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

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  6,807 ratings  ·  644 reviews
The good news is that most soldiers are loath to kill. But armies have developed sophisticated ways of overcoming this instinctive aversion. And contemporary civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army's conditioning techniques, and, according to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's thesis, is responsible for our rising rate of murder among the young.

Upon its initial
Paperback, 367 pages
Published December 1st 2003 by Back Bay Books (first published 1995)
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4.17  · 
Rating details
 ·  6,807 ratings  ·  644 reviews

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Jul 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 03, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
Dee Arr
Jun 16, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reference
This is my second reading of “On Killing,” and I came away with a slightly different perspective.

Overall, I still agree with many of Lt. Col. Grossman's thoughts. He presents his opinions on killing and backs them up with quotes from soldiers and authors of similar books. I was beginning to be swayed with his final arguments on how violent media trains our children to become anesthetized to killing.

The downside, however, is that too few other authors are mentioned in the text (we see the same na
Aug 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 01, 2011 rated it did not like it
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
Sep 24, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Nick Marsh
May 06, 2013 rated it it was ok
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
Kelly B
Feb 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
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,
Jun 17, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 22, 2014 rated it it was ok
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.

Feb 17, 2015 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Fans of military history and psychology.
Recommended to Jamie by: Dan Carlin
TL;DR version: Offers insight, but is not science and becomes a preachy old geezer at the end.

Referenced many times by military historians I enjoy reading, On Killing starts on an academic footing and caught my attention with statistics that tell a story about the historical willingness to kill in combat. And I still recommend it for offering at least some insight into a soldier's mind leading up to and following the order to kill. Yet there is an asterisk to my recommendation, as it becomes inc
Eric S
Apr 23, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The following is a way too long review and/or polemic. I’ll give my reason for it at the end. There are several things the author of this book seems to be unaware of but which bother me when people ignore them.

1. Lack of proof is not proof to the contrary.
2. Correlation is not causality.
3. Do not assume what you are trying to prove.
4. Logical fallacies like appeals to authority, straw man argument, etc..

The author relies heavily on the work by S.L.A. Marshall. People like John Whiteclay Chambers
Jun 12, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
Beth Cato
Oct 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017, history, nonfiction
I have seen this book recommended more than once as a resource for writers to understand the true costs of war upon the human psyche. I well understand why. It is a book that is intense, frank, and fascinating as it breaks down the psychology and physiology of what warriors endure during and after war. Where it strayed for me was at the end, when he looked to the future, and among other points, presented an argument on video games as murder-training simulators. The book is incredibly strong (and ...more
Mar 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: war
One of the main conclusions in the book is that basically most human beings do not want to kill other human beings. In order to teach people to kill other humans, that barrier must be broken. In WWII, many soldiers could not fire at the enemy and chose to fire high so as not to hit anyone. By the time of the Vietnam War, training methods had to be changed to overcome that reluctance.
Suzanne Stroh
Mar 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 25, 2018 rated it did not like it
This is the first book I've ever logged in Goodreads where I was genuinely upset by the number of 4 & 5 star ratings. I've never cared before if other people liked a book that I didn't, or vice versa. But Jesus Christ folks, really? Really? I waded through some of them and found some good criticisms in 3 star reviews and lower, but if you gave this a 4 or 5 star then you've read 300+ pages without using any critical thinking skills at all. I've probably rated this 1 star instead of 2 as a re ...more
Aaron Crofut
Sep 21, 2016 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
Toshali Gupta
Dec 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Verdict: Definitely recommended.

This book was picked out from one of the goodreads lists and I’m so glad I spent those 30 odd minutes going through all the options and choosing this book.

On Killing is insightful and impactful, informative and emotional, gripping and painful. I’m not sure if I’m doing justice by saying that it has managed to bring out the human element (at least a glimpse) to all the war documentaries and stories I have read as a history buff.

What works: It’s clear outline of
Sep 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I’m not going to do this book justice in this review. It demands to be read if you ever ponder the nature of evil, human nature, and the coercive powers that go into controlling (or losing control of violence).

With that said.... Despite the very disturbing subject matter, this book was a smorgasbord of information on the aversion of humanity to take human life, the history of combat including some anthropology, a sociological lesson about violence, a huge dose of psychology into psychiatric and
Jonathan Maas
Dec 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Great book, disturbing in most senses – but gives us hope.

Why is it hopeful? Because it argues that for the vast majority of humanity, killing another human is a vastly unnatural act. Societies may find a way to battle at every opportunity, but individual humans have a hard time killing another human being.

One of Dave Grossman's arguments is that – to paraphrase – ‘the recruit doesn’t want to kill, but only has 20 years of total life experience, while the army has the breadth of history on their
Stephen Simpson
May 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
An excellent, but flawed, book.

What the author has to say about conditioning people to kill (and overcoming what for most people is a very strong natural resistance) is very interesting and thought-provoking.

There are some issues, though, and some of them are big. First, his comments about Greek and Roman fighting are not wholly accurate (Greek wars, particularly Alexander's campaigns, were not just low-casualty "shoving matches" as the author suggested). Second, the book tends to be quite rep
Bernie Gourley
Jan 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
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 08, 2009 rated it really liked it
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 06, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Eric Dodge
Jul 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
The main thesis of this book is fascinating: historically, the vast majority of soldiers in battle chose not to kill, and the psychological cost of killing is a primary but under-acknowledged factor in PTSD among soldiers.

The author presents what I found to be quite convincing evidence of the resistance to killing among soldiers, drawing on studies of historical data to show how the overwhelming majority of infantrymen in the Napoleonic era, American Civil War, and World Wars did not fire their
Nov 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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.
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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
“There can be no doubt that this resistance to killing one’s fellow man is there and that it exists as a result of a powerful combination of instinctive, rational, environmental, hereditary, cultural, and social factors. It is there, it is strong, and it gives us cause to believe that there just may be hope for mankind after all.” 4 likes
“Some psychiatric casualties have always been associated with war, but it was only in the twentieth century that our physical and logistical capability to sustain combat outstripped our psychological capacity to endure it.” 3 likes
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