On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

Published 1995, 1996 in Canada by Little Brown and Company

isbn 0316330000-Hard cover

isbn 0316330116-Paperback

There are plenty of reasons to read Grossman’s book “On Killing”; there are historical lessons to be gleaned, there are matters of strategy to be considered, there are lessons for society regarding the importance of honoring the service of members of its military, there are the lessons regarding drilling and conditioning, Grossman’s discussion of PTSD is very insightful, the list could go on and on. This is an incredibly rich book that not only offers the reader profound insight into the psychology and history of killing in combat, and of preparing men to kill in combat; it also examines and reveals the deep humanity at the heart of professional soldiers.

Sometimes I find the referencing of military science and literature by practitioners of the gendai budo a little off-putting; sort of “Vanilla Ice wanna be” like. I probably run the risk of putting myself in this category with this article.

Reading this book I was struck by three areas of potential relevance to the karate or martial arts practitioner:

1. Does the typical karate program adequately prepare a student psychologically to use the techniques she is learning?


“ An obvious way of killing an opponent involves a crushing blow to the throat. In movie combat we often see one individual grab another by the throat and attempt to choke him. And Hollywood heroes give the enemy a good old punch in the jaw. In both instances a blow to the throat (with the hand held in various prescribed shapes) would be a vastly superior form of disabling or killing the foe, yet it is not a natural act; it is a repellent one.

The single most effective and mechanically easiest way to inflict significant damage on a human being with one’s hand is to punch a thumb through his eye into the brain, subsequently stirring the intruding digit around inside the skull, cocking it off toward the side, and forcefully pulling the eye, and other matter out with the thumb.

One karate instructor trains his high-level students in this killing technique, by having them practice punching their thumbs into oranges held or taped over the eye socket of their opponent…

…Few individuals can walk away fro their first such rehearsal without being badly shaken and disturbed by the action they have just mimicked. The fact that they are overcoming some form of natural resistance is obvious.” (Grossman, p131-132)

Now consider whether the typical karate student at your local YMCA or other neighborhood club has been adequately trained to actually use the techniques they have been taught. Have all the hours spend punching air and practicing kata prepared them to use the techniques that they have been taught to trust their life to? In most cases I believe the answer is no. The good news for the concerned karate instructor is that the problem is not (necessarily) with the techniques, but with the methods by which they have come to be practiced. It does not require much imagination to create supplemental drills that address the need to practice the techniques in ways that represent the “texture” of combat.

2. The second seems pretty simple and intuitive; “be careful turning your back on your opponent”. Who has not heard this before? Grossman’s book dramatically drives this point home. According to Grossman people may have an instinct, similar to some predators, to attack once a target has turned its back. I could not help but think about the many self defense classes I have attended that have drilled “break and run” strategies. I wonder how often an attacker is re-emboldened by the sight of their target turning away to run. Of course I am not suggesting that break and run strategies are bad , it just seems that, in light of Grossman’s work the moment between breaking and escaping may be a particularly dangerous one in an encounter, especially when escaping requires one to turn away from the attacker. Certainly the practice, common in sport karate, of turning away after scoring a point in kumite seems ill-advised.

Again, here is Grossman:

“I believe that there are two factors in play in this increased killing of an enemy whose back is turned, and of the resultant fear of turning one’s back to the enemy. The first factor is the concept of a chase instinct. A lifetime of working with and training dogs has taught me that the worst thing that you can do is run from an animal. I have never yet met a dog I could not face down or at least incapacitate with a kick as it charged, but I have always known both instinctively and rationally that if I were to turn and run I should be in great danger. There is a chase instinct in most animals that will cause even a well-trained and non-aggressive dog to instinctively chase and pull down anything that runs. As long as your back is turned you are in danger. In the same way, there appears to be a chase instinct in man that permits him to kill a fleeing enemy.

The second factor that enables killing from behind is a process in which close proximity on the physical distance spectrum can be negated when the face can not be seen. The whole essence of the physical distance spectrum may simply revolve around the degree to which the killer can see the face of the victim. There appears to be a kind of intuitive understanding of this process in our cultural image of back shooting and back stabbing as cowardly acts, and it seems that soldiers intuitively understand that when they turn their backs, they are more apt to be killed by the enemy.” (Grossman, p127-128)

3. In the area where I live there are many so-called martial arts studios in which the principle relationship between the students and the instructors is (apparently) a commodity, or businesses relationship. A product (technique, status, or fighting ability), or service (training, fitness instruction, training partner) is purchased by a consumer (the student) and supplied by the business owner (instructor). My impression is that very few of these schools actually prepare students to be able to use violence. I assume however that some small percentage do in fact offer training that can prepare students to fight.

I wonder how well those commodity/business model schools, that actually do prepare students to fight, facilitate the close bonds and respect for legitimate authority that is able to shape character and inhibit the inappropriate use of violence. I expect that, in general, they do so very poorly.

I remember training in judo as a boy and looking up to the senior black belts. There was one older black belt in particular who struck me as powerful, elegant, and sophisticated. He was always polite (even to us newbies) and he modeled a kind of masculinity for me that suggested new ways of being/becoming a man. The approval of that man, and that social group became incredibly important to me. The last thing I wanted to do was risk the groups disapproval by getting in fights.

If a student has been physically and psychologically prepared and conditioned to use potentially lethal violence in hand to hand combat then the following should be relevant regardless of her lack of a firearm (I am aware that the two conditions are not entirely analogous, at the very least it is much easier, and generally faster to kill with a firearm):

“It is as though there were two filters that we have to go through to kill. The first filter is the forebrain. A hundred things can convince your forebrain to put a gun in your hand and go to a certain point: poverty, drugs, gangs, leaders, politics, and the social learning of violence in the media-which is magnified when you are from a broken home and searching for a role model. But traditionally all these things have slammed into the resistance that a frightened, angry human being confronts in the midbrain. And except with sociopaths (who by definition, do not have this resistance), the vast majority of circumstances are not sufficient to overcome the midbrain safety net. But if you are conditioned to overcome these midbrain inhibitions, then you are a walking time bomb, a pseudosociopath, just waiting for the random factors of social interaction and forebrain rationalization to put you at the wrong place at the wrong time.” (Grossman, Introduction to the Paperback Edition, pxviii-xix)

According to Grossman part of what keeps soldiers from becoming indiscriminate killers is that the very people who prepare them to kill spend an incredible amount of energy making sure that they only do so under authority. Of course there are the usual reward and punishment schemes for encouraging compliance with the rules regarding when it is, and when it is not acceptable to discharge a firearm, or even strike someone. More than this however there is a process of social learning that encourages compliance.

“ This third level of learning, in its most powerful form, revolves primarily around the observation and imitation of a role model. Unlike operant conditioning, in social learning it is not essential that the learner be directly reinforced in order for learning to take place. What is important in social learning is to understand the characteristics that can lead to the selection of a specific individual as a role model.

The processes that make someone a desirable role model include:

Vicarious reinforcement. You see the role model being reinforced in a manner that you experience vicariously.

Similarity to the learner. You perceive that the role model has a key trait that makes him/her similar to you.

Social power. The role model has the power to reward (but does not necessarily do so).

Status envy. You envy the role model’s receipt of rewards from others.

An analysis of these processes can help us understand the role of the drill sergeant as a role model in violence enabling in military training, and it can help us understand why a new type of violent role model is popular among America’s youth. “ (Grossman, p317-318)

And finally:

“The lesson that the drill sergeant teaches is that physical aggression is the essence of manhood and that violence is an effective and desirable solution for the problems that the soldier will face on the battlefield. But it is very important to understand that the drill sergeant also teaches obedience. Throughout training the drill sergeant will not tolerate a single blow or even a single shot executed without orders, and even to point an empty weapon in the wrong direction or to raise your fist at the wrong time merits the harshest punishment. No nation will tolerate soldiers who do not obey orders on the battlefield, and the failure to obey orders in combat is the surest route to defeat and destruction.” (Grossman, p319).

Of course in spite of the way some instructors act, karate teachers are not drill instructors but they can be role models. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I kind of like it when older martial artists take it on themselves to mentor the younger ones and try to keep them out of trouble, even while teaching them how to fight.

I recommend that you read this book, but read it carefully, cover to cover.