What to Read?

ON KILLING by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

Of the thousands of books I have represented, there are very few about which I can say it was an honor to be associated with them. On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is one of a handful that occupies a very privileged place in my heart. That it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize validates my contention that it is an extraordinarily significant work.

By the time Col. Grossman submitted his manuscript to me in the mid 1990s, the Viet Nam War, from which he had drawn so many poignant lessons for his research, had been ostensibly over for two decades. I say “ostensibly” because, for the traumatized veterans that he worked with as a combat psychologist, the war raged on in their tormented memories. Even as he comforted and helped heal countless men in veterans’ facilities, he was also asking questions of them that few had had the courage to ask, and formulating insights that enabled him to understand the experience of killing in ways that historians and social scientists had seldom grasped. I remember his telling me that killing was the last intimate act between humans that had not been explored scientifically. How odd, that an evil to which humankind has forever been exposed, should be a black hole in our understanding.

Out of his intensive studies, observations and interviews Grossman formulated a science he calls “Killology.” It’s a disturbing term but it pins us to his topic like a bayonet and forces us to gaze, eyes wide open, at an act that is both obscene and profane. Yet at the heart of his thesis is the contention that humans have an innate aversion to taking life. Given the sad history of our race that’s a large pill to swallow, but if you suspend skepticism and grant him this assumption your journey into the heart of darkness will be rewarded with a note of hope. Whether you are willing to extend to perpetrators a fraction of the sympathy that you extend to victims is a question only you will answer when you finish the book, but you will certainly appreciate the torment of men in war and war’s aftermath better than you do now.

What makes On Killing doubly significant is its extension of the experience of war to that of peace. Are children who are exposed to violent movies and video death-games more susceptible to murderous hostility? Are they stimulated to killing rage? Do they become more tolerant of mayhem?

Richard Curtis

Interview with Lt. Col. Dave Grossman by E-Reads

E-Reads: As you’ve grown older and wiser, have you modified your views about the nature of killing? About human nature?

DG: No, not really. I’ve expanded the model a little, and have placed that in my latest book, On Combat.

E-Reads: In your dealings with veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, is there a material difference between the nature of their stress and the stresses suffered by Vietnam veterans?

DG: Today we are rotating units into combat (as opposed to individual replacements in Vietnam) and they are all wartime volunteers. They enlisted or reenlisted in time of war. This makes for a significant reduction in psychological trauma and incidence of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

E-Reads: You tour extensively. Who is your main audience? What are some of the most often-asked questions?

DG: Roughly 50% of my audiences are law enforcement. Another 30% are military units, and 20% educators.

The most commonly asked questions revolve around the incidence of PTSD in Iraq and Afghanistan. My best answer to that is in the 2nd edition to On Combat, which was released just this year. I’ve included a clip from On Combat (below) that addresses this issue.

“Sadly, it is not difficult to find people in the mental health community to support the thesis that anyone who kills, experiences combat, or witnesses violence (or any other fill-in-the-blank ‘victim du jour’) is doomed to lifelong PTSD and, consequently, needs lifelong mental health care. Too few mental health professionals communicate to their patients that 1) they can recover quickly from PTSD and that 2) they will become stronger from the experience. Yet that expectation must be there if there is to be hope of anything other than a lifetime of expensive counseling.

PTSD is like being overweight. Many people carry around 10, 20, or 30 pounds of excess weight. Although it influences the individual every minute of every day, it might not be a big deal health wise. But for those people who are 500 pounds overweight, it will likely kill them any day now. There was a time when we could only identify people who had “500 pounds” of PTSD. Today we are better at spotting folks who carry lesser loads, 30, 40 or 50 pounds of PTSD.

I have read statistics that say 15 percent of our military is coming home with “some manifestation of psychological problems.” Others claim it is 20 percent and still others report 30 percent. Well, depending on how you want to measure it, 30 percent of all college freshmen have some manifestation of psychological problems. Mostly what is being reported on today are people with low levels of PTSD (30, 40 or 50 pounds of PTSD) who in previous wars would not have been detected. We are getting damned good at identifying and treating PTSD and, when the treatment is done, most people are better for the experience.

PTSD is not like frostbite. Frostbite causes permanent damage to your body. If you get frostbite, for the rest of your life you will be more vulnerable to it. PTSD is not like that.

PTSD can be more like the flu. The flu can seriously kick your tail for a while. But once you shake it off, you probably are not going to get it again for the rest of the year. You have been inoculated. PTSD can kick your tail for a while (months and even years). But once you have dealt with it, next time it will take a lot more to knock you off your feet because you have been stress inoculated.”

E-Reads: Do you feel your approach to killing has had a positive effect on our understanding of human behavior? Do you think human nature can be changed for the better?

DG: I don’t think that our basic, underlying, innate nature can change much, but we can do a better job of warning and preparing people. And my books, On Killing and On Combat have proven themselves to be very valuable resources to help warn and prepare or GIs and their families.

On Killing and On Combat are both on the USMC Commandant’s Required Reading list. (I think I’m the only author to have two books on the list.) Both books are also required reading at West Point and many other military and law enforcement academies. We have been at war for 6 years now, and we have learned a lot. All nonessential ideas and material have been jettisoned in the unforgiving ‘acid test’ of war. For these books to still be held up as required reading indicates that that they have something valuable and timeless to contribute, and it is a good feeling to be of service.

Perhaps most important of all, On Killing‘s final section (on media violence) has been supported with important new research. Sadly, that section has been validated by many tragic incidents of juvenile mass murders in the school.


Lt. Col. Grossman continues the research that let to the writing of On Killing, does regular public speaking engagements on the subject and maintains a website, Killology Research Group, which constantly adds new information on the topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.