On Killing, #3

41Bu29eZsZL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_This is part 3 of my interaction with the book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. It’s been awhile sense my last post. Today I’m writing about Section II of the book, “Killing and Combat Trauma: The Role of Killing in Psychiatric Casualties.”

As I read this section of the book I couldn’t help but think of the debates regarding guns that are happening in our country. What I suspect that some don’t understand is that it is not so easy to kill. So, to have the idea that a response to gun violence is to have more people carry weapons would result in more safety is naive. Maybe someone who is properly trained can help to increase the safety, but then that is the role of our police. If combat is as difficult and traumatic as described, then untrained civilians, whose idea of combat is gleamed from movies and television, have no clue as to what is really required. 

Last, I grieve for all the soldiers through the centuries who’ve experienced the trauma of war and combat. As I grieve I continue to pray and hope for that one day we will experience peace in our world.

Following are highlights of the section.

We start with a telling quotation:

“Nations customarily measure the ‘costs of war’ in dollars, lost production, or the number of soldiers killed or wounded. Rarely do military establishments attempt to measure the costs of war in terms of individual human suffering. Psychiatric breakdown remains one of the most costly items of war when expressed in human terms.” -Richard Gabriel, No More Heroes (page 41)

The author then goes on to describe the stressors that cause psychiatric trauma. I was surprised to learn that the chance of being a psychiatric casualty is”greater than the chances of being killed by enemy fire.” (p43)

As the goal of combat is to kill the enemy one would think that fear would be the biggest cause of psychological trauma. However fear of death and injury are not the primary problems. This is evident in that the majority of civilians who suffered bombing campaigns during WWII did not exhibit the same psychological breakdowns and neither did those who served in combat but did not directly face enemies. The difference between soldiers and civilians was that civilians did not have the “responsibility of (1) being expected to kill and (2) the stress of looking their potential killers in the face. (page 65)

Factors that lead to psychological trauma:

  • Physical exhaustion. I know exhaustion from running marathons, but a marathon doesn’t even come close to the physical exhaustion experienced by soldiers in combat. Their physical exhaustion entails: lack of sleep; lack of food; and the impact of the elements. (pages 71-72).
  • Then there is the sheer hell of it all. This quote is telling:

“I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.” – William Tecumseh Sherman. (page 73)

  • Another psychological cost is in dealing with hate. Here not some much in hating others but in being the recipient of hate. The trauma felt here is one that sadly can be readily transferred to civilian life away from the battlefield. Sadly the author notes, “Many medical authorities believe that it is the constant hostility and lack of acceptance that they must face – and the resulting stress – that are responsible for the dramatic rate of high blood pressure in African Americans.” (page 76)

    The “one historic circumstance  in which noncombatants did suffer a horrifyingly high incidence of psychiatric casualties and post-traumatic stress,” was among the survivors of Nazi concentration camps. (77)
    As I review this material I am saddened by the hate that we are seeing today exhibited toward Muslims.

  • Still the biggest source of stress is in the act of killing, or needing to kill. “The media’s depiction of violence tries to tell us that men can easily throw off the moral inhibition of a lifetime – and whatever other instinctive restraint exists – and kill casually and guiltless in combat. The men who have killed, and who will talk about it, tell a different tale.” (87)

    For many a coping method is to use euphemisms for killing, so that “most soldier do not ‘kill’, instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and moped up.” Soldiers throughout the world use alternative words for this, as well as dehumanize the enemy by using negative pejoratives.

For the author, non-soldiers do not understand the reality and stress of war. I agree with him that we who have not experienced combat are clueless as to the realities of war, of combat, of killing.

“A culture raised on Rambo, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, and James Bond wants to believe that combat and killing can be done with impunity – that we can declare someone to be the enemy and that for cause and country the soldiers will cleanly and remorselessly wipe him from the face of the earth. In many ways it is simply too painful for society to address what it does when it sends its young men off to kill other young men in distant lands.” (page 94).

On Killing, #2

41Bu29eZsZL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_My second post on the book, On Killing, covers the first section. I liked this section of the book (probably much more than I think I’ll like what’s coming next). The titles of the section and each of its chapters actually provide a pretty good summary of what will be found.

Section I: Killing and the Existence of Resistance: A World of Virgins Studying Sex

  • Chapter One: Fight or Flight, Posture or Submit
    Most of us are familiar with fight or flight, but before that comes posturing… seeking to scare the enemy away. Interestingly, this week I read advice, before going on a trail run, about how to react when encountering a mountain lion. The advice was all about posturing. Apparently we do it with one another as well.
    One form of posturing is to fire one’s weapon over the heads of opponents. This quote describes a firefight at Vicksburg in 1863, “It seems strange that a company of men can fire volley after volley at a like number of men at not over a distance of fifteen steps and not cause a single casualty.” (p11)
    Another quote “‘One of the things that amazed me,’ stated Douglas Graham, a medic with the First Marine Division in Vietnam, who had to crawl out under enemy and friendly fire to aid wounded soldiers, ‘is how many bullets can be fired during a firefight without anyone getting hurt.'” (p13)
  • Chapter Two: Nonfirers Throughout History & Chapter Three: Why Can’t Johnny Kill?
    While some soldiers fire and miss their targets, some never fire at all. Sometimes these men provided support to the ones who would fire their weapons.
    S.L.A. Marshall, studied the firing/killing rates of soldiers throughout WWII He concluded, “the average and healthy individual… has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility… At the final point… the soldier becomes a conscientious objector.” (p30)
  • Chapter Four: The Nature and Source of the Resistance
    I’ll let the author speak, “We may never understand the nature of this force in man that causes him to strongly resist killing his fellow man, but we can give praise for it to whatever force we hold responsible for our existence. And although military leaders responsible for winning a war may be distressed by it, as a race we can view it with pride.” (p40)

I would summarize this entire section as an introduction to, and an explanation of the reality that most human beings are not able to kill their fellow human beings. As I was reading this I was thinking a couple things. First, this instinctual aversion to killing is a good thing. The second thought is a bit related in that I continually thought back to the words found in the very beginning of the bible. These words have always guided me to think about my “enemy” as one who also bears God’s image.

26Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”27So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” -Genesis 1:26-28

Some additional thoughts/questions:

  • Often in times of social upheaval, or war a group of people is made to be the scapegoats for whatever problems are faced. These people are then dehumanized in the most horrific ways. The Nazis did this with the Jews. It happened in Rwanda. In our history we’ve done it to justify slavery and the genocide of the indigenous populations. I think that the making the “other” as less than human then makes it easier to kill or in other ways treat that person as less than human. I don’t know if this will be addressed in this book. But as people of faith we must continually speak out against these messages to remind ourselves and others that all human beings are worthy. This I know is not easy, especially when we look at all the horribleness in our world. To which I must cry, Lord have mercy.
  • My other observation is in regards to those soldiers who are trained to kill. I’m anticipating that I will read about how we have conditioned and trained our soldiers in ways that improve their ability to kill. Before reading this my question for today is… At what cost?

On Killing, #1 An Introduction


Last week a friend of mine suggested that I read the book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Her suggestion was based (I think) on my anti violence stance that borders on an anti war stance. I constantly struggle with this issue. She noted that when I lead our congregation in weekly prayer, I continually pray for the day the peace will reign in our world. After noting this she suggested that I might also pray for courage for those who are called to be warriors. In thinking back on this conversation, and on Sunday morning prayer, I am reminded that I often pray for justice, wisdom, peace, healing, and that we (collectively) use the power that we have to make this a better world. I think that underneath all of this is the realization that it takes great courage to work for the common good. We might see or define this courage a bit differently (and that’s a good thing).

I very much valued this discussion and am grateful that two people who see the world through slightly different lenses can engage one another in a healthy conversation that leads to growth for both of us. A hope and prayer that I have is that more of us can find ways to do this.

So, a couple days after our meeting I went to Barnes and Noble and bought the suggested book. Sadly, immediately after purchasing the book I went to lunch, checked the latest news on my phone, and thus learned the news of yet another massacre, this time in Oregon.

I had mentioned to my friend that a book like this could be good for a discussion group. So right now I am going to try to start such a discussion here, on my blog. I will read a chapter and share my thoughts and hopefully those who are interested will share theirs. And maybe, hopefully, I will learn something as will you, if you choose to join me. You can purchase your own copy of the book on Amazon or your local bookstore.

Today I share my observations from the book’s introduction.

First, the author comments that as a society we have an unhealthy relationship with violence and death. He talks about how death is far removed from most peoples experiences. For instance we don’t experience death in the home as in years past. Today death happens in hospitals and nursing homes so we often don’t have an intimate experience with it. While I agree with this observation to a great extent, I am wondering if those who live in the more violent prone neighborhoods of our country would agree with this generalization.

Most of us also do not slaughter our own food. Instead we buy it nicely cut and wrapped in the local supermarket. According to the author we don’t want to get any closer to the real experience of death and many of us go so far as to condemn all killing, even for food or for the elimination of rodents.

At the same time we don’t want to see real death, we seem to glorify violent death in movies, television, video games, and other forms of entertainment. He sees this as very unhealthy for our society. I agree with this assessment and am chagrined at my own desire for non-violence in real life while I choose to watch crime shows and dramas that show an ugly side of human nature. I am very inconsistent and I must come to terms with this.

This book will focus (mainly) on the killing that accompanies war. I am hoping that it will be valuable as a tool to understand the violence the permeates our culture outside of war as well. It’s interesting that the author writes of the need to study this topic. I agree and right now lament the fact that our congress has made it almost impossible to study the subject of handgun violence in our nation. We need to study this.

As a pastor, my interpretive lens is always (hopefully) the grace and forgiveness that we receive through Jesus, who himself died a violent and horrible death. The good news is not found in his death but in his resurrection… in new life. Today (and for many days past) our country is hurting. My prayer is that we all have the strength and courage to look at violence – not as a source of entertainment, but rather as something that needs to be faced so that we can experience new life.

Please join me on this journey