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War Stories, Common Sense, and Nonsense
on November 4, 2011
There is nothing scientific about this book, and there is very little "science" in it even by way of citation. If you bother to look at the bibliography you will see that the number of listed references are miniscule for a book of this size and especially for one that purports to cover such a wide range of subject matter. For the most part, ON COMBAT: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace, is a collection of second, third, and fourth hand war stories as told by (usually unnamed) American soldiers and police officers. "A swat team officer once told me...." is the basic format, and the book reads like an extended gunshop counter type of conversation. Mixed in is an enormous amount of shameless and disingenuous self-promotion. As you might have guessed from the above summary, the book's author, Dave Grossman, isn't overly concerned with facts.
I find it extremely disturbing that this book is taken seriously by professionals in police and military circles.
The loose thinking and fact manipulating style (nothing in this book is relayed in an objective way, everything is carefully characterized) of the writing and content in ON COMBAT led me to look more deeply into some of the more important stories that the author focuses on. The two examples that I looked at were damning enough to make me extremely skeptical about anything this author has written.
In the first example that I looked into, on page 145, at the beginning of a new chapter (Section Three, Chapter One), Grossman has an extended (four pages long) quote taken from the book of Charles "Commando" Kelly, a US soldier who received a medal of honor in WWII. Grossman cites Kelly's war story as, "an excellent example of what really happens in combat."
There are a few problems with this war story. First of all, it (written by Kelly) seems to paint Kelly as a kind of superman and describes all the other soldiers who were with him as if they basically weren't there. That alone should raise red flags about the veracity of the story. Looking into the story more deeply, I discovered that it came from a book published in 1944 (i.e. during WWII), that the book was a compilation of a five part article that had appeared in the Saturday Evening Post that year, and that at the time Charles Kelly was part of a group of US infantrymen who were touring the country selling war bonds. Essentially, the book was wartime propaganda. It's certainly not a serious historical account of anything, it's not a remotely objective account, not a remotely verified account -- it was an "as told to" story in the Saturday Evening Post! But, even taken at face value (which is how Grossman takes it), the account of Kelly's combat experiences is completely anomalous, that's why it became famous in the first place. To describe it as "what really happens in combat" is an amazing misuse of the words.
It's mystifying how Grossman can on the one hand describe at length the common knowledge phenomenon that people in combat (or similarly intense) situations often experience memory disturbances and are unreliable narrators about the events that they experienced, and then take war story after war story at face value without even the smallest grain of salt. War stories (whether told by soldiers, police, or criminals) are well known to be unreliable, in fact they are known to often be outright lies, and this isn't some new knowledge or phenomenon it is a common knowledge of humanity that goes back to the beginnings of written human history. When someone tells you how great he was and what a hero he was in battle, you can't trust the factuality of his account even if he is trying to be completely honest about what happened to him. Grossman knows this and it is a fact described in his book, but he mysteriously ignores it and takes the vast majority of anecdotal accounts that form the backbone of the book at face value.
The Kelly story was bad enough, but it is mainly questionable in the way it was presented and the ingenuousness of the author in accepting the story at face value. Although the Kelly story is probably not factually accurate and it is highly likely that interviews with some of the other soldiers who were with Corporal Kelly would reveal a very different story (as is nearly always the case, which is why detectives and journalists interview "multiple witnesses" when conducting an investigation, not only one witness), it remains possible that the Kelly story is factually accurate. That is not the case in the second story that I looked further into.
In Section Two, Chapter Two, Grossman focuses his analysis and reasoning on the story of school shooter Michael Carneal, who shot eight other students at his high school in Paducah, Kentucky (it was West Paducah, incidentally, but Grossman isn't concerned with details). Grossman uses the story of Michael Carneal to illustrate his idea that teenagers are being trained to be efficient combat shooters by video games, because Carneal shot eight shots and hit eight different students, five of them in the head. "We know that game training was a key factor in attaining this kind of marksmanship skills," Grossman says.
He goes on to say something even stranger:
"When I train elite military and law enforcement organizations such as the FBI, Green Berets, LAPD SWAT and Texas Rangers -- warriors highly trained in firearms -- they are stunned when I tell them of this 14-year-old boy's deadly accuracy in the Paducah case. Nowhere in the annals of law enforcement, military, or criminal history can we find an equivalent achievement."
Nowhere in the annals of law enforcement, military, or criminal history? Amazing! I'm not even an expert on the subject and I know of multiple shooting examples that were more remarkable or equivalent to that achieved by this school shooter, even if we take the story at face value as described by Grossman.
But of course we should not take the story at face value, and unfortunately Grossman is not a reliable source. Grossman claims that Carneal's transition from a video game "trainer" to real firearms practice only occurred on the night before the shooting, when he fired two clips through the pistol that he used in the shooting the next morning. But cursory research reveals that Carneal had first learned to fire a gun in 4H and had practiced shooting in the past with a friend of his and the friend's father. Grossman says that Carneal trained "on the simulator every night for hours on end", but there seems to be little evidence of that. In 1997, when the shooting occurred, there were not very many realistic shooting games available, and in a detailed analysis of the Carneal shooting by the National Academies of Press, the only named violent video games that they cite Carneal as having been a fan of are Mortal Kombat and MechWarrior (neither of which is a shooting game).
That aside, Grossman seems anxious not to let the context of the shooting get in the way of the characterization he wants to make and the conclusions he wants to draw from it. Carneal shot from close range into a group of 25-30 students in a prayer circle. Witnesses said he fired three shots slowly and carefully and then five in rapid succession. From close range, firing into a prayer circle of 25-30 students, and with your first three shots carefully taken, there is nothing at all surprising about hitting eight different students or hitting five of them in the head. Incidentally, only three of the students died (perhaps the first three who Carneal took careful aim on?), suggesting that Carneal's "five headshots" as described by Grossman were not the superhuman feats of marksmanship that Grossman tries to convey. From close range, pointing a pistol at someone's head and shooting it is not difficult even for someone who has never fired a gun before (I have seen novice shooters point a pistol free handed and unaimed at a grapefruit six or seven feet away and have no trouble hitting it, for example), and Carneal had practiced with guns before and knew how to aim. Firing into a prayer circle while they are conducting prayers in front of their high school is also quite a bit different from the combat shooting situations that Grossman attempts to compare the Carneal shooting to (can you say 'shooting ducks in a barrel'?), as is firing a .22 caliber handgun as opposed to the higher caliber handguns that police and military use. And it is not surprising that when shooting five shots rapidly (after the first three "slow" shots described by witnesses) from close range into a group of 25-30 students in a prayer circle the shots would hit five different students. Carneal himself said he was just firing at random (although Grossman doesn't believe him because of Carneal's "superhuman marksmanship skills").
It's also strange that Grossman attributes Carneal's hit ratio to "superhuman marksmanship skills" gained through many hours of playing video games and does not consider the role of luck in Carneal's shooting. Incredible "lucky shot" shooting incidents are not at all unheard of in combat (or police work), nor are incidents where targeted individuals emerge miraculously unhit from a seemingly unsurvivable barrage of gunfire. When people start shooting at each other there is an enormous degree of luck involved as to where the bullets end up, and this is common knowledge.
Grossman goes on to describe how Carneal's video game training resulted in him calmly stopping and putting down his gun when ordered firmly to do so by the school principal, which is completely factually incorrect. In the early stories of the shooting it was widely reported that another student, Ben Strong (not the principal who came after Carneal had already put the gun down), ordered Carneal to stop and Carneal then put the gun down. Upon further investigation this story turned out not to be true, Ben Strong was eventually exposed for promoting himself and his heroism to the media when he actually did nothing heroic during the shooting and became unpopular among many at the high school because of this, and witnesses to the shooting (including, eventually, Strong himself) reported that Carneal simply stopped shooting of his own accord after the first eight shots and set his gun down. All of this information was available well before Grossman's book was published, as, for example, in an article that the New York times wrote about the aftermath of the incident in July, 2000.
What is perhaps even more disturbing than Grossman's blatant factual inaccuracy and credulousness in the face of uncorroborated war stories, is his rah-rah portrayal of soldiers and other "warriors" (very loosely defined by Grossman to include basically anyone who wants to be special) as a breed of humans that are separate and different from everyone else. These "warriors" are "sheepdogs" in Grossman's terminology while the vast majority of human beings are simply "sheep". This conceptualization is not logically consistent with Grossman's analysis of the physiological and psychological consequences of combat (which don't discriminate between different classes of humans), but logical consistency is not something Grossman seems to be concerned with. What is particularly disturbing is the possibility that professional "warriors" will take this idea of their specialness and superiority to heart, which is not rational and not reality. I find it hard to believe that this irrational mentality of superiority and superhuman-ness would lead to more effective combat judgment and performance. In all of the more sober accounts of combat that I have encountered from (often heroic) war veterans, the reality that we are all human beings and subject to human limitations, that no one is special or "a breed apart", and that combat involves an enormous amount of damn luck, are some of the most important take-aways from their experience. "Sheepdogs" and innocent children die just as easily from a bullet through the brain, and believing in your own superiority and superhumanness is rarely an effective long term strategy for success at anything in life. The Japanese had their code of Bushido in WWII, which was not all that different from the "sheepdog" characterizations and "warrior" cult that Grossman espouses, and it was crushed in battle by American pragmatism.
I don't want to say that there is no useful information in Grossman's book, but to the extent that there is it is mostly either common knowledge or common sense. Grossman describes individuals defecating themselves in combat as some big revelation or surprise that (paraphrasing) "you won't have learned about this from Hollywood!", but I actually think that this is common knowledge and something that people who have watched a lot of war movies probably will have learned from Hollywood if from nowhere else. Similarly, in his biggest claim to "science", Grossman describes distortions of vision and time that individuals often experience in combat situations, but once again this is common knowledge and not even outside the scope of experience of most civillians, many of whom will have experienced slow-motion time and distorted vision during a bad accident and/or during sports. Grossman goes on at length about how combat training should be as realistic as possible, which is surely true but only common sense. Serious martial arts, including military training of various kinds, have always focused on making their trianing as realistic as possible. Of course, so have surgeons, athletes, lawyers, and basically anyone else in any field of endeavor that is results oriented and has a "game day" aspect. The importance of realistic training to good performance is both common knowledge and common sense.
I was excited to read this book because I thought it would be what it advertised itself as, a serious and reputable analysis of the psychology and physiology of combat. It's not that. If the book helps US soldiers and police officers to feel good about themselves and special about what they are doing then maybe there is some value in it, but I can't help but feel that reality is what is actually important and that positive delusions and self-congratulatory characterizations are still dangerously misleading and can interfere with the effective performance of an individual's duties. If that effective performance of duties involves actual combat, then a book like this could be very destructive. A soldier is not a sheepdog he is an ordinary human being, and so are his comrades at arms, and so are the people they will be in combat against.
Military science is essential, as science is in other fields, but what is found here is barely even a masquerade of it.