“One veteran I interviewed told me that he thought of most of the world as sheep: gentle, decent, kindly creatures who are essentially incapable of true aggression. In this veteran’s mind, there is another sub-species (of which he is a member) that is a kind of dog: faithful, vigilant creatures who are very much capable of aggression when circumstances require. But, according to this model, there are wolves (sociopaths) and packs of wild dogs (gangs and aggressive armies) abroad in the land, and the sheepdogs (the soldiers and the policemen of the world) are environmentally and biologically predisposed to be the ones who confront these predators.”
from On Killing
The book that indirectly led me to create this website was On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Reading it in 2000 changed the way I thought about violence and fighting.
If you are a man in Western society, you get a big dose of mythology about what violence is like from comic books, TV, the movies, our friends and our parents and other relatives.
99.9 % of this information is bullshit.
My grandfather and all his brothers went to Germany in WWII. My uncle and many of my cousins went to Vietnam. They saw people die. My cousins definitely killed people. They never told me directly, but here and there I heard things that made me doubt the myths of violence.
They would talk about the kids whose names they never learned, because they got killed in the first action. Kids who were not realistic about the situation they found themselves in.
I read books like The Red Badge of Courage and Sympathy for the Devil which called the myths into question.
As I became as more experienced fighter, I realized both how much more dangerous a man could be than I ever thought and also about the limits of that power. I realized that most of the fights I saw in the movies were complete fantasy.
One of the book chapters in On Killing was “A World of Virgins Study Sex.” Most people have no idea what a real fight is like. Many of the top fighting instructors in the world have never been in a real fight.
I teach martial arts, yet I haven’t been in a real fight since high school.
Lt. Col. Grossman’s book is an antidote to the myths of Schwarzenegger and Die Hard and Ip Man. The biggest myth he explodes is that it is easy to kill.
The movies make it seem to be no big deal to kill and the research shows that this is only true for perhaps 2 percent of the population, the “2 percent who are predisposed toward aggressive psychopathic tendencies” who, “if pushed or if given a legitimate reason, will kill without regret or remorse.” Maybe you are one of the two percent – I don’t think I am one of them.
For the other 98 percent of us, killing another human being is a big deal, in fact, for most of us it would be a trauma that would be difficult to forget. We would have to struggle with it.
Grossman describes how US Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall ordered a study after World War II, to test a hunch. He had his men go over one of the battlefields in France where he had fought with metal detectors. He checked the (meticulous) German records of the battle. He found how many men they had deployed in the battle and how many bullets they had fired. He found out how many men he had and how many bullets they had used.
And then he did the math.
Turns out an average of only 15 to 20 men out of a hundred would “take any part with their weapons.” That is, they didn’t fire at the enemy, even in a pitched battle where they were being fired upon. You think you would shoot back if people were shooting at you, right?
Only 20% shot back.
They ran this test on some Civil War battles and found the same result. 20 percent fired their weapons. Many rifles were found with multiple packings unfired. That is, they mimed loading and firing the rifles, but didn’t (or couldn’t) fire.
They had an internal revulsion to killing which was almost impossible to overcome, a finding Grossman calls a “basic, profound, and universal insight into human nature.”
Grossman also said this:
“At hand-to-hand combat range the instinctive resistance to killing becomes strongest.”
“The single most effective and mechanically easiest way to inflict significant damage on a human being with one’s hand is to punch a thumb through his eye and on into the brain subsequently…”
“I cannot find any references to anyone in the history of human combat having ever used this simple technique.”
It is easy to imagine you can do violence to someone else, in the abstract.
Why do I bring all this up – is it because I am a pacifist?
No. I’m sort of a pacifist, I guess. Yet I’ve been training to fight since I was 15. Learning to hit hard. Learning how to fight with a knife. Learning to shoot automatic weapons in the service and handguns later on.
But Grossman’s book made me think. Can I do it? Could I do it? This is something you should think about now. You need to decide where your line is and then resolve what you will do when someone crosses it. But understand it may not be easy. It may not come naturally. It might be very very difficult to do what in fact may be, in that moment, necessary, and you may need to start hardening yourself now, preparing now to do something that may be, in another context, horrific.
My Sigung, Gary Lam, says “you have to become a little bit of a monster.”