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Review of “On Killing” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman [Audio]

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and SocietyThere’s something primal about the act of killing another animal. An instinct set deep within the psyche, killing an animal takes a considerable toll on a person who may not be hardened by experience to the act, as if one is ever prepared for such a thing. Not long ago, I came across a pigeon in our backyard that had been mauled by a cat, but had lived through the experience. I’d say I scared the cat away while it was playing with its prey; otherwise, I think the cat would’ve finished what it had started. So, here I was watching this bird. The pigeon could not fly, nor could it really walk; it simply flapped frantically on the ground, afraid of anything and everything that came within its line of vision. I fetched my neighbor who was in his driveway, and we watched it, contemplating what to do about the bird. We decided it best to put the poor animal down. He fetched his air-rifle, while I put on garden gloves and picked the injured bird up. I was mesmerized by the rapidity of this bird’s pulse, its rigid body anticipating the next move to come. I watched on, as my neighbor returned, aimed his rifle, looked at me to see if I was ready and pulled the trigger. I have never felt worse about a single moment like the killing of that bird. I was miserable the whole day, as I tried to rationalize what my neighbor and I did to the bird. It was in pain, for sure. The cat did a number on its wing, almost severing it from its body, and the bird’s eye had been clawed. The cat was toying with its food; I didn’t cause this, yet I couldn’t help but wonder about what I had done that afternoon. Was I wrong for having put the bird out of the misery it had endured from the cat that ravaged its body?

I hunted when I was younger. Born and raised in a small rural community in the Midwest, I have known from an early age what it is like to shot guns for recreation and survival. Like my father taught us, a deer tag in one season was lucrative for us, as it beat the prices for the meat we would pay to buy beef from the local butcher, had we not hunt for ourselves. A deer tag meant filling the freezer with venison that would last the whole winter, and that alone saved my family a lot of money to be spent on other things. Hunting literally fed the family for us. It wasn’t a sport done to collect trophies; my father made sure that I understood that. This was where meat came from. This was his life lesson parted onto me. So, why did I feel remorse for this pigeon?

I vividly remember the pace of the bird’s pulse, even to this very moment as I type out these words, and that was what affected me the most. Quite literally, I felt the life of this bird fade away. I watched the glean of its eyes vanish into lifelessness, and the experience touched a nerve. It was the closest moment I have ever had with death. It was physical, and I felt it. I don’t feel ashamed for having ended this bird’s suffering. The cat would have killed it, had I not interrupted its playful banter. I recall feeling after the shot, though, that this animal deserved every right to live and breath as the next animal, as myself, and I played a part in taking that right away, albeit for what my neighbor and I rationalized to be a good cause — to end its suffering. Nevertheless, it bothered me, because living is a powerful thing, a thing we can easily take for granted, getting caught up in our daily affairs. Working to earn money to buy things and goods to make our lives easier, to occupy our time:  all of these seem only as mere distractions from what really matters — to simply live for the sake of living.

Understanding the Act

For this reason, the book On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, published by Back Bay Books in 2003 (first published in 1995), is an instrumental lesson on the psychological costs of killing another animal, moreover another human being. This one-of-a-kind book, a study about killing, written from the expertise of a trained psychologist and U.S. Army Ranger, reveals several narratives from veterans who were forced into situations in Vietnam and other conflicts that have left them struggling to come to terms with their deeds ever since. Not only does the book seek to expose the effects that militaristic and behavioral conditioning have played on soldiers as they trained to become something their conscience would not willingly allow them to become, it also recognizes how killing became more efficient as a result of psychological conditioning, where soldiers often didn’t even realize it was happening, thus overstepping the moral dilemmas that often set in.  As combat situations have escalated throughout the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, so too have the reparations for becoming more effective in killing taken a major toll on veterans in such conflicts, more-so than veterans from wars like World War II and Korea. The author argues that military conditioning comes with a price; the more hardened the soldier is made to killing, the more likely they are to suffer for their deeds later in life.

In On Killing, Grossman tells us that the military has made their rate of fire against enemies more accurate and efficient, upwards to a 93 percent kill-ratio, in comparison to times before when posturing, or firing over the enemies’ heads to scare them away, was more typical of the battlefield. Each modern battlefield became more proficient, as behavioral studies revealed more ways to refine, reward and hone conditional aspects to learning. Killing becomes muscle-memory to a soldier who repeatedly drills the process of shooting human-shaped targets over and over again on a range. But, this is an important point in his book. This military training is controlled, highly regulated and with severe consequences to anyone who breaks the rules of engagement. This reward/punishment system, he argues, is what keeps veterans who learned to kill and who may have had to kill in a time of conflict from doing so outside of the line of duty. The same principles can be found in law enforcement.  The responsibility to keep these trained skills at bay is a testament to this type of positive and negative reinforcement.

The premise of the book is welcoming, as it seeks to explain that killing and death are integral to life, a natural part of it, and our understanding of this back in the ol’ days was all the better for it. While reproduction and sexual relations, all of which pertain to creating life, have been studied extensively for several decades, this book’s author argues that death is seen moreso as a taboo subject, one that is often coveted in ritual, a process not openly discussed. Therefore, it is a subject that scholars have yet to fully recognize and understand. It is important to remember the olden ways of living, he argues, where families were readily open to slaughtering their own livestock, teaching and instilling the lesson of respect through the ritual of the slaughter, while showing children where their food came from. Now, we hide the process of the slaughter behind the façade of super markets, shopping centers that shrink wrap slabs of meat within little Styrofoam trays, neatly trimmed and blood-free. The process has been taken out of our daily lives, and no one is made to feel uncomfortable or squeamish by the acting of killing another living thing. This comes with a price.

Dealing with the Consequences

Grossman warns the reader that by recognizing the act of killing as a shameful process, a taboo to be avoided, we are thus instilling and harboring a morbid fascination for it. As Hollywood and the video game industry produce violent media outlets that encourage and reinforce in similar ways what the military has taught its soldiers, young people look on with a deep sense of intrigue, innately recognizing the power that comes with taking a life. Going to the movies to see desensitizing violence on the big-screen only reinforces the act. Here, we bring our families with us, buy popcorn and candies, and laugh or cringe often at the folly of the weak protagonists who allow themselves to be victimized. The sensation for more extreme and brutal violence is only made worse, building on what previous films had done in order to heighten the experience. Compounded by this association with our loved ones being near watching with us, violence on the big screen emboldens us, makes us crave the rush that comes from the horror of it all.  While the soldier on the range learning to shot targets that appear human in form is conditioned through discipline and punishment, no one reprimands us for cheering as a head is severed from the body of an evil-doer on the big screen.

The interactive nature of video games is much worse. Most people screen what their children see at the movies, with enforced rating systems in place to keep inappropriate content away from impressionable minds. The accessibility to video games, however, remains an issue. While most retailers only sell age-appropriate games to children, there are still parents who buy the latest games, not knowing that those games are violent and aggressive in nature. I remember watching a woman buy God of War III for her son, no more than 10 years old, in the checkout line in front of me once while at the store. If you know anything about this game, you would have had the same reaction I did at the moment, watching this unsuspecting mother buy this game for her boy and his friend. They were giggling with excitement about playing it when they got home. Games like these reinforce acts of violence through achievements — the more head shots in a first-person-shooter, for example, the more prestige. Combine this principle with leadership boards linked to social-networking websites, and the behavior is further reinforced. Grossman goes on to cite some very fascinating studies about the impact incarceration has on keeping extreme violence at bay, the prison system serving as a deterrent to some degree, much in the same way the military instills discipline in its own soldiers. But, this is a problem of considerable degree, not a solution to it. The point should be to keep people out of prison, not placing them there for having committed an act of violence to begin with.

I feel this is an important book, because it reveals what the psychological consequences of killing are. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a major theme throughout the book, and it describes many situations from the perspective of interviewed veterans who suffer from PTSD, offering insight into a disorder and its severe consequences over a person’s psyche. The problems addressed in this book are very real, and Grossman handles the topic maturely, even engaging the families of people who know someone who’s been placed in a position to kill. Returning soldiers from Iraq or Afghanistan often faced such situations, and this book is devoted to helping family members and spouses understand and attempt to relate to what their soldiers went through when faced against their enemy. Taking a life, regardless of whether it is a pigeon or a human being, is a serious matter and should be regarded and taught as such, not as some estranged act that we should downgrade and shun. By doing so, we only enlarge the gap to understanding what killing does to a person, the consequences of which our society would do well to acknowledge, to help with understanding the repercussions for such acts. This book is well worth the time.

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