hidden as something ‘dirty’, we (western society, presumably) have been able to face sex directly and address the issues we developed in hiding it. He relates this to killing, how we do not want to look at it because it is uncomfortable and even repulsive, but it is still necessary for us to understand it. I disagree with his comparison, because killing is a sad necessity, and more often a tragic evil; but sex is mysterious, natural, and beautiful—and while we ought not to hide it as something dirty, we do need to protect it and not analyse it as something less than sacred. Reverence does not preclude, but rather enables, a deeper understanding of something. And so I find the sexual revolution not to have solved the very real problems we had regarding sex in the previous epochs, but rather to have created new and different problems. Grossman does not address this. Again, he is free to disagree with me. But his lack of comment on the problems which remain or have increased regarding sex—pornography, child pornography, sex trafficking, sexual abuse, marital infidelity, sex among minors, contraception—leaves his assertion naked and odd-looking, as though he thinks by making sex something common and totally unhidden we have not gone over into some other horrid place at least as bad as the one we sought to escape from. I have so spent my words here not just to criticize, but to provide a brief alternative to his views, so you might read him still, but with better clarity as you form your own thoughts. 

Family Remedy 

My second criticism is of his conclusion. The final section, ‘Killing in America’, was excellent, except for his remedy to the problem. I do not know whether I disagree with his remedy, but I found it all too briefly argued, when it needed much more thorough discussion. Moreover, he stated that the remedy, which was based on policy reform, would likely not truly remedy the ‘virus of violence’ in America. I agree. Yet he argued for no solution that I recall other than policy, and I feel quite free to say this is inadequate since he himself said that it likely isn’t enough. I further consider the final section unsatisfactory given that he came so close to yet sorely missed the real answer, which is raising children well and healing, promoting, and protecting the family. He hinted at the real answer in his subtitle for the section: ‘Violence in America: What are we doing to our children?’ Teachers and other role models shall have to instill in children the values and principles that help form them into virtuous men and women. They must exemplify these traits themselves and form good relationships with children, protecting them from the dangers Grossman warns us against. But most of all the family must be where this is done. The family has always been the primary educator, and where the family is lacking or broken we see the effects as deep wounds and terrible scars in individuals and in society as a whole—for the family is the ‘original cell of social life’.1 Perhaps Grossman did not argue this, or something else besides policy and law, because he knows that no policy can serve as a real remedy (although the government can defend marriage and the family to an extent); and perhaps he does not know how it shall be done. But I’d rather him have said that, if he so thinks, rather than give a weak argument for a partial solution and leave it at that. 

Yet in the end this was well worth my time, and, I think, quite likely worth yours. His questions are pertinent, his research enlightening, and his arguments thought-provoking and well worth considering. If you do read it, I would love to hear your thoughts! Send an email to christicaritas@icloud.com, or leave a comment below! And may your Independence Day be blessed wherever you live, filled with joy and friendship and good conversation (and maybe a good book, too!). 

1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2207. 

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