This is actually the first part in a two-part series. Here I’m going to give an overview of killology as described in the aforesaid books, as well as my own commentary on the science in general, some benefits and flaws, and things I found interesting, odd, or otherwise worth mentioning. Part II will be a look at using killology for theatrical or cinematic performance purposes.
Note that for the purposes of this piece, I’m looking purely at what’s written in On Killingand On Combat, not in any supplemental materials. If that makes this more of a book review than a look on the philosophy, so be it.
Killology’s basic ideas boil down to these:
- Killing is not necessarily murder. There are circumstances when taking a human life is the necessary and right thing to do.
- The vast majority of humanity has an inherent aversion to killing, however…
- … said aversion can be overcome with mental training and conditioning, and has been in various ways over the centuries.
Grossman’s works have been studied extensively by the military, law enforcement agencies, and others who study the act of, for lack of a better term, “good kills.” His study of what happens to a human being during the taking of another human life, in the physical, mental, and psychological sense, has been put to good use among those who have had to do so in recent years.
Grossman’s work (particularly On Killing) has included two major side digressions:
- The first explores the rise in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since WWI and the various factors surrounding that.
- The second is a movement against depictions of violence in various forms of media. Although his deepest disdain is reserved for first-person-shooter video games, violent film and television does not escape his ire. As someone whose career involves designing violent scenes for various media, I’m neither going to pretend I don’t have a dog in that fight nor dwell on the subject. I will merely note that Grossman’s views on the matter are expressed rather bluntly in his texts and leave it at that.
The thing to keep in mind when reading either On Killing or On Combat is that killology is a brand spanking NEW branch of science. Before this, killing was studied either in the context of battlefield effectiveness or murder. In essence, Grossman’s work is to studying killing what Alfred Kinsey did for studying sex. That said, just as Kinsey had some serious gaps in his data and work that went unexplored, I think Grossman’s work is just the tip of the iceberg. The next 20-odd years are going to be interesting times for the field.
Out of the major talking points today, I think Universal Human Phobia is going to be the most changed in the future. While aspects of it may be current sociological phenomenon, too much of history is written in bloodshed for me to believe such a thing to be truly universal. Forgive me for using a Barbarism (hell, if anyone’s gonna, it may as well be me), but in the safety of civilization, we too easily forget humanity’s capacity for bloodlust, savagery, and brutality. And modern America has been civilized for quite a long time.
Of the books, On Killing is more raw in form, and it shows. It’s the culmination of years of research, and it reads like the introductory textbook it has become by default.
I’ll admit, on my initial readings in years past I was struck, as many fighters do, with a sense of “finally, someone who understands me!” With the passing of years and a critical eye, a good bit of that remains, but not enough to obscure the flaws.
What became a rather constant irritation to me is the constant cherry-picking of data to support the theory of what Grossman calls “universal human phobia.” (The inherent resistance towards killing one’s fellow humans found in the vast majority of the population)
Again, I’m giving the man full credit for building a new branch of science, and it’s difficult to get significant data on this sort of thing. That said, his historical theories rely very, very heavily on anecdotal evidence (particularly Marshall and Du Pique). A particular habit of his is to rattle off a list of plausible theories for a particular phenomenon, only to declare later that it MUST be what supports universal human phobia.
Case in point: the multiply-loaded rifles of Gettysburg. Grossman mentions an anecdote where 12K weapons recovered after the Battle of Gettysburg were found not only loaded, but loaded with multiple rounds. Grossman makes the case that most of these weapons were left by soldiers who (not wanting to kill anyone) did not fire, but loaded, aimed, mimed firing without actually doing so, and kept up with the rest of the rifle drill along with the rest of their unit. This left multiple loads in the weapon. Later on, he makes an extensive case for conditioning (in the Pavlovian sense) as being the key to overcoming human resistance to kill. In particular, the use of shooting drill among the mass-formation infantry common during the American Civil War.
So which is it?
I can buy tens of thousands of soldiers being able to shoot by peer pressure and intense multiple-count drill in training being used to overcome the universal human phobia he describes. But several thousand managing to not only break their institutional conditioning, but recondition themselves to go through the motions without following through? That I don’t buy.
I find it much more plausible that the proper response to a misfire was for the shooter to remain with the rest of their rank, going through the drill motions and firing in volley until the fire at will command was given. There’s a laundry list of unreliability problems with pre-integrated cartridge weapons out there that could play a part in how many loaded weapons were recovered from that battlefield, be it bad primers, clogged nipples, bad powder, hell, bad weather could have been a factor (heavy rains both preceded and followed the battle, though the first few days of the battle were mostly partly cloudy). But Grossman’s insistence continues to be that universal human phobia combined with human ingenuity met to allow thousands to “get away with” not shooting anyone.
Another aspect of this shows during his crusade against media violence. His claim is that violence in America is skyrocketing, and the murder rate is being held down artificially by advances in medical technology. He therefore uses the aggravated assault rate as an indicator for the increasingly violent actions among the U.S. Population, noting a fivefold increase between 1960 and 1993. (FBI’s Unified Crime report, Aggravated Assaults per 100K people. 86.1 in 1960 vs. 441.9 in 1992). But that argument falls apart in more recent history, as the aggravated assault rate has dropped ever since then, being less than half of what it was in 1993 (252.3 in 2010). I’d venture to go even farther than that, arguing that fights which wouldn’t have resulted in charges (and therefore not counted) are currently doing so. Schoolyard scuffles alone are becoming arrest-worthy charges in ways that weren’t happening just 20 years ago, though I only have anecdotal evidence of that.
To its credit, On Killing does explore a lot of the less often examined aspects of a kill: distance, instinctual responses, group dynamics and an equivalent of the stages of grief psychological model to examine the aftereffects of a killing upon the killer’s psyche. I don’t discredit the book its breadth, but I will say many conclusions seem not only jumped to but tackled far enough for a first down.
On Combat is a more refined book than its earlier cousin, not quite as preachy as its predecessor and less concerned with exploring why people kill as examining the effects that it has on those who kill, whether they be conscious or reflexive, immediate or lingering.
Here is where the limits of killology as it stands now aren’t quite defined but alluded to. Each examination of a lethal force scenario (potential or fulfilled) examine the recorded direct and side effects without trying to draw them up into some breathtaking conclusion. The Cooper color codes are used more as a useful yardstick than an absolute set of limits. Physiological effects (purging, auditory exclusion, memory distortions, effects on the libido) are all listed and examined (occasionally with percentages of known incidents, for the statistically-minded). Responses, treatments, and preventative measures against PTSD comprise a large portion of the latter half, under the mindset of caring for those who do violence on behalf of others (soldiers, cops, those defending themselves and/or others, and so on). Reading through the various scenarios, I found myself often thinking “yeah, that happened,” rather more often than not.
Where On Combat begins to really quirk my eyebrows is in two places: the constant harping on what Grossman has determined are the necessary elements needed to prevent and treat PTSD, and the (to me) overly simplistic nature of Sheepdog theory.
For those who haven’t heard of sheepdog theory, here’s a link.
Overall, I think there’s a sound idea in there somewhere. But it’s too cut and dried.
I laud his crusade in wanting society in general to treat its warriors better than they have in the last several decades. I particularly laud his mention of those warriors who have had to fight and kill, and then have returned with no psychological trauma, but still face the social stigmas associated with PTSD. After all, who would endure such things and NOT turn out damaged? What was wrong with them in the first place? The idea that nothing is wrong with them was a welcome breath of fresh air.
That said, our limited understanding of what PTSD actually is, let alone any sort of consensus on how treatment and prevention should happen just makes his constant drumbeating about what he believes has to be done more of an annoyance than a call to action in my ears.
As for the sheepdog theory, 2% of the population being the only ones capable of violence? I don’t buy it. It feeds into a heroes, villains and bystanders dynamic more useful to a comic book than reality. Oh, there is a paragraph that mentions this, but it’s buried in the middle of a chapter beating the reader over the head with the idea that sheepdogs are the modern versions of romantic-myth knights of old. While it’s useful as a fable, as far as science goes, Sheepdog theory looks like one of Grossman’s Kinsey moments: he’s on to something important here. What I can’t tell right now is how much or how accurate.
Killology on the whole does exactly what it claims to: looks at killing beyond both the cold judgement of murder and the glorious hails of war stories. There’s a lot more to be learned, and it’s going to take a long time.
It’s a nice start though.