Thursday, August 09, 2007

If You Want to Understand: A Review of “On Killing – The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

Because most of the individuals who know me are aware that I love to read, they often recommend books that they think I would enjoy reading. Many of the books that I have reviewed in The White Rhino Report came to my attention through personal recommendations. “On Killing – The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is no different, except for the fact that at least a half dozen of my friends told me that I needed to read this book. The curious thing about their recommendations was that each individual expressed his feelings about this book in almost identical terms. Each of these warriors, knowing that they were speaking to someone who has not served in the military, used a phrase like: “If you want to understand . . . you need to read ‘On Killing’!”

They did not say, “If you want to understand me,” or “If you want to understand war,” or even “If you want to understand the heart of a warrior.” They left the statement hanging: “If you want to understand . . .” That truncated expression served as an all-encompassing statement that includes all of the above – and so much more.

Having read, and been captivated by, this singular book, I feel that I have begun to understand in a new way. Grossman, a decorated former Army Ranger, paratrooper and member of the faculty at West Point, has placed on the table for discussion what I would call The Warrior’s Secret. The overarching impression that Grossman left me with is that each warrior who has faced combat secretly struggles for the rest of his life with one of three powerful sets of emotions:

1) If he has been called upon to kill in battle, he wrestles with a haunting guilt over having overcome the basic human instinct not to kill our own kind. That wrestling can often lead to severe PTSD.

2) If he was faced with an opportunity to kill an enemy combatant, but chose not to kill, or found himself incapable of killing, he suffers from the secret shame and humiliation of having failed to carry out that which he was trained to do – that which defines a true warrior.

3) If he served in the military in a role that was not combat arms, or if he never had an opportunity to engage an enemy, he wonders how he would have responded if faced with that life-or-death decision. And he secretly feels like he never truly became a warrior.

For much of history, the warrior code made if difficult, if not impossible, for an individual to speak honestly about these struggles. Our military has come a long way in the past several generations in terms of understanding these psychological and emotional dynamics of warfare, and in terms of giving permission for veterans and active duty military personnel to speak openly and honestly about these formerly taboo topics. Grossman has carved out a second career in publicly and privately offering this explicit permission to those who have served in combat and who wrestle with these persistent struggles.

As soon as I finished reading the book, I placed a call to my friend, Kevin. He was one of those who had told me to read the book. He is a veteran of two deployments to Iraq. I wanted to test out on Kevin the validity of what I describe above as “The Warrior’s Secret.” Kevin not only confirmed that I was on the right track and was beginning to “Get it,” but he also added the following comments:

“Now you need to read Grossman’s next book – ‘On Combat.’ It is more comprehensive in scope than ‘On Killing.’ In each unit I have served in, we made sure that there was a copy of each of these books available to us to help us survive. They function as a sort of a psychological survival manual.”

(Based on Kevin’s recommendation, I immediately ordered “On Combat.” I plan to review that book within the next few days. Stay tuned!)

To give you a direct sense of how insightful and revolutionary Grossman’s writing is, I will share with you several excerpts. Grossman lays on the table the idea that historically in combat, many warriors have shied away from making a kill when they were given an opportunity to do so.

“The simple fact appears to be that, like S.L.A. Marshall’s riflemen of World War II, the vast majority of rifle- and musket-armed soldiers of previous wars were consistent and persistent in their psychological inability to kill their fellow human beings. Their weapons were technologically capable , and they were physically quite able to kill, but at the decisive moment each man became, in his heart, a conscientious objector who could not bring himself to kill the man standing before him” (Page 27)

“There is ample indication of the existence of the resistance to killing and that it appears to have existed at least since the black powder era. This lack of enthusiasm for killing the enemy causes many soldiers to posture, submit, or flee, rather than fight; it represents a powerful psychological force on the battlefield; and it is a force that is discernible throughout the history of man. The application and understanding of this force can lend new insight to military history, the nature of war, and the nature of man.” (Page 28)

“That the average man will not kill even at the risk of all he holds dear has been largely ignored by those who attempt to understand the psychological and sociological pressures of the battlefield. Looking another human being in the eye, making an independent decision to kill him, and watching as he dies due to your action combine to form the single most basic, important, primal and potentially traumatic occurrence of war. If we understand this, then we understand the magnitude of the horror of killing in combat. . . Why is this not often discussed? If Johnny can’t kill, if the average soldier will not kill unless coerced and conditioned and provided with mechanical and mental leverage, then why has it not been understood before?” (Pages 30-31)

Grossman makes a compelling case that the poor rate at which soldiers in World Wars I and II fired their weapons when called upon to do so led to a revolution in the way in which subsequent generations of soldiers were trained – using operant conditioning techniques introduced by Skinner. As a consequence, firing rates in Korea climbed, and soared even higher in Vietnam. The result was an alarming increase in the incidence of PTSD among returning soldiers and Marines. Grossman argues that we learned to do a better job of turning men into killing machines, but we did not learn how to help them cope with the aftermath of what we had trained them to do.

“In both the Berkun and Shalit studies we see indications that fear of death and injury is not the primary cause of psychiatric casualties on the battlefield. Indeed, Shalit found that even in the face of a society and culture that tells soldiers that selfish fear of death and injury should be their primary concern, 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. . . Research in this field has been that of blind men groping at the elephant – one grasps what he thinks is a tree, another finds a wall, and still another discovers a snake. All have a piece of the puzzle, but none is completely correct.” (Page 53)

Grossman offers a fascinating look into the theory and practice of inoculating recruits and military cadets against hatred and other psychological factors.

“Combining an understanding of (a) those factors that cause combat trauma with (b) an understanding of the inoculation process permits us to understand that in most of these military schools the inoculation is specifically oriented toward hate.

The drill sergeant who screams into the face of a recruit is manifesting overt interpersonal hostility. Another effective means of inoculating a trainee against the Wind of Hate can be seen in U.S. Army and USMC pugil-stick training during boot camp or at the U.S. Military Academy and the British Airborne Brigade, where boxing matches are a traditional part of the training and initiation process. When in the face of all of this manufactured contempt and overt physical hostility the recruit overcomes the situation to graduate with honor and pride, he realizes at both a conscious and unconscious levels that he can overcome such overt interpersonal hostility. He has become partially inoculated against hate.” (Page 82)

In the chapter entitled “The Burden of Killing,” Grossman articulates what I see as his primary premise – and thereby offers his primary gift to the warrior community: opening up for discussion – both public and private – the secret burden that each warrior carries within his heart.

“The soldier in combat is trapped within this tragic Catch-22. If he overcomes his resistance to killing and kills an enemy soldier in close combat, he will forever be burdened with blood guilt, and if he elects not to kill, then the blood guilt of his fallen comrades and the shame of his profession, nation, and cause lie upon him. He is damned if he does, and damned it he doesn’t.” (Page 87)

The feedback I received from my friend, Kevin, reinforced my sense that Grossman’s pioneering work has been enormously helpful to those called to serve in fields of fire in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere where our troops are deployed. The book provided me with a glimpse into the mind and heart of those who have been faced with the decision to kill or not to kill – a level of understanding I may not have been able to attain in any other way. Kevin’s comment about the book’s effectiveness in combat speaks loudly as a recommendation for all warriors to add this book to their arsenal of tools and weapons.

Speaking as one who has not been in combat, but who numbers among my friends many warriors, I recommend this book to anyone who desires to understand and to engage in meaningful conversation those friends and family members who have been called upon to make the awful choice to take a human life. One of the ways that we can show our gratitude to the warriors who bear these burdens that are almost unthinkable is to take a step towards them and make the effort to understand.

“If you want to understand” . . . read this book!


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