Small Wars Journal

Killing for their Country: A New Look at “Killology”

Sat, 01/14/2012 - 6:06am

Killing for their Country: A New Look at “Killology”

by Robert Engen

National Defence and the Canadian Forces

It would appear, then, that Lieutenant Colonel Grossman’s appeals to biology and psychology are flawed, and that the bulwark of his historical evidence – S.L.A. Marshall’s assertion that soldiers do not fire their weapons – can be verifiably disproven. The theory of an innate, biological resistance to killing has little support in either evolutionary biology or in what we know about psychology, and, discounting Marshall’s claims, there is little basis in military history for such a theory either. This is not to say that all people can or will kill, or even that all soldiers can or will kill. Combat is staggeringly complex, an environment where human beings are pushed beyond all tolerable limits. There is much that we do not know, and plenty that we should be doing more to learn about. Grossman is clearly leading the way in posing these questions. Much of his work on the processes of killing and the relevance of physical distance to killing is extremely insightful. There is material in On Combat about fear, heart rate, and combat effectiveness that might be groundbreaking, and it should be studied carefully by historians trying to understand human behaviour in war. No disrespect to Lieutenant-Colonel Grossman is intended by this article, and it is not meant to devalue his work. I personally believe that some of the elements of his books, particularly the physiology of combat, would actually be strengthened if they were not shackled to the idea that humans cannot kill one another. But there are still questions that need to be asked, and the subject should not be considered closed. Grossman’s overall picture of killing in war and society is heavily informed by a belief in an innate human resistance to killing that, as has been offered here, does not stand up well to scrutiny. More research on the processes of human killing is needed, and although On Killing and On Combat form an excellent starting point, there are too many problems with their interpretation for them to be considered the final word on the subject. I believe that, in the future, the Canadian Forces needs to take a more critical posture when it comes to incorporating Grossman’s studies into its own doctrine. It is imperative that our nation’s military culture remain one devoted to pursuing the best available evidence at all costs, rather than one merely following the most popular consensus.


Ken White

Sat, 01/14/2012 - 5:41pm

In reply to by Chris jM

Thanks for posting that, Chris. I had downloaded it before but lost it in a computer swap...

It is good and as you say, refutes both other writers.

Chris jM

Sat, 01/14/2012 - 3:10pm

In reply to by gian gentile

After SLAM released his controversial findings, one of NZ's Brigadiers from North Africa and Italy, Howard Kippenberger, conducted a review using the resources available to him as one of the head-sheds of the War History Branch. The resulting document, which I'll link to below, didn't substantiate SLAMs or subsequently Grossman's theory of combat reluctance.


This was also discussed on SWC a while back:…

gian gentile

Sat, 01/14/2012 - 1:36pm

In reply to by Ken White

Ken you are a masterpiece

Loved this line of yours ref slamy: "Con artist with little saving grace."

Funny I have thought the same thing about many of the coin experts who have appeared to me to be nothing more than opportunists selling coin snakeoil, or as in slam's case "trainfire snake oil."

Ditto what you say about WWII vets; if you read what they say they almost to a man say Marsahll got it wrong.

Grossman's argument was a period piece of the early 90s as the video generation was just starting out. It was a nifty, clever little argument that appealed to many because there was simple logic to it: that because of video games and other aspects of american pop culture Americans had become desensitized to killing and therefore had lost the ability to do it in war. Again, books such as Evan Wright's or even Bing West's latest show as you say Ken, that there is not a problem with getting men to shoot and kill in war.

Ken White

Sat, 01/14/2012 - 12:47pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

n. q. Picky, picky, picky...

Can I get off the couch now??? :>

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 01/14/2012 - 12:34pm

In reply to by Ken White

"deploy to Iran" Dr. Freud, is your slip showing?? :-)

Ken White

Sat, 01/14/2012 - 12:04pm

In reply to by gian gentile

Who's Grossman?

A Troopie in my Son's 82d Airplane Division Rifle Platoon getting ready to deploy to Iran a few years ago was asked by an Australian Journalist what he expected to do in Iran. He replied he was going to kill people. She demurred and asked about 'hearts and minds.' He replied "The Army has other people to do that stuff. We kill people." Just so...

On Grossman, I jest. Read the book, and have read some later articles -- disagree with almost all. His projection (in the Psycho-babble sense) is noted, it applies to some persons but it does not apply to most in my observation in Korea, Viet Nam and elsewhere. People serving today tell me killing bad guys is still not a problem.

As an aside, Trainfire destroyed the Army's ability to shoot, mostly because to do it right required much work from cadre and leaders and a good many of those folks cut corners rather badly. I met, had dinner with Marshall in Detroit in 1963. Con Artist with little saving grace. I was at Dong Tre, one of the "Battles in the Monsoon." His take and mine differ radically. Old friends with WW II Infantry experience repeatedly refuted Marshall's take on firing. Anyone who's been around American troops pretty well knows that getting them to stop promiscuous firing is more often the problem.

gian gentile

Sat, 01/14/2012 - 8:46am

This article is spot on correct. Dr Roger Spiller a number of years ago throughly disputed Slam's (SLA Marshall) notion that World War II combat troops mostly did not fire in combat action. Slam's argument about troops not firing in World War II combat action was tied directly to his desire for the Army to start the "train fire" program.

And I have always been suspect of Grossman's books, especially his first, "On Killing" which as this review author points out was more tied to pop-psychology trends than to rigorous historical research and analysis. If you want further proof that modern american men have no problem killing in modern combat just go read Evan Wright's excellent "Generation Kill" which after I read it seemed to be a thorough refutation of Grossman.

It would be interesting to hear Ken White's take on this