Psychologist Lt. Col. Dave Grossman — On the Psychology of Killing


Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, you wrote an engrossing book
on the psychological costs of killing Hobbes said that man’s life in nature
is brutish, cruel and short that man has a built-in instinct
to kill and be aggressive Having interviewed hundreds of soldiers
who have killed on the battlefield you draw a very different conclusion
about human nature and killing Every species has a built-in resistance
to killing their own kind Animals with antlers and horns fight each other
harmlessly, slamming head to head, but against other species, they
go against the side to gut and gore Piranhas turn their teeth on anything and everything,
but they fight each other with flicks of the tail Otherwise, territorial and mating battles
would destroy the species Humans seem to have a similar inherent resistance,
but are extremely efficient at overcoming it We can track this throughout history Ancient battles were little more
than great shoving matches In all his battles, Alexander the Great
only lost about 700 men in total but he killed hundreds of thousands
of his enemies because he never lost a battle These great shoving matches
were not where the killing happened The killing happened when one of the sides
turned their backs and fled — But as long as a man faced his opponent directly…
— One on one, it was extremely difficult to kill him But that runs contrary not simply to what
Hobbes said about man and nature, but to our whole notion of fight or flight,
the survival instinct, survival of the fittest. Fight or flight is true in every situation
except when fighting your own species Within the species, instead of fight or flight,
they start to posture and submit Think of two dogs or two cats
fighting each other They puff up to be as big as possible.
They make as loud a noise as possible. Bagpipes, bugles, rebel yells are all to daunt the enemy
and convince us of our own ferocity. Ultimately, one side or the other
is indeed daunted, and turns and flees. We have this vision of warfare as a great clash
of bayonet charges and blood and gore with every man being a hero
and slaying thousands. The reality is, in Ardant du Picq’s studies in the 1800s,
in all of his studies and research, he could only find one case where a bayonet
charge actually closed with the enemy, and that was by accident in a heavy fog
during the battle of Beaumont. The reality is that the average individual is
profoundly uninterested in doing this. Now, you called your field of study “killology”.
Murder is as old as Cain and Abel. Why has no one ever really
investigated this subject? We have investigated homicide…
— Urban crime and the sociological antecedents. Yet we have never looked at
what happens on the battlefield. Up until 100 years ago or so,
nobody had really studied sex Only in the last two decades did Kinsey and
Masters & Johnson develop modern sexology. And now we accept this new field. Why had nobody
ever studied the actual intimacy of the sexual act? Why has nobody ever studied the
actual intimacy of the destructive act? The procreative and the destructive acts
were two taboos. “All is fair in love and war”.
They were two things we always lied about, two things that represented
profound human taboos. In recent years, we have begun to
pierce the veil on sexuality. And now, for the first time in human history,
I’d like to believe we have begun piercing the veil on what actually happens in war,
not vague generalities on the nature of battle or the nature man, but the innate,
fundamental process of killing. Well, you talk to people who have killed.
And you were telling me earlier, that you are always stunned at people
who had post-traumatic stress. Veterans would not analyze what they
went through in the process of killing. Were you surprised at the things
veterans told you about Vietnam? My initial surprise was that nobody talked about it.
Nobody would tell me about it. Nobody would answer my questions.
Clearly I had entered a realm that was very taboo. It was only after I gained credibility and authority
as a psychology professor at West Point, had presented information on the topic,
demonstrated a degree of scholarly concern, and could make it clinical, that people
would begin to come and talk to me. And then the surprise was the magnitude
of the trauma and the horror. And time after time, people would come up
and want to talk to me after a presentation, And we would get together
in a bar like this, and they would say, “I’ve never told anybody about this before.”
Then they would share their deepest, darkest secret. Remarkably, all of those secrets
had a lot in common. When I would talk to a veteran’s group,
I would speak to them and say, “Look, there’s nothing wrong with you
if you reacted to killing differently,” “but the average individual reacts to killing like this.”
The first thing you feel when you have actually killed somebody, is euphoria, exhilaration.
You have hit your target, done your job, you have saved your life, and your friends’ lives.
This brings satisfaction. Anybody who has hunted a deer or a rabbit,
feels good when they hit it and it falls. But then when they walk up to that deer or rabbit,
especially the first time, most feel empathy for the creature.
Indians would ask forgiveness of their spirit. Likewise, when it is a human being,
there is a profound remorse and nausea. And this is not just psychological,
this a physical reality, isn’t it? It becomes very physical,
and many people vomit. When you kill somebody at close range
and watch them fall, at first it feels good, but then a backlash of remorse sets in
and you turn around and say, “My God! I just killed a man, and it felt good.
What is wrong with me?” I think this is one of the keys to the whole thing.
When I tell veterans this, I say, “There is nothing wrong with you if it felt good.
That is the way most people react.” I look out at the group of veterans and
can see the ones I have struck home with. Their faces turn red, and
their eyes start to well up. It is as if you had taken their
deepest, darkest secret and rolled it out on the table,
and they all had the same secret. In your book you talk about stages people
go through after killing someone, This sounds very similar to the process of grieving.
– Yes, Kübler Ross on death and dying stages. Sure, and like Kübler Ross, you can misapply it.
There are those who say, “Okay, time for grieving, it’s time for denial,
time for bargaining.” Not everybody reacts the same way,
but there is usually that exhilaration, and then the remorse and nausea
as a backlash to the exhilaration. And then comes a lifelong process
of rationalization and acceptance. If they fail in this process, the result is PTSD
or some type of trauma that ramains for life. Every warrior society has a purification ritual.
— Explain that to me. All your life as you were raised,
you were told not to kill anybody. We hold the ultimate punishment for
somebody who kills another person. Then one day they get you together and say,
“Go over there and kill those people.” In psychology we call this
“cognitive dissonance.” And so you do. You participate in it,
and the social pressures are very intense. You go, you kill, you come back, and
in the back of your mind is that child, who says, “I’ve done something very bad.
I’m going to be in trouble.” And you must be reassured that
what you did was right and good. As I said, in all major warrior tribes
there is this purification ritual, which usually involves ritual separation and bathing,
acceptance back into the tribe, etc. In our society, we have things like
medals and decorations. Soldiers do not fight for medals and decorations.
They do it for their friends. But those medals are like
a “get out of jail free” card. They are a physical proof that what you did was right,
that your society says it was good, and that we honor this. So you wear those medals
when you return home. There is a cooling-off period, and then come
the parades and monuments, but most important of all is the open, warm
acceptance of society, which says, “What you did was good. We honor this.”
— And that is part of overcoming the trauma of killing. Knowingly or unknowingly,
the military has made this a part. Now, yours is more than simply a
psychologist’s approach to these problems. You have gone through a tremendous
amount of historical analysis. I was struck that, whether in Gettysburg or WWII,
you find that very few combatants actually shot to kill. As low as 15-20%.
— In WWII, people were actually firing, but we do not know how many were posturing –
firing over the enemy’s head to daunt them. The incidence of sociopaths in society –
people who feel no empathy for others appears to be around 4%
among males in their twenties. It seems the firing rate, those who actually try to kill,
could be brought down to this low 2-4%. Two percent of all the fighter pilots in WWII
did the vast majority of killing in the air. The majority of pilots never shot anybody down,
and never tried to. You said the same thing happens on the battlefield.
— Absolutely. When you looked at the Gettysburg numbers,
only about 15% were doing all the killing. And the others were stuffing their muskets
full of shot that wasn’t going to go off. The vast majority of the weapons recovered
after Gettysburg were loaded weapons. So you get this image of a person standing
in the firing line next to his friends. Bravely and valiantly he stands,
he loads, he does everything, but when it comes to the moment of truth,
everybody else fires and he does not. He brings it back down, and
goes through the process again and again. Some weapons had 23 rounds
tapped all the way down the barrel. As Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall said,
at the moment truth, you are facing another person and become
a noncombatant, a conscientious objector. Now, you say that while killing may be an inherent taboo
it is something that can be learned, And that following Korea, the military was worried
that only 15-20% were shooting to kill, and started to develop techniques
to increase that rate. Tell us about this period
and the techniques employed. It is a fact, this incredibly
low firing rate. So we systematically applied all the tools
of modern psychology to overcome it. By ‘we’ I mean Western civilization.
— The inherent resistance to killing, The military sector says,
“We must break it down.” In WWII they would fire at a bulls-eye target,
but today it is operant conditioning. The conditioned stimulus is a
man-shaped silhouette that pops up. The conditioned response is that
you have a split second to engage the target. The stimulus feedback is that
when you hit the target, it drops down. The reward is a marksmanship badge.
— So that becomes a conditioned response. As soon as you see an enemy, you kill.
— It is Skinner’s operant conditioning.
We build a conditioned reflex. Police departments throughout America
had a similar problem in the sixties. They found on many occasions
that the majority of police officers, Faced with a situation where they
could and should have fired their weapons, would not fire their weapons.
And they were losing many police officers. The FBI developed a shoot/no shoot
program that was very similar. A rear-projection movie of a perpetrator
in various circumstances was shown. Under the right circumstances, a police officer
would draw and fire, and repeat the process. And it becomes a reflex because
you practice it and rehearse it. The thing to realize is that the mind has to
go through two filters to kill someone. The first filter is the forebrain –
the conscious, rational mind. It will put you on the battlefield
with a weapon in your hand. Politics will do that, leaders and
other things will do that. The second filter is the midbrain. When frightened or
angry, you stop thinking like a human being. You turn off the forebrain and use the midbrain,
the limbic system, the hypothalamus. You start thinking with the
exact same brain as an animal. You are no longer
a rational creature. You have to get to the second filter
to make somebody kill. The only way to make a frightened person
react in a certain way is to drill it into them, to make it a conditioned response,
using operant and classical conditioning. Does that make sense?
Do you understand that? Absolutely. You also talk about
desensitizing, and demonizing the enemy. Absolutely. People have always
tried to demonize the enemy, but it is a flawed tool, because it produces
too much violence and atrocities. It causes situations like the My Lai
Massacre, and what have you. So we must be terribly
careful with that. In liberal democracies, armies need to
turn violence on and off like a faucet. So what they use is operant conditioning
and classical conditioning. They do not demonize the enemy, but rather try
to overcome the innate revulsion to killing. As they run or do bayonet training,
they chant: “Kill! Kill! Kill!” And understand, “kill” is the ultimate bad word.
To kill someone is a bad thing. To engage the enemy.
— Yes. So they stand there with bayonets in their hands,
and they bayonet the target. And the sergeant shouts,
“What’s the spirit of the bayonet?” And they respond, “Kill! Kill!”
Everybody chants together. “What makes the grass grow greener?”
“Blood! Blood!” So this resistance is overcome and they
begin to associate violence with pleasure. The thing to realize is that they are
overcoming a powerful resistance. The firing rate was raised from 15% in WWII
to 55% in Korea and to 95% in Vietnam.
— That is stunning! It is. The British in the Falkland Islands
found themselves in the same kind of situation. Their soldiers were firing at as close to
100% as they could determine, and the Argentineans, poorly trained
in the old style, were firing at a 15% rate. The British are convinced this is one of the
fundamental reasons for their incredible success. Your analysis puts a very different spin
on many related military issues, particularly the PTSD, especially in
Vietnam veterans coming home. I always thought they had so many problems
because they were not welcome or integrated. That backend process of killing
never took place for them. But since more killed than in any other wars,
they would have more problems, no matter what. That is part of it.
Two things occurred in Vietnam, neither of which – to my knowledge
– ever happened before in history. Number one, individuals were enabled to kill
in a way that had never occurred before. They had made a decision at some
fundamental, deep level in their minds. So they were enabled to fight in a way
that had never occurred before. This took away the option of
becoming a conscientious objector a functional conscientious objector.
— Right. Another unprecedented thing was that we
attacked returning veterans like never before. The purification ritual
was stood on its head. Instead of purification, they were attacked
and condemned: “Baby killer!” “Murderer!” And in the back of the mind, a little voice said,
“I’ve been very bad.” So they were attacked, condemned,
and called “baby killers” and “murderers” and that little voice in the back of their mind said,
“My God! They are right! I am a murder!” So that grieving rationalization
process could not occur. So they buried it deep inside of them,
and it became a festering wound deep inside. I interviewed many of these people who
had never addressed the trauma. They approached what happened with the mind of a
frightened 18-year-old who hadn’t slept in two days. They had never pulled it back out,
never dredged it up, never addressed it. So 50-year-old’s mind never got to look at it,
rationalize it, deal with it, give it to friends. That is one reason this book has been
so important and had such value. In writing the book, copies of copies of the manuscript
were passed around the veteran community. A wife would read it and ask her husband,
“Is this what it’s like?” So he would read it, and
suddenly it became very clinical. Now they could discuss the undiscussable.
Then he would force it on another veteran, who would read it, and that veteran’s wife would
force it on others and they would read it. It became a tool to make the unspeakable
speakable, a tool for healing. Has that had a salutary effect
within the military community? Are there peers who resent you bringing
these techniques out into the open? No, and that is a good question. I had wondered
whether the military would react negatively, but not at all. Not in the least.
There has been a tremendously positive reaction. Sales have been very high among two groups:
the veterans, and the active-duty military. The US Marine Corps has incorporated it
into their professional development reading. One of the most intriguing yet problematic
parts of the book for the uninitiated, who haven’t really confronted and
dealt with this subject before, is that killing is a taboo, that there are
strong inherent sanctions against it. Yet our propensity to kill outside the battlefield,
in urban, civilian settings, is going up. What gives? Yes. First I want you to realize
the magnitude of the problem. When we talk about crime in America,
we usually focus on murder rates. The thing to realize is, if you were wounded in WWII,
you had a 90% chance of dying. But if you were wounded in the same way in Vietnam,
you had a 90% chance of surviving. Now, we can accept that, the advances and
leaps in medical technology… But understand what that means
on the battlefield of our cities. If we had the same medical technology now as in 1939,
it is very conservative to say that the murder rate in Washington DC, New York City or Toronto
would be 10 times higher than it is today. Yes, it should go down with those improvements.
— Yes, but it has almost doubled in America. The aggravated assault rate… — A far better indicator.
… Yes, that is just escalating, skyrocketing, completely out of sight,
without any sign of going down. We should ask ourselves why. How could this happen?
— Especially given the sanction against killing. We know why. The military knows how to
take the safety catch off a human being. We know what works and what does not.
We went from 15% WWII to 95% in Vietnam. I have no doubt that the exact same processes
that the military applies to its soldiers are being applied indiscriminately
to our cities, to our children. It is the same desensitization and learning to kill.
— Minus the safeguards and discipline that come with it. Let me give you an example, starting at a
fundamental level: classical conditioning. You can classically condition an earthworm
if you associate one thing with another. A lot of us have seen Clockwork Orange.
You take a sociopath, strap him in a chair, and have him watch vivid depictions of
human suffering on a screen, and he associates it with the nausea he feels
from a drug you slipped into him. — Right. Today we have a reverse
Clockwork Orange. We have children who sit in a movie theater
watching vivid depictions of human suffering. And what do they associate it with?
Their favor candy bar or soft drink.
Their arm around a girlfriend. We watch Pulp Fiction or Friday the 13th, part 28 –
vivid depictions human suffering. And I ask the audience every time,
“What happens in Pulp Fiction, when somebody is depicted
as being killed? They laugh! When they are murdered in the backseat,
everyone laughs. We laugh! It is funny! We have learned to associate vividly depicted
human tragedy, death and horror with our own pleasure. Then we go to the video arcades
and play video games. Police and military forces know that just once every six
months is enough to build in that conditioned reflex. We go to the videoarcade and play these games.
Operation Wolf – I can never get past that level 3. The UZI is there rocking in your hands, and you hear
the rounds as you shoot them into a human being. You hit him and he splats, twitches, falls, and bleeds,
and the reflex is built into you. Then some young sociopath that we have built
walks out on the street. He has a gun in his hand, having been taught
that it is a violent society out there, and the gun is the essence of manhood.
The gun has been glamorized. There are so many factors that will put him there:
poverty is a factor, drugs are a factor. All of these things will predispose him.
Fatherless America will predispose him, because he is looking for a role model
and has been given violent war models. But in the moment of truth, when a frightened,
angry human being looks at another human being over the gun sight, only one thing teaches
you to kill, and that is teaching killing. So this youth has a gun in his hand and kills reflexively. without even thinking, and quite accurately, too. Then he shows no remorse whatsoever.
He may even show a bit of pleasure. Then we have the audacity to wonder why,
when he has watched vivid depictions of human suffering thousands of times and
derived pleasure and reinforcement from it. We taught him to kill,
and we taught him to like it. But it seems a bit more insidious than this.
You have taken up the cudgel of many people who say the Roadrunner desensitizes,
it impersonalizes death. Roadrunner falls off a cliff, lands in a puff,
then stands up and walks around again. I am not particularly concerned about that,
anymore than I am concern about Mario Brothers, where they bop each other
on the head with hammers. I would say it is vivid depiction of human suffering
and blood that desensitizes us to human suffering. What I would say is the other half of the equation,
in which we simply enforce existing regulations. Our movie rating system
says that kids under age 17 cannot go to an R-rated movie
without parental consent. It would be a simple to take the
existing rating system and say that if you rent an R-rated movie to children or let them in
to see one, we will bring legal action against you. Now once again, all we are doing
is enforcing an existing code. That is not a Draconian step. It’s a simple matter of
protecting our children, which societies can take. We can make point-and-shoot video games illegal.
A few tiny steps, to take the pot off the fire, and the pot will very quickly stop boiling.
Some things will take generations to react: the real death and destruction in our inner cities,
the people who grow up expecting not to reach age 30. Those people are going to
take a long time to heal. But the operant conditioning
that happens in video games, and the classical conditioning that happens in movies,
this decays very quickly. This outside, artificial stimulus that creates violence,
in just a couple of years can very quickly wear off. And then all we have to live with is
the real violence and its ramifications, and we can start to de-escalate the spiral
of violence that is occurring in our society.