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“On Killing” by Dave Grossman Essay

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Updated: Oct 8th, 2019


On Killing is well-crafted work by Dave Grossman expounding on humanity versus training on killing. Grossman gives insight to the psychological cost that soldiers have to pay after being trained to kill in boot camps. The deep-set fight that any soldier undergoes in war is to fight his or her human nature that compels him or her not to kill the enemy.

On Killing tackles the military travails to kill this resistance, making soldiers natural killers who will not have a second thought when faced by the enemy. Unfortunately, this attempt to eliminate the urge not to kill is spreading fast in societies by use video games that desensitizes teenagers making killing something natural.

Grossman theme is to insist that humans are not natural killers for they have a natural urge not to kill fellow humans; however, this urge may fade away through desensitization similar to that happens in boot camps. Ironically, soldiers are trained to kill; that is, silencing the voice against killing in then, yet are expected to resurrect this feeling to live peacefully in society.

Men are not Natural Killers

Grossman argues that the urge against killing a fellow human being becomes pronounced in close combats and many soldiers will not kill naturally. According to Grossman, killing is very personal and its will have long-lasting effects on the perpetrator. He opens up the book by comparing killing to having sex.

“In a way, the study of killing in combat is very much like the study of sex. Killing is a private, intimate occurrence of tremendous intensity, in which the destructive act becomes psychologically very much like the procreative act” (Grossman 16). The problem is that the media tries to paint killing as something normal and the fact is; killing does not come easily.

To support the fact that men are not natural killers, Grossman observes that during the Civil War, coached soldiers only pretended to shoot while in reality they were not. If they ever pulled the trigger, then they aimed over the heads of the approaching opposite army.

What explains the fact that out of 27,000 muzzle-loaders that were found at Gettysburg, only 10% were used? This is because human beings do not like killing even if their lives are in danger. In World War II, “…the soldiers found themselves to be conscientious objectors who were unable to kill their fellow man” (Grossman 25).

To avoid confrontations between soldiers and the commanders, Grossman points out that, “these secrets were kept in a tangled web of individual and cultural forgetfulness, deception and lies tightly woven over thousands of years….the male ego has always justified selective memory, self-deception, and lying [about] two institutions, sex and combat” (Grossman 31).

Then the psychological cost and reality of training people to kill sets in. Grossman states that, many U.S soldiers, close to one million, underwent through mental collapse in World War II. Only two percent of all soldiers involved never recorded psychiatric problem; these fall under, “aggressive psychopaths” (Grossman 50). There is evidence that killing will cause greater chances of mental breakdown than the fear of death itself.

This is evident because after a series of bombings in German and England, those who survived did not become intimidated; on contrary, they hardened and resolved to carry on with the fight. This underlines the aforementioned observation that death does not cause greater psychiatric problems like killing.

Grossman goes on to note that, killing someone from behind is easier that killing from in front. In the chapters dealing with atrocities, he addresses the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). Soldiers will submit to higher authorities, which demand them to kill and this in most cases leads to PSTD. PSTD; results from, “failure to accept and rationalize acts of killing” (Grossman 60).

What effect does training have on killing? Before the Vietnam War, soldiers underwent what Grossman calls “desensitization and operant conditioning” training whereby, human silhouettes were used in shooting exercises. This conditioned the mind to imagine that the silhouette was a real person and with repetitions, soldiers became acclimatized to shooting the enemy directly.

This led to increased number of shootings in Vietnam. Grossman concludes that people have killing inhibition but this can be overcome through desensitization. Unfortunately, while desensitization occurs in boots camps and soldiers will only shoot in wars, this same desensitization is finding its way to teenagers through violent TV.


Grossman’s work is true to the point for he supports his case. It is interesting to note that, soldiers operate from directives and they have no freedom to choose their leaders. Their single role is to take and execute orders. Given the fact that many people come to service whilst young in their teenage, their minds are trained to kill easily. However, the bottom line is, people have inhibitory force against killing, and training soldiers entails removing this inhibition. From the examples that Grossman has given, it is clear that there is truth to his claims.

The upsurge in the number of shootings in Vietnam War as compared to that of World War II can only be attributed to training to kill. However, Grossman points out that this training comes with its effects. The long-term effect is that people will have nightmares and psychic damages. Many soldiers came back from Vietnam with psychic problems and they still struggle with it even today.

Finally, Grossman points out that violent TV is causing desensitization in minds of young people and this is responsible for the increased violence in civil society. Even though this book has some weaknesses like failure to consider other factors that may have caused mental breakdown in soldiers coming back from Vietnam, it has strong points as explained.


On Killing expounds on the fact that human beings have a natural inhibition to kill fellow human beings. This is true from what Grossman tackles in this text. This inhibition was responsible for the many soldiers who pretended to shoot in the Civil War while in reality they were not shooting. It also accounts for the great number of soldiers who reportedly did not kill a single person in the World War II.

However, training through desensitization whereby human silhouettes are used boot camps helps to overcome this inhibition to kill. This is supported by the fact that there was an upsurge in shootings during the Vietnam War compared to World War II. This does not mean that people have changed; no, training has changed them.

Nevertheless, Grossman points out that, this training comes with its psychological costs for even to date the people who came back home fro Vietnam are haunted by what happened through what he calls, PSTD. On the other side, video games, Hollywood and violent TV are sowing seeds of killing instincts in society.

Many teenagers are undergoing desensitization slowly by slowly creating violent society. The authorities and society will have to pay this price by training people to kill, either in boot camps or in TVs and Hollywood.

Works Cited

Grossman, Dave. “On Killing the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill In War and Society.” New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.

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