Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Compendium of Wisdom and Practical Advice – Part I of a Review of “On Combat” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman with Loren W. Christensen

With this review of “On Combat,” I am departing from past practices in The White Rhino Report. This is the first review of a book that I will offer as a multi-part discussion of the book. The reason is simple. There is simply so much meat in “On Combat” that I cannot adequately respond to it all within the confines of one Blog posting.

Last week, when I reviewed Lt. Col. Grossman’s first book, “On Killing,” I mentioned my friend, Kevin, who flies helicopters as part of the Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. In an e-mail conversation I had earlier today with Kevin, he talked about his anticipation of reading my reaction to the book he told me I must read next – “On Combat”:

“It will be interesting to see what you think about ‘On Combat’ (my personal Bible).”

Kevin is a West Point graduate who is the veteran of two deployments to Iraq. He knows a great deal about combat – from a historical, theoretical and experiential perspective. For someone like Kevin to call “On Combat” his “Bible” speaks to the fact that there is a mother lode of gold-plated wisdom and practical guidance for warriors contained within the almost 400 pages of this book. Yet the wisdom offered is practicable - not just for warriors on the battlefield - but for all citizens who fight to make this world a better place.

The full title of this sequel to “On Killing” is: “On Combat – The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace.” Collaborating with Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman on the writing of this book is Loren W. Christensen, a veteran of 29 years in law enforcement, including time served as a military police officer in Vietnam. In this book, Grossman has expanded his focus from a study of killing to the broader study of combat. The expansion takes on additional dimensions, because he now addresses a broader audience of warriors. In this book, the term “combat” refers not only to armed conflict on traditional fields of battle, but also to the deadly force situations that police officers often find themselves confronting. As further expansion of the concept of “combat,” the book also offers chilling evidence that hyper-realistic violent video games and certain other violence-filled entertainment vehicles are turning our children into pseudo-warriors – yet without the discipline and restraints that true warriors learn as part of their training and socialization.

In a sense, “On Combat” is really four books in one. It is a handbook for warriors to use on the battlefield and upon their return home. It offers a cornucopia of insights into how best to think about and process in a healthy way the complex experiences and emotions of being in combat. At a second level, it serves as a similar kind of manual for police officers faced with the need to use deadly force, or to respond to assailants who use deadly force. At a third level, the book serves as a briefing tool for those who would aspire to be what Grossman calls “Peace Warriors” – those dedicated to making the world as safe and healthy a place as possible for ourselves and our children. Finally, in its emphasis on the deleterious effects of violent media on the minds of children and teenagers, it serves as a manual for parents and educators who need to understand the depth of the problem and the seriousness of the danger.

What makes Grossman’s writing so compelling for me is the fact that he constructs his arguments and offers his case studies laid upon a solid foundation of experience, education and erudition. He quotes liberally – or, perhaps I should say “judiciously” – from the received wisdom of those who have gone before us. There are dozens of quotations from the Greek classics, from Scripture, from Shakespeare, from traditional hymnody and from a wide variety of wise writers and thinkers from the past. Such attributions add validity and texture to the contemporary examples that the authors offer to tell their stories and make their well-considered points.

Let me offer an excerpt from the fourth “handbook” I mentioned above – the section of the book that serves as a guidebook for parents and educators in addressing issues of children’s exposure to violent media:

“Until children are six or seven years old, they have great difficulty differentiating between fantasy and reality. That is why we do not use them as witnesses in court. We do not send people to prison on the word of a five-year-old, since kids at that age are so malleable and suggestible. When children between two and six years of age see someone on television getting shot, stabbed, brutalized, degraded, and murdered, those images are real to them, as real as anything in their young lives.” (Page 230)

In further explaining the impact of violent media upon children, the author invokes Socrates’ words in Plato’s “The Republic.” As I read these words – first penned over 2,000 years ago – I was struck by their immediate relevance to the issues we struggle with today in dealing with violence in our media:

“What is this education to be then? Perhaps we shall hardly invent a system better than the one which long experience has worked out, with its two branches for the cultivation of the mind and the body. And I suppose we shall begin with the mind, before we start physical training.

And the beginning, as you know, is always the most important part, especially in dealing with anything young and tender. That is the time when character is being molded and easily takes any impression one may wish to stamp on it.

Then shall we simply allow our children to listen to any stories that anyone happens to make up, and so receive into their minds ideas often the very opposite of those we shall think they ought to have when they grow up?

No, certainly not.

It seems, then, our first business will be to supervise the making of fables and legends, rejecting all which are unsatisfactory; and we shall induce nurses and mothers to tell their children only those which we have approved, and to think more of molding their souls with these stories . . . Most of the stories now is use must be discarded.

The worst of all faults, especially if the story is ugly and immoral as well as false – misrepresenting the nature of gods and heroes.

A child cannot distinguish between the allegorical sense from the literal, and the ideas he takes in at that age are likely to become indelibly fixed; hence the great importance of seeing that the first stories he hears shall be designed to produce the best possible effect on his character.” (Page 230)

Grossman takes this cogent argument into the 21st century with these follow-up comments:

“Think of the impact of violent media as a boot camp for kids, their own little basic training. As they sit before the tube, hour after hour, they learn that violence is good and violence is needed. They see it, experience it – and they believe it. The are inundated with the violence factor, but they never get the discipline. Now, if it troubles you that young soldiers have to go through a process of traumatization and brutalization, you should be infinitely more troubled that we are doing the same thing indiscriminately to our children without the safeguard of discipline . . . Our job is to protect our children, not rape their innocence when they are six. We can no more share our favorite violent movie (or TV show or video game) with our kids than we can share sex with them” (Pages 231)

The book also offers chilling clinical and neurological data that demonstrate the physiological and cognitive impact of a steady diet of watching violent TV and movies and of playing violent video games.

My four sons range in age from 25 to 33. When they were growing up, we tried to be careful and cognizant about these issues, but that was before the dramatic escalation in the level of realistic violence now available in high definition. The challenge for parents today is far more daunting that we faced when raising our sons. As I read Grossman’s words, I found myself saying a silent prayer of thanksgiving that my son and daughter-in-law show great wisdom, vigilance and restraint in monitoring the content of the media that their young daughter and son are exposed to. Reading this book should increase the level of understanding and vigilance of parents who have heretofore been oblivious to the effects of violent games and media on the minds of their children.

In Part II of my review, I will discuss the author’s tripartite depiction of the kinds of people that inhabit our world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.

Stay tuned.


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