Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society
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on November 18, 2012
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.

Marshall's work was called into serious doubt in the late 1980s by one history who simply ran a "time analysis" on how many soldiers Marshall claimed to have interviewed and came up with an impossible number of hours to have achieved the number of interviews he claimed, in other words falsified data which was turned about to fit his thesis. David Hackworth, who served with Marshall was scathing in his comments about serving directly with the man. When it comes to WWII I feel the author of "On Killing" neglected a near infinite number of variables that affect men in combat. . .green vs. veterans, nature of combat, open field vs. the terror of close up urban where indeed one or two of a squad are usually heavily engaged with the rest provide cover, hauling ammunition for machine guns and back up, etc. Even more significant, as Keegan repeatedly points out in his exceptional works, the level of brutality rapidly escalates due to such issues as defense, especially if defending one's own country from invasion verse offense, difference in ethnicity and especially difference in race and religion which truly trigger the darker side of our nature. But one example, German troops transferred from the Russian front to France were actually briefed that this was now a different enemy and rules of war again apply. As to "our guys" in that war, I have yet to interview a vet of the Pacific War who said there was any civility or urge not to kill, the hatred ran that deep, fueled as well by racial difference. In the European theater any vet I interviewed would almost smile when discussing combat against Italian troops, but when confronting the Waffen SS it was to the death and usually no prisoners and fought by all with hatred.

I know this is a long review but I must comment on a second topic the author covers at length and that is our Civil War and what I felt was his over reliance on the works of "Paddy" Griffith, yet another author I have respect for even when I disagree. The author of "On Killing" dwells repeatedly on the fact that on average between 200-250 rounds were fired for each casualty inflicted and thus again leaps to the conclusion that this demonstrates his thesis that soldiers on both sides, either deliberately aimed high, or even went so far as to mimic loading their guns and not firing at all.

I must counter on several points. The author asserts that the typical range of Civil War combat was 30 yards. Definitely not true! (a belief shored up by such films as Patriot or even the opening scene in Glory). Typical range, especially as the war dragged out and killing effectiveness increased, was typically two hundred yards or more. Close in volley fights, at fifty yards or less, such as Groveton, August 1862 were indeed rare, except when opposing sides tangled into each other in woods such as at the Wilderness.

I've personally run some live fire tests with others and not just reenactments with everyone running about shooting blanks. The biggest factor affecting aimed fire. . .smoke, and smoke and more smoke, carpets of it that within minutes all but blinded both sides. At two hundred and fifty yards a mis-aim of even a few millimeters too high translates into a minie ball into the tree tops four hundred yards away. Third, try putting a percussion cap on the nipple of a rifled musket when all is confusion and terror, and finally something we of course could not simulate, the fear because "they are shooting back." Add in exhaustion, bad food, close friends torn apart by your side, these were the deciders of rifle fire effectiveness, not a 75% rate of those who refused to kill no matter what the situation. The author cites the number or rifles found at Gettysburg with two or more bullets rammed into them and to my amazement asserts that to actually then put on a percussion cap and fire it for real would clean out the half dozen or more minie balls and powder charges jammed in. I would suggest handing that assignment over to Myth Busters and standing well clear. I ascribe this to terrified kids who in many cases first jammed a bullet down the barrel rather than the powder and in the confusion did not even know they were no longer shooting. I actually have done that a few times with loading, thinking I had fired but the percussion cap had fallen off then loaded again, (firing blanks only) and the kickback was certainly a shocker and realization that even in a simulation I could get rattled!

Definitely time for a conclusion I think. I give this book four stars because it is obviously well researched even though I think the author has "chased his thesis up the wrong tree," I nevertheless welcome the debate it creates. I do wish I could hold a more optimistic view of humanity when it comes to the subject of our brutality towards each other. A point I do wish had been covered in more detail is my own belief that high technology weapons and media now make killing even easier. We no longer look directly into the eyes of the man we kill, hear his screams and see that "inner light" go dark. Our alleged entertainment usually involves brutal deaths, the more the better in the latest James Bond movie for example, Youtube and other sources are flooded with "cool" night vision footage of enemies being blown apart and though I do detest the Taliban and their creed as an enemy we must confront, it is a bit disturbing when watching a human being shredded by 30mm cannon fire and to read the comments that it is "cool." It has become the desensitizing conditioning of first person "shoot `em ups" of Xbox translated into realities.

Even if you disagree with the author's thesis that we as a species recoil from killing, the book will nevertheless provoke reflective thought and I am seriously considering using it as text book in my classes that deal with warfare.
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on January 14, 2011
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. Hero worship is a poor tool when one seeks the truth.

Most troubling is Grossman's frequent citing of controversial assertions by Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall. Marshall, better known as SLA Marshall, or SLAM, a newspaper columnist and US Army officer, claimed to conduct hundreds of interviews with US combat veterans in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. His claimed insights about the reticence of men in combat to fire their weapons were influential in how the US Army shaped its training in the latter half of the 20th Century. As an enthusiastic young Army officer in the 1980s, I eagerly read his works.

In the early to mid 1990s, several people began to re-examine Marshall's assertions (google Roger J. Spiller and Harold Leinbaugh). Attempts to confirm Marshall's claims of how he conducted his research have cast serious doubts on the accuracy of his assertions. First-person accounts of people who were present during his claimed interviews in WWII and Korea differed dramatically from SLAM's accounts of how many interviews were conducted, how they were conducted, what subjects were discussed, etc. Attempts to confirm SLAM's accounts with physical evidence have been unsuccessful. At some point, he claimed to have filled about 800 notebooks with the results of his interviews, but only two of his notebooks have surfaced, despite the fact that his voluminous personal and professional papers are in the possession of the University of Texas at El Paso library, and have been extensively searched.

Marshall established a reputation for exaggerating his personal accomplishments, including those in wartime. He claimed to have won a battlefield commission in WWI but records indicate he was commissioned in 1919, after the war ended. He claimed to have been an infantryman leading other infantrymen in combat in WWI, but records indicate that he was instead a sergeant of engineers, attached to the 90th Infantry Division, doing construction and repair work on roads.

In the Introduction to the June 2009 edition of On Killing, Grossman quickly addresses the controversy over Marshall and simply dismisses it out of hand. This suggests much about Grossman's mindset. An objective writer simply seeking the truth might have been hesitant to continue to rely heavily on a figure such as Marshall whose credibility had been so called into question. Instead Grossman charges forward, continuing to rely on Marshall, despite the serious doubts about his credibility.
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on September 18, 2011
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. What they will not do, is lay there and identify the enemy as some poor kid like them scared out of their mind too, analize how hard it is to kill another human being because it is wrong and that since they are so close that instict is even stronger "so i am going to lay here and hope that you have the same underlying anti killing their own species feelings inside of you I do.

Overall there were some alright charts that were backed up with alright theories but I would encourage anyone who reads this to not look at this book as the end all on the subject.
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on May 24, 2014
I am used to varying opinions about books. I always read through several reviews before purchase and before I comment. I was surprised to see so many 1 star reviews that stated that Grossman's book contained what some thought was flawed or incorrect data. I don't have time or inclination to further research the accuracy of the data that he reports. After reading the negative reviews, I wavered on my own rating - vacillating between 3 and 4 stars. I subtracted a star for the controversy of his data. I do believe that training has been altered in a positive direction by what was believed to be low firing rates in WW II. The thing I liked most in the book was what I considered an excellent chapter on the detestable treatment of veterans of the Vietnam War. I am a Clinical Psychologist and a Vietnam era veteran. I never came close to a physical battlefield, but have heard many tales of the internal struggles experienced by the veterans of that tragic conflict. I think the cost of all our wars since and including Vietnam is incalculable. The lives lost and the treasure spent is mind boggling, but the cost in human suffering by the soldiers emotionally, the impact on families at home, the division among our citizens wrought by widely differing views of the war, and the number of wrecked lives just can't be measured. Grossman captures that as well as anyone I have yet read. I have heard tales of being spit on, being called baby killers, and disparaged in many other ways. For years vets of that war could talk only to each other because they believed (probably accurately that no one else could understand. From my reading and experience in my office, I have begun to develop an intellectual understanding of the emotions experienced and the terrible dangers faced and horrible images imprinted in the soldiers' minds, but I will never understand it in my gut. You didn't have to be in actual combat to have trauma. No place was really safe. I had a friend who was a C-130 load-master stationed in Japan. He flew in supplies and flew out body bags and will never forget and a patient who told me of the toxicity of handling body bags when his duties in intel slacked.

A Kuwait and Iraq vet told me of a vet who went berserk in a waiting room at UAB in Birmingham recently. He was able to calm him from his own understanding and some words I had used with him frequently. The trigger was the picture of a green snake on the cover of a magazine. The vet, a tunnel rat, had followed his best buddy into a tunnel where the VC had laid a favorite trap. His friend was struck and almost instantly died from the bite of a Mamba, which then struck at him and missed. Almost 50 years later an image on a magazine cover had resulted in a flashback and behavior that almost resulted in his removal by security. I often refer to PTSD as "the gift that keeps on giving" and firmly believe that whatever the reported percentages of returning vets have PTSD, no one comes back the same, and the percentages go much higher if those with delayed reactions are taken into account. The numbers reported for wounded are also deceptive, because the numbers of seriously maimed are not broken out. A single bullet wound, even if relatively serious, counts as one and so does the loss of 2 legs and other disfiguring injuries on the same soldier also counts as one. Read Lee Warren's recent book No Place to Hide, written by a neurosurgeon after a 4 month deployment in Iraq in the run-up to the first elections in 2004-2005 for added perspective, or Brian Castner's (AF EOD officer) The Longest Walk.

I think there is much truth in Grossman's assessment on the impact of violent movies and violent video games on our children, although poverty, the protection offered in gangs that rely on violence independent of video games and violent movies, and single parent families and failed bonding also contribute. Those in suits at a great distance who formulate policies do not really comprehend what they are sending our young men into and the cost to our nation that results. Grossman gets much right at the end, even if he relies on inaccurate statistics in the opening chapters. "War, what is it good for?"
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on July 18, 2014
I don't recommend this book to anyone. It is inaccurate and mostly based off of opinion and theory. Dave Grossman has never killed a man and shouldn't be revered as an expert on what it's like to kill someone. I first read this book during Airborne School when I was 18 years old and had never seen combat. I read it again after deploying a few times and completely hated it. As a former sniper in a special operations unit, I've done six combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I can tell you that this book doesn't depict what it's like to kill someone and won't give you a good idea.

Dave Grossman may know a lot of people that killed people, but I'm not certain where he got all of his stats and I'm curious to see what stats he left out.
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on July 22, 2012
This book has answered many questions I have had since being involved in the VietNam war (67-68). "Once you have drank from the dark waters primevil,
you can drink no other" sums up the last 44 years of my life. Now i know the 'whats' and the 'whys'. I would highly reccomend this to be 'required reading' by therapists or anyone who deals with folks who have taken human life and are haunted by it.
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on March 10, 2012
I've owned two printed copies of this book. Very thought-provoking, and a good read, but with one major flaw...LTC Grossman forms much of his work around data that the military has (for many years now) considered to be flawed (at best) and out-right false (at worst). Knowing that Grossman bases so much of his thesis on fictional data involving the percentage of combatants who shot to kill in past conflicts causes one to wonder if his data on, say, PTSD is legitimate, or if he searched hundreds of sources to find a few obscure studies that matched his ideology. A reader should not need to fact-check a book on a subject as profound as this.
For those interested, do a quick online search on this title, check out the now-refuted references he relies heavily on, and note that the military (who funded the original research) debunked it long before the author first published this work.

Summary: Exceptionally written, but by using disproven information to make his case, the author has presented a work of fiction and called it something more.
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on September 6, 2013
I bought this book on the understanding it contained "case studies". It does not. Apart from meeting veterans in bars and reciting other peoples works and then leaping to conclusions, there are no "Case Studies" as such. I'm sure Col. Grossman has had many veterans on his couch, but as one reviewer pointed out, this is "underbelievable". It is not scientific in any way and is purely anecdotal. I served in the Rhodesian Air Force and it was a simple fact that the terrorists preferred automatic fire. If Grossman knew even a little he would know that the AK-47 does not behave well on full-auto (it climbs radically). It wasn't because these terrorists did not want to kill us and were firing over our heads - it was because they couldn't shoot. They had no problem performing the most unspeakable atrocities, I think it very unlikely they were reluctant to shoot us. And to say the Rhodesian military had no air support is evidence of Grossman's complete ignorance on the topic. On some issues he was correct, but really, the fact that it's easier to kill from a distance is not exactly ground breaking information. Despite what this man who has never seen combat says in his book, it's pretty easy to kill someone who pisses you off by shooting at you and your mates. Oh but then I must be one of the 2% he talks about. Not in my experience. I cannot believe that people hold this tripe in such high regard. As one US soldier told him: "You're a virgin that says he's a expert on sex". Pretty appropriate I think.
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on May 17, 2015
From the description.

"...is responsible for our rising rate of murder and violence..."

Unfortunately, for the premise of the book, the opposite is, in fact, true.

Violent crime is falling at historic rates, per FBI crime statistics.
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on June 28, 2016
Lt. Col. Grossman's systematic and thoughtful study of why people kill -- and why they do not -- is important. His analysis on the role of conditioning on overcoming the natural resistance to killing another person provides helpful insight into how and why American society has become increasingly violent in recent decades. The last few chapters, which takes the lessons learned in the rest of the book and applies them to American society, ought to be required reading for those who insist on blaming the tools of violence for the existence of violence.

Thanks, Lt. Col. Grossman, for studying this topic with such rigor and for explaining your work so cogently.
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