Lit Crit

The Most Brutal Species

November 06, 2011

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David Grossman. To the End of the Land. Vintage (reprint edition), 2011. 672pp.

Dave Grossman. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Back Bay Books (revised edition), 2009. 416pp.

This is a story of two writers named Grossman—one David, the other Dave. Both of them write about killing—one via fiction, the other using real-life research.

David Grossman is an Israeli writer whose novel To the End of the Land tells of a woman named Ora fleeing the news of her son’s possible killing in the Army.

Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman is a professor of military science at Arkansas State University and the founder of the science of killology.

“When we examine the responses of creatures confronted with aggression from their own species,” says Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in his recently reissued study On Killing, “when the fight option is utilized, it is almost never to the death. Submission is a surprisingly common response….Our first step in the study of killing is to understand the existence, extent, and nature of the average human being’s resistance to killing his fellow human.”

“Killing, not fear of being killed, is what murders sanity.”

Men have to be taught not only how to load and shoot, but to actually be able to load and shoot at someone.

Language is an important tool in this type of conditioning, like running in step with your fellow recruits behind the drill sergeant and repeating, “I want to kill, rape, and eat dead babies.”

Hannah Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem:

None of the various “language rules,” carefully contrived to deceive and to camouflage, had a more decisive effect on the mentality of the killers than this first war decree of Hitler, in which the word for “murder” was replaced by the phrase “to grant a mercy death.”

In American military training it is called engaging a target. In war, the enemy is a target to be engaged.

World War I veteran and military historian S. L. Marshall observed that “most soldiers seem to have an inner resistance to firing their weapon in combat,” and he set about correcting that. Marshall suggested that, like Henry Ford in his factories, the US Army should apply scientific methods to produce soldiers who would actually shoot their guns in battle. Only about 15% to 20% of them did in World War II, which rose to 55% in Korea and 90% to 95% in Vietnam—which according to this particular metric would be our most successful engagement. Marshall improved shooting exercises by changing the target to a man, a life-sized and moving dummy, more realistic than concentric circles of black and white.

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