What ‘On Killing’ Can Teach Us About Mass Shootings

Dave Grossman's book offers vital insight

What ‘On Killing’ Can Teach Us About Mass Shootings What ‘On Killing’ Can Teach Us About Mass Shootings
Open Road Media sponsored this article on July 13, 2016. Dave Grossman’s 1996 book On Killing is a landmark and studied account of how — and why — human... What ‘On Killing’ Can Teach Us About Mass Shootings

Open Road Media sponsored this article on July 13, 2016.

Dave Grossman’s 1996 book On Killing is a landmark and studied account of how — and why — human beings have inhibitions toward killing others, and how the U.S. military turned its soldiers into far more lethal killers with intense conditioning following World War II.

In an updated edition, he warns that these same psychological inhibitions are eroding within American society, but with fewer safeguards, allowing sociopathic tendencies to arise and enable mass violence.

On Killing, available as an e-book from Open Road Media, is necessary.

To be sure, the United States is a less dangerous place than it was 25 years ago. For complex and poorly understood reasons, the homicide rate in the United States has declined since a peak in the early 1990s.

Today, the rate is the lowest nation-wide since the late 1960s, when homicides began spiking.

However, “active shooter” situations — in which an individual attempts to kill in a confined and populated area — have more than doubled annually since 2000, according to an FBI report released in 2014.

Two years after the report, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history occurred at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Less than a month after that, the bloodiest attack on police since the 9/11 attacks slew five officers in Dallas, Texas.

How did this happen? Grossman has several theories. But let’s back up for a second.

On Killing demonstrates that human beings, with rare exceptions, are not born psychologically prepared to kill others. The history of warfare also demonstrates that soldiers in past conflicts did not fire their weapons as much as commonly believed, and they frequently deferred to other soldiers who were willing to kill.

Bolstered with first-hand accounts, Grossman bases his research on U.S. Army Gen. S.L.A. Marshall’s research of combat in World War II (suffice to say, Marshall is controversial), among other studies.

On Killing

It’s a recurring theme in wars dating to the ancient world. We don’t like to kill — at least at first.

In World War I, British officers thrashed their soldiers for not firing their weapons. New Guinean tribesmen removed the feathers from their arrows when battling other tribes, making the weapons less effective.

German infantry with bayonets attached to their rifles would flip their guns around and use them as clubs — so much was their reluctance to stab other people to death. U.S. Civil War soldiers regularly fired over the heads of their enemies even at close range.

He writes:

The Civil War soldier was, without a doubt, the best trained and equipped soldier yet seen on the face of the earth. Then came the day of combat, the day for which he had drilled and marched for so long. And with that day came the destruction of all his preconceptions and delusions about what would happen.

At first the vision of a long line of men with every man firing in unison might hold true. If the leaders maintained control, and if the terrain was not too broken, for a while the battle could be one of volleys between regiments. But even while firing in regimental volleys, something was wrong. Terribly, frightfully wrong. An average engagement would take place at thirty yards. But instead of mowing down hundreds of enemy soldiers in the first minute, regiments killed only one or two men per minute. And instead of the enemy formations disintegrating in a hail of lead, they stood and exchanged fire for hours on end.

Sooner or later (and usually sooner), the long lines firing volleys in unison would begin to break down. And in the midst of the confusion, the smoke, the thunder of the firing, and the screams of the wounded, soldiers would revert from cogs in a machine to individuals doing what comes naturally to them. Some load, some pass weapons, some tend the wounded, some shout orders, a few run, a few wander off in the smoke or find a convenient low spot to sink into, and a few, a very few, shoot.

A major shift occurred after World War II. During that conflict, somewhere between 15 to 20 percent of American soldiers would shoot at the enemy during a battle. The percentage rose to 55 percent in Korea and to over 90 percent in Vietnam.

Grossman attributes the increase in firing rates to changes in military training. For example, firearms training during World War II “was conducted on a grassy firing range … on which a soldier shot at a bull’s-eye target,” he writes.

A target pops up at an M-240B machine gun range at Camp Atterbury, Indiana in November 2015. U.S. Army photo

Training became more realistic after the war. Targets shifted to silhouettes, or illustrations of grimacing Warsaw Pact soldiers. American troops now shoot at photorealistic targets, which sometimes drop after being hit, on select ranges.

During the 1940s, a soldier would usually only receive tips on how to shoot more accurately. Today, soldiers receive positive reinforcement through awards and recognition for good marksmanship.

Obviously, there is more to desensitizing a person than adjusting the shape of the targets they shoot at and giving them a pat on the back.

Grossman, a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, writes about his own experiences in the early 1970s. One running chant at his boot camp went “I wanna RAPE, KILL, PILLAGE ’n’ BURN.”

“Our military no longer tolerates this kind of desensitization, but for decades it was a key mechanism for desensitizing and indoctrinating adolescent males into a cult of violence in basic training,” he writes.

He also explores why soldiers often feel good, even exuberant, after killing. But reactions vary among individuals, and some immediately feel horror. Many who felt exhilaration later experience a terrible sense of remorse, sometimes decades after the act.

These are normal and understandable reactions to having survived a life-or-death situation coupled with an adrenaline rush.

“A good portion of the subsequent remorse and guilt appears to be a horrified response to this perfectly natural and common feeling of exhilaration,” he writes.

It’s easier to kill with a longer-range weapon than up close — or from inside a warship, where sailors rarely see the faces of the enemy. Distance matters. Burning 146,000 people to death with an atomic bomb is psychologically less traumatic for a person than killing a hundred people with a knife.

A similar phenomenon contributes to suicide bombings.

The area of distance from victim is rather unique in this case. The killer does in fact get “up close and personal” with his victims, but he does not need to see the effect of his action! This can form a powerful killing-enabling mechanism, similar to that of bomber pilots dropping their bombs from 10,000 feet or artillery firing from two miles away.

There’s more than just physical distance enabling easier killing. Social and cultural distance, the lack of empathy and declining interpersonal bonds can make violence more likely.

The United States is hardly immune to these dynamics.

True, Americans are killing each other less often they used to. Changes in policing, the enormous rise in incarceration and an aging population could all be reasons why. The receding of the crack epidemic and the decline in street-level drug distribution could have done it.

No one really knows.

A gun range in Las Vegas, Nevada. Lox/Flickr photo

Meanwhile, remorseless mass killings have increased in frequency and intensity, terrorizing the public and leading to ever larger body counts.

The perpetrators are typically young men who plan their attacks months in advance. They harden themselves for when they will indiscriminately butcher their fellow human beings with apparent pleasure.

“But once there is a lull, and the murderer has a chance to dwell on what he has done, the revulsion stage sets in with such intensity that suicide is a very common response.”

They’ve overcome their inhibitions, in the vast majority of cases, without military training. That’s different from soldiers, who are indoctrinated to kill, but conditioned to act under orders to kill enemy soldiers.

These safeguards are not foolproof. In countless wars, soldiers have committed atrocities — often under orders from their commanders.

But those safeguards are missing in the civilian world. Now add social and racial bigotries with over-the-counter firearms, and you have a tinderbox of lethal violence barely contained under the surface.

It is a deeply disturbing phenomenon, and it’s Grossman’s warning.

But the question we need to ask is, What makes today’s children bring those guns to school when their parents did not? And the answer to that question may be that the important ingredient, the vital, new, different ingredient in killing in modern combat and in killing in modern American society, is the systematic process of defeating the normal individual’s age-old, psychological inhibition against violent, harmful activity toward one’s own species. Are we taking the safety catch off of a nation, just as surely and easily as we would take the safety catch off of a gun, and with the same results?

On Killing is not a treatise on pacifism — and it’s empathetic to the experiences of combat veterans. Wielding the gun is sometimes necessary, in defending one’s society from an existential threat, or defending human lives from a murderer who seeks to snuff them out.

The core message of Grossman’s book is that safeguards must exist. And that no nation or society is doomed to descend, inevitably, into a spiral of worsening atrocities. Humans at a basic level don’t want to kill each other.

It’s up to us to encourage our better tendencies.

Buy the book. Read it.