The Psychological Cost of
Learning to Kill in War and Society
by Dave Grossman
I read this book and I review it here not because of any particular interest in sanctioned killing, rather because of my interest in institutional means of getting people to do difficult yet important tasks. I train salespeople and other business leaders.
I first heard the author, Dave Grossman, on a radio interview promoting this book. I heard him say that that in the history of combat from Alexander the Great through World War II only about 15% of soldiers in battle were trying to kill the enemy. He’s not talking about the long administrative and logistical tail of the army. Only 15-20% of the people with guns or swords in their hands, who were facing a threatening enemy, were willing to kill that enemy. I know this is hard to believe. I first heard this statistic from a pacifist and I called him a liar. Then I heard it from this author, a former US Army Colonel and military historian, who references the research of the US Army’s official W.W.II historian as well as many other scholars.
Once one accepts this fact, two questions immediately present themselves: “Why?” and “What to do about it?” The first question is easy: most humans have a deep and strong taboo against looking a person in the face and destroying them. Many would literally rather die than cross that line. The second question is more complex and hugely interesting.
Clearly, if only 15% of the soldiers you have expensively brought to face an enemy are performing, your army has a major problem. The US Army raised the traditional firing rate from 15% up to 50% between W.W.II and the Korean conflict and again to better than 95% in Vietnam and Desert Storm. The British similarly increased their firing rate, to devastating effect in the Falklands against Argentines still performing at traditional levels. All modern militaries have since solved the problem. How?
The low firing rates have been cured by new training and leadership methods. This is where my interest as a trainer of business leaders and salespeople is piqued. I have long noted that the biggest problem with most salespeople is that they will not do the uncomfortable or unfamiliar things necessary to make more sales faster. It is not a knowledge problem, it is a performance problem. I figured that–if the Army could get the majority of ordinary men to pull the trigger on another human–similar methods ought to get most typical salespeople to dial the telephone.
Grossman reports five factors which influence (determine?) the likelihood of a person to kill.
- 1. Predisposition of Killer
- Training / Conditioning
- Recent Experiences
- 2. Attractiveness of Target
- 3. Distance from Target
- Physical distance
- Emotional distance
- 4. Group Absolution
- Support for killing
- Identification with group
- Proximity of group
- Number in group
- Legitimacy of group
- 5. Demands of Authority
- Intensity of demand for killing
- Legitimacy of authority
- Respect for authority
Many of these factors were well understood and widely practiced in the days of 15% firing ratios. This may be how armies got beyond relying on that 2% of the population predisposed to kill in combat without dramatic prompting or damaging remorse. A huge gap in combat performance remained because, “When people become angry, or frightened, they stop thinking with their forebrain (the mind of a human being) and start thinking with their midbrain (which is indistinguishable from the mind of an animal). They are literally scared out of their wits. The only thing that has any hope of influencing the midbrain is also the only thing that influences a dog: classical and operant conditioning.” [p. xviii] The big change came when the US Army began, perhaps unintentionally, to incorporate the behaviors demonstrated by Pavlov and B. F. Skinner, making training much more realistic, repetitive, and rewarding.
World War II-era training was conducted on a grassy firing range…, on which the soldier shot at a bull’s-eye target. After he fired a series of shots the target was checked, and he was then given feedback that told him where he hit.
Modern training … comes as close to simulating actual combat conditions as possible. The soldier stands in a foxhole with full combat equipment, and man-shaped targets pop up briefly in front of him. These are the eliciting stimuli that prompt the target behavior of shooting. If the target is hit, it immediately drops, thus providing immediate feedback. Positive reinforcement is given when these hits are exchanged for marksmanship badges…
Traditional marksmanship training has been transformed into a combat simulator.
Thus, the citizen soldier is transformed into a reliable killing machine: “When I went to boot camp and did individual combat training they said if you walk into an ambush what you want to do is just do a right face — you just turn right or left, whichever way the fire is corning from, and assault. I said, ‘Man, that’s crazy. I’d never do anything like that. It’s stupid.’ The first time we came under fire, … in Laos, we did it automatically. Just like you look at your watch to see what time it is. We done a right face, assaulted the hill — a fortified position with concrete bunkers emplaced, machine guns, automatic weapons — and we took it. And we killed, I’d estimate, probably thirty-five North Vietnamese soldiers in the assault, and we only lost three killed.” [p. 317]
Contrast that with the report of a commander in W.W. II: “Squad leaders and platoon sergeants had to move up and down the firing line kicking men to get them to fire. We felt like we were doing good to get two or three men out of a squad to fire.” [p. xiv] Sounds a lot like what I hear from sales managers. Perhaps because salespeople, like soldiers, find they must transgress strong taboos to be successful, for example, intruding on strangers, talking about money, and persisting past, “No,” to name only three. The salesperson’s taboos are clearly of a lesser import than the soldier’s, yet the parallel is strong. Both the soldier and the salesperson fail when they refuse to transcend taboos, even when ignoring them is crucial to success and permission has been granted by society. Redesigning a salesperson’s training to take advantage of these well demonstrated methods of behavior modification can have a similarly spectacular effect.
Another key to enhanced salesperson performance evident from Grossman’s work is the value of on-the-job group dynamics.
Numerous studies have concluded that men in combat are usually motivated to fight not by ideology or hate or fear, but by group pressures and processes involving:
(1) regard for their comrades,
(2) respect for their leaders,
(3) concern for their own reputation with both, and
(4) an urge to contribute to the success of the group.
Many sales organizations, by contrast, pit salespeople against one another and minimize the role of sales managers. It is a world of lone wolves, despite the evidence that teamwork and leadership are demonstrated multipliers of effectiveness. How much of a multiplier? Modern armies have faced similarly equipped, but traditionally trained, enemies and killed 35 to 50 of their adversaries for each soldier lost. [p. 197]
Salespeople trained, organized, and led on the modern military model can also expect order-of-magnitude improvements.
*Author Dave Grossman’s comments on Tony Mayo’s Review:
December 31, 1998
Re: “On Killing” Review: Well Done
Just a quick note to tell you what a splendid job I though you did on the review of my book, “On Killing.” I would never in a million years have made the connection you did, but now that I see it I agree completely. Brilliant.
The book has gone into its 6th (and largest yet) printing in less than 2 years. in Feb 98 I retired from the Army and am speaking, writing and teaching full time. Primarily speaking to police, military, medical and schools. Was the lead trainer for mental health professionals on the night of the school shootings here in Jonesboro, and did the inbrief to the teachers the next morning. was an expert witness for the McVeigh case, and for the Paducah school shooting. My book and research has gone in many weird and wonderful directions, but this twist of yours is a topper.
If I can ever be of service to you don’t hesitate to give a shout!
Happy Y2K-1 !!
Page references are to the soft cover edition.
[Comments enclosed in brackets are by Tony Mayo]
p. xiv Colonel (retired) Albert J. Brown, in Reading, Pennsylvania, exemplifies the kind of response I have consistently received while speaking to veterans’ groups. As an infantry platoon leader and company commander in World War II, he observed that “Squad leaders and platoon sergeants had to move up and down the firing line kicking men to get them to fire. We felt like we were doing good to get two or three men out of a squad to fire.” [Sounds like what I hear from sales managers.]
p. xv There has been a recent controversy concerning S. L. A. Marshall’s World War II firing rates. His methodology appears not to have met modern scholarly standards, but when faced with scholarly concern about a researcher’s methodology, a scientific approach involves replicating the research. In Marshall’s case, every available parallel scholarly study replicates his basic findings. Ardant du Picq’s surveys and observations of the ancients, Holmes’s and Keegan’s numerous accounts of ineffectual firing, Holmes’s assessment of Argentine firing rates in the Falklands War, Griffith’s data on the extraordinarily low killing rates among Napoleonic and American Civil War regiments, the British Army’s laser reenactments of historical battles, the FBI’s studies of nonfiring rates among law-enforcement officers in the 1950s and 1960s, and countless other individual and anecdotal observations all confirm Marshall’s conclusion that the vast majority of combatants throughout history, at the moment of truth when they could and should kill the enemy, have found themselves to be “conscientious objectors.”
p. xviii How It Works: Acquired Violence Immune Deficiency
When people become angry, or frightened, they stop thinking with their forebrain (the mind of a human being) and start thinking with their midbrain (which is indistinguishable from the mind of an animal). They are literally “scared out of their wits.” The only thing that has any hope of influencing the midbrain is also the only thing that influences a dog: classical and operant conditioning. [See also simulating combat.]
p. 3 When the point came that [a soldier in combat] didn’t kill, it was assumed that he would panic and run.
During World War II U.S. Army Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall asked these average soldiers what it was that they did in battle. His singularly unexpected discovery was that, of every hundred men along the line of fire during the period of an encounter, an average of only 15 to 20 “would take any part with their ~ weapons.” This was consistently true “whether the action was spread over a day, or two days or three.”
Marshall was a U.S. Army historian in the Pacific theater during World War II and later became the official U.S. historian of the European theater of operations. He had a team of historians working for him, and they based their findings on individual and mass interviews with thousands of soldiers in more than four hundred infantry companies, in Europe, and in the Pacific.
p. 52 The Israeli military psychologist Ben Shalit asked Israeli soldiers immediately after combat what most frightened them. The answer that he expected was “loss of life” or “injury and abandonment in the field.” He was therefore surprised to discover the low emphasis on fear of bodily harm and death, and the great emphasis on “letting others down.” Shalit conducted a similar survey of Swedish peacekeeping forces who had not had combat experience. In this instance, he received the expected answer of “death and injury” as the “most frightening factor in battle. His conclusion was that combat experience decreases fear of death or injury.
p. 61 The psychologically protective power of (1) hitting a precise, known objective and of (2) conducting such exact rehearsals and visualizations prior to combat (a form of conditioning) is tremendous.
p. 64 Indeed, it is a generally accepted tenet of modern warfare that if an officer is shooting at the enemy, he is not doing his job.
p. 77 THE WIND OF HATE
Most avoid confrontation at all costs, and to work ourselves up to an aggressive verbal action — let alone a physical confrontation — is extremely difficult.
Simply confronting the boss about a promotion or a raise is one of the most stressful and upsetting things most people can ever bring themselves to do, and many never even get that far. Facing down the school bully or confronting a hostile acquaintance is something that most will avoid at all costs. Many medical authorities believe that it is the constant hostility and lack of acceptance that they must face – and the resulting stress – that are responsible for the dramatic rate of high blood pressure in African Americans.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMIII-R), the bible of psychology, states that in post-traumatic stress disorders “the disorder is apparently more severe and longer lasting when the stressor is of human design.” We want desperately to be liked, loved, and in control of our lives; and intentional, overt, human hostility and aggression — more than anything else in life — assaults our self-image, our sense of control, our sense of the world as a meaningful and comprehensible place, and, ultimately, our mental and physical health. [Sales people face this “fear of a human origin.” Perhaps using hate and fear in training as the military does (drill sergeants) would be helpful.]
p. 79 Not only does the average soldier’s psyche resist killing and the obligation to kill, but he is equally horrified by the inescapable fact that someone hates him and denies his humanity enough to kill him. [or to treat him like ‘just a salesman.’]
p. 81-82 When raw recruits faced with seemingly sadistic abuse and hardship (which they “escape” through weekend passes and, ultimately, graduation) they are — among many other things — being inoculated against the stresses of combat.
The drill sergeant who screams into the face of a recruit is manifesting overt interpersonal hostility. … When in the face of all of this manufactured contempt and overt physical hostility the recruit overcomes the situation to graduate with honor and pride, he realizes at both conscious and unconscious levels that he can overcome such overt interpersonal hostility. He has become partially inoculated against hate.
I do not believe that military organizations have truly understood the nature of the Wind of Hate, or of the resultant need for this kind of inoculation. It is only since Seligman’s research that we have really had the foundation for a clinical understanding of these processes.
p. 89 Numerous studies have concluded that men in combat are usually motivated to fight not by ideology or hate or fear, but by group pressures and processes involving (1) regard for their comrades, (2) respect for their leaders, (3) concern for their own reputation with both, and (4) an urge to contribute to the success of the group. [Engender the group motivation for salespeople, too.]
p. 91 These decorations, medals, mentions in dispatches, and other forms of recognition represent a powerful affirmation from the leader’s society, telling him that he did well, he did the right thing, and no one blames him… [Importance of sales recognition programs and of sharing “war stories” of audacious sales tactics.]
p. 107 Killing at Maximum and Long Range: Never a Need for Repentance or Regret
To fight from a distance is instinctive in man. From the first day he has worked to this end, and he continues to do so.- Ardant du Picq
Maximum Range: “They Can Pretend They Are Not Killing Human Beings”
[letters, e-mail, advertising]
p. 146 In these and many other killing circumstances we can see that it was the demand for killing actions from a leader that was the decisive factor. Never underestimate the power of the need to obey.
[See page 64, 89]
p. 150 Among men who are bonded together so intensely, there is a powerful process of peer pressure in which the individual cares so deeply about his comrades and what they think about him that he would rather die than let them down.
p. 151 “Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare to attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely. There,” says du Picq, “is the science of the organization of armies in a nutshell.”
p. 153 … the key issue is that the chariot crew traditionally consisted of two men: a driver and an archer. And this was all that was needed to provide the same accountability and anonymity in close-proximity groups that in World War II permitted nearly 100 percent of crew-served weapons (such as machine guns [and artillery]) to fire while only 15 to 20 percent of the riflemen fired.
p. 177 Chapter Five Aggressive Predisposition of the Killer: Avengers, Conditioning, and the 2 Percent Who Like It
World War II-era training was conducted on a grassy firing range (a known-distance, or KD, range), on which the soldier shot at a bulls-eye target. After he fired a series of shots the target was checked, and he was then given feedback that told him where he hit.
Modern training uses what are essentially B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning techniques to develop a firing behavior in the soldier. This training comes as close to simulating actual combat conditions as possible. The soldier stands in a foxhole with full combat equipment, and man-shaped targets pop up briefly in front of him. These are the eliciting stimuli that prompt the target behavior of shooting. If the target is hit, it immediately drops, thus providing immediate feedback. Positive reinforcement is given when these hits are exchanged for marksmanship badges, which usually have some form of privilege or reward (praise, recognition, three-day passes, and so on) associated with them.
Traditional marksmanship training has been transformed into a combat simulator.
p. 179 Their commando units actually improved their kill ratio from thirty-five-to-one to fifty-to-one. The Rhodesians achieved this in an environment in which they did not have air and artillery support, nor did they have a significant advantage in weapons over their Soviet-supported opponents. The only thing they had going for them was superior training, and the advantage this gave them added up to nothing less than total tactical superiority.
The effectiveness of modern conditioning techniques that enable killing in combat is irrefutable, and their impact on the modern battlefield is enormous.
p. 225 In a way, the obedience-demanding authority, the killer, and his peers are all diffusing the responsibility among themselves. The authority is protected from the trauma of, and responsibility for, killing because others do the dirty work. The killer can rationalize that the responsibility really belongs to the authority and that his guilt is diffused among everyone who stands beside him and pulls the trigger with him. This diffusion of responsibility and group absolution of guilt is the basic psychological leverage that makes all firing squads and most atrocity situations function.
Group absolution can work within a group of strangers (as in a firing-squad situation), but if an individual is bonded to the group, then peer pressure interacts with group absolution in such a way as to almost force atrocity participation. Thus it is extraordinarily difficult for a man who is bonded by links of mutual affection and interdependence to break away and openly refuse to participate in what the group is doing, even if it is killing innocent women and children.
Another powerful process that ensures compliance in atrocity situations is the impact of terrorism and self-preservation. The shock and horror of seeing unprovoked violent death meted out creates a deep atavistic fear in human beings. Through atrocity the oppressed population can be numbed into a learned helplessness state of submission and compliance. The effect on the atrocity committing soldiers appears to be very similar. Human life is profoundly cheapened by these acts, and the soldier realizes that one of the lives that has been cheapened is his own.
At some level the soldier says, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and he recognizes with a deep gut-level empathy that one of those screaming, twitching, flopping, bleeding, horror-struck human bodies could very easily be his.
[If group absolution, diffusion of responsibility, and presence of authority, can move people to these extremes, it can certainly support extraordinary sales efforts.]
p. 231 The Killing Response Stages
What Does It Feel Like to Kill?
In the 1970s Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her famous research on death which revealed that when people are dying they often go through a series of emotional stages, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In the historical narratives I have read, and in my interviews with veterans over the last two decades, I have found a similar series of emotional response stages to killing in combat.
The basic response stages to killing in combat are concern about killing, the actual kill, exhilaration, remorse, and rationalization, and acceptance. Like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous stages in response to death and dying, these stages are generally sequential but not necessarily universal. Thus, some individuals may skip certain stages, or blend them, or pass through them so fleetingly that they do not even acknowledge their presence.
p. 253 Instead of lying prone on a grassy field calmly shooting at a bull’s-eye target, the modern soldier spends many hours standing in a foxhole, with full combat equipment draped about his body, looking over an area of lightly wooded rolling terrain. At periodic intervals one or two olive-drab, man-shaped targets at varying ranges will pop up in front of him for a brief time, and the soldier must instantly aim and shoot at the target(s). When he hits a target it provides immediate feedback by instantly and very satisfying dropping backward just as a living target would. Soldiers are highly rewarded and recognized for success in this skill and suffer mild punishment (in the form of retraining, peer pressure, and failure to graduate from boot camp) for failure to quickly and accurately “engage” the targets – a standard euphemism for “kill.”
In addition to traditional marksmanship, what is being taught in this environment is the ability to shoot reflexively and instantly and a precise mimicry of the act of killing on the modern battlefield. 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. In a form of “token economy” these hits are then exchanged for marksmanship badges that usually have some form of privilege or reward (praise, public recognition, three-day passes, and so on) associated with them.
Every aspect of killing on the battlefield is rehearsed, visualized, conditioned. On special occasions even more realistic and complex targets are used. Balloon-filled uniforms moving across the kill zone (pop the balloon and the target drops to the ground), red-paint-filled milk jugs, and many other ingenious devices are used. These make the training more interesting, the conditioned stimuli more realistic, and the conditioned response more assured under a variety of different circumstances.
p. 255 Most modern infantry leaders understand that realistic training with immediate feedback to the soldier works, and they know that it is essential for success and survival in the modern battlefield.
p. 312 When I went to boot camp and did individual combat training they said if you walk into an ambush what you want to do is just do a right face — you just turn right or left, whichever way the fire is corning from, and assault. I said, “Man, that’s crazy. I’d never do anything like that. It’s stupid.”
The first time we came under fire, on Hill 1044 in Operation Beauty Canyon in Laos, we did it automatically. Just like you look at your watch to see what time it is. We done a right face, assaulted the hill — a fortified position with concrete bunkers emplaced, machine guns, automatic weapons — and we took it. And we killed – I’d estimate probably thirty-five North Vietnamese soldiers in the assault, and we only lost three killed. …
But you know, what they teach you, it doesn’t faze you until it comes down to the time to use it, but it’s in the back of your head, like, “What do you do when you come to a stop sign?” It’s in the back of your head, and you react automatically.
Vietnam veteran quoted in Gwynne Dyer, War
p. 313 Instead of firing at a bull’s-eye target, the modern soldier fires at man-shaped silhouettes that pop up for brief periods of time inside a designated firing lane. The soldiers learn that they have only a brief second to engage the target, and if they do it properly their behavior is immediately reinforced when the target falls down. If he knocks down enough targets, the soldier gets a marksmanship badge and usually a three-day pass. After training on rifle ranges in this manner, an automatic, conditioned response called automaticity sets in, and the soldier then becomes conditioned to respond to the appropriate stimulus in the desired manner. This process may seem simple, basic, and obvious, but there is evidence to indicate that it is one of the key ingredients in a methodology that has raised the firing rate from 15 to 20 percent in World War II to 90 to 95 percent in Vietnam.
p. 317 Chapter Four
Social Learning and Role Models in the Media
The basic training camp was designed to undermine all the past concepts and beliefs of the new recruit, to undermine his civilian values, to change his self-concept — subjugating him entirely to the military system.
— Ben Shalit
The Psychology of Conflict and Combat
Classical (Pavlovian) conditioning can be done with earthworms, and operant (Skinnerian) conditioning can be conducted on rats and pigeons. But there is a third level of learning that pretty much only primates and humans are capable of, and that is what is called social learning.
This third level of learning, in its most powerful form, revolves primarily around the observation and imitation of a role model. Unlike operant conditioning, in social learning it is not essential that the learner be directly reinforced in order for learning to take place. What is important in social learning is to understand the characteristics that can lead to the selection of a specific individual as a role model.
The processes that make someone a desirable role model include:
- Vicarious reinforcement. You see the role model being reinforced in a manner that you can experience vicariously.
- Similarity to the learner. You perceive that the role model has a key trait that makes him/her similar to you.
- Social power. The role model has the power to reward (but does not necessarily do so).
- Status envy. You envy the role model’s receipt of rewards from others.
p. 318 The armies of the world have long understood the role of social learning in developing aggression in their soldiers. In order to do this, their venue has been basic training, and their instrument has been the drill sergeant. The drill sergeant is a role model. He is the ultimate role model. He is carefully selected, trained, and prepared to be a role model who will inculcate the soldierly values of aggression and obedience.
And in that state of nature, no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
p. 330 The ever-ascending tide of violence in our society must be stopped. Each act of violence breeds ever-greater levels of violence, and at some point, the genie can never be put back in the bottle. The study of killing in combat teaches us that soldiers who have had friends or relatives injured or killed in combat are much more likely to kill and commit war crimes. Each individual who is injured or killed by criminal violence becomes a focal point for further violence on the part of their friends and family. Every destructive act gnaws away at the restraint of other men. Each act of violence eats away at the fabric of our society like a cancer, spreading and reproducing itself in ever-expanding cycles of horror and destruction. The genie of violence cannot really ever be stuffed back into the bottle. It can only be cut off here and now, and then the slow process of healing and resensitization can begin.
It can be done. It has been done in the past.
by Dave Grossman*