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A Summary for "On Killing", a scientific inquiry on the act of killing in wartime part 1

Updated on October 23, 2013

Objectives of "On Killing"

"The objective of this book is an attempt to bring the objective light of scientific scrutiny into the process of killing."

"On Killing" is an attempt to look into the most heinous aspects of war and killing man's own species. The main goals are as follows.

  1. To provide insight "into the existence of a powerful, innate human resistance toward killing one's own species and the psychological mechanisms that have been developed by armies over the centuries to overcome that resistance
  2. The role of atrocity in war and the mechanisms by which armies are both empowered and entrapped by atrocity
  3. What it feels like to kill, a set of standard response stages to killing in combat, and the psychological price of killing
  4. The techniques that have been developed and applied with tremendous success in modern combat training in order to condition soldiers to overcome their resistance to killing.
  5. How the American soldier in Vietnam was first psychologically enabled to kill a far greater degree than any other soldier in history, then denied the psychologically essential purification ritual that exists in every warrior society, and finally condemned and accused by his own society to a degree that is unprecedented in Western history. And the terrible, tragic price that America's three million Vietnam veterans, their families, and our society are paying for what we did to soldiers in Vietnam
  6. Finally, and perhaps most important, I believe that this study will provide insight into the way that rifts in our society combine with violence in the media and in the interactive video games to indiscriminately condition our nation's children to kill. In a fashion very similar to the way the army conditions our soldiers. But without the safeguards. And we will see the terrible, tragic price that our nation is paying for what we are doing to out children."


-Quoted directly from the book's Introduction pp xxix -xxx

Early on in the book, the author provides a real example of man's dilemma when situated to kill another man. " "...not more than 15 feet away, sat a Viet Cong...Maybe it was the surprise of actually finding someone else there..."

  • The evidence presented suggests that most soldiers on the field will not even attempt to take the life of another.As few as twenty percent of infantrymen will fire their weapons at enemy soldiers even when facing life or death situations. It is shocking when considering the perceived concepts of war.
  • It is further supported by other responses to aggression and precursors to violence including posturing and submission and the classic fight-or-flight response.
  • The repeated use through history and recorded battles seem to lend much credibility to the observations throughout Section 1.

Section 1 - The Misappropriation of Knowledge and Lead

The first section begins with an abstract suggesting the flight or flight model as the standard to measure response to danger is appropriate in every situation except when facing opponents of a different species. The correct field of reactions to life or death situations in human warfare, an intraspecies conflict, is reported to be fight, flee, posture, or submit.

The supportive evidence begins with examples of posturing in different eras of war. Specific examples of noise pollution used by Greek, Scots. and Russians to confuse and intimidate the enemy as well as dress specifically intended to make soldiers appear taller and broader as seen in Greek, Roman, and early European warriors are presented. These individual occurrences lend favor to the idea that intimidation and deception are favored alternatives to physical engagement.

Further on, the chapter provides some interesting statistics on ammo expenditure and hits per shots fired. It offers that posturing may even have an effect when weapons are fired. It gives an account of soldiers being so excited to shoot their weapons that they begun firing at enemies well out of range or even firing into the air in their anxiousness to attack, but even those shots cannot alone explain the number of kills per unit of bullets. Examples of this expenditure with so few causalities are expressed in Vietnam where 50,000 rounds were fired for each enemy killed; another in 1870 with an instance at the Battle of Wissembourg where the French fired 48,000 rounds killing only 404 Germans. Many more similar statistics listed make a pattern of an innate desire to not kill. This method of posturing is explained as "a soldier's right to miss" or high firing.

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Using Posture Before Violence

We frequently see posturing in modern warfare.

  • When opposing forces arrange their navies and armor along borders and coasts, to display power and dominance even if the larger force lies elsewhere.
  • Guerrilla warfare is frequented by posturing forces. When a force is facing superior training or better equipped aggressors, posturing is a tactic that can sway the attack in favor of the out forced defenders.
  • Police and security forces use it frequently when dealing with civilian insubordination and dissident actions. Homeland Security's 17 ton truck is a great example as are the armored vehicles equipped with high pressure water cannons.

Four agents  ICE training. Using posture with their massive armored truck.
Four agents ICE training. Using posture with their massive armored truck. | Source

The physical evidence of nonfiring combatants is numerous through out fields of battle in history. These cases seem to indicate that men on the field generally find better things to do then shoot guns at enemies. Hundreds of muskets loaded with up to 23 rounds recovered from the musket era and historical documentation of men fleeing, falling down with fear not wounds, reloading the arms of comrades, and other articles seem to suggest alternatives to killing are always more viable in and on the battlefield.



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Dave Grossman

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Grossman's Service and Background

Dave Grossman has quite an impressive military career, even from a civilian point of view. With over twenty service years Col. Grossman has held honored positions including Sgt. of the 82nd Airborne Division, platoon leader in the 9th Division, general staff officer, and company commander in the 7th Light Infantry Division. He is a parachute infantryman and army Ranger.


He has seen deployment to the Arctic, Central America, NATO HQ, the Warsaw Pact and served in an unknown number of deserts and jungles. His scholarly career is also quite generous. including study at the XVIII Airborne Corps NCO Academy and the British Army Staff College. Grossman's Academic honors include summa cum laude from an undergraduate course in history and Kappa Delta Pi from his study and pursuit of psychology.

Colonel Grossman has been a prestigious and dedicated speaker for Vietnam Veterans Coalition of America and the Annual Convention of the Vietnam Veterans of America. His academic career led him to become a counselor and later a professor at West Point. As of the publish date of this book, 1996, he was still teaching as well as manning the board at Arkansas State University.



Validity of this Hub

This book was written nearly two decades ago and as warfare and training techniques evolve over time, the facts and applications of military science evolve as well. The book can be used as a nice starter for military science. It is a great stand alone source on the study and dissection of killing in wartime environments.

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    • DREAM ON profile image

      DREAM ON 3 years ago

      The information you cover about The Killing by Dave Grossman is something I never would of imagined.You opened my eyes to the tecniques used by military leaders.A well thought out hub.

    • dlfreelance profile image
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      V. A. Came 3 years ago

      Thanks. I just wanted to put it out there. I have a lot of family that have served. I might start to really dig in on this because I found the stuff in this hub pretty interesting.

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