Thursday, September 9, 2010

On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman




Brigadier S.S. A. Marshal was a U.S. Army historian in the Pacific and European theaters during World War II. He and his team of assistants interviewed thousands of soldiers in more than four hundred infantry companies immediately after they had been in close combat with German or Japanese troops. He asked these soldiers what it was that they did in battle. His singularly unexpected discovery was that, of every hundred men along the line of fire during a period of encounter, an average of only 15 to 20 soldiers “would take any part of their weapon”, 'whether the action was spread over one day, or two days or three”. Marshall's results were consistently the same: only 15 to 20 percent of American riflemen in close combat during World War II would fire at the enemy. Those who would not fire did not run or hide. In many cases they were willing to risk great danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages, but they simply would not fire their weapons at the enemy, even when faced with repeated waves of banzai charges.

General Marshal's findings were received with shock and disbelief. Although some faults were found in Marshal's credentials and methodologies- raising questions about the exact percentages of 'conscientious objectors'' within the ranks- these proved insufficient to discredit his general results. Furthermore, other historians began to ransack the military archives and found plenty of evidence, previously overlooked or unexplained, that the situation was exactly the same in previous wars.

In the 1860's the French general Ardant du Picq noted the tendency of his soldiers to fire uselessly into the air, over the heads of their enemy. At the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863 Benjamin McIntyre observed that “a company of men can fire volley after volley at a like number of men at not over a distance of fifteen steps and not cause a single casualty.” After the battle of Gettysburg 27,574 muskets were recovered from the battle field. Of these, nearly 90 percent were loaded, 12 thousand loaded more than once, 6 thousand had from three to ten rounds loaded in the barrel. One weapon had been loaded twenty-three times. The obvious conclusion is that most soldiers were not even trying to kill the enemy. Commanding a British platoon in World War I Lieutenant George Russell stated that they only way he could stop his men from firing into the air was to draw his sword and walk down the trench, “beating the men on the backside and telling them to fire low.” A study of more than one hundred nineteenth and twentieth century battle by the British Operational Establishment determined that the killing potential of the units considered was much greater than actual casualties, confirming Marshal's conclusions that a large percentage of infantrymen were unwilling to take part in combat. ... [etc.]. The evidence was there all along. Nobody had looked at it.

The question is why. Why did these men fail to fire or fire ineffectively over the heads of the enemy?


As I examined this question and studied the process of killing in close combat from the standpoint of an historian, a psychologist, and a soldier, I began to realize that there was one major factor that was missing from the common understanding of killing in combat, a factor which answers this question and more. That missing factor is the simple and demonstrable fact that there is in most men ( excluding around 2% who are psychopaths) an intense resistance to killing their fellow man. A resistance that grows in strength the closer one approaches the face of the enemy and is so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.

To some, this makes 'obvious' sense. “Of course it is hard to kill someone,” they would say. “I could never bring myself to do it.” But they would be wrong. With the proper conditioning and the proper circumstances [outlined in this book], it appears that almost anyone can and will kill. Others might respond, “Any man will kill in combat when he is faced with someone who is trying to kill him.” And they would be even more wrong, for, as we have observed through extensive study, throughout history the majority of men on the battlefield would not attempt to kill the enemy, even to save their own lives or the lives of their friends.

Although there are several other factors that can contribute to individual stress in combat situations, including exposure to danger , exhaustion, the possible loss of one's own life and those of one's comrades, ultimately the effort to overcome the natural, innate resistance to killing another man face-to face is the source of all the psychiatric disorders associated with combat and the varied Post-Traumatic Syndromes that arise thereafter. It is virtually certain that any man or woman who has killed an enemy in close combat will suffer psychiatric disorders, possibly for the rest of his or her life. Even those who have experienced the intensive, up-to-date training now provided by modern armies to overcome their resistance to killing, where they have been in proximity to combat but have not themselves killed another man , regardless of the after -action remedies now provided, are likely to suffer some degree of PTSD.

When we consider the matter, should we really be surprised to discover that it is not danger that causes psychiatric stress? And is the existence of an intense resistance to participating in aggressive situations really so unexpected?

To a large extent our society – particularly our young men- actively and vicariously pursues physical danger. Through roller coasters, action and horror movies, drugs, rock climbing, white-water rafting, scuba diving, parachuting, hunting, contact sports, and a hundred other methods, our society enjoys danger. But facing aggression and hatred in our fellow citizens is an experience of an entirely different magnitudes. All of us have had to face hostile aggression. On the playground as children, in the impoliteness of strangers, in the malicious gossip and comments of acquaintances, and in the animosity of peers and superiors in the workplace. In all of these instances everyone has known hostility and the stress it can cause. Most avoid confrontations at all costs, and to work ourselves up to an aggressive verbal action – let alone a physical confrontation – is extremely difficult.

Simply confronting the boss about a promotion or a raise is one of the most stressful and upsetting things most people can ever bring themselves to do, and many never even get that far. Facing down the school bully or confronting a hostile acquaintance is something that most will avoid at all costs. Many medical authorities believe it is the constant hostility and lack of acceptance that they must face – and the resulting stress- that are responsible for the dramatic rate of high blood pressure in African Americans.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of psychology, states that in post-traumatic stress disorders “ the disorder may be especially severe or longer lasting when the stressor is of human design.” We want desperately to be liked, loved, and in control of our lives; intentional, overt, human hostility and aggression – more than anything else in life – assaults our self-image, our sense of control, our sense of the world as a meaningful and comprehensible placed, and, ultimately, our mental and physical health.

The ultimate fear and horror in most modern lives is to be raped or beaten, to be physically degraded in front of our loved ones, to have our family harmed and the sanctity of our homes invaded by aggressive and hateful intruders. Death or debilitation by disease and accident are statistically far more likely to occur than death or debilitation by malicious action, but statistics do not calm our fears. It is not fear of death and injury from disease or accident but rather acts of personal depredation and domination by our fellow human beings that strike terror and loathing in our hearts. The sense of impotence, shock and horror in being so hated and despised as to be debased and abused by a fellow human being causes a psychological harm greater than any injury.

Thus the average citizen resists engaging in aggressive and assertive activities and dreads facing the irrational aggression and hatred of others. The soldier in combat is no different: he resist the powerful obligation to engage in aggressive and assertive behavior, and he dreads facing the irrational aggression and hostility embodied in the enemy.

Indeed, history is full of tales of soldiers who have committed suicide or inflicted terrible wounds upon themselves to avoid combat. How could it be fear of death that motivates these men to kill themselves? Like many of their civilian counterparts who commit suicide, these men would rather die or mutilate themselves than to act or be acted upon aggressively in a hostile world. Such circumstances defile their humanity. When training and circumstance overcome soldier's innate resistance to aggressive behavior in close combat, deep seated and long-lasting psychiatric disorders , albeit of varying orders and degrees, invariably result.


Killing at a distance with bombs at thirty-thousand feet, with artillery, jointly operated machine-guns, rockets, tanks, mortars, drones , through the telescopic sights from a sniper's rifle, or firing at the backs of a fleeing enemy represent an experience of a different magnitude, less subject to resistance and usually have less damaging psychological effects than close combat. It is when a soldier can see the eyes of his enemy, the expressions on his face or observe him doing any number of human things like eating a bowl of rice , pissing on a bush in the jungle, or his wife and children immediately gather around his corpse, or are among those that have been injured or killed, or are on display as photos in his personal effects that the difficulties arise.

2 comments:

  1. At this point in history there can be no doubt that a resistance to killing one's fellow man is there and that it exists as a result of a powerful combination of instinctive, rational, environmental, hereditary, cultural and social factors. It is there, it is strong, and it gives us cause to believe that there just might be hope for mankind after all.

    Throughout this book we have observed the relevant factors in military training that help soldiers overcome their innate resistance to killing. Men are recruited at a psychologically malleable age. They are distanced from their enemy psychologically. They are given the threat of authority, the absolution and pressure of groups. New training techniques have improved the performance of our soldiers, more than ninety percent will fire their weapons directly at the enemy in close combat. Even so they are resistant and will have trouble killing. They shoot in the air; they find non-violent acts to occupy themselves. And so they still need to be conditioned, the military order cannot be relaxed. The condition and order is astoundingly effective but even then, the psychological price still must be paid.

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  2. First published in 1995, "On Killing" has become required reading at the FBI Academy, the DEA Academy, its on the USMC Commandant's Required Reading List, required reading at West Point, the U.S. Airforce NCO Academy and many other military schools. Its views do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense, The U.S. Military Academy at West Point or Arkansas State University,

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