After reading an article entitled HOPE ON THE BATTLEFIELD by Dave Grossman, I felt such a mishmash of feelings that I couldn’t speak for a while. I felt fear, hope, awe, confusion, anger, curiosity and an overwhelming concern. This article was originally published in Greater Good magazine which is published by the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. This is a research center “devoted to the scientific understanding of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior.” Dave Grossman is a historian, psychologist and soldier.

Let me start with listing some of the things I learned from this short eight page article. Then, a few conclusions…

^ World War II studies demonstrated that of every 100 men in combat, 80 to 85 would consciously decide to defy orders to kill the enemy by doing things like shooting over the enemy’s head. This was not due to fear but rather due to a deep and natural aversion to killing another human being. It’s also explained that there was “a conspiracy of silence on this subject” since these findings were ignored by academia and the fields of psychiatry and psychology.

^ But the information was very much used by the Army. Huge efforts were made to “develop sophisticated methods for overcoming our innate aversion to killing.” These efforts were referred to by Grossman as revolutionary corrective measures and training methods introduced over the past half century. He describes this “new dawn in modern warfare” and explains that it is referred to as manufactured contempt. He explained how they figured out how to produce new psychological warfare, but this warfare wasn’t again the enemy but on our own troops. So successful were the changes in training and procedures that the firing rate jumped to 55 percent in Korea and 95 percent in Viet Nam. I won’t summarize the changes here but I’d like you to know that I found them deeply disturbing.

^ After these pro-killing methods were incorporated, more soldiers returned with posttraumatic syndrome. Most return from war fine but a lot need help. During the Viet Nam era, when the fire rate was 95 percent, between 18 and 54 percent of the 2.8 million returning military suffered from posttraumatic stress syndrome.

So, what does all this mean to us now?

Of course, we get to feel good about the knowledge that we humans have such a strong natural resistance to killing no matter the circumstances. It’s great to have the human as “natural born killer” assumption debunked. We need that to justify the development of appropriate levels of support for returning military in need of a variety of services.

I especially appreciate this conclusion by Grossman. “If we accept that we need an army, then we must accept that it has to be as capable of surviving as we can make it. But if society prepares a soldier to overcome his resistance to killing and places him in an environment in which he will kill, then that society has an obligation to deal forthrightly, intelligently, and morally with the psychological repercussions upon the soldiers and the society. ”

I believe that we need a deep understanding of these realities in order to proceed with peace-building work. Obviously, I don’t know for sure but it seems likely that the development of our understanding about the impacts of killing is just in its infancy. For the sake of peace and compassionate societies, I hope this work continues.

Related post:

The Blind Theology of Militarism – Article audaciously suggesting that we should be having a broader conversation about alternatives to permanent war.



  1. Kozo says :

    Thank you for summarizing this fascinating article, Lea. I agree that we need to have services in place for the returning soldiers. My wife used to work at the VA specializing in PTSD. In fact, we are attending a workshop at GGSC in March. I think the best solution would be to figure out a way where we didn’t need to train soldiers. 🙂

    • leazengage says :

      Totally agree (again :)) In fact,that reminds me… I forget to put a related article link that had some thoughts along the lines of “why soldiers / why war.” Thanks for this note, I think I’ll go look for it and add it!

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