“The media in our modern information society have done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing and have thereby become part of society’s unspoken conspiracy of deception that glorifies killing and war. There are exceptions … but for the most part we are given James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Rambo, and Indiana Jones blithely and remorselessly killing men by the hundreds.”
Introduction: Sex and Killing
Why should we study killing? One might just as readily ask, Why study sex? The two questions have much in common. Every society has a blind spot, an area into which it has great difficulty looking. Today that blind spot is killing. A century ago it was sex.
Sex is a natural and essential part of life. A society that has no sex has no society in one generation. Today our society has begun the slow, painful process of escaping from the pathological dichotomy of simultaneous sexual repression and obsession. But we may have begun our escape from one denial only to fall into a new and possibly even more dangerous one. A new repression, revolving around killing and death, precisely parallels the pattern established by the previous sexual repression.
Part of the reason for our lack of knowledge in this area is that combat is, like sex, laden with a baggage of expectations and myths. In the same way that we did not understand what was occurring in the bedroom, we have not understood what was occurring on the battlefield. Our ignorance of the destructive act matched that of the procreative act.
In A History of Militarism, Alfred Vagts accuses military history, as an institution, of having played a large part in the process of militarizing minds. To a certain extent, this is probably because those who are good at killing in war are quite often those who throughout history have hacked their way to power. The military and the politicians have been the same people for all but the most recent part of human history, and we know that the victor writes the history books.
Hacking their way to Power: The Media and the Military
The media in our modern information society have done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing and have thereby become part of society’s unspoken conspiracy of deception that glorifies killing and war. There are exceptions – such as Gene Hackman’s Bat 21, in which an air force pilot has to kill people on the ground, up close and personal for a change and is horrified at what he has done – but for the most part we are given James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Rambo, and Indiana Jones blithely and remorselessly killing men by the hundreds. The point here is that there is as much disinformation and as little insight concerning the nature of killing coming from the media as from any other aspect of out society.
In reality, killing another human being is not so easy, and can often lead to prolonged trauma (military “PTSD”). In the 1940s, the American military conducted research, under Brigadier Gen. S. L. A. Marshall, into firing rates amongst combatants. To their surprise they found that only 15-20% of World War II soldiers along the line of fire would actually use their weapons. Those who would not fire did not run or hide (in many cases they were willing to risk great danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages), but they simply would not fire their weapons at the enemy, even when faced with repeated waves of banzai charges. Marshall’s discovery and subsequent research suggested that this statistic was roughly comparable in all military engagements, including previous wars throughout history. It became known as “the Marshall statistic”. Every available parallel scholarly study replicates his basic findings.
The conclusion from this seemed to be that in most wars it was only a tiny minority of soldiers (estimated at around three to five per cent) who would happily fire without any qualm, and another five to ten percent who in the traumatic and stimulating situations of battle, and encouraged by this more extreme element, would imitate their fellow soldiers. Marshall’s conclusion was 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 unable to kill. Only 1 percent of U.S. fighter pilots accounted for nearly 40 percent of all enemy pilots shot down in World War II; the majority apparently did not shoot anyone down or even try to. Marshall’s statistic seemed to corroborate the research done in Swank and Marchand’s influential World War II study, which pointed to the existence of 2 percent of combat soldiers who are predisposed to be ‘aggressive psychopaths’ and apparently do not experience the normal resistance to killing and the resultant psychiatric casualties associated with extended periods of combat: “the 2 Percent Who Like It.” You wouldn’t guess this from the extensive and blasé tsunami of easy killing we see on our screens and our video games.
There does indeed seem to be a conspiracy of silence on this subject. In his book War on the Mind, Peter Watson observes that Marshall’s findings have been largely ignored by academia and the fields of psychology and psychiatry, but they were very much taken to heart by the U.S. Army, and a number of training measures were instituted as a result of Marshall’s suggestions. According to studies by Marshall, these changes resulted in a firing rate of 55 percent in Korea and, according to a study by R.W. Glenn, a 90 to 95 percent firing rate was attained in Vietnam.
The training methods that increased the firing rate from 15 percent to 90 percent are referred to as “programming” or “conditioning” by some of the veterans I have interviewed, and they do appear to represent a form of classical and operant conditioning (à la Pavlov’s dog and B.F. Skinner’s rats). The unpleasantness of this subject, combined with the remarkable success of the army’s training programs, and the lack of official recognition might imply that it is classified. But there is no secret master plan responsible for the lack of attention given to this subject. There is instead, in the words of philosopher-psychologist Peter Marin, “a massive unconscious cover-up” in which society hides from itself the true nature of combat. Even among the psychological and psychiatric literature on war, “there is,” writes Marin, “a kind of madness at work.” He notes, “Repugnance toward killing and the refusal to kill” are referred to as “acute combat reaction.” And psychological trauma resulting from “slaughter and atrocity are called ‘stress,’ as if the clinicians … are talking about an executive’s overwork.” As a psychologist I believe that Marin is quite correct when he observes, “Nowhere in the [psychiatric and psychological] literature is one allowed to glimpse what is actually occurring: the real horror of the war and its effect on those who fought it.”
There is, indeed, a cover-up and a “conspiracy of silence,” but it is a cultural conspiracy of forgetfulness, distortion, and lies that has been going on for thousands of years. And just as we have begun to wipe away the cultural conspiracy of guilt and silence concerning sex, we must now wipe away this similar conspiracy that obscures the very nature of war.
Nintendo War Crimes
In my books Stop Teaching our Kids to Kill (co-authored with Glora DeGaetano) and On Combat I outline the great body of scholarly research linking media violence with violence in our society. My goal here is to apply the models and methodology of combat killing enabling, in order to understand the explosion of violent crime in our society. An application of the lessons of combat killing may have much to teach us about the constraint and control of peacetime violence. Are the same processes the military used so effectively to enable killing in our adolescent draftee soldiers in Vietnam, being indiscriminately applied to the civilian population of this nation?
In Vietnam a systematic process of desensitization, conditioning, and training increased the individual firing rate from a World War II baseline of 15 to 20 percent to an all-time high of up to 95 percent. Today a similar process of systematic desensitization, conditioning, and vicarious learning is unleashing an epidemic, a virus of violence in America. Violent movies are targeted at the young, both men and women, the same audience the military has determined to be most susceptible for its killing purposes. Violent video games hardwire young people for shooting at humans. The entertainment industry conditions the young in exactly the same way the military does. Civilian society apes the training and conditioning techniques of the military at its peril.
Our society has found a powerful recipe for providing killing empowerment to an entire generation. Producers, directors, and actors are handsomely rewarded for creating the most violent, gruesome, and horrifying films imaginable, films in which the stabbing, shooting, abuse, and torture of innocent men, women, and children are depicted in intimate detail. Make these films entertaining as well as violent, and then simultaneously provide the (usually) adolescent viewers with candy, soft drinks, group companionship, and the intimate physical contact of a boyfriend or girlfriend. Then understand that these adolescent viewers are learning to associate these rewards with what they are watching. If we had a clear-cut objective of raising a generation of assassins and killers who are unrestrained by either authority or the nature of the victim, it is difficult to imagine how we could do a better job.
Operant conditioning firing ranges with pop-up targets and immediate feedback, just like those used to train soldiers in modern armies, are found in the interactive video games that our children play today. But whereas the adolescent Vietnam vet had stimulus discriminators built in to ensure that he fired only under authority, the adolescents who play these video games have no such safeguard built into their conditioning.
In a kind of reverse Clockwork Orange classical conditioning process, adolescents in movie theaters across the nation, and watching television at home, are seeing the detailed, horrible suffering and killing of human beings, and they are learning to associate this killing and suffering with entertainment, pleasure, their favorite soft drink, their favorite candy bar, and the close, intimate contact of their date.
The three major psychological processes at work in enabling violence are classical conditioning (à la Pavlov’s dog), operant conditioning (à la B.F. Skinner’s rats), and the observation and imitation of vicarious role models in social learning.
The same tools that more than quadrupled the firing rate in Vietnam are now in widespread use among our civilian population. Military personnel are just beginning to understand and accept what they have been doing to themselves and their men. If we have reservations about the military’s use of these mechanisms to ensure the survival and success of our soldiers in combat, then how much more so should we be concerned about the indiscriminate application of the same processes on our nation’s children?
Where did we lose this sense of propriety toward the dignity of death? How did we become so hardened? The answer to that question is that we, as a society, have become systematically desensitized to the pain and suffering of others. We may believe that tabloids and tabloid TV make us exceedingly conscious of the suffering of others as they spread the stories of victims. But the reality is that they are desensitizing us and trivializing these issues as each year they have to find increasingly more bizarre stories to satisfy their increasingly jaded audiences. We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.
Killing in America: What Are We Doing to Our Children?
Social learning is being used as children learn to observe and imitate a whole new realm of dynamic vicarious role models, such as Jason and Freddy or endless Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, and Hannibal the Cannibal, along with a host of other horrendous sadistic murderers. Even the more classic heroes, such as the archetypal law-abiding police detective, is today portrayed as a murderous, unstable vigilante who operates outside the law.
But today there is a new kind of hero in movies, a hero who operates outside the law. Vengeance is a much older, darker, more atavistic, and more primitive concept than law, and these new anti-heroes are depicted as being motivated and rewarded for their obedience to the gods of vengeance rather than those of law. The fruit of this new cult of vengeance in American society can be seen in Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, and the Oklahoma City bombing. If we look into the mirror provided by the television screen, the reflection we see is one of a nation regressing from a society of law to a society of violence, vigilantes, and vengeance.
And if America has a police force that seems unable to constrain its violence, and a population that (having seen the videotape of Rodney King and the LAPD) has learned to fear its police forces, then the reason can be found in the entertainment industry. Look at the role models, look at the archetypes that police officers have grown up with.
Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry became the archetype for a new generation of police officers who were not constrained by the law, and when Hollywood’s new breed of cop was rewarded for placing vengeance above the law, the audience was also vicariously rewarded for this same behavior. Feeding their audience a steady stream of vicarious reinforcement through such vengeful, lawless role models, these movies prepare our society for the acceptance of a truly hideous and sociopathic brand of role model.
Television programmers have always tried to claim the “best of two uncomfortably contradictory worlds,” as Michael Medved puts it. It is really not new or profound to point out that television executives have for years claimed that they are not capable of influencing our actions of changing behavior, but for decades America’s major corporations have paid them billions of dollars for a paltry few seconds or a minute to do just that. To sponsors, media executives claim that just a few well-placed seconds can control how America will spend its hard-earned money. But to Congress and other watchdog agencies they argue that they are not responsible for causing viewers to change the way they will respond to any emotionally charged, potentially violent circumstance that they lay subsequently find themselves in. This in spite of the fact that, as of 1945, there have been more than two hundred studies demonstrating the connection between television and violence. The American Psychological Association’s commission on violence and youth concluded in 1993 that “there is absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior.”
Throughout history nations, corporations, and individuals have used noble-sounding concepts such as states’ rights, lebensraum, free-market economics, and Constitutional rights to mask their actions, but ultimately what they are doing is for their own personal gain and the result – intentional or not – is killing innocent men, women, and children. They participate in a diffusion or responsibility by referring to themselves as “the tobacco industry” or “the entertainment industry,” and we permit it, but they are ultimately individuals making individual moral decisions to participate in the destruction of their fellow citizens.
The ever-ascending tide of violence in our society must be stopped. Each act of violence breeds ever-greater levels of violence. 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 re-sensitization can begin.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is an internationally recognized scholar, author, soldier, and speaker who is one of the world s foremost experts in the field of human aggression and the roots of violence and violent crime. He is a former sergeant, platoon leader, general staff office and a company commander, as well as a former West Point psychology professor and Chair of the Department of Military Science at Arkansas.
His classic book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and is required reading in classes at West Point and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is also the author of the acclaimed work On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, and co-author of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence. This article is taken from his chapter ‘On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society’ in the Karnac Books publication The Political Self (2016), and is reproduced by kind permission of the author.