Lt. Col. David Grossman is a psychologist and a former Army Ranger who has taught Psychology at West Point and now teaches Military Science at Arkansas State University. His book is a collection of talks he has given, primarily about ways to evaluate battle efficiency and training methods for soldiers and the conditions and events that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
On Killing reads like a set of talks. Every chapter has an epigram, quotations, and illustrations, and every point is made carefully and recapitulated in related discussions. Grossman is still a loyal soldier, and he is proud and slightly sentimental about the role of soldiers in society. At the same time, he paints and vivid and uncompromising picture of the development of the modern war machine, in which soldiers are merely parts. And he manages to call for a "resensitization of America" without sounding ironic.
Grossman covers the basics: it's easier to kill people you can't see, it's easier to kill people you don't like, and for some reason Vietnam was different. And then he offers some gripping analysis about why this is so. Using information about firing ratios -- percentages of soldiers in the field who actually fired their weapons -- inferred from two hundred years of military history and gathered in several 20th Century wars, Grossman amply supports his foundation thesis: Soldiers don't like to kill, and you can make them fire, but you can't make them aim.
Firing ratio wasn't the only thing different about Vietnam. World War I gave the entire Western World a case of shell shock, but Vietnam was different, more somehow, more shells and more shock. What was different about these firing machines? Grossman again uses military history, combined with his own background as a clinical psychologist and counselor to soldiers, to form some answers. He offers explanations both for improved firing efficiency and, most importantly, for the effect of modern military training -- conditioning -- and modern war practice on the development of PTSD.
Grossman has several motives in On Killing. He wants to present a sympathetic view of the soldier, and he wants to contribute his insights to the field of military psychology. He also wants to assure his readers that while the conditioning experienced by Vietnam soldiers was often dehumanizing -- from the firing training to the overtly racist ideology that was taught in boot camp -- this conditioning did not create psychopaths or losers or misfits. Vietnam vets had a hard time keeping jobs and staying married, but "going postal" was rare. Grossman contends that while killing and hating behaviors were -- and are -- taught in the military, the military environment also requires strict obedience to commanders. Sure, soldiers are trained and ordered to shoot and kill, but only on orders, and punishments for firing without orders are harsh and immediate.
Which brings us to Grossman's punch line: When kids play video games like Doom or Mortal Kombat, they are learning the same hair-trigger behaviors and us/them attitudes with none of the context of obedience to command and none of the special circumstances that war creates. And when they watch television and movies depicting lone psychopaths like Hannibal the Cannibal and lone vigilantes like Rambo, they receive ideological "training" that can help rationalize defensiveness and the appeal of violence as a problem-solver.
Grossman points fingers in many directions -- at the lack of male role models for the children of single mothers, at the hypnotic quality of electronic media, and particularly at violent movies and games. And he's correct, these are all potentially disorienting phenomena that offer many anti-community images, images that can promote fear and help to rationalize violence, particularly when experienced alone. On Killing is a compelling and persuasive book that manages to make its point intuitively while making the reader understand that these ideas do, in fact, counter the intuition and teaching of military institutions over centuries. But while Grossman has made a fascinating contribution to military psychology and an interesting suggestion about society in general, his comments about America's children are not nearly as pointed or careful as his theses about soldiers. Still, Grossman gives some fascinating glimpses of military history and enhances our ability to understand Vietnam -- an able contribution.