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Once upon a time, when the Earth was formless and void or thereabouts, a young Sig dreamed of post-graduate employment. Even as a college sophomore, he had the random insight that a political science degree, while interesting, was unlikely to result in anything that would pay the bills upon graduation. Further, this remote chance was made still more tenuous with the realization that he probably could not afford to keep going to school long enough to finish. [I’ll spoil the ending: he ended up taking a lot of stupid student loans, a topic I will probably cover in some other context some day.]

I’m still not certain exactly how this happened, but somehow he ended up talking to the ROTC battalion at Central Washington University–and for a brief, ominous period was on track to someday become a commissioned officer in the United States Army.  This did not happen.  In fact, it was made clear to Sig (albeit not in so many words) that a military career of any kind was exceedingly improbable.  But for a few months, he was on the path. He even cut his metal headbanging hair, which has never recovered. (In fairness, this is largely because of the improbable subsequent enlisted military career, still in progress.)

He did not come away from the brief flirtation of ossiferhood empty-handed. In basic training many moons later, he would still have a pretty good feel for how to field strip an M-16, the Army rank structure, and which foot was his left and which his right. Aside from these valuable life skills, however, he also read some books during that brief period as part of “professional development reading.”

And at last, Dear Reader (for I suspect there is but one of you), we get to the point.  Among the books that he read in the Spring of 1998 was LTC Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.  This was and is on a number of military professional reading lists.

Killing is hard.

The basic thesis, as I recall it now, was that killing is hard.  Really hard. Grossman’s argument, drawing heavily on the WWII-era research of SLA Marshall, is that most people have strong cultural inhibitions against killing other people, and that short of focused psychological preparation and focused training, most people can’t get over them–not well enough to be effective warriors, at least. The big controversy (in both author’s works) was the assertion that most soldiers never even fire their weapons. This has obvious repercussions on how the military trains and fights, and supposedly Marshall’s findings led to fundamental changes in the way that the military conducted weapons training, e.g. by switching from paper circle targets to person-shaped silhouettes.

There was obviously a lot more to it than that, but that was the core (I think) of a pretty interesting work.  It was certainly not without its detractors, of course, many of whom also had problems with Marshall’s flawed (or, some say, fabricated) research.

Okay, perhaps now we’re getting to the actual point. I think Grossman’s follow-up to that volume, On Combat, is also flawed, though I don’t remember On Killing well enough to be comfortable doing a comparison.  Rather than just review the book, however, I’m going to try to extract what I consider valuable for consideration here, interspersed with whatever insights I can offer based on my limited combat experience.  I think some of it is dead on, some is questionable, and some is just too far outside my experience to say–but it’s all worth thinking about.

On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, by LTC Dave Grossman