Monday, June 08, 2009


When I first read "On Killing" by Dave Grossman, I was deeply impressed.  Here was a guy who admitted that he had no actual experience whatsoever, that he was 'just' an academic- and he proceeded to tackle some of the hardest problems in human behavior: how people act and react in combat.  In an academic fashion.  Very cool.

It's hard to research because you can't experiment on this: taking a matched random sample and putting half in a control group where they take a test and the other half get attacked with axes... that's just not gonna pass the ethics committee.  Self-reporting is notoriously unreliable as a research tool. Even more so considering what stress hormones do to perception, memory and cognition.  Then there is really weird stuff, enough of it documented reliably, (filmed or witnessed by others or put together by the forensic guys afterwards) that a lot of what we 'know' about action and reaction, limits of human strength and endurance are revealed as assumptions that don't always apply.

The book was good enough that I started collecting the sources in his bibliography.  I was pretty disappointed with some of them.  One in particular was written after WWII by an REMF.  After the infantry had taken and secured an area he would go in and question the natives for intelligence.  Somehow, probably at cocktail parties after the war, he convinced his friends and himself that he was a warrior par excellence.  He had been there. He had done that.  I have a pretty good guess what the infantry thought of him.

In the introduction he asked the real question.  He was talking to a French woman after the liberation, after the war. She said the war had been horrible.  But she also said that she had never felt as alive since.  In that was the real question- why do we do this? I'm not asking what makes humans fight.  I can think of dozens of things worth fighting for and I pity the shallow excuse for a human that has nothing in his life worthy of that.  I'm asking why other things pale in comparison.

I've jumped out of planes. Vision quested.  Made love with exotic, beautiful and skilled women. Fallen off cliffs. Created fire.  Flown a paraglider. Bottomed caves. Spent weeks alone and days away from all sign of people.  Been close enough to touch a moose and touched a deer.  Been present at birth. Saved a life.  Sipped fine scotch on the shoulder of a mountain under the aurora borealis. Snorkeled with sea turtles and scuba'd with spotted eagle rays.  Felt the grace of infinite beauty after nearly drowning...

None of those were quite the same as successfully taking down someone trying to kill me.  Some of them were very intense, just as intense, but not the same. (Aside- when people tell you there are many paths to the top of the mountain, be skeptical.  There are many different mountains.)

Why is the human animal programmed to feel this intensity?  And do we somehowknow (some of us? All of us? None of us?) about this edge before we ever experience it?  Is that what really drives the propensity for boys to play with toy guns?

I don't know, and the REMF* who wrote the book got the question and ran from it.  IMO.

I don't have a lot to say here. I know the question better than the answer. There's just one things that's easy to confuse- after the incident or after a series of incidents, there is (for everybody? Some people? Just me?) an incredible ordering of and insight into priorities.  In other words, you start to recognize a lot of bullshit, especially your own.  The attachments.  That's cool, but it is separate from the battlejoy. That is its own thing.

* Not being obtuse here- I'm about 14,ooo miles away from my library and the title I remember got thousands of hits.  I would name the book and author if I was sure to get it right.


Anonymous said...

Goodbye Darkness- William Manchester?

Rory said...

Haven't read that one. The one I'm talking about was set in the ETO.

LDG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I believe you're thinking of Men Against Fire by S.L.A. Marshall.

Here's an old link that contains several links to SLAM's book online and some reviews of it.

Anonymous said...


A better researched book on much of what Grossman writes is "An Intimate History of Killing" by Joanna Burke

Anonymous said...

J. Glenn Gray- 'The Warriors'?
Never read it, but Paul Fussell's 'Doing Battle' gives an infantry view.

Rory said...

Last anonymous- That's it. J Glenn Gray. Thanks. Everyone else, thanks for the new stuff for the reading list.

Anonymous said...

Men Against Fire, SLA Marshall.

Manchester was a Marine in WW II/

-Robert Elder

Anonymous said...

BTW goodbye Darkness is a worthwhile read, as is "sempher fi, Mac" and "with the old breed."

Meron said...

Since you bring up academics, I wanted to unlurk. I'm a doctoral candidate in Theatre History writing my dissertation on the representations of martial arts on the American stage. I recently read (and loved) your book, and I expect it to be really useful to me as I move forward in my own scholarship.

So thanks :)

Rory said...

Welcome, Merron.