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1.0 out of 5 stars A Highly Flawed Work on an Important Topic, May 9, 2009
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This review is from: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Paperback)
LTC Grossman's book is highly overrated by far too many readers. His book does offer some valuable information on the combat efficiency of people over time on the modern battlefield. There is also some excellent insight into post-traumatic stress disorder. He suggests that in the past soldiers had more time to reflect and examine their experiences before returning to peaceful lives back home. Either armies had to march home, which could take days if not weeks, or they had to take a ship, which could take a similar amount of time. Our current policy of rapid reintroduction of soldiers just out of a combat zone as a cause of problems today is an important one.

The rest of his book, however, is flawed and should be taken with a grain of salt. To begin with, he takes modern assumptions and assigns them to all eras and epochs of the past, as if people of the past all have the same outlooks and reactions that we do today - they just wore different clothes. His assumption that people are somehow inherently predisposed not to kill each other and only do so with great mental conditioning leading to psychological harm flies in the face of the obvious lessons of history. A reading of history suggests our ancestors often waged aggressive and enthusiastic war with little trouble. Even more importantly, they did not need video games or death metal to encourage them to do it. The society and its views of war, I think, has more to do with reactions of soldiers than any innate mental disposition.
Some items he mentions show a poor understanding of practical matters. He suggests that centurions simply stood around encouraging their soldiers to fight, while a student of Roman warfare would recognize that the centurions were often in the thick of the fighting and doing so by fighting. They often led just as much by example as by shouting orders. The author also asserts that the reason thrusts with a sword are not used much is related to some psycho-sexual mental block. This only proves he has little concept of weapons through the ages, not to say the fact that he has never seriously used one. He also fails to comment on the development of specialized thrusting weapons in the late middle ages or the development of rapiers. That these weapons were used for several hundred years and thrusting the accepted technique for inflicting damage shows a poor understanding of swords, not to say weapons of the past in general. I wonder how he addresses the spear, the most common weapon for thousands of years?

Even more troubling is his use of SLA Marshall's work Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command to justify many of his positions. He quotes Marshall's famous firing rate: less than twenty-five percent of a unit would engage in combat with the enemy. The first problem is: He ignores Marshall's reason for this occurring. Marshall felt a lot of this had to do with the way soldiers were trained - only to fire their weapon if they could see a target. In modern war, a target is not always visible, hence the soldiers did not shoot when shot at. The soldiers who did shoot often were armed with BARS, machine guns, flame-throwers, etc. That is weapons that are meant to be used against an area as much as against individual targets. The second problem is that recent research has suggested that it is very likely Marshall simply made up this figure. His methodology was more focused on recreating the battle experience, not obtaining specific pieces of information for statistical purposes. With doubt cast on Marshall's firing rate, doubt has to be cast on LTC Grossman's conclusions and arguments which stem from it.

Another problem with LTC Grossman's book is that despite saying he conducted over four hundred interviews, he quotes from these very little. In fact, he tends to quote from the same couple of works, Soldiers: A history of men in battle by John Keegan and Richard Holmes and Acts of War: Behavior of Men in Battle by Richard Holmes, over and over again. Because of the repetition and limited sources, many of his assertions seem poorly supported and to rely entirely on the works of other people. If he conducted all these interviews, why does he not reference them more? Also to consider, just because modern people have certain reactions in battle, it does not mean that this is how it has been through time immemorial. This reviewer highly recommends the works of Richard Holmes and John Keegan as an alternative to this poor work.

Finally, when he is given information that runs contrary to his views, he glosses over it or attempts to make it fit his conclusions. The most prominent example regards the guilt officers feel when men under their command die following that officer's orders. Essentially, he says none of the officers he interviewed expressed any guilt. Rather than concluding that maybe they really do not feel guilt, he concludes they must all be suppressing it. This is just absurd - a blatant attempt to make the facts fit a preconceived notion that the author has.

It is unfortunate that this book is accepted so uncritically. His work has affected the work of others in a detrimental manner. The subject is an interesting one, but unfortunately poorly researched. Grossman did do a service in pointing out the importance of the topic. His arguments and conclusion, however, are flawed and poorly thought out. Despite his claim to a history degree, he seems to have a poor grasp of the subject and its study. And in the end his book becomes a screed against violent video games, movies, and music, as if this is to blame for all our problems. My advice is to avoid this book if at all possible.
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Tracked by 9 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 71 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 7, 2009 6:50:56 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 7, 2009 7:21:37 PM PDT
I didn't make space to mention this in my own review--I concentrated on what I thought was irrational--but I too had a lot of problems with Grossman's grasp of practical battle applications.

I noticed that glaring problem about bayonets. Aside from his lack of acknowledgement for the long history of impaling weapons, Grossman fails to consider alternative explanations for why modern soldiers might not stab. He does not consider, for example, that humans swing or perform an overhand stab because that exerts the most effect from untrained muscles.

Swung blows deliver a lot of force because they use momentum built up over distance, and it is easy to throw body mass behind the swing, effectively turning yourself into a pendulum or a bolo. Swings also takes advantage of the range of motion of the human shoulder and elbow, geared towards sweeping rather than thrusting for leverage. So it takes a lot less energy and feels empowering.

Unlike a swing, stabbing has potentially much less distance in which to build force. It requires a hip, leg, foot, and shoulder connection that physically feels uncomfortable. It also feels weak, whereas humans percieve a swing as very strong due to aforementioned basic physics and body structure. Swinging also compensates for a lack of accuracy; while a stab can be side-stepped or parried, a swing feels like a net sweeping over an area. Finally, humans may percieve stabbing as a vulnerable posture because it leaves the torso or limb exposed to a counter-strike, whereas a swing appears to curve back to the body for a natural guard.

In practice, a good straight strike delivers much more force and speed than a swing. However, body posture and motion runs counter to a human's natural state (which is to tighten muscles, rise up on your heels, raise your shoulders, and to distribute energy and nutrients instead of focusing them on driving your strike). It can take literally years of regular training to master. Most soldiers are lucky if they get a few weeks of supervised training throughout their career. This combination of inadequete training, perception of weakness, and natural physiology means that stabbing may be easily forgotten or ignored in the heat of battle.

But did you, sir, also notice the problems with his Civil War examples? He keeps talking about how muskets were fast-firing and highly accurate, as if they were modern semi-automatic rifles. He claims that combat casualties were unusually low for the given length of the battle. He argues that we should expect a much high death count in battles involving mass formations--a discrepancy only explained by soldiers who deliberately miss their targets.

Obviously, this line of reasoning is baloney. To begin with, he overstates the capabilities of the weapons; it helps that Grossman neglects to actually detail the muskets, leaving readers to simply imagine that he must be right. Grossman fails to note that the smoke produced by black powder cartridges obscured the battlefield. He fails to inform readers that muskets have a "rainbow" trajectory, in which a barrel aimed at the chest may shoot bullets right over the heads of an approaching enemy. He fails to observe that rifles could malfunction due to mundane reasons, not due to sabotage. His text assumes that soldiers do not take cover, and he assumes that they have adequete training to hit targets. From what I understand, many Union commanders emphasized rate of fire over accuracy.

So many assumptions and omissions--yet to the uncritical eye, Grossman is revealing some expert truth.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 8, 2009 1:33:36 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 8, 2009 12:42:44 PM PDT
Levi Kovacs says:
Exactly my point on thrusts versus swings. You outlined all the things that brought me to my conclusion.

I was disturbed by his Civil War examples. Again, for someone who claims to have a degree in history, Grossman seems to have a poor mastery of utilising the subject. John Keegan in his book The Face of Battle warns against generalizing too much or at least to be aware that writers are generalising when citing them. LTC Grossman seems to forget that in battle all of the soldiers are not just standing there and shooting. They are shifting and moving. They stand up and they kneel down. Some are running away while others are charging forward. He forgets wounded soldiers and those helping them are making their way to the rear of the army. People are not just standing there getting shot at.

I agree, he did forget about all the little things that work against a soldier hitting a target on the battlefield. The most egregious example, to me, is his assumption that because a soldier or a unit shoots well on the range, they will shoot just as well in combat. He cites the example of a Prussian battalion shooting at a wood cut that represents another battalion and achieving a really good hit ratio as proof of his arguement. If they shoot that well on the range, they should be able to do just as well in a fight and since they do not, most of the soldiers must have been deliberately missing. All I could think was, "OK, so a battalion of soldiers can hit the broad side of a barn. Can they do it when the barn is shooting back?" A scene from the movie Glory amply illustrates the point that peace-time marksmanship is very different from wartime marksmanship. If you have seen the movie, you no doubt remember the scene where the soldiers first recieve their rifles and are practicing. One is showing off his skill because he had hunted before he enlisted. However, when the colonel tells him to hit the target again, he cannot because the colonel yelling at him and firing a pistol in the air next to his head which causes him to lose his focus. The confusion of combat causes tasks to become more difficult which is why the military attempts to train people to function despite these "frictions." Of course, Grossman forgets this kind of thing because it undermines many of his supporting arguments.

It is rather sad that more people have not approached this book in a more critical manner. Like the damage done by SLA Marshall's book, I wonder what the damage in the end will be from this one.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2009 2:32:29 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 4, 2009 2:44:58 AM PDT
There are some of us who have. Both of Grossman's works are simply bad science from a man who proclaims himself a scientist--killologists? It's what usually happens when men write about combat who have never experienced combat and feel a need to write about it as though he does know combat. Since Grossman was a LT. COL. in the Army, he may be harboring a deep seeded need within himself to shore up his own fragile ego because he has never been in battle. I have experienced this first hand with high ranking officers who have never had their 'ticket punched,' so to speak--always on the defensive, trying to prove themselves.

He truly understands the in's and out's of marketing his wares and self very well, however. And that is what sells in the USA publishing industry, unfortunately. I use both of his books to illustrate what bad science is to my students--it's required reading to help them understand how not to do research for publication.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2009 1:10:37 PM PDT
Levi Kovacs says:
It is good to hear that you are using the book to illustrate bad research and science. There is certainly a lot of it on display along with poor documentation of sources.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 25, 2009 10:05:01 PM PDT
Ranzoni....

I have to correct you here. The American soldier will do almost anything to avoid using his bayonet because:

1. He knows better than to get that close to his enemy.
2. The U.S. Army is highly mechanized (I was a tanker in Vietnam) and the mounted soldier usuallly has no idea where his bayonet went to.
3. Even the Infantry discourages this type of close combat. My son, who served in the 75th Ranger Regiment, was never even issued a bayonet.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 26, 2009 8:06:16 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 26, 2009 8:06:55 AM PDT
Richard Vidaurri:

I am not sure how this supports this particular thread, but I do agree with your conclusions specifically addressing bayonet use as not being a viable close-quarters weapon in today's combat environment. See: (http://ejmas.com/jnc/jncframe.htm) to get a well written case for your above three points.

Rev. A. Bodhi Chenevey, RM, DD

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 27, 2009 8:26:08 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 27, 2009 8:28:13 PM PDT
Levi Kovacs says:
Richard Vidaurri:

While those are three good points about why soldiers today do not engage in close-quarters bayonet combat, I think you may have missed the point of Brian Ranzoni's post. His comments and mine focus on a particular assertation made by LTC Grossman about the hesitancy of soldiers throughout the ages to use stabbing strikes when using a weapon. Brian Ranzoni and I are saying that soldiers may fail to use a stabbing strike when the opportunity presents itself in favour of a swinging strike for matters related to body mechanics and training rather than the psychosexual argument advanced by Grossman. You comment does point further to training and outlook as an influence on how soldiers fight with weapons.

As a side note, it should be noted that the US Marine Corps still takes bayonet training seriously. While I was not in the Marines, I did recieve some training in unarmed combat and using the bayonet from Marine Corps instructors. It is an important part of the Marine Corps Martial Arts system and bayonet combat is one of the reasons the USMC is reluctant to switch from the M16A2 to the M4.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 29, 2009 3:57:44 PM PDT
B. Benton says:
here here!!! I remember in my early days carrying my bayonet. I was laughed out of the room for it. In the Marine Corps we used to play off the idea that I should never have to stab you if I could shoot you from over 500m. In the Army, they never issued our bayonets because it was possible that we'd lose them, and not likely that we'd need them. We all got our hands on other knives. I picked up a MOD designed by Ayoub. It did come in handy, but that was in Iraq, door to door, not conventional open areas. I didn't have any issues with his theory on distance. Even after someone's dead, the eyes seem quite alive... for a while.

I would agree though that the measure of psychological impact surely relates to our culture and to a degree how detached we are from life and death in general. Our children don't grow up slaughtering their own dinner, or assist in cleaning the bodies of our parents and grandparents when they die preparing them for burial. If anything, video games twist our perspective and tell us that death isn't nearly as traumatic as it really is. When our kids first witness it, it will probably be a greater shock than when we first did.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 29, 2009 3:58:24 PM PDT
B. Benton says:
here here!!! I remember in my early days carrying my bayonet. I was laughed out of the room for it. In the Marine Corps we used to play off the idea that I should never have to stab you if I could shoot you from over 500m. In the Army, they never issued our bayonets because it was possible that we'd lose them, and not likely that we'd need them. We all got our hands on other knives. I picked up a MOD designed by Ayoub. It did come in handy, but that was in Iraq, door to door, not conventional open areas. I didn't have any issues with his theory on distance. Even after someone's dead, the eyes seem quite alive... for a while.

I would agree though that the measure of psychological impact surely relates to our culture and to a degree how detached we are from life and death in general. Our children don't grow up slaughtering their own dinner, or assist in cleaning the bodies of our parents and grandparents when they die preparing them for burial. If anything, video games twist our perspective and tell us that death isn't nearly as traumatic as it really is. When our kids first witness it, it will probably be a greater shock than when we first did.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 12, 2010 4:37:00 PM PST
Well spoken Richard! While I stand by my mechanics, you too contribute to the alternatives that Grossman does not consider.
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