Notes on Dave Grossman’s, “On Killing”

These are some of my notes and takeaways from the audiobook version of author and military psychologist Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.  This post contains some quotes, thoughts, and summary of some of the surprising look into the minds of those that have to perform the awful deed.  There is no particular order or structure to any of this.

“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” -Viktor Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor.

On leadership remorse, I found this quote from Grossman to be very intriguing.

When I interview combatants, many tell of remorse and anguish that they have never told anyone of before. But I have not yet had any success at getting a leader to confront his emotions revolving around the soldiers who have died in combat as a result of his orders. In interviews, such men work around reservoirs of guilt and denial that appear to be buried too deeply to be tapped, and perhaps this is for the best.

These quotes above were found as anecdotes to another subject in this book.  One subject that Grossman explores in depth is the concept of a distance buffer in battle.  He explains a concept that suggests that killing another person is a rather intimate experience.  But because humans have a natural aversion towards this (unless you’re a psychopath), we prefer to avoid that “intimacy” whenever possible.

Long range battle through something like like artillery, airplanes and ships affords almost no aversion to the command to kill.  Gross man declares he’s never came across any instance of emotional stress expressed to him from those engaging in long range warfare.  The buffer of long range is a growing attraction to modern warfare, perhaps partially explained by the emotional stress associated with it.

Medium range, where you can visibly identify your enemy but remain somewhat detached, such as throwing a hand grenade (which assumes you will not observe the explosion), is also preferable especially when you’re ground infantry.  One statistic observed from WW1 was the huge increase in hand grenade usage.  It’s a tool of warfare that allows soldiers to avoid the emotional trauma associated with killing.  That tool was exploited whenever possible.

Close range killing is avoided when possible.  One surprising observation learned was that of longer “ranged” blade weapons, which were preferred over shorter blade weapons.  This wasn’t done for just the obvious physical safety of range, much like modern warfare, but to avoid the intimacy and trauma of kill range.  A pike was chosen to distance a soldier from his subject just to avoid getting intimate with the act of killing.  In fact, Grossman explained how soldiers would even prefer a slashing and cutting action with their weapons as opposed to direct jabs and stabbing, which was apparently less intimate.

The next quote is speaking in regards to those soldiers who’ve complied in the mass executions of innocents.

The soldier who does kill must overcome that part of him that says that he is a murderer of women and children, a foul beast who has done the unforgivable. He must deny the guilt within him, and he must assure himself that the world is not mad, that his victims are less than animals, that they are evil vermin, and that what his nation and his leaders have told him to do is right. He must believe that not only is this atrocity right, but it is proof that he is morally, socially, and culturally superior to those whom he has killed. It is the ultimate act of denial of their humanity. It is the ultimate act of affirmation of his superiority. And the killer
must violently suppress any dissonant thought that he has done anything wrong. Further, he must violently attack anyone or anything that would threaten his beliefs. His mental health is totally invested in believing that what he has done is good and right.

That rationalization and justification extends not just to the worst acts of violence but even those who kill to defend themselves.  Grossman gets into this topic from a number of angles.  One of them is the “diffusion of responsibility.” When you’re in a group that participates in violence or killing, you feel like it was a group responsibility to perform that act rather than an individual one.  Therefore, that guilt is felt as only a fraction of what it would be if the act was performed individually.

The “justification” narrative resonates with something else I learned from a another author, professor and psychologist, Dan Ariely.  He has researched dishonesty in humans as well as animals.  Dan has concluded that us humans justify and rationalize our dishonesty.  In other words, our lies are perceived as necessary.  There’s some justification for saying or doing our bad deed and we rationalize that immoral act because it was right for that circumstance.  I haven’t read his books, but Dan often mentions these concepts in his blog and other online talks.  I do recommend learning about dishonesty in common everyday people.

If we really think about it, most immoral acts are justified with the same rationalization.  Consider a law enforcement investigator or prosecutor that may plant evidence or alter testimony to secure an arrest, leading to a conviction.  Or consider scenario most can relate to: dishonesty on our resumes or job applications.  I’ve often read how embellishing skills or slightly stretching our accomplishments is ok.  This doesn’t mean lying about completing a degree, but perhaps lying about how well we really understand a topic we were supposed to be educated in.  Perhaps we lie about how useful we really are with some skill.  Part of the rationalization for this is “It’s also the job of the interviewer to ascertain our abilities and adequately understand exactly how appropriate our skills are for that position.”  This rationalization helps justify or lead to many uncomfortable actions we may night otherwise perform in our lives.

The Israeli military psychologist Ben Shalit asked Israeli soldiers immediately after combat what most frightened them. The answer that he expected was “loss of life” or “injury and abandonment in the field.” He was therefore surprised to discover the low emphasis on fear of bodily harm and death, and the great emphasis on “letting others down.”

It goes on to say that same psychologist went on to discover that combat experience  decreased fear of death or injury.  “it is instead the fear of not being able to meet the terrible obligations of combat that weighs most heavily on the minds of combat soldiers.”

Here is another quote where Grossman reveals some other mindset realities of soldiers in combat (emphasis added by me):

There are deeper underlying causes for the psychiatric casualties suffered by soldiers in combat. Resistance to overt aggressive confrontationin addition to the fear of death and injury, is responsible for much of the trauma and stress on the battlefield. Thus, the Reign of Fear is represented as only one contributing factor in the soldier’s dilemma. Fear, combined with exhaustion, hate, horrorand the irreconcilable task of balancing these with the need
to kill, eventually drives the soldier so deeply into a mire of guilt and horror that he tips over the brink into that region that we call insanity. Indeed, fear may be one of the least important of these factors.

While we’ve all heard the reference “fight or flight” when confronted with dangerous situations, there are two other reactions soldiers may choose.  The terms discussed by Grossman are posture and submit.  The idea is pretty simple; Instead of actually hurting or killing your enemy, you intimidate or persuade them to submit.  Conversely, you don’t have to fight or run away, you can simply surrender.

A threatened baboon or rooster who elects to stand its ground does not respond to aggression from one of his own kind by leaping instantly to the enemy’s throat. Instead, both creatures instinctively go through a series of posturing actions that, while intimidating, are almost always harmless.  These actions are designed to convince an opponent, through both sight and sound, that the posturer is a dangerous and frightening adversary.  When the posture has failed to dissuade an intraspecies  opponent, the options then become fight, flight, or submission. When the fight option is utilized, it is almost never to the death.

Regarding fear in peoples lives, there is an anecdote I found thought provoking.

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 and debilitation by disease or accident are statistically far more likely to occur than death and debilitation by malicious action, but the statistics do not calm our basically irrational 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 average citizen resists engaging in aggressive and assertive activities and dreads facing the irrational aggression and hatred of others.