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Upon its initial publication, ON KILLING was hailed as a landmark study of the techniques the military uses to overcome the...
Upon its initial publication, ON KILLING was hailed as a landmark study of the techniques the military uses to overcome the powerful reluctance to kill, of how killing affects soldiers, and of the societal implications of escalating violence. Now, Grossman has updated this classic work to include information on 21st-century military conflicts, recent trends in crime, suicide bombings, school shootings, and more. The result is a work certain to be relevant and important for decades to come.
An eye-opening psychological study of killing in wartime--why soldiers must be trained to kill, how killing affects them, and what the military experience with killing means for society at large. Drawing on dozens of interviews, first-person reports and studies of combat soldiers, Grossman shows that almost all humans have an innate aversion to killing.
If you are a virgin preparing for your wedding night, if you or your partner are having sexual difficulties, or if you are just curious ... then there are hundreds of scholarly books available to you on the topic of sexuality. But if you are a young "virgin" soldier or law-enforcement officer anticipating your baptism of fire, if you are a veteran (or the spouse of a veteran) who is troubled by killing experiences, or if you are just curious ... then, on this topic, there has been absolutely nothing available in the way of scholarly study or writing.
Over a hundred years ago Ardant du Picq wrote his Battle Studies, in which he integrated data from both ancient history and surveys of French officers to establish a foundation for what he saw as a major nonparticipatory trend in warfare. From his experiences as the official historian of the European theater in World War II, Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall wrote Men Against Fire, in which he made some crucial observations on the firing rates of men in war. In 1976 John Keegan wrote his definitive Face of Battle, focusing again exclusively on war. With Acts of War, Richard Holmes wrote a key book exploring the nature of war. But the link between killing and war is like the link between sex and relationships. Indeed, this last analogy applies across the board. All previous authors have written books on relationships (that is, war), while this is a book on the act itself: on killing.
These previous authors have examined the general mechanics and nature of war, but even with all this scholarship, no one has looked into the specific natureof the act of killing: the intimacy and psychological impact of the act, the stages of the act, the social and psychological implications and repercussions of the act, and the resultant disorders (including impotence and obsession). On Killing is a humble attempt to rectify this. And in doing so, it draws a novel and reassuring conclusion about the nature of man: despite an unbroken tradition of violence and war, man is not by nature a killer.
One of my early concerns in writing On Killing was that World War II veterans might take offense at a book demonstrating that the vast majority of combat veterans of their era would not kill. Happily, my concerns were unfounded. Not one individual from among the thousands who have read On Killing has disputed this finding.
Indeed, the reaction from World War II veterans has been one of consistent confirmation. For example, R. C. Anderson, a World War II Canadian artillery forward observer, wrote to say the following:
I can confirm many infantrymen never fired their weapons. I used to kid them that we fired a hell of a lot more 25-pounder [artillery] shells than they did rifle bullets.
In one position ... we came under fire from an olive grove to our flank.
Everyone dived for cover. I was not occupied, at that moment, on my radio, so, seeing a Bren [light machine gun], I grabbed it and fired off a couple of magazines. The Bren gun's owner crawled over to me, swearing, "It's OK for you, you don't have to clean the son of a bitch." He was really mad.
Colonel (retired) Albert J. Brown, in Reading, Pennsylvania, exemplifies the kind of response I have consistently received while speaking to veterans' groups. As an infantry platoon leader and company commander in World War II, he observed that "Squad leaders and platoon sergeants had to move up and down the firing line kicking men to get them to fire. We felt like we were doing good to get two or three men out of a squad to fire."
There has been a recent controversy concerning S. L. A. Marshall's World War II firing rates. His methodology appears not to have met modern scholarly standards, but when faced with scholarly concern about a researcher's methodology, a scientific approach involves replicating the research. In Marshall's case, every available parallel scholarly study replicates his basic findings. Ardant du Picq's surveys and observations of the ancients, Holmes's and Keegan's numerous accounts of ineffectual firing, Holmes's assessment of Argentine firing rates in the Falklands War, Griffith's data on the extraordinarily low killing rates among Napoleonic and American Civil War regiments, the British Army's laser reenactments of historical battles, the FBI's studies of nonfiring rates among law-enforcement officers in the 1950s and 1960s, and countless other individual and anecdotal observations all confirm Marshall's conclusion that the vast majority of combatants throughout history, at the moment of truth when they could and should kill the enemy, have found themselves to be "conscientious objectors."
Slightly more controversial than claims of low firing rates in World War II have been observations about high firing rates in Vietnam resulting from training or "conditioning" techniques designed to enable killing in the modern soldier. From among thousands of readers and listeners, there were two senior officers with experience in Vietnam who questioned R. W. Glenn's finding of a 95 percent firing rate among American soldiers in Vietnam. In both cases their doubt was due to the fact that they had found a lack of ammunition expenditure among some soldiers in the rear of their formations. In each instance they were satisfied when it was pointed out that both Marshall's and Glenn's data revolved around two questions: "Did you see the enemy?" and "Did you fire?" In the jungles of Vietnam there were many circumstances in which combatants were completely isolated from comrades who were only a short distance away; but among those who did see the enemy, there appears to have been extraordinarily consistent high firing rates.
High firing rates resulting from modern training/conditioning techniques can also be seen in Holmes's observation of British firing rates in the Falklands and in FBI data on law-enforcement firing rates since the introduction of modern training techniques in the late 1960s. And initial reports from researchers using formal and informal surveys to replicate Marshall's and Glenn's findings all indicate universal concurrence.
The observation that violence in the media is causing violence in our streets is nothing new. The American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association have both made unequivocal statements about the link between media violence and violence in our society. The APA, in its 1992 report Big World, Small Screen, concluded that the "scientific debate is over."
There are people who claim that cigarettes don't cause cancer, and we know where their money is coming from. There are also people who claim that media violence does not cause violence in society, and we know which side of their bread is buttered. Such individuals can always get funding for their research and are guaranteed coverage by the media that they protect. But these individuals have staked out the same moral and scientific ground as scientists in the service of cigarette manufacturers.
On Killing's contribution to this debate is its explanation as to how and why violence in the media and in interactive video games is causing violence in our streets, and the way this process replicates the conditioning used to enable killing in soldiers and law-enforcement officers ... but without the safeguards.
An understanding of this "virus of violence" must begin with an assessment of the magnitude of the problem: ever-increasing incidence of violent crime, in spite of the way that medical technology is holding down the murder rate, and in spite of the role played by an ever-growing number of incarcerated violent criminals and an aging population in holding down the violence.
It is not just an American problem, it is an international phenomenon. In Canada, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, and all across Europe, assault rates are skyrocketing. In countries like India, where there is no significant infrastructure of medical technology to hold it down, the escalating murder rate best reflects the problem. Around the world the result is the same: an epidemic of violence.
When people become angry, or frightened, they stop thinking with their forebrain (the mind of a human being) and start thinking with their midbrain (which is indistinguishable from the mind of an animal). They are literally "scared out of their wits." The only thing that has any hope of influencing the midbrain is also the only thing that influences a dog: classical and operant conditioning.
That is what is used when training firemen and airline pilots to react to emergency situations: precise replication of the stimulus that they will face (in a flame house or a flight simulator) and then extensive shaping of the desired response to that stimulus. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response. In the crisis, when these individuals are scared out of their wits, they react properly and they save lives.
This is done with anyone who will face an emergency situation, from children doing a fire drill in school to pilots in a simulator. We do it because, when people are frightened, it works. We do not tell schoolchildren what they should do in case of a fire, we condition them; and when they are frightened, they do the right thing. Through the media we are also conditioning children to kill; and when they are frightened or angry, the conditioning kicks in.
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 are 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, vast majority of circumstances are not sufficient to overcome this 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.
Another way to look at this is to make an analogy with AIDS. AIDS does not kill people; it simply destroys the immune system and makes the victim vulnerable to death by other factors. The "violence immune system" exists in the midbrain, and conditioning in the media creates an "acquired deficiency" in this immune system. With this weakened immune system, the victim becomes more vulnerable to violence-enabling factors, such as poverty, discrimination, drug addiction (which can provide powerful motives for crime in order to fulfill real or perceived needs), or guns and gangs (which can provide the means and "support structure" to commit violent acts).
Canada is an example of a nation that we have always considered to be relatively crime-free and stable. Stringent gun laws, comparatively intact family structure, beloved and paternalistic government. But (surprise!) Canada has the exact same problem that we do. According to the Canadian Center for Justice, since 1964 the number of murders has doubled per capita, and "attempted murders" increased from 6 per million in 1964 to 40 per million in 1992. And assaults went up from 209 per 100,000 in 1964 to 940 per 100,000 in 1992. This is almost exactly the same ratio as the increase in violent crime in the United States. Vast numbers of Canadians have caught the virus of violence, the "acquired violence immune deficiency," and as they ingest America's media violence, they are paying the inevitable price.
This process is occurring around the world in nations that are exposed to media violence. The one exception is Japan.
If you have a destroyed immune system, your only hope is to live in a "bubble" that isolates you from potential contagions. Japan is an example of a nation living in a "violence bubble." In Japan we see a powerful family and social structure; a homogeneous society with an intact, stable, and relatively homogeneous criminal structure (which has a surprisingly "positive" group and leadership influence, at least as far as sanctioning freelancers); and an island nation with draconian control of not just guns but many other aspects of life.
Thus, the Japanese have very few cultural, social, "forebrain" violence-enabling factors working against them, so we do not see nearly as much violence in their society. But they (like any nation that has a significant number of citizens with "acquired violence immune deficiency") are like weapons, sitting loaded with the safety off, just waiting for someone (another Tojo?) to pull the trigger.
The bottom line is that Japan can "accept" a higher degree of midbrain violence-enabling in the media because that variable is being held down by all the other factors. For a while.
But this restraint can defy gravity for only so long. Certainly their recent terrorist nerve-gas attacks have been sufficient to cause some soul-searching as Japan examines the degree to which media violence is causing its citizens to accept violence as a viable alternative.
Most of the world has not been able to protect its citizens. Governments around the globe, try as they might, have not been able to keep their immune-deficient citizens in a bubble. And they will never truly be able to control violent crime unless they stop infecting their children.
One common response to any concern about media violence is, "We have adequate controls. They are called the 'off' switch. If you don't like it, just turn it off."
Unfortunately, this is a tragically inadequate response to the problem. In today's society the family structure is breaking down and even in intact families there is enormous economic and social pressure for mothers to work. Single mothers, broken homes, latchkey kids, and parental neglect are increasingly the norm. Through Herculean effort, parents might be able to protect their own kids in today's world, but that doesn't do much good if the kid next door is a killer.
The worst thing about the "off switch" solution is that it is so blatantly, profoundly racist in its effect, if not its intent, because the black community in America is the "culture" or "nation" that has borne the brunt of the electronic media's violence-enabling. In this case, poverty, drugs, gangs, discrimination, and the availability of firearms all predispose more blacks than whites toward violence. These factors defeat the first filter; then the absence of the second, midbrain filter becomes noticeable.
Bronson James, a black Texas-based radio commentator whose show I was on, observed that this is identical to the genocidal process in which for centuries the white man used alcohol in a systematic policy to destroy the culture of the American Indian. For a variety of cultural and genetic reasons, the Indians were predisposed toward alcoholism, and we dumped it into them as a crucial part of the process that ultimately destroyed their civilization.
The pumping of media violence into the ghettos today is equally genocidal. Media violence-enabling in the ghetto is the moral equivalent of shouting, "FIRE!" in a crowded theater. As a result, murder is the number-one cause of death among black male teens, and 25 percent of all black males in their twenties are in jail, on probation, or on parole.
If this isn't genocide, then it is close.
What makes the "off switch" solution so racist is that, if these murders and incarceration rates were happening to the sons of white upper- and middle-class America, you can bet that we would have seen some drastic action by now. Viewed in this light, I think that most individuals would agree that the "just turn it off" solution probably rates right up there with "let them eat cake" and "I was just following orders" as all-time offensive statements.
In developmental psychology there is a general understanding that an individual must master the twin areas of sexuality and aggression (Freud's Eros and Thanatos) in order to have truly achieved adulthood. In the same way, the maturation of the human race necessitates our collective mastery of these two areas. In recent years we have made significant progress in the field of sexology, and this book is dedicated to the creation and exploration of the equivalent field of "killology."
After nuclear holocaust, the next major threat to our existence is the violent decay of our civilization due to violence-enabling in the electronic media. This book appears to be well on its way to making a difference in the desperate worldwide battle against the virus of violence.
May it be so, and may you, the reader, find what you seek in these pages.
Posted April 9, 2008
While this book goes on about how a soldier learns to kill, how it is easier to kill from a distance, how a soldier would rather run than kill, my review will center on the plight of the Vietnam Veteran. According to Grossman, in Vietnam firefights, 50,000 bullets were fired for every enemy killed. Grossman's contention is that the American soldier in Vietnam was the first psychologically enabled to kill to a far greater degree than any other soldier in history, than denied the psychologically essential purification rites that exist in every society. Conditioning was accomplished by literally thousands of hours of repetitive drilling paired with the ever-present incentive of physical violence as the penalty for not performing. Their weapons were suped up for high powered killing:land-the M-16, air-the Phantom F-16, B52 bomber and the infamous 'Puff The Magic Dragon'. Language was changed to increase the killing, i.e. the soldiers weren't killed, they were 'knocked over, wasted, zapped or fired upon'. Weapons of war receivede benign names like 'Bouncing-Betty, TOE, and Walleye'. According to Grossman, the main causes of psychiatric casualties in war are 1. prolonged fatigue 2. lack of food 3. continued coldness 4.extented period of 'fight or flight' mods 5.seeing friends killed 6. when friends get killed, being unable to help them. Put those psychiatric casualty factors with the knowledge that American forces were never once defeated in any major engagement in Vietnam. So why was the incidence of P.T.S.D. so high? Remember, much of this war was conducted against an insurgent force 'the 'Viet Cong'' who were men, women and children who were often defending their own homes and who were dressed in civilian clothing. Children were trained to throw grenades not only for the terror factor, but so American soldiers would have to shoot them 'thus the stigma of 'war criminal' and 'baby killer'-read 'Four Hours in My Lai by Michael Bilton''. In W.W. II soldiers joined for the duration of the war. In Vietnam, most soldiers arrived on the battlefield alone, without friends and afraid he was the 'F.N.G.' His presence and inexperience represented a threat to others in the unit. Vietnam was also the first 'pharmacological war' where soldiers not only empowered themselves with rampant marijuana, opium and especially in the deadliest years of the war '1969-70', a heroin epidemic exploded on the scene where one could buy a vial in Saigon of 98% pure heroin for $2. For a detailed look at the heroin epidemic in Vietnam-which many believe was a communist conspiracy to underscore U.S. morale, read 'Smack' by Frank Browning, editor of Ramparts Magazine, and 'Long Binh Jail' by Cecil B. Currey. In addition, soldiers who became psychiatric casualties were generally placed in psychiatric facilities close proximity to the combat zone where valium and thorazine were administered by psychiatrists 'read 'Wizard 6' by Douglas Bey'. In addition, while most soldiers in past wars were 21 and up in age, American combatants were significantly younger than any other war in American history. You had teenagers leading teenagers in endless, small-unit operations. In W.W. II, soldiers in route home often spent days together on troopships grieving lost comrades, comforting each other about their fears and receiving support from their fellow soldiers. Vietam Vets returned to 'the World' via airplane, sometimes within hours of their last combat experience. They were usually alone, with no one to greet them upon their arrival, embarrassed of their uniform, leary of anti-war protesters spitting on them at the airport hurling accusations of 'baby-killer'. For a good account of a confrontation of an anti-war protester and a returning Vietnam Vet at the airport, read 'And A Hard Rain Fell' by John Ketwig. Finally, the Vietnam Veteran's belief in the justice of his own cause and necessity of his own actions was thwarted by the surrender of the South Vietnamese Government
6 out of 11 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 16, 2003
I recently had the priviledge of training under Col. Grossman in a course he developed called Bulletproof Mind. Col. Grossman is as clever in person as he is in his writing. This book is very useful to military and law enforcement officers who have or might have to use deadly force. It is also usefull for spouses and family of officers who have encountered deadly force, to help them relate to what we are feeling. 5 stars.
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Posted March 5, 2007
This book, along with the accompaning research, talks about violence and killing in certain situations. Mainly on war and in society. The basic assumptions made by Lt. Col. Grossman in his study are the basis for his conclusion. He is correct that this area of violence in human endeavors has been vastly overlooked or ignored in research, other than several studies that have significant flaws and biases, and more research is needed to understand, predict and form policy decisions. However, what is lacking in this study is the challenge of basic assumptions inherent in his. Using data that is very suspect, along with the denial of technological advances, causes some problems for his conclusion. I do applaud his opening this area, yet cannot help but questions his methodology and, thus, his conclusions. This is a good study of proving a point, but not an academic endeavor. From reading, and studying, his text, it is apparant that he has selected his interviewees carefully to make his point. He does have some good suggestions on operant conditioning, from his background he should be familiar with the subject area, yet his basic premise that man is not violent or has a hard problem killing does not carry over to other cultures. If he came from the perspective of American (USA) culture instead of extending it to mankind he would have a more reliable study. Plus, the study by Marshall, on WWII, is greatly suspect from his sample selection. Again very selective and usually away from the front lines, non-combat areas. Grossman does make some good points for the start of conversations in society (again USA vs the rest of the world) and, perhaps, that is the most important part of the book. This is recommended to start an area of study, along with the research needed to discover if his assumptions are true. Perhaps it would help for someone who has actually 'been there' to replicate or conduct studies that contain less assumptions that may prove to have less error. His, and this is not bad at all-in fact good, conclusions are worth discussing.
2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 1, 2004
This groundbreaking book masterfully examines battlefield psychology and the individual soldier's emotional struggle through violence. The author, Lt. Col Dave Grossman, is both a psychiatrist and a lieutenant colonel in the US army. Using decades of interviews with veterans (especially those from Vietnam), he unravels an extremely complex mix of conflicting emotional states and responses. Grossman starts with the basic psychology of fight vs. flight and adds in a couple more options of posture or submit (straight from the animal kingdom and surprisingly applicable even in combat situations). He then references SLA Marshall's low firing statistics for WWII (15-20%) and Korean War(40%), comparing them to Vietnam (90%), and explains how vastly improved conditioning prepared Vietnam soldiers to pull the trigger. Then he goes on to explain the very numerous reasons why soldiers are reluctant to kill their fellow man. With this foundation, Grossman then discusses post-combat killing trauma, the dramatic effect of physical distance between killer and victim, peer pressure, authoritarian demands, how committing atrocities really does force soldiers to become ever more ruthless, the killing response stages, and the uniquely dreadful experience Vietnam vets had to deal with upon their return to the US. The last section of the book then argues how increasingly graphic violence and gore in movies and videogames is desensitizing children and young people to violence. I must admit that I was VERY SKEPTICAL of this last claim, but the author makes some truly compelling arguments. The best one is on p. 328, '...television executives have for years claimed that they are not capable of influencing our actions or changing behavior, but for decades America's major corporations have paid them billions of dollars for a paltry few seconds or a minute to do just that.' Then take a lot at the graph displaying an exponential increase in aggravated assaults since the late 1950's to the present (coincidental with the rise of TV?). Battlefield psychology is perhaps one of the least documented but most important aspects of combat. Grossman's book makes an outstanding contribution to this field. I am sure this will become a classic in military leadership circles.
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 23, 2012
Posted May 22, 2011
A client gave me this title. It helps me better understand what the Vets won't tell me. It is well written and the content backed up with data. The last chapter on video and violence needs to be more fact and less opinion. When a client began to tell me about his "Kill", I was so glad I had desensitized my emotions by reading the book, and could really help him.
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Posted December 18, 2010
My son is in the Marines, and I wanted to try and get a glimpse into what he may go through. This book provides an eye opening exploration into one of the most diffcult acts of all time. Be prepared.
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Posted April 21, 2009
This book was suggested to me by my husband who is a veteran of the war in Iraq. He suffers from PTSD and he knows that I struggle to understand what he goes through. He has never read this book, but he was correct that it did help me get a perspective. Although it was very provocative, it is still about learning to kill and there are some very difficult parts to read. It does take some steely resolve to get through the entire book, but, when finished, it is an eye-opener. I agreed with Grossman on his ideas and opinions, but I am not completely on the bandwagon concerning his stance on video games. To each their own, I suppose! Enjoy the book!
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Posted March 9, 2013
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Posted February 20, 2010
An absolute wonderful read. It takes a very under looked subject and brings it into the light. Meticulous research allows for great support. This book is perfect for conversations and debates and for anyone interested in either the military or psychology.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 13, 2010
"Societies which ask men to fight on their behalf should be aware of what the consequences of their actions may so easily be."
The above quote is included in this book and, I think, sums up why everyone should read this. We so easily (and thoughtlessly) accept sending our men and women to war and we give little, if any, thought to the toll killing in battle takes on them. Grossman's in-depth research teaches us how much damage is caused by our indifference.
Posted October 24, 2008
I Also Recommend:
While this book goes on about how a soldier learns..... See the rest of my review already printed. Please change from "Anonymous" to "Bernie Weisz (BernWei1@aol.com), a historian of the Vietnam WarWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 26, 2008
This is a must read for Army chaplains as well as Navy chaplains in support of Marine units, as well as anyone who would be counseling our returning veterns. This is very enlightening and informative every officer and leader of combat troops should read and be familiar with this book. Combat veterns can read it and take courage that what they are going through is not abnormal and they are not crazy. Thanks LTC Grossman for doing this critical work that will benefit all of our veterns.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 6, 2006
Excellent book. Provides insight into the psychology that supports true hand to hand combat training (traditional martial arts rather than 'show' martial arts that seem to dominate our culture). For those who have been in hand to hand combat, you will immediately understand what Grossman is talking about. For those who are preparing for the possiblity, this book will help you examine your training. A field which is far too sparsely researched, but critical for those who want to understand how people deal with the dark side of humanity.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 18, 2005
this book helped my realize that i wasn't crazy but also shed light on a rare topic in psychology. i have suggested this reading to an instructor in the citadel and think it would be great info for new officers and enlisted.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 8, 2005
Dave has done a simply outstanding job of outlining the issues and ramifications of killing. As a police officer and fellow warrior, Dave has helped me to understand the deep issues involved in a topic that we have been afraid to discuss. This is a brave work and will clearly be the leading benchmark in the field of killology.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 14, 2000
This book tells it like it is. I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in the military or law enforcement. Col. Grosman has done an excellent job in explaining how we train our men and women to do what is necessary and what it does to them when they do it. He also shows how the same 'training' has led us into the violent society we live in today. Everyone should read this.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 2, 2000