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Meeting the enemyOn Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Back Bay Books: Little, Brown, [1995, hb] rev. ed. 2009. 377 pp., pb, ISBN 978-0-316-04093-8 $16. Also published in German, Japanese, and Korean editions.
Hachette Audio edition, read by the author, 9 CDs (10+ hours) with 15-page printable pdf of new introduction and references. ISBN 1600245935, $27. WarriorScienceGroup.com [Link to review below]

Review by E. James Lieberman, M.D

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” the saying goes, but according to this important book there are many conscientious objectors. In World War II and before, only 15 to 20 percent of soldiers fired their weapons at enemy soldiers in view, even if their own lives were endangered. Lt. Col. (Ret.) Grossman, a military historian, psychologist and teacher at West Point, builds upon the findings of Gen. S. L. A. Marshall in Men Against Fire (1978) and confirmatory evidence from Napoleonic, Civil and other wars. “Throughout history the majority of men on the battlefield would not attempt to kill the enemy, even to save their own lives.” (p. 4) This refusal is profound, surprising, and well-hidden. To Grossman this is welcome proof of our humanity. Not a pacifist, he trains soldiers to kill, but wants them to regain the inhibitions needed to function peacefully in society.

The compunction against killing occurs in close combat situations, including aerial dogfights where pilots can see each other. It does not prevail with killing at a distance by artillery or bombing from airplanes. Machine gun teams also boost the firing rate because individuals cannot simply pretend to fire or intentionally mis-aim. In aerial combat one percent of pilots made over thirty percent of kills; the majority of fighter pilots never shot down a plane, perhaps never tried to.
Grossman spent years researching the innate resistance to killing and efforts to overcome it by armies throughout history--previously a taboo topic. He tells of desensitization, operant conditioning, and psychotropic drugs that raised to 90 percent the proportion of U.S. troops who shot to kill in Vietnam. The high incidence of PTSD among our three million Vietnam veterans follows disinhibition compounded by unprecedented unit instability and rapid return home from the front. He also points to loss of support at home for the war.

“In a way, the study of killing in combat is very much like the study of sex. Killing is a private, intimate occurrence of tremendous intensity, in which the destructive act becomes psychologically very much like the procreative act.” Hollywood battle scenes are to war as pornography is to sex; they provide spectacle and mechanics but no sense of intimacy. For centuries there were wars aplenty and lots of babies were born, so killing and sex were accepted while battlefield and bedroom behavior was a domain of ignorance and myth. Media today perpetuate the falsehood that killing, like sex, comes easily to normal men. Grossman takes heart for humanity from the normality of nonviolence.

In the U.S. Civil War, well-trained soldiers fired over the enemy’s heads, or only pretended to fire. Of 27,000 muzzle-loading muskets recovered at Gettysburg, 90 percent were loaded, almost half with multiple loads! That could not be inadvertent. Further evidence was the low kill rate in face-to-face battles. Like Marshall’s assertion about World War II, “Secretly, quietly...these soldiers found themselves to be conscientious objectors who were unable to kill their fellow man.” (p. 25) The secrets were well kept, in “a tangled web of individual and cultural forgetfulness, deception and lies tightly woven over thousands of years....the male ego has always justified selective memory, self-deception, and lying [about] two institutions, sex and combat.” (p. 31)

A long section deals with psychiatric casualties. Despite the exclusion of 800,000 men on psychiatric grounds (4-F) in World War II, over half a million U.S. fighters suffered mental collapse. After two months of continuous combat, 98 percent of surviving troops suffered some psychopathology. The two percent who endured such combat with impunity appear to be “aggressive psychopaths.” (p. 50). Fear of injury and death, surprisingly, does not cause the mental stress that killing does: sailors at great risk aboard ship did not crack because they were not involved in personal killing. Trying to intimidate civilians by bombing cities only backfired in England and Germany: survivors were enraged and hardened rather than demoralized. Psychiatric casualties come from exhaustion, hate, and the burden of killing, not from fear.

Killing face-to-face is much harder than killing from behind: fatalities are high among fleeing troops. Killing at close range (bayonet, knife, hand-to-hand) is harder than from long distance. Chapters on atrocities analyze their causes and consequences in grisly detail. Stanley Milgram’s experiments on submission to authority are relevant, as are principles of group solidarity, accountability and absolution. Anti-social actions need justification and support. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reflects a failure to accept and rationalize acts of killing.
The high rate of firing in Vietnam followed training with desensitization and operant conditioning. Human silhouettes replaced bull’s eye targets in shooting drills. A reflexive “quick shoot” response was cultivated. Regarding the enemy as less than human overcomes inhibition. Yet soldiers are responsible to military authority, which both enables shooting and restricts it. Unauthorized or errant shooting is severely punished. This control factor is missing in civilian society where, Grossman alleges, young people are pulled toward violence by media/video game conditioning and desensitization proven effective in boot camp.

Veterans of the Vietnam war have no higher rates of violent crimes than nonveterans, he notes, but they have very high rates of PTSD. Vietnam was the first time that soldiers joined and left units in the field as individuals; they had not trained and bonded together. Psychiatric casualties were low, in part due to use of psychotropic and other drugs, but unit cohesion was lost. The cooling-off period, as on troop ships with group support disappeared with evacuation by plane. The war was unpopular, and soldiers got no heroes’ welcome at home.

About two percent of soldiers lack the killing inhibition; they score high on measures of “aggressive psychopath.” Another one percent in this diagnostic category cannot endure military discipline. Grossman says the adaptable two percent serve well, return to civilian life and function as good citizens.


Grossman, a dogged and effective voice of reform, is a loving critic of the military. His narrative is a mixture of inspiration and horror that brings to mind the saying “Military intelligence is an oxymoron.” Soldiers live and work in an undemocratic organization: they don’t elect their leaders and they are not free to refuse orders. Most come to it young and inexperienced. This book might prove to be a touchstone document for informed consent for military service. When recruits sign up they should have the vivid understanding of benefits and risks presented here. Parents, teachers and politicians should know these things too.

There are studies galore connecting increased aggression with exposure to violent TV and videogames. Grossman doesn’t favor censorship; he believes that deglamorization and condemnation of violence will prevail. I am less optimistic. In two other areas he seems to exaggerate sources of harm. He cites high incarceration rates as correlates of increasing domestic violence, but the dramatic rise of our prison population is due largely to nonviolent drug offenders caught by discriminatory laws. And among factors contributing to PTSD after Vietnam, he rails against alleged--but unproven—hostile torrents against returning veterans by peace activists--spitting, and epithets like “baby killer.” Missing from the discussion and bibliography are No Victory Parades (1971) by Murray Polner and The Spitting Image (1998) by Jerry Lembcke. Reviews of the latter at Amazon.com are instructive. Loss of public support for the war was important, of course. (For the perspective of a psychotherapist who worked with veterans extensively, see War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (2005) by Edward Tick.)

The National Academy of Sciences publication Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications (2009; http://books.nap.edu/catalog/12500.html) seems to validate a chilling point made by Grossman: Armed forces here and abroad are looking for a chemical that would result in “armies of sociopaths.” (p. 49) Powerful forces in society strive to undermine the benign, nonviolent default position in intraspecies conflict. They have succeeded to a considerable degree in war, police work, news reports and entertainment that is pervasive and perverse. The richest and most powerful nation has become an anxious, muscle-bound warrior state riddled with inernal problems.

It is easier to kill millions at a distance than one face-to-face. Dave Grossman confronts this conundrum with intelligence and passion. Other animals do not suffer intra-species killing. We have engineered killing to a fare-thee-well and have to restore the dominion of good nature over homicidal ideology. Our fabulous habitat--that paradise between animals and angels--is not too big to fail.