Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

“On Killing”, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

Posted in Books, History, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on August 5, 2005

I’ve been reading “On Killing” for a while now and I have to say I find it has given me hope about mankind. Everyone I’ve tried to explain this to so far has find it ghoulish, so I am probably about to lose you to this interpretation as well, but here goes.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman began as a Ranger, an elite US soldier. He has never seen combat but he has combined his military training with a career as an academic psychologist at WestPoint and some interesting historical research. He is part of a new field called, I kid you not, killology.

Bear with me. Grossman’s main point is that humans find it inherently difficult to harm or kill other human beings. And therein lies the hope it gives me about mankind.

The book has the following interesting statistics:

In World War II, only 15-20 percent of combat infantry were willing to fire their rifles. In Korea, about 50 percent. In Vietnam, the figure rose to over 90 percent.

I will repeat that: only 15-20 percent of combat infantry were willing to fire. Most soldiers found it plain unpleasant to fire, even as they were being shot at and bombed. The human instinct is not to kill or harm.

The rest of the book explains how this instinct can be overcome. The diagram below, from the book, is a good summary.


The reason I find the book interesting is in using that summary diagram in reverse: what can each of us do to harness the instinct of doing no harm to other human beings? What should we be doing in our society to support peaceful behaviour?

One of the main points that struck me was the crucial role of seeing other human beings as human beings. A key part of military training – training to kill – is to teach the soldier to identify with the group and to distance him from the enemy group. The distance is both physical – aircraft bombers and other long-distance killing weapons – and emotional – propaganda to make the enemy seem inhuman.

This is why the increasing restrictions to travel scare me so much. My Arab and Muslim friends have given up on visiting the USA, humiliated by the security checks and lengthy procedures. And my American friends are too scared to visit the Arab world, convinced that they will be targeted and killed. The result, however, is physical and emotional distance: distance that divides these nations into sides, and allows the people on each “side” to disregard the other’s deaths.

But we are all on the same side, or at least we should be.

That is why I like the DC International – it is an organisation that introduces Americans and non-Americans to each other. It builds friendships and cements the idea that we are all on the same side. If you are in the DC area, I heartily recommend that you join.

Another interesting point from the book is that shock and awe campaigns do not work. The author describes the horrors of aerial bombings during World War II. These killed civilians in nasty ways – burns, shrapnel, buried by rubble – on an unprecedented scale. The theory behind it was that killing a certain number of civilians would induce mass lunacy in all the other civilians, crippling their country’s war effort and allowing a swift victory. This was based on the observation during World War I that the number of soldiers lost to psychiatric illness was greater than that of being killed by enemy fire.

However, the bombing had almost no psychiatric impact. It seems that civilians thought of bombing as impersonal as soldiers did. The same physical and emotional distance that made the act of bombing palatable to soldiers also made it psychologically survivable to civilians.

Which makes me angry about Rumsfeld’s claims about the shock and awe bombing campaigns to drive surrender – they do not, they only bring incredible physical suffering.

The final interesting point from the book is the term “Acquired Violence Immune Deficiency Syndrome”. Grossman’s point is that the same techniques pioneered by the military to allow soldiers to commit violence have filtered through to civilian society through video games and films.

Which is why I find this week’s Economist article about games so disappointing. It begins with a critique of the industry but then concludes happily that research shows most fears are unfounded. In the book however Grossman accuses such research of being as morally suspect as the research that the tobacco industry funded – and then promoted in the media – about the safety of cigarettes.

I hope we can all learn from him to commit to reducing violence in our societies.


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  1. […] In the past I have read about the increasing violence of society and the role that television plays. However, I did not know any of the academic literature on the topic. Page 208 of “The winner-take all society” has a grizzly bibliography. […]

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