On Killing


(© Cora Reed Fotolia)

Some time ago, I read an excellent book by a superb American academic, Lt Colonel Dave Grossman. The name of the book – 'On Killing'. As you might have guessed, Dave Grossman is more than just some dusty old university professor. He's also a US Army Ranger with many years of service. His book originally came about as a result of his studies in the whole unfortunate business of killing, primarily from a military point of view.

As a psychologist, Grossman aimed to study why it is that humans are able to kill each other in conflict, when 98% of us are not programmed to do so. In fact, only 2% of us are naturally programmed – 1% are born-leaders, the other 1% are psychopaths. His work concluded that in the majority of wars up until WWII, the vast majority of combatants did not fire their weapons in anger or refused to actually kill their opponents in battle, due to this fact that humans are not psychologically conditioned to. A famous US Army study in WWII itself actually concluded that only 15 to 25% of infantry soldiers were willing to fire their weapons. Since then, the military have used 'Pavlovian and operant conditioning' to train their soldier's to kill (such as firing at paper targets which looked like people instead of the old fairground concentric ring targets). In Korea, the firing rate went up to 50% and in Vietnam, 90%. This subsequently led to problems of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and Combat Stress-related conditions. One thing Grossman further warned about in his book was that violent computer games and other media were replicating these techniques, which could lead to a serious increase in violent crime. Why? Because the psychological programming induced by this type of conditioning leads to a 'desensitisation' of the mind to the suffering of others, to an extent that the subject tends to view his or her victims as other than human.

If you know basic psychology, you'll know that the brain is filled with fibres known as 'neural pathways'. Each time an action is performed, these neural pathways are strengthened, so that each time the action is repeated it is easier for the brain to remember how to undertake the task. The pathways become stronger with repetition, and this is how habits and associations are formed. If you've heard about Pavlov's Dogs, you'll know this is how the scientist got his dog's mouths to salivate every time he rang a bell. The formation of habit and association is the most effective way to learn and store information. Obviously, this is how you would get better at a video game by playing it repeatedly. The danger Grossman warned about was that, if it is a violent game, it could desensitise you to violence and killing if you constantly play it.

This is all a bit unnerving. (Bear in mind that since he wrote his book, massacres like Columbine have occurred, so maybe he should be listened to a little more!) What also is apparent is that those who are not naturally programmed and become conditioned can become even more susceptible to PTSD after experience of combat, because they have engaged in something which runs counter to their own natural instincts (that it is wrong to kill others). I would assume that each person is different, and maybe even the born-leaders could be susceptible to CSD as well, but given the well known studies of the consequences of modern war on soldiers' mental states, there does seem to be a general theme. Certainly, it appears that many of the problems which were encountered in Vietnam may be resurfacing for soldiers who have served in the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. One thing I recall from Grossman's book is the importance to serving armed personnel that they are supported by the 'folks back home.' This did not happen in Vietnam, and consequently made the instances of PTSD even more acute. There has a been a danger of this happening with our own troops in Afghanistan, which very much highlights how vital it is to give our backing to servicemen and women on active service over there, despite whatever the rights and wrongs of the conflict are. After all, they are only doing their jobs!

What's the relevance to my book? Well, I've recently been working on a battle scene and, in my recent posts, I discussed about the difficulty in trying to imagine combat, as well as its after effects on those who experience it, especially if, like me, you have never been in that position. I found that reading Grossman's book did assist substantially in this task. There's still more that needs to be done to improve on what I've written. After all, I envisaged that many of the combatants in the battle would not be, or ever have been, professional soldiers. With the environment being post-apocalyptic, standards of training would be poor anyway I would have thought – like being back to the time before the Twentieth Century. So, when it comes to the second draft, I'll aim to improve my description, so that it is even more realistic. After all, I want the reader to feel as though they are actually there. Not only that, I'll be interesting to see how the psychological make-up of one of my main characters pans out. He suffers from PTSD after the battle, but all the same he can still engage in combat subsequently. Is he one of the 98% re-conditioned, or one of the 2%?

As an aside, I was delighted to discover that Dave Grossman has also written some SF novels which incorporate his research and theories. I'll try and get hold of one of these book myself when I get the chance to do some fiction reading myself. Can't wait!

If you are reading this on the Squidoo site, check out the new Amazon section with some of his books listed.

http://www.killology.com/index.htm

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About Owen Law

My pen-name is ‘Owen Law’ (real name: Nicholas Davies.) I’m a science fiction writer specialising in dystopian/apocalyptic visions of the future. I’m from Shropshire, England (on the borders with Wales) and I’m in my forties. I have a background in public services and training. I’ve been working on my first novel, Dragon Line, since 2008. I’ve also written several short stories, one of which you can find on this blog (‘Matilda Leviathan‘). I now reside on the border of Shropshire and Wales, and my interests include writing (of course!), current affairs and environmental issues.
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