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

4.17  ·  Rating Details ·  4,960 Ratings  ·  477 Reviews
The twentieth century, with its bloody world wars, revolutions, and genocides accounting for hundreds of millions dead, would seem to prove that human beings are incredibly vicious predators and that killing is as natural as eating. But Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a psychologist and U.S. Army Ranger, demonstrates this is not the case. The good news, according to Gros ...more
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published June 22nd 2009 by Little, Brown and Company (first published 1995)
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Jul 08, 2008 Quinnp1 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a combat vet myself, I can't say I learned anything new from this book as I have lived it all myself,. Yet I strongly suggest you all read it carefully.It will enlighten you to a very important aspect of humanity and the survival instinct that few understand. There is a price for killing and there is a very effective "military machine" to teach the acceptance and support of killing that is a thousand years or more old.That mind altering thousand year plus mind forming machine is set against a ...more
Jun 18, 2015 Marcus rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Funny how a little more than 10 years can change one's perspective. When I read Grossman's "On Killing" for first time, I found it deep and profound. Upon second reading a decade later, I find his conclusions sometimes unfounded, sometimes rather badly argued, while constant repetitions were increasingly annoying the further I've got into the book. Most importantly however, several of Grossman's points just don't ring true to me anymore.

Let's start with the fact that Grossman bases his thesis al
Oct 10, 2012 Brooke rated it it was amazing
Ok I loved and hated this book. I guess you could say I hated it because the truth hurts.. but I loved it because It REALLY opened my eyes to how(my hubby) feels everyday. It really helped me understand him and the thoughts that he has more clearly.

I was let down though, the reason... I was really hoping that it would tell me how to handle all of this and it doesn't it only explains the effects, not how to deal. So in some ways fantastic others a let down. I do recommend others read it though i
Kelly B
Apr 18, 2008 Kelly B rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
People don't like to kill each other. But they might start changing their minds....

No but seriously, this is a great read. I mean, if you're interested in how people are conditioned to kill, and how they actually behave after they are conditioned to kill. Honestely, I have a hard time believing some of the stuff he asserts, but I think there's a lot of valuable information in there that you wouldn't find anywhere else.

The part I love is when he examines the history of using bayonets in warfare,
Nick Marsh
By turns fascinating and overly moralising; amazing insights into how normal people can be made to commit atrocites, the average soldier's (reassuring) reluctance to kill (at least, up close and personally) are mixed with poor research and referencing, repetition and generally uninspiring writing.

Throughout the book we are repeatedly told of the massive increase in violent crime throughout America - but this isn't referenced. When I finally tracked down one reference to crime studies in the 'fur
Sep 24, 2011 Dino rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book should not be taken as absolute, peer reviewed fact. While it starts out in an academic fashion and explains the basis for its theories, it later derails into chapter-long rants and moans about how American society is to blame for its treatment of returning veterans of the Vietnam war. Exaggerating and making very emotional, biased arguments.

And if that was not enough Grossman, decides to squander his credentials by attempting to perpetuate the disproved myth that violent video-games an
Jun 17, 2008 Jake rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I first became aware of On Killing when Tony Blauer referenced it at one of his PDR seminars, and have heard a fair amount of good press since then. It’s one of those books that martial artists/self-defense junkies seem to like to talk about, or at least, claim to have read, and I figured it was time I finally saw what all of the fuss is about.

On Killing is the first of Col. Grossman’s works on “killology”, which he defines as “the scholarly study of the destructive act, just as sexology is the
Jun 13, 2007 Adam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Grossman, a former Army Ranger (who, ironically, has never actually killed anyone) collects myriad stories from those who have killed, and comments on society's collective aversion to the action. In wwii, only 15% of men were willing to fire their weapons, in korea it rose to 50%, in vietnam, the american military was able to persuade 90% of combat troops to fire on the enemy. Grossman comments on how the military was able to accomplish this, and discusses impacts of the operant condition, and o ...more
Suzanne Stroh
Mar 21, 2013 Suzanne Stroh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: military-history
One of the most profound books I've ever read. Recommended by an ex-military friend of mine who is a female combat veteran, a former U2 pilot, and a graduate of both the Air Force Academy and the prep school that feeds it. Some of the deepest ethical discussions in my life have been related to the philosophical questions raised by, and in, this book.

Until I read On Killing, my favorite work of military history was The Face of Battle by John Keegan. Army Ranger Dave Grossman (not a combat veteran
Mar 31, 2016 Ethan rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
On Killing has a great book hidden away some where inside, but it is a marred by a lack of rigor, inaccuracies, constant repetition, and chapters that have no relevance to the book but are instead a chance for the author to rant.

The book is full of things that Grossman made up to support his beliefs and which Grossman refers to as if they are historical fact. for instance Centurions were known for leading their men by example, fighting in the front lines. Yet, Grossman claims that Centurions, l
Tamora Pierce
This is an interesting book, written by a man who is not only a Vietnam combat veteran, but also a retired teacher of psychology at West Point, and a teacher and trainer of military and law enforcement organizations regarding the reality of combat. He bases his book on studies and on the research of other scientists regarding combat, mental stress in combat, and psychiatric casualties of combat; on observations made by combat professionals, and on anecdotes from those who have undergone combat.

Jul 19, 2009 Tom rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An important, fascinating, sometimes disturbing book on the psychology behind killing, specifically in wartime.

A fact that restores your faith in the human race: most people, when ordered to kill their fellow human beings on the front lines of war, will simply choose not to do so. 80-85% become "non-shooters". Even when forced to shoot, they will intentionally miss rather than shoot at a fellow human.

The military since Vietnam has used psychological conditioning to overcome this innate resistan
Stephen England
Jun 19, 2011 Stephen England rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Dave Grossman’s book, On Killing, is not a light read. Nor is it a particularly enjoyable one. I knew all that going in.
So why did I read it? Because although I knew it would not be an enjoyable read, I felt that it was a necessary one.
I write thrillers. I write about elite warriors, despite the fact that I have never fired a shot in anger, despite the fact that I have never taken a human life. I don’t see this as a deterrent, for I know with certainty that I would not be able to write about i
Lt.Col. Grossman is developing a field of study he has termed 'killology'. As you can probably guess, this is the study of killing. His book here is concerned with the psychological and subsequent social effects of learning to kill. It is well researched and written in a careful and sensitive tone, he maintains a respect for his subjects--mostly military personnel.

He begins with a detailed analysis of the inhibition against killing humans and its effects on battlefields. This leads to a discuss
Nov 18, 2014 David rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A wonderful treatise on combat and the cost of killing another person. I have never read anything that has broken down the psychology of justified murder/killing. From the conditioning of soldiers to the linguistic associations that allow people to view others as "less than" and thus acceptable casualties.

I would recommend it solely for the chapters on weaponry and how innovation and technology have progressed to move our proximity away from the kill, which in turn increases psychological accept
Dec 17, 2015 Essma rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio
A book unique in its premise, and it's ability to confront hard truths.
It helped me wrap my mind around events that I have always struggled with.
And for me with this furthered understanding comes a kind of healing.
Jul 17, 2013 Nathaniel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This was one of the most engrossing and provocative books I've ever read in my life, fiction or non-fiction. I liked it so much that I immediately wrote a review for the Mormon blog Times And Seasons. In that review I talked about just one of the implications from the book's main thesis for Mormon theology, but in this review I'll just stick to what is generally applicable. And there's a lot of that.

First of all, the thesis is really, really interesting. According to Grossman and the research he
Eric Plume
Aug 09, 2015 Eric Plume rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone, Authors especially
Shelves: favorites, r-and-d
I have had several people recommend On Killing to me during the course of my study of violence dynamics. It has been sitting in my "really will get around to it someday" box for over a year now, and since I had a Sunday afternoon to myself plus a burgeoning series to do research for I took advantage of Kindle Unlimited and dove in. I was expecting a pretty good read; some people whose opinion I respect on the topic of violence dynamics spoke very highly of it.

I wasn't expecting to get my mind bl
Aaron Crofut
Sep 21, 2016 Aaron Crofut rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: war, psychology
Interesting idea, horrific execution.

The Good: the thesis that most people have an innate desire not to kill other human beings, and that this power is so strong that soldiers will often intentionally not kill the enemy even in battle. Things that can be done to overcome this predisposition include psychological training, group pressure, diffusion of responsibility, praise by society, and distance (both physical and cultural). Some interesting thoughts on why casualty rates have been so low in
Bernie Gourley
Grossman's work reports on a line of research started by Army historian and author of "Men Against Fire" S.L.A. Marshall. Grossman not only brings us up-to-date on this thesis, he shows us its ramifications for modern society-at-large.

A two-part thesis was advanced by Marshall and continued by Grossman and others.

First, humans, like other species, are reluctant to kill within their species. (Marshall noted that in World War II about 75% of soldiers would not fire on the enemy when they had the
Jan 31, 2013 Caity rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone!
Recommended to Caity by: Randy
I think it is absolutely imperative that every member of American society read, digest, and discuss such a telling piece of literature. This book was released in the 90's and even I recall the discussion it created regarding the role of violent media in the creation of a violent society. However, that discussion is just one of the many that we need to have.

This book is not simply a reflection of the role that violence in television, movies and video games serves in the desensitization of our soc
Jan 20, 2014 Priscilla rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a wonderful, eye-opening book. I read it and couldn't stop thinking about it. I wanted to share my learning with everyone, but I was worried people would find me a bit imbalanced and inappropriate for being so excited about death.

Which is oddly enough, the author's main point. Death is a taboo topic is our modern society. It used to be that people killed the animals they ate, family members and friends died at young ages, and old people died at home, surrounded by their loved ones. Nowad
Christopher Rex
Fascinating subject and analysis. A friend of mine was in the USMC and told me a lot about the ways in which the military de-sensitizes soldiers to the act of killing. One would likely never realize how "difficult" it is to actually get people to kill, let alone WANT to kill. It seems the USMC and military in general have found the combination to the lock on this Pandora's Box. The problem becomes, like all Pandora's Boxes, you don't simply get to close the lid once it is open.

The author does a
Main takeaway is that the majority of soldiers (80%) have to learn how to kill. If the author has a first rate mind this book does nothing to indicate that fact. He seems to essentially have an educated but average mind that lacks deftness and nuance in presenting theories, many of which require constant adjustment to account for too many counter-examples.

Some of his basic assertions are credibly discredited by Steven Pinker. One of the most irritating sections was when he asserted that the maj
Nov 22, 2014 Samantha rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I would have given this book more stars but Grossman's own blind patriotism and anti communism got in the way of his scientific theory. I thought the first half of this book was great. I learned so much on the act of killing and how extraordinarily hard it is for people to kill one another.

The problems I had with this book:

-Grossman only goes into detail about gruesome atrocities that are committed by communists or non white people. He never gives examples of US soldiers committing atrocities.

Larry Bassett
Jun 07, 2010 Larry Bassett rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: war

This is a fascinating story written by SLA Marshall's grandson about his exploration of whether his grandfather -- who said 85% of soldiers didn't fire -- had fabricated his research. John Marshall was a CO in Vietnam!

The alleged increase in the number of soldier who fired their weapons from 15% in WWII to 95% in Vietnam is at the core of this book. As the book concludes (on the final page) "The essence of this book has been that there is a force within ma
Jan 24, 2009 Seth rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"On Killing" is a fascinating book that details through heavily documented research the effects of killing during war on the individual. It's a dense read, but engrossing, and worth reading for anybody who is curious about the affect of war on the average soldier, or curious about why the Vietnam War stands out as such a stark and glaring watermark on combat.

Unfortunately, the last chapter of the book has three notable flaws. One, it blames violence on media, and not on parental control. Two, it
Jan 02, 2016 Ross rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"We have to understand, as we never understood before, why it is that men fight and kill and, equally important, why it is that they will not."
Colonel Grossman's book can be summed up pretty well with that quote. He explores how the military has conditioned soldiers to be more efficient from the times of WWII where only 15-20% of soldiers actually fired a weapon to the training tactics of Vietnam where 95% fired their weapon yet 50,000 bullets were used for each kill. Killing is not a natural hu
This is a truly magnificent and seminal work by a fantastic author. Dave's insights into the workings of the phenomenon of killing and its resultant impact on those who have been forced to take human life is unparalleled. Solidly founded upon historical research and insightful psychological analysis, Lt. Colonel Grossman reveals a hitherto rarely explored phenomenon the dark side of man. The author skilfully leads the reader through all the various stages involved in the development of modern da ...more
Петър Стойков
Това е книга, чийто автор с предговора си ме отказа да я чета.

Съжалявам, но когато напоително описваш за своя основна теза компютърните игри като факторът, който кара децата и младежите да са агресивни и да упражняват насилие, звучиш малко смешно.

Още по-смешно звучиш, когато обясняваш как именно поради агресията във видеоигрите и по телевизията, насилието в живота ни се увеличава всяка година, че непрекъснато расте броят на убийствата, изнасилванията и т.н. в съвременния свят - когато точно кни
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Marine Corps L.E....: Grossman illustrates a trends with appropriate war story. Choose three stories and analyze them. What trend in warfare do they illustrate? How do they subvert the tradition of war stories? 1 1 Jan 25, 2015 04:49AM  
Marine Corps L.E....: In military emulation of a role model, who is the standard soldier's role model? What does this role model represent to the soldier, and how does he wish to emulate him? What aspects of aggression and manhood does this affect? 1 1 Jan 25, 2015 04:47AM  
Marine Corps L.E....: What is operant conditioning, and how is it connected to Skinner's work with rats? To what extent is military operant training more subtly employed than traditional conditioning? How does this conditioning alter soldier behavior in chaotic combat? 1 1 Jan 25, 2015 04:46AM  
Marine Corps L.E....: What is standard conditioning, and how is it connected to Pavlov's work with dogs? How does this type of conditioning manifest itself in military training? What specific defenses is it trying to overcome? What is its goal? 1 1 Jan 25, 2015 04:46AM  
Marine Corps L.E....: Grossman discusses the gap in psychiatric casualties between combatants and noncombatants. Discuss this gap. What did the military predict regarding psychiatric casualties among the civilian population affected by bombing in World War II? 1 1 Jan 25, 2015 04:45AM  
Marine Corps L.E....: The likelihood of a soldier to kill in combat is markedly improved if he feels he is not the only culpable party to the killing. Discuss this diluting of guilt. What is group absolution? Why is a soldier comforted by others around him also killing? 1 2 Jan 25, 2015 04:44AM  
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  • Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character
  • The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century
  • Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence
  • The Village
  • Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton
  • Acts of War: Behavior of Men in Battle
  • Terror at Beslan: A Russian Tragedy with Lessons for America's Schools
  • Leadership and Training for the Fight: A Few Thoughts on Leadership and Training from a Former Special Operations Soldier
  • Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought
  • Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945
  • Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam
  • The Savage Wars Of Peace: Small Wars And The Rise Of American Power
  • Once a Warrior--Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home--Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI
  • Battle Leadership
  • The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World
  • War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation's Veterans from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Sharpening the Warriors Edge: The Psychology & Science of Training
Lt. Col Dave Grossman is the author of On Killing and On Combat as well as several science fiction books.

In 1998 Lt. Colonel Grossman retired from the military as Professor of Military Science at Arkansas State University. His career includes service in the United States Army as a sergeant in the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, a platoon leader in the 9th Infantry Division (United States), a general
More about Dave Grossman...

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“The Israelis have consistently refused to put women in combat since their experiences in 1948. I have been told by several Israeli officers that this is because in 1948 they experienced recurring incidences of uncontrolled violence among male Israeli soldiers who had had their female combatants killed or injured in combat, and because the Arabs were extremely reluctant to surrender to women.” 4 likes
“A tremendous volume of research indicates that the primary factor that motivates a soldier to do the things that no sane man wants to do in combat (that is, killing and dying) is not the force of self-preservation but a powerful sense of accountability to his comrades on the battlefield.” 2 likes
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