ON KILLING is the study of what author Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has termed "killology". This odd term describes, not killing between nations, but the exact circumstances involved when one individual ends the life of another individual, with the primary focus being on combat situations. I've sometimes wondered how I (someone who has never been anywhere near armed conflict) would fare on the frontlines, as killing another human being seems like an almost impossible psychological task. As Grossman casts an eye over historical reports of combat, he found that, apparently, I wasn't alone in thinking that. During the First and Second World Wars, officers estimated that only 15-20 percent of their frontline soldiers actually fired their weapons, and there is evidence to suggest that most of those who did fire aimed their rifles harmless above the heads of their enemy.
Grossman's argument is carefully researched and methodically laid out. He begins by filling in some historical details, discussing the statistics for shots fired per soldier killed for the World Wars and the American Civil War. It's a refreshing and enlightening look at war that dispels a lot of misconceptions. An average solder in those wars was extremely reluctant to take arms against fellow humans, even in cases where his own life (or the lives of his companions) was threatened. Not to say that any of these people are cowards; in fact, many would engage in brave acts such as rescuing their comrades from behind enemy lines or standing in harm's way while helping a fellow to reload. But the ability to stare down the length of a gun barrel and make a conscious effort to end a life is a quality that is happily rare.
The book continues on then, detailing what steps the US Army took to increase the percentage that they could get to actually fire upon their enemy. By studying precisely what the soldier's ordinary reactions were, the officers were able to change the scenario of war in order to avoid the most stressful of situations. The soldier found up-close killing to be abhorrent, so the emphasis was countered by inserting machinery (preferably one manned by multiple soldiers) between the killer and the enemy to increase the physical and emotional distance. Every effort is made to dehumanize the act of killing.
Grossman spends a great deal of time discussing the trauma that the solder who kills faces when he returns to civilian life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in those veterans who returned from Vietnam. Those soldiers had been psychologically trained to kill in a way that no previous army had gone through, and there was no counteragent working to heal their psychological wounds. Grossman takes great pains to discuss how horrifying the act of killing is, and points out how detrimental it is to one's mental health. When the Vietnam veterans returned home to no counseling and the spit and bile of anti-war protestors, the emotional effect was astounding. Most of Grossman's thesis is supported by in-depth interviews and psychological profiles, but it is the story of the Vietnam veterans that comes across as the most disturbing.
Much of the chatter about this book seems to revolve around the final section, the discussion about our own civilian society. While this is understandable, I actually preferred reading the earlier portions, simply because they opened my eyes to a lot about the military that I had been previously ignorant of. I think it would be a mistake to concentrate solely on the argument's conclusion as it rests heavily on the case that has been building. In any event, the book eventually develops its final conclusion: the methods that the military uses to desensitize its soldiers to killing are also being used in our media, but without the proper command structure that keeps people from killing indiscriminately. In a military situation, firing a weapon without proper authorization or instruction is a very serious offense, and this is drilled into the mind at the same time as the desensitization. Without this safety, there is nothing to hold back the killing instinct, and this is one of the main reasons why the homicide rate has increased so dramatically.
Now, I'll say right off the bat that I was partial to this line of argument before I read the book; I think that children repeatedly exposed to such images would almost certainly become blasé towards extreme violence. But Grossman's book gave me so much more to think about. It isn't just a Pavlovian force at work here; Grossman points out many reasons (both stemming from society and the changing family structure) for why young people of today seem much more able to kill than their parents and grandparents were.
I was honestly surprised at how strong of a writer Grossman is. He manages to put forth his argument without boring the reader. By its very nature, a lot of what he discusses is repetitive and disturbing, but the subject matter is so compelling that I didn't mind. Grossman is very logical in his approach and his argument is a powerful one. I highly recommend this book, especially for people like myself who have never experienced war at close quarters. The summary I (and others here) have given is simply not nearly adequate to capture all of Grossman's thorough contentions. ON KILLING made me think harder about a subject that I hadn't given a lot of thought too before. The information and research here is invaluable.