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Publisher's Summary

The revised and updated edition of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's modern classic about the psychology of combat, hailed by the Washington Post as "an illuminating account of how soldiers learn to kill and how they live with the experiences of having killed". In World War II, only 15 to 20 percent of combat infantry were willing to fire their rifles. In Korea, about 50 percent. In Vietnam, the figure rose to more than 90 percent.

The good news is that most soldiers are loath to kill. But armies have developed sophisticated ways sophisticated ways of overcoming that instinctive aversion. The psychological cost for soldiers, as evidenced by the increase in post-traumatic stress, is devastating. This landmark study brilliantly illuminates the techniques the military uses to help soldiers kill and raises vital questions about the implications of escalating violence in our society.

©2009 David Grossman (P)2009 David Grossman

Critic Reviews

"This important book deserves a wide readership." ( Library Journal)

 "Powerfully argued...Full of arresting observations and insights." (New York Times)

What listeners say about On Killing

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Adam G

As a new platoon leader getting ready to lead 50 Soldiers into Iraq, I wanted to read something to get me prepared for a world which I know little about, the world of killing.

LTC Grossman presents a myriad of reasons soldiers will or will not kill in the vital moment. Although at this point I may not agree on the strengths to which each has, they all made sense. His section on PTSD, the mindset of the soldier after killing, and methods of overcoming both were extremely useful.

Although others may not like this book due to its lack of in depth psychological analysis, I highly recommend this book to anybody looking for an easy to understand look at the human reaction to killing.

50 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Deep insight into the psychology of killing

As a Soldier in the US Army, I was intrigued and hesitant about reading this. I assumed that the book would be biased and uninformed, but I listened anyways. LTC Grossman provides a deep study of the human condition and the effects that the mind goes though, before, during, and after the kill. Not only does LTC Grossman explore the psyche of the killer, he touches on the use of modified operant conditioning by modern militaries to train its Soldiers to kill. Then to top it off, he talks about how this type of conditioning is being implemented in our society today, and the potential effects that it has on everyone, including children, who are a prime candidate for conditioning. A MUST READ for Combat Arms leaders, so that they can understand what their soldiers are going through, and how they can help with the process.

28 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars

More to it than I knew.

I always thought I had a solid combat mindset and I still think so, however this book revealed to me how little thought I had given it. I now see clearly combat mindset is not so simple as knowing you will press the trigger when you need to. This book also gave me some insights into other generations.

26 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Deadly Accurate

Col. Grossman is a dynamic speaker in person. He reads the book in a conversational tone. This book is packed with information on the psychology of making the decision to use or not to use deadly force, as well as the emotional response to the aftermath. He is the foremost expert on the psychology of killing. I read the book several years ago and was not dissapointed by the audio.

26 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

An Interesting Idea

The topic of the psychological effects of violence is an intriguing topic with much potential, particularly when addressed by a professor of psychology who is also a career military officer, but ultimately that potential is what made On Killing so disappointing.

With verbatim repetitions throughout, it more resembles a collection of essays than a book. The most serious issue though, is the presence of speculative and sweeping assertions, such as the claim that, what is hubristically described as a previously undiscovered aspect of psychology (revulsion to killing), may have been responsible for the election outcomes of wartime Presidents forced to go to the polls immediately after the end of hostilities. To the author's credit he does acknowledge that last assertion might be extending his work too far.

It is clear when evidence is offered, such as frequent references to B.F Skinner's (at best) obsolete work, that Grossman didn't do his homework. Most troubling, however, is the study on which Grossman rests his thesis; S.L.A Marshall's survey of World War II soldiers claiming to show only 25% will fire at an exposed enemy. The soldiers supposedly interviewed later denied ever being asked about their firing rates, a fact which has been known to military psychologists for over twenty years. It would be interesting to buy the physical copy of this book to see the bibliography.

The number and severity of basic errors costs makes the reader wonder if the author knows what he is talking about, and that's a shame given the enormous potential and relevance of this topic. On a positive note, the narration was good.

24 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars

The seminal work on this subject, but*

This book is known as the "seminal" work on this subject in the last 75 years, and I would mostly agree with that. Where the book lost me, was at the anti first and second amendment screed at the end. Likely due to the time it was initially written in the mid-late 90's where pointless gun control was all the rage, and everything was video games' fault.

17 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

a bit too pop psych

It's an interesting book. It certainly looks at this issue from a perspective I never had before. Having said that though, I question the methodology and find the conclusions less than absolutely compelling. Correlation is not causation, and for almost everything for which he asserted a single cause, because of an existing correlation, I could think of an unexplained alternative. Perhaps he dealt with them in his research and simply didn't put it in the book, but if so, that elevates it only to the level of pop psychology which tends to oversimplify its subject matter in order to break it down into easily digestable bites for non-psychology readers. That's not necessarily a bad thing since it can give those readers insight into the human condition, which is almost always useful, but it can be frustrating for anyone with a background in psychology. Having said all of these things which seem negative, I rather enjoyed the read. It gave me a new perspective on the subject of killing. It made me think in a new way, and I forced a friend to read it so we could discuss the more interesting points.

17 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars

Good book

I enjoyed this book. I have a history degree and I think this book, whether you want to agree with the thesis or not, should be required reading to fill in the gap between those who see war as the pinnacle or the scourge of society. I think Grossman makes a good argument that it is neither.

16 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Fascinating sources - flawed & dated viewpoint

The best thing I can say about this book is that it has some very chilling and fascinating first hand accounts from combat veterans. A majority of those came from other sources though. It's a largely U.S. centric view of war minus a few looks into how Napoleon and the Romans conducted warfare. There are definitely good insights into the psychological trauma of combat and killing in this book but I really don't buy into Grossman's interpretation of data in some places. He claims that low firing rates among US soldiers in WW2 is evidence that humans are naturally opposed to killing and that was the largest factor. I don't disagree that most humans on their own are averted to killing and conflict. It's just that from what I gather in other reading, I would suspect the soldiers fired less, largely out of fear of exposing themselves to the enemy much more than the aversion to possibly killing another human being. Also less training and conditioning would be a factor when comparing them to Vietnam firing rates, which he does mention. What he doesn't mention is the close quarters nature of fire fights in Vietnam, where the NVA would ambush and hug their enemy to stay out of artillery and airstrike range is another reason for increased firing rates. As well as having more access to full auto weapons.

Grossman also tries to use some WW2 statistics regarding fighter pilots to the same end. The stats show that an extremely small amount of pilots accounted for a vast majority of the air to air kills. This statistic is true but I would argue that evolving air combat tactics were the main reason for this, not just the pilot's aversion to fire at enemy planes and kill. My understanding from reading how air combat worked in this war, is that aces relied heavily on their wingmates to distract and pull targets. The wingmates would rely on the higher flying ace to quickly and accurately ambush (boom & zoom) the enemy before they, the bait; was shot down. This kind of tactic helped aces rack up a lot of kills while the majority of pilots acted as distractions and support.


The main thing Grossman pushes that really makes no sense in this book is that media violence spawns real life violence in America, which is extremely unproven to say the least. Statistically we are in the least violent time in American history, so it seems that violent media could've actually lowered the amount of violence in real life. He also makes claims about how the violent crime rate would sky rocket if the US didn't lock away as many people as it does. It's complete ignorance. We all should know the prisons have been overflowing for decades because of a bullshit drug war that exploits the poor and largely people of color in this nation. The massive majority of people are locked up for non-violent drug offenses. Fucking violent movies and video games are not the problem here. It's really disappointing to see Grossman continue to peddle this shit even to this day. Look at his upcoming book "Assassination Generation".

I wouldn't recommend this book or author but recommend checking out the source material used here. Also check out "What It Is Like To Go To War" by Karl Marlantes for a deep and honest look into the war and killing experienced by a Vietnam veteran.

12 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Kept my attention from play to end ... non-stop

Albeit, a bit "pop", and some ideas proposed at the end are a little sketchy ... this book seems well researched, -I spent six years in the Army-, very intriguing, at times captivating, and well written. I would highly recommend.

12 people found this helpful

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