“On Killing”

August 19th, 2003  |  Published in Uncategorized

I finished up LTC David Grossman’s “On Killing” over the weekend. It’s essentially a book about the evolution of military training doctrine and the behavior of soldiers in combat as they’re confronted with the need to kill others. The most heartening idea is that of the notion that humans, despite the pessimistic conventional wisdom, are not inherently homicidal, but it’s this idea that makes parts of the book heart-rending. At one point, I had to put it down and swallow a lump in my throat:

“The magnitude of the trauma associated with killing became particularly apparent to me in an interview with one old soldier. He was the commander of a VFW Post where I was conducting some interviews, and had served as a sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne in World War II. He talked freely about his experiences and about comrades who had been killed, but when I asked him about his own kills he stated that usually you couldn’t be sure who it was that did the killing. Then tears welled up in his eyes and after a long pause he said, But the one time I was sure . . .’ His sentence was stopped by a little sob, and pain wracked the face of this noble and respected old gentleman. ‘It still hurts, after all these years?’ I asked in wonder. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘after all these years.’ And he would not speak of it again.” “The next day he told me, ‘You know, Captain, the questions you’re asking, you must be very careful not to hurt anyone with these questions. Not me you know, I can take it, but some of these young guys are still hurting very badly. These guys don’t need to be hurt any more.’ And I was profoundly struck by the certainty that I was picking at the scabs of terrible, hidden wounds in the minds of these kind and gentle men.”

The idea isn’t new: Gwynne Dyer, for instance, addressed it in “War” in 1980 when he examined the boot camp experience. Grossman’s credentials, though, as an officer, a Ranger, and a West Point instructor add meaning to his message: he’s undeniably a believer in the need for a military and the periodic necessity of war, and that does nothing to soften his critique of the hideous disservice modern training techniques represent to American soldiers.

I know when I was stationed in Korea, where war was a central concern for the length of my tour, my key preoccupation wasn’t “will I die?” It was “will I kill?” Grossman provides some answers to that question (I can’t help but believe I would have, no matter what I’d like to think about my resistance to indoctrination), and also shows that I would have done so perhaps despite my most essential nature, not because of it.

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