On Killing

Updated: 21 May 2008, 23:37

Originally written: 18 February 1996

Previously published in the Socialist Standard, May 1996
Edited by the original author for Capitalism’s Gravediggers

Book Review

On Killing
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
Little-Brown, Ca$34

Wartime killing, what can be and has been learned from it, and how that affects society as a whole, is the subject of Grossman’s book On Killing. It is a must read for any who believe that humans are killing machines, only restrained from killing by fear of punishment. Grossman also tangentially addresses both social and anti-social behaviour. Grossman accepts war as a requirement of human society, and provides little insight into solutions, but the value of the book is its presentation of an important facet of human nature with a generally scientific approach.

Grossman seems to have had three major points to make when writing this book. The first, and the focus of the first half of the book, is that soldiers have a very strong revulsion for killing. He presents compelling historical evidence from military historians, and their interviews with veterans, to support this claim. Grossman admits that some of the evidence is open to question, but overall it offers little room for doubt.

The second point is that U.S. Vietnam veterans have not had the necessary and traditional processes to facilitate the rationalization and acceptance of their killing experiences.

This has left them with a significant rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, manifesting itself as “recurrent and intrusive dreams and recollections,” “emotional blunting, social withdrawal, exceptional difficulty or reluctance in initiating or maintaining intimate relationships, and sleep disturbances. These symptoms can in turn lead to … alcoholism, divorce and unemployment.”

The third is that the techniques which have been used successfully by the military to bypass the human revulsion for killing are now in widespread use on youth.

Grossman explains the factors he believes most influence whether a soldier will kill, and finds predisposition to killing in only about 2 percent of soldiers.

The most startling evidence to many will be that in WW I and II, most soldiers (80-85 percent) did not even fire their guns, because they could not bring themselves to kill even when they were being fired at by the “enemy.”

Grossman tells us that the military then developed conditioning techniques, based on the “operant conditioning” pioneered by B.F. Skinner. In the U.S.-Vietnam war, only 5 percent of U.S. soldiers failed to fire. This evidences the degree to which human beings can be conditioned to do almost anything, and Grossman provides evidence from other studies showing similar results.

Perhaps most frightening is his discussion of using the same conditioning on society in general, and on youths in particular. Grossman argues that this conditioning is now the heart of many violent films and video arcade games. He does not fall into the trap of seeing every killing in film as creating sociopathic viewers. He relates that the U.S. military incorporates “justice” (the enemy is bad), and control in its conditioning, so that the soldier has a “reason,” and must be told to kill. In the films and video arcade games he criticizes, “justice” is often absent: killing is done for the sake of killing, and there is no control.

Grossman provides evidence to support his contention that this conditioning towards violence is actually having substantial results in U.S. society. Although a correlation between violence on TV, in film, and in video games, and violence in society does not prove causation, Grossman notes: there comes a point when, in spite of this type of reasoning, we must accept … the verdict of 217 correlation studies.

Grossman suggests that the solution to this societal conditioning may be: to censure (not censor) those who exploit violence for profit.

He has pointed to the real problem — profit — but does not see it.
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