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On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society [Paperback]

Dave Grossman
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society 3.7 out of 5 stars (12)
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Book Description

1 Nov 1996
The twentieth century, with its bloody world wars, revolutions, and genocides accounting for hundreds of millions dead, would seem to prove that human beings are incredibly vicious predators and that killing is as natural as eating. But Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a psychologist and U.S. Army Ranger, demonstrates this is not the case. The good news, according to Grossman - drawing on dozens of interviews, first-person reports, and historic studies of combat, ranging from Frederick the Great's battles in the eighteenth century through Vietnam - is that the vast majority of soldiers are loath to kill. In World War II, for instance, only 15 to 25 percent of combat infantry were willing to fire their rifles. The provocative news is that modern armies, using Pavlovian and operant conditioning, have learned how to overcome this reluctance. In Korea about 50 percent of combat infantry were willing to shoot, and in Vietnam the figure rose to over 90 percent. The bad news is that by conditioning soldiers to overcome their instinctive loathing of killing, we have drastically increased post-combat stress - witness the devastated psychological state of our Vietnam vets as compared with those from earlier wars. And the truly terrible news is that contemporary civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army's conditioning techniques and - according to Grossman's controversial thesis - is responsible for our rising rates of murder and violence, particularly among the young. In the explosive last section of the book, he argues that high-body-count movies, television violence (both news and entertainment), and interactive point-and-shoot video games are dangerously similar to thetraining programs that dehumanize the enemy, desensitize soldiers to the psychological ramifications of killing, and make pulling the trigger an automatic response.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; 1st edition (1 Nov 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316330116
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316330114
  • Product Dimensions: 20.9 x 15 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 351,725 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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From the Author

The PAWNS know the TRUTH about the GAME, this is THEIR tale.
If you are a virgin preparing for your wedding night, or if you or your partner are having sexual difficulties, or if you are just curious ... then there are hundreds of scholarly books on the topic of sexuality available to you. But if you are a young (virgin) soldier or law enforcement officer anticipating your baptism of fire, or if you are a veteran (or the spouse of a veteran) who is troubled by killing experiences, or if you are just curious ... then, on this topic, there has been absolutely nothing available in the way of scholarly study or writing. Until now...

Review and comments on On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman:

...well written on a subject that has never before, to my knowledge, been drafted for public consumption.
General W.C. Westmoreland

...illuminating account of how soldiers learn to kill and how they live with the experience of having killed...This book concludes with an impassioned plea for regulating media violence through social censure and pressure. This surely, is a sensible and welcome recommendation.
Washington Post

An excellent book.
Dr. Joyce Brothers, in her nationally syndicated column

An important book that should be read by anyone in the profession of arms and by anyone concerned about violence in our Nation.
Marine Corps Gazette

On Killing is destined to become a classic.
Army (Journal of the Association of the U.S Army)

A tremendous book.
Peace Magazine

...both disturbing and oddly reassuring ... a valuable contribution, full of arresting observations and insights of the sort that make you alter the way you have thought about certain subjects, most notably the nature of battle and the dramatic rise in the murder rate that has taken place in the United States in the last two decades...powerful...persuasive...incisive...Grossmans case is too carefully presented, too well grounded in actual observations, not to be taken seriously.
New York Times

...a provocative look at how and why we kill...One can only hope On Killing has not arrived too late.
Stars and Stripes

...truly revolutionary.
Dr. Eduardo D. Faingold, Argentine and Israeli combat veteran,Assistant Professor of Spanish, Dept. of Languages, University of Tulsa

I want to congratulate you on your book. It is important both as research and as an argument for acknowledging the violence in our society and its roots.
George Levenson, Ph.D., Director of Informed Democracy

Colonel Grossman¹s perceptive study ends with a profoundly troubling observation. The desensitizing techniques used to train soldiers are now found in mass media -- films, television, video arcades -- and are conditioning our children. His figures on youthful homicides strongly suggest the breeding of teenage Rambos.
William Manchester, author and WWII vet

Paddy Griffith, Sandhurst history professor and author of Battle Tactics of the American Civil War and Forward into Battle.

...brilliant...a fine and necessary piece of work.
Arthur Hadley, author of Straw Giant

...a splendid establishes a new line of scholarly inquiry, which is a remarkable achievement.
Bill Lind, author of The Maneuver Warfare Handbook, Free Congress Foundation Fellow, and co-host of Modern War (a national cable TV show)

I enjoyed (if that is the right word to use) On Killing enormously, congratulations on a fine piece of work.
Richard Holmes, author of Acts of War and Sandhurst History Professor

...honest, gutsy, patient disclosure of what¹s happening to our military kids -- and civilian kids as well.
F. Andy Carhartt, West Point class of Œ45, Presbyterian minister

It is very good, thoughtful and helpful on a subject of great importance. Humanistic and pacifistic in the way of the best soldiers.
Dr. Ted Nadelson, Chief of Psychiatry, Boston VA Medical Center. deep appreciation for your book...because it said so many things I had felt were probably so, and because, also, it said so many new things.
Dr. Lloyd Gardner, the Charles and Mary Beard Professor at Rutgers

...this systematic examination of the individual soldier¹s behavior, like all good scientific theory making, leads to a series of useful explanations for a variety of phenomena...This important book deserves a wide readership. Essential for all libraries serving military personnel or veterans, including most public libraries.
Library Journal, Starred Review

...a provocative new book...the first scientific examination of how and why men kill in battle.
Little Rock Arkansas Democrat-Gazette explosive look at why there is so much killing not just in wars but in modern is a must read. I recommend it highly. His frightening, and should be a wake-up call to society. I couldn¹t put it down.
Walt Gochenour, WWII vet, in 82d Airborne Division Association Journal

A study of relevance to a society of escalating violence.
Publishers Weekly

...excellent explications of what goes through a soldier¹s mind during war.
Portland Oregonian

I congratulate you on writing an important book which I find very helpful in understanding the human condition. Indeed, it serves to greatly increase my belief in the basic goodness of my fellow man.
Ladislav R. Hanka

I am thankful for work like yours which promotes the slow but very sure process of maturation which I see occurring in the collective human race.
Alison Wilson, Ontario, Canada

I very much appreciate your challenging and perceptive look at warfare and the act of killing. You are right that it is a taboo topic in our culture. As a long time antiwar activist it was palpably painful to read; never-the-less I valued the information and discussions.
Gregory W. Frux, Brooklyn, NY

On Killing may be the On War of the 21st Century.
Michael Anton Laurano, Attorney at Law, Boston, Massachutetts

My sincere congratulations on your extremely interesting book. Besides the subject itself with all its implications for civil society and military establishments, my wife and I were most impressed with your balanced and broad presentation. The fact that a professional military can write for the widest spectrum of political and moral persuasions with conviction and tolerance speaks highly of your intellectual and human qualities...It is a fact that all the modern media everywhere, but particularly those in the Latin American subcontinents, are under the good and bad influence of the American products for the movies, TV, video games, etc. Even though the local levels of violence do not reach yet those prevailing in the worse derelict areas of large American cities, the trend is clear and points in the same direction. We hope that a translation of your book will soon be available for the benefit of Spanish speaking readers.
Herman Schwember, PhD, writing from Chile

My deepest congratulations on what I believe to be an extremely important book. I salute your bravery, courage and insight. Your work is indispensable for our future.
Bob Hughes, Chevy Chase, MD

Thanks for writing On Killing and being so straightforward in stating your case. It is a compelling, profoundly moving book. I am recommending it to my friends and at all my speaking engagements. Also, my sons, now 13 and 15, will be encouraged to read it as they get into their later teens and tackle coming-of-age personal issues.And thank you for caring and compassion. You may be a trained killer, but your life journey has crafted you into a warrior with heart -- the kind of male hero we need a lot more of in our society.
Gloria DeGaetano, National Speaker and Expert on Media Literacy,Author of Screen Smarts

For Further Information or Speaking EngagementsContact Colonel Grossman at:
The Killology Institute

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
One of the roots of our misunderstanding of the psychology of the battlefield lies in the misapplication of the fight-or-fight model to the stresses of the battlefield. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Combat is not like the movies! 9 Oct 2004
To read Grossman's gripping study of killing in a military environment requires a degree of courage from the readers. In fact, those Vietnam colleagues who are not travelling well may be better off not reading this book for it peels back the psychological layers of training to kill, and then the guilt that has been generated from being part of the harvesting of the body count. Importantly, the author recognises that Vietnam was different, for a variety of reasons, to any other war that we have fought.
Grossman has impeccable credentials. He rose from the rank of private to lieutenant colonel and served in the 82nd Airborne, 7th Infantry Division and the U.S. Rangers and as a psychology professor at West Point.
After the Second World War, the British and Americans studied the phenomenon of non-firers. American studies confirmed that in battles on 15-20% of the troops fired to kill. In some situations where several riflemen were together firing at the enemy, others in the group would take on supporting roles (getting ammunition, tending the wounded etc.). There was a conspiracy of silence over the non-firers and those involved in a conspiracy to miss, even when their lives were endangered. The British confirmed that among the Argentinean troops in the Falklands, there was a similar rate of non-firers.
However, by the time of the Vietnam War, training techniques had been changed and the firing rates were around 95%. Herein lies the root of the problem. As a result of the non-firers, training methods were re-designed to remove the moral dilemma of taking human lives. Recruits were trained to shoot body shaped targets, not bullseyes and recruits were rewarded for "kills".
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
At a time when high-profile juvenile killers fill the airwaves, Grossman's book sheds some useful light on what is going on. It's not availability of guns -- guns were much *more* available fifty years ago, yet teen school killers were unknown! As Grossman points out, even soldiers who are given guns and ordered to kill find it difficult. To make it easier for them, the military have developed various programs of conditioning and desensitization to overcome their inborn human resistance to killing fellow humans. Sadly, Grossman points out, we have replicated these programs almost exactly in violent movies and videogames, causing inhibitions against killing to be much lower among civilians than they used to be. Grossman's work should be at the center of discussion regarding violence in contemporary society.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars probably the most definitive authority on PTSD 11 Sep 2002
This book has been an excellent source in my research as an aspiring Military Anthropologist. Grossman's attention to details of associative learning (notably the role of the Drill SGT) during recruit training plus the behavioural changes which take place as a foreseeable result of transforming from Civilian to Soldier (whilst performing within the "Theatre of Operations")are quite astonishing. His anaysis of Ivan's Pavlov and B.F Skinner's psychological models are also impressive.
In short, this is a must-have for anyone interested in undertaking research in combat stress and PTSD within the context of the Modern Western Soldier. I particularly recommend this book as a tool for Vietnam research.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars profound exploration of a taboo subject 21 April 1999
By A Customer
As both a psychiatrist and the daughter of a combat veteran, I am struck by the depth and honesty of this book. LtCol. Grossman's work has allowed me to understand things that previously baffled me, regarding both human nature and my own family dynamics. People who ask, "Why are American children killing each other?" should be directed to read this book.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars profound exploration of a taboo subject 21 April 1999
By A Customer
As both a psychiatrist and the daughter of a combat veteran, I am struck by the depth and honesty of this book. LtCol. Grossman's work has allowed me to understand things that previously baffled me, regarding both human nature and my own family dynamics. People who ask, "Why are American children killing each other?" should be directed to read this book.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Grossman has in this book condensed the huge amount of psychological drivel that has recently been heard on why children kill to a concise and readable explanation. He has outlined how the military has refined its methodology over the years and has succesfully translated that success into our modern culture. This book not only lays open the responsiblility for why our children are killing more and more, it also puts a name on how to stop the violence. This is the finest work on this subject to come along in the last twenty years.
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but not presented well 19 May 2004
By A Customer
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an extremely interesting book and well worth reading. It contains thought-provoking insights on the business of intra-specific killing where humans are concerned, both in war and within societies. There is particular focus on the Vietnam War, and the sixth part of the book is devoted to an exploration of how what has gone before bears on society, particularly the entertainment industry.
Whilst I strongly recommend that anyone interested in the subject should read this, there are things to be aware of : there is a great deal of assertion with not as much argument as it deserves; there is not insubstantial repetition, which can be a bit wearing; the general standard of writing is not particularly high, and detracts from the impression of scolarship.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Nice try but wide of the mark
Although one must laud the author for his efforts to bring to light such a murky and unpleasant topic, his methods are unscientific and arguements unsound. Read more
Published on 25 Nov 2008 by D McC
5.0 out of 5 stars Uncommon sense
The book starts with the surprising observation that only 15-20% of infantry soldiers in World War 2 actually fired their rifles. Read more
Published on 18 Mar 2008 by Youngs
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
This is a engrossing book about what actually happens in combat, and how it affects the killer. I was a little hesitant in buying this, after all, what sort of weirdo wants to... Read more
Published on 5 Sep 2006 by Arheddis Varkenjaab
5.0 out of 5 stars A Study of "Killology"
On Killing is a "must read" for all combat soldiers! Will I be able and willing to kill in combat? If and when I do, what are the short and long term psychological... Read more
Published on 20 July 2006 by Steen Lykke Laursen
5.0 out of 5 stars Daring and insightful
A professional "killer" (ex army officer) that argues that contemporary western man is strongly inclined not to kill not even when in danger may sound like a paradox. Read more
Published on 18 April 2005 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars On school yard shootings in America
Every time there is a new school yard shooting in this country (like today), I recall the final, ominous chapter in Dave Grossman's book.
What else is there to be said?
Published on 21 April 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars THE CONCEPT OF ANXIETY
This is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. If you look at the concept of "hate" and how it is just as psychologically damaging as killing itself, it... Read more
Published on 13 Mar 1999
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