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On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

Author: Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
Rating: 6/10
Last Read: August 2010

Quick Summary: Lt. Col. Grossman gives an overview of the psychological costs humans incur when they take a life and how societies are able to condition soldiers to get through these mental barriers. 

This is an interesting introduction to the subject, though I felt like Grossman does take too many opportunities to let his personal opinion through, rather than providing a well-cited academic work. He selects statistical sources that assist his claim, even though many of them have been shown to be sensationalized or discredited (trends of increasing violence, video games helping increase violent behavior, SLA Marshal's study).  

The review of our barriers against killing and structures to overcome those barriers are still interesting even with this serious flaw.

My Highlights

The potential of close-up, inescapable, interpersonal hatred and aggression is more effective and has greater impact on the morale of the soldier than the presence of inescapable, impersonal death and destruction.

there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it

When a man is frightened, he literally stops thinking with his forebrain (that is, with the mind of a human being) and begins to think with the midbrain (that is, with the portion of his brain that is essentially indistinguishable from that of an animal), and in the mind of an animal it is the one who makes the loudest noise or puffs himself up the largest who will win.

when someone withholds something traumatic it can cause great damage. When you share something with someone it helps to place it in perspective, but when you hold it inside, as one of my psychology students once put it, “it eats you alive from the inside out.” Furthermore, there is great therapeutic value in the catharsis that comes with lancing these emotional boils. The essence of counseling is that pain shared is pain divided, and there was much pain shared during these periods.

“The soldier above all other people,” said MacArthur, “prays for peace, for they must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”

Robert Heinlein once wrote that fulfillment in life involved “loving a good woman and killing a bad man.”

Winston Churchill said that “it is the primary right of men to die and kill for the land they live in, and to punish with exceptional severity all members of their own race who have warmed their hands at the invader’s hearth.”

The War that Killed Achilles

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It's Too Late to Stop Now, Vol. 1

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