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On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society Paperback – June 22, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 490 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

A former army Ranger and paratrooper, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman taught psychology at West Point and was the professor of Military Science at Arkansas State University.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; Revised edition (June 22, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316040932
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316040938
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (490 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,135 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By William R. Forstchen on November 18, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I've debated for several days after reading "On Killing" whether to post a review or not. I have tremendous respect for the author and his professional credentials but must disagree with his thesis and especially his use of two sources in particular. The author is a devotee of S.L.A. Marshall as were many until two works in the late 1980s cast serious doubts on Marshall's methodology and even his personal character. This blew open while I was a graduate student, specializing in military history and therefore became a topic of intense debate within my circle of fellow students and professors, especially my mentor, who was a British Commando in WWII. The second source I would debate is some of the information the author took from Paddy Griffith's works on the American Civil War.

The underlying thesis of "On Killing" is that mankind is instinctively hard wired Not To Kill. How I wish that was true, and yet our bloody record across recorded history and plenty of evidence even prior to recorded history shows the exact opposite. We are, by instinct "killer angels." Read "War Before Civilization" as but one counter argument. But directly to my concern about the author's sources. "SLAM" Marshall's reputation was built on alleged interviews, hundreds of them, immediately after combat during WWII in which he asserts that at least 75% of combat infantry never fired their weapons, thereby proving that soldiers, at least American soldiers abhor killing and try to avoid doing so even at the risk of their lives.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I cannot recommend this book to anyone. I hoped I would find in it a well-documented, well-thought-out treatment of the subject matter. To my surprise, I found instead a sensationalized polemic advocating the censorship of violent video games.

The author was unconvincing in his arguments. It is clear from his cherry-picking of statistics that he wants us to believe that we live in a society of ever-increasing violence. Unfortunately for Grossman, US Department of Justice statistics contradict this assertion. According to DOJ numbers easily found through a Google search, violent crime rates (including homicide)in America skyrocketed from about 1960 to the early 1990s, but have been falling steadily since then. Would anyone argue that the use of violent video games in the US is falling steadily as well? He also fails to mention that certain societies with arguably even more violent video games than the US have much lower rates of violent crime than we do, for example Japan.

The author seems to rely heavily on a few secondary sources, particularly John Keegan's Face of Battle and Richard Holmes' Acts of War. His few primary sources include articles from Soldier of Fortune magazine; he appears to take them at face value that they are true, accurate first-person accounts of combat experiences. He claims that he himself conducted several hundred interviews of combat veterans, but didn't seem to use their accounts as sources.

His personal bias in on display here, but he seems unaware of it. He lionizes the American soldier. I served as an American soldier for two decades before retiring in 2001. I came to view my fellow soldiers as ordinary fallen beings sometimes performing unpleasant tasks in unpleasant places.
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This book is found on many reading lists to include the Commadant of the Marine Corps. I have heard great things from several sources and when I finally sat down and read it for myself I found it to be hard to really get through. As a combat veteran serving with the USMC during OIF in several tours many things Grossman talks about I feel are valid. Conditioning and realistic training making it reflexive to kill without weighing all of the peramiters set in a previous chapter in the book, Unit cohesion being important not only in combat but during a work up and even post deployment. I do like the stories used to convey the messages he is trying to get across but feel that some of them are a stretch. That being said I really have a hard time believeing that any trained military force when engaged in close combat only 15-20% in previous wars would engage an enemy with legitimate intent to kill. And furthermore in my own military experience (in which Grossman brands my entire generation "pseudo sociopaths" thank you rambo and playstation) killing was excepted as a part of the job and the idea of a woman or adolecent shooting at us and having to return fire had no greater psycological effect then a military aged male.

He further talks about the distance involved making killing easier the farther away and less humanized a target is which i guess has makes some sense however, to use a hypothetical example. A trained soldier underneith an enemy at knife range is going to clearly go into condition red, revert to the lowest level of training (and survival) instinct and react to that situation in kind.
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