Why should we study killing? One might just as readily ask, Why study sex? The two questions have much in common. Every society has a blind spot, an area into which it has great difficulty looking. Today that blind spot is killing. A century ago it was sex.
Part of the reason for our lack of knowledge in this area is that combat is, like sex, laden with a baggage of expectations and myths. In the same way that we did not understand what was occurring in the bedroom, we have not understood what was occurring on the battlefield. Our ignorance of the destructive act matched that of the procreative act.
In A History of Militarism, Alfred Vagts accuses military history, as an institution, of having played a large part in the process of militarizing minds. To a certain extent, this is probably because those who are good at killing in war are quite often those who throughout history have hacked their way to power. The military and the politicians have been the same people for all but the most recent part of human history, and we know that the victor writes the history books.
The media in our modern information society have done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing and have thereby become part of society’s unspoken conspiracy of deception that glorifies killing and war. There are exceptions – such as Gene Hackman’s Bat 21, in which an air force pilot has to kill people on the ground, up close and personal for a change and is horrified at what he has done – but for the most part we are given James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Rambo, and Indiana Jones blithely and remorselessly killing men by the hundreds. The point here is that there is as much disinformation and as little insight concerning the nature of killing coming from the media as from any other aspect of out society.
Our society has found a powerful recipe for providing killing empowerment to an entire generation. Producers, directors, and actors are handsomely rewarded for creating the most violent, gruesome, and horrifying films imaginable, films in which the stabbing, shooting, abuse, and torture of innocent men, women, and children are depicted in intimate detail. Make these films entertaining as well as violent, and then simultaneously provide the (usually) adolescent viewers with candy, soft drinks, group companionship, and the intimate physical contact of a boyfriend or girlfriend. Then understand that these adolescent viewers are learning to associate these rewards with what they are watching. If we had a clear-cut objective of raising a generation of assassins and killers who are unrestrained by either authority or the nature of the victim, it is difficult to imagine how we could do a better job.
Operant conditioning firing ranges with pop-up targets and immediate feedback, just like those used to train soldiers in modern armies, are found in the interactive video games that our children play today. But whereas the adolescent Vietnam vet had stimulus discriminators built in to ensure that he fired only under authority, the adolescents who play these video games have no such safeguard built into their conditioning.
In a kind of reverse Clockwork Orange classical conditioning process, adolescents in movie theaters across the nation, and watching television at home, are seeing the detailed, horrible suffering and killing of human beings, and they are learning to associate this killing and suffering with entertainment, pleasure, their favorite soft drink, their favorite candy bar, and the close, intimate contact of their date.
Social learning is being used as children learn to observe and imitate a whole new realm of dynamic vicarious role models, such as Jason and Freddy or endless Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, and Hannibal the Cannibal, along with a host of other horrendous sadistic murderers. Even the more classic heroes, such as the archetypal law-abiding police detective, is today portrayed as a murderous, unstable vigilante who operates outside the law.
Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry became the archetype for a new generation of police officers who were not constrained by the law, and when Hollywood’s new breed of cop was rewarded for placing vengeance above the law, the audience was also vicariously rewarded for this same behavior. Feeding their audience a steady stream of vicarious reinforcement through such vengeful, lawless role models, these movies prepare our society for the acceptance of a truly hideous and sociopathic brand of role model.
Since 1945 there have been more than two hundred studies demonstrating the connection between television and violence. The American Psychological Association’s commission on violence and youth concluded in 1993 that “there is absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior.”
Where did we lose this sense of propriety toward the dignity of death? How did we become so hardened? The answer to that question is that we, as a society, have become systematically desensitized to the pain and suffering of others. We may believe that tabloids and tabloid TV make us exceedingly conscious of the suffering of others as they spread the stories of victims. But the reality is that they are desensitizing us and trivializing these issues as each year they have to find increasingly more bizarre stories to satisfy their increasingly jaded audiences. We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is an internationally recognized scholar, author, soldier, and speaker who is one of the world s foremost experts in the field of human aggression and the roots of violence and violent crime. He is a former sergeant, platoon leader, general staff office and a company commander, as well as a former West Point psychology professor and Chair of the Department of Military Science at Arkansas.
His classic book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and is required reading in classes at West Point and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is also the author of the acclaimed work On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, and co-author of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence.
This article is taken from his chapter ‘On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society’ in the forthcoming Karnac Books publication The Political Self (2016), and is reproduced by kind permission of the author.