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

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  8,107 ratings  ·  755 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.

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Paperback, 367 pages
Published December 1st 2003 by Back Bay Books (first published 1995)
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Avi A slant based on the work of S. L. A. Marshal and empirical data. I found it pretty clear of any biases. The last chapter might be considered politica…moreA slant based on the work of S. L. A. Marshal and empirical data. I found it pretty clear of any biases. The last chapter might be considered political but I would argue it objective.(less)

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Average rating 4.16  · 
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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
Dec 20, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: american, sociology, war
Unmaking Civilisation

Grossman’s thesis is that we should take better care of those whom we prepare for war. This was unexpected. My presumption had been that the book would be about the permanent psychological damage done to soldiers through their training and experience in combat and consequently pacifist. Instead the book makes what is primarily a political point: if a society makes men killers, it has a responsibility to provide the necessary therapy to undo the inevitable psychopathic conseq
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. I've also noticed that he also likes to hammer home same points over and over again; frankly, those repetitions became increasingly annoying the further I've got into the book.

Most importantly however, several of Grossman's points just do
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
I must admit that the profession of the author ( lt.col.) - somewhat influenced my appreciation of his study, (an killology study) - classifying it a study done "from inside". From my point of view, this brings an extra-truth, but does not necessarily place it in the area of objectivity. It's not quite the same thing Fromm did, in his " Anatomy", for ex.,analyzing the phenomenon on the edge, and in a much more biological way .

"Why should we study killing ? One might just as readily ask, Why st
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
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
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,
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.

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 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
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 reacti ...more
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
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: history, 2017, 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
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
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
Shelves: worth-re-reads
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
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.
Peter Martuneac
Apr 30, 2019 rated it did not like it
This is a heinously overrated book and is not an accurate appraisal of the psychological effects of killing in warfare. Lt. Col. Grossman founds basically his entire work on a single, faulty survey conducted on some few returning American GI's after WW2, and applies it across the entire globe and throughout all history. Really not a good work.
James Imelda
In writing this review of the book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, I found myself writing a preemptive defence against any attacks that might arise against this book when I recommended it. But given the title (the subtitle is key, but likely missed), and a couple comments I received on Goodreads regarding my reading this book, I find necessary a preemptive, apologetic justification, for this is one of the best non-fiction secu ...more
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
Jan 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I had originally planned to review this book right once I finished it. Then I planned to write my review on Memorial Day. And I still don't feel like things are settled enough in my mind to properly write this review, but I need to do it sometime so here goes.
I picked this book up on a whim. I rarely, -RARELY- read anything to do with war. When I do, it's a story with a war in it. I've never read anything about war itself. This might sound strange, but being a woman, I've had the incredible priv
Alexander Kosoris
I honestly don’t remember where I first heard about On Killing, but it sure intrigued me at the time. Grossman’s book is about the conditioning employed by modern militaries in order to persuade reluctant soldiers into effectively killing, the emotional and psychiatric toll killing has on soldiers, and––I didn’t realize this, then––how we’re effectively conditioning members of society to become murderers through violent media. To be perfectly frank, I likely would not have searched far and wide ...more
David M
Mar 11, 2016 rated it it was ok
On Killing opens on a fascinating and provocative note. While it's common to speak of killing as a reversion to barbaric instinct, the author presents evidence to suggest just the opposite may be true. In fact most people have to overcome enormous instinctual resistance to become killers. Grossman cites a truly eye-opening statistic: in World War II only 10-15 of all soldiers were willing to fire to kill, even when given a direct order, and even if doing would improve their own chances of surviv ...more
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.

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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

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Karen M. McManus, the bestselling author of One of Us Is Lying, Two Can Keep a Secret, and One of Us Is Next, doesn’t shy away from secrets and...
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“Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, argues that the root of our failure to deal with violence lies in our refusal to face up to it. We deny our fascination with the “dark beauty of violence,” and we condemn aggression and repress it rather than look at it squarely and try to understand and control it.” 9 likes
“The thing to understand here is that gang rapes and gang or cult killings in times of peace and war are not “senseless violence.” They are instead powerful acts of group bonding and criminal enabling that, quite often, have a hidden purpose of promoting the wealth, power, or vanity of a specific leader or cause…at the expense of the innocent.” 7 likes
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