Very rarely do I read a book that alters my understanding of human nature – On Killing is one of those books. The author of On Killing is LTC Dave Grossman (ret.), who is a psychologist and was an Army Ranger. While he has not killed, his professional and military training gave him insight and access into the questions of what it takes to learn to kill, and what it takes from us.
For anyone concerned about the potential collapse of our civilization, this is critical reading. Whether TEOTWAWKI occurs or not, you may one day face someone trying to kill you, your family, or others – how would you react? On Killing might help you think through that dilemma.
The main point of the book is that, contrary to popular perception, up until the Korean War (for American service members), most of those in combat – 80% or more, normally – did not ever fire their weapons in battle, even to protect themselves, due to what the Grossman show is an innate resistance to killing. Many of those firing likely were purposely not hitting their human targets. This phenomenon has been noted as far back as Alexander the Great and is cross-cultural. Much data is from the U.S. Civil War. Militaries have in the past, and more scientifically in recent decades, very successfully instituted training measures to remove this resistance to killing.
For those that do kill, Grossmans discusses the psychiatric casualties and how society helps (WWII) or hinders (Vietnam) killers in coming to terms morally with the stress of having overcome the instinctive (for almost all) revulsion to killing.
After WWII the U.S. military instituted changes to infantry training that increased desensitization and thus the shoot rate of solider to 50 % by the Korean War, and to 95% by Vietnam – something unprecedented in modern history. Something as simple as using silhouette and/or fall-down type targets rather than circular targets assisted in this by creating a more realistic situation:
In behavioral terms, the man shape popping up in the soldier’s field of fire is the ‘conditioned stimulus’, the immediate engaging of the target is the ‘target behavior’. ‘Positive reinforcement’ is given in the form of immediate feedback when the target drops if it is hit… these hits are then exchanged for marksmanship badges which have some form of privilege or reward association with them (praise, public recognition, three-day passes).
Also detailed were the different physical distances to a kill and how that factored in. These include maxim range (missile station, air crew, etc.), long range (sniper), mid-range (small arms, etc.), hang grenade range, close range, edged weapons range, hand-to-hand range, and finally, sexual range. As one might assume, physical distance reduces moral strain and vice versa.
Of note concerning killing with edged weapons is that most deaths from such throughout history were from cuts rather than penetrating thrusts, and almost no one is ever killed by bayonet. Humans seem to have a real aversion to killing by penetrating the body with an edged weapon, which explains why I cannot watch the scene in Saving Private Ryan where the German solider kills and American soldier by driving a knife slowly into his chest.
For most, killing over time is emotionally and even physically draining. However for a very small subset of the population, about 2% Grossman estimates, this is not true – they are natural born killers who do not suffer emotional fatigue over time. Grossman hypotheses that these individuals are a combination of those with superior coping abilities, and sociopaths. These soldiers tend to gravitate naturally to special forces type positions and are found in higher percentages there.
On Killing was published in 1995 so there are hundred of more detailed reviews available, and the book should be in many libraries. It is highly recommended as a sort of mental preparation for an innate trait many survivalists and preppers may not think about normally.