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The twentieth century, with its bloody world wars, revolutions, and genocides accounting for hundreds of millions dead, would seem to prove that human beings are incredibly vicious predators and that killing is as natural as eating. But Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a psychologist and U.S. Army Ranger, demonstrates this is not the case. The good news, according to Grossman - drawing on dozens of interviews, first-person reports, and historic studies of combat, ranging from Frederick the Great's battles in the eighteenth century through Vietnam - is that the vast majority of soldiers are loath to kill. In World War II, for instance, only 15 to 25 percent of combat infantry were willing to fire their rifles. The provocative news is that modern armies, using Pavlovian and operant conditioning, have learned how to overcome this reluctance. In Korea about 50 percent of combat infantry were willing to shoot, and in Vietnam the figure rose to over 90 percent. The bad news is that by conditioning soldiers to overcome their instinctive loathing of killing, we have drastically increased post-combat stress - witness the devastated psychological state of our Vietnam vets as compared with those from earlier wars. And the truly terrible news is that contemporary civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army's conditioning techniques and - according to Grossman's controversial thesis - is responsible for our rising rates of murder and violence, particularly among the young. In the explosive last section of the book, he argues that high-body-count movies, television violence (both news and entertainment), and interactive point-and-shoot video games are dangerously similar to thetraining programs that dehumanize the enemy, desensitize soldiers to the psychological ramifications of killing, and make pulling the trigger an automatic response.
New York: Back Bay Books.
ISBN 13:
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Grossman, D. (2009). On killing: The psychological costs of learning to kill in
war and society. New York: Back Bay Books.
Killing and Science: On Dangerous Ground
This is the time of year when people would slaughter, back when people did that —
Rollie and Eunice Hochstetter, I think, were the last in Lake Wobegon. They kept pigs,
and they'd slaughter them in the fall when the weather got cold and the meat would keep.
I went out to see them slaughter hogs once when I was a kid, along with my cousin and
my uncle, who was going to help Rollie.
Today, if you are going to slaughter an animal for meat, you send it in to the locker
plant and pay to have the guys there do it. When you slaughter pigs, it takes away your
appetite for pork for a while. Because the pigs let you know that they don't care for it.
They don't care to be grabbed and dragged over to where the other pigs went and didn't
come back.
It was quite a thing for a kid to see. To see living flesh, and the living insides of
another creature. I expected to be disgusted by it, but I wasn't — I was fascinated. I got
as close as I could.
And I remember that my cousin and I sort of got carried away in the excitement of it
all and we went down to the pigpen and we started throwing litde stones at pigs to watch
them jump and squeal and run. And all of a sudden, I felt a big hand on my shoulder, and
I was spun around, and my uncle's face was three inches away from mine. He said "If I
ever see you do that again I'll beat you 'til you can't stand up, you hear?" And we heard.
I knew at the time that his anger had to do with the slaughter, that it was a ritual and it
was done as a Ritual. It was done swiftly, and there was no foolishness. No joking
around, very little conversation. People went about their jobs — men and women —
knowing exactly what to do. And always with respect for the animals that would become
our food. And our throwing stones at pigs violated this ceremony, and this ritual, which
they went through.
Rollie was the last o; ne to slaughter his own hogs. One year he had an accident; the
knife slipped, and an animal that was only wounded got loose and ran across the yard
before it fell. He never kept pigs after that. He didn't feel he was worthy of it.
It's all gone. Children growing up in Lake Wobegon will never have a chance to see
It was a powerful experience, life and death hung in the balance.
A life in which people made do, made their own, lived off the land, lived between the
ground and God. It's lost, not only to this world: but also to memory.
— Garrison Keillor "Hog Slaughter"

Why should we study killing? One might just as readily ask, Why study sex? The two
questions have much in common. Richard Heckler points out that "it is in the mythological
marriage of Ares and Aphrodite that Harmonia is born." Peace will not come until we have
mastered both sex and war, and to master war we must study it with at least the diligence of
Kinsey or Masters and Johnson. Every society has a blind spot, an area into which it has great
difficulty looking. Today that blind spot is killing. A century ago it was sex.
For millennia man sheltered himself and his family in caves, or huts, or one-room hovels.
The whole extended family — grandparents, parents, and children — all huddled together
around the warmth of a single fire, within the protection of a single wall. And for thousands of
years sex between a husband and wife could generally only take place at night, in the darkness,
in this crowded central room.

I once interviewed a woman who grew up in an American Gypsy family, sleeping in a big
communal tent with aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, cousins, brothers, and sisters all
around her. As a young child, sex was to her something funny, noisy, and slightly bothersome
that grown-ups did in the night.
In this environment there were no private bedrooms. Until very recently in human history, for
the average human being, there was no such luxury as a bedroom, or even a bed. Although by
today's sexual standards this situation may seem awkward, it was not without its advantages.
One advantage was that sexual abuse of children could not happen without at least the
knowledge and tacit consent of the entire family. Another, less obvious benefit of this age-old
living arrangement was that throughout the life cycle, from birth to death, sex was always before
you, and no one could deny that it was a vital, essential, and a not-too-mysterious aspect of
daily human existence.
And then, by the period that we know as the Victorian era, everything had changed.
Suddenly the average middle-class family lived in a multiroom dwelling. Children grew up
having never •witnessed the primal act. And suddenly sex became hidden, private, mysterious,
frightening, and dirty. The era of sexual repression in Western civilization had begun.
In this repressed society, women were covered from neck to ankle, and even the furniture
legs were covered with skirts, since the sight of these legs disturbed the delicate sensitivities of
that era. Yet at the same time that this society repressed sex, it appears to have become
obsessed by it. Pornography as we know it blossomed. Child prostitution flourished. And a wave
of sexual child abuse began to ripple down through the generations.1
Sex is a natural and essential part of life. A society that has no sex has no society in one
generation. Today our society has begun the slow, painful process of escaping from this
pathological dichotomy of simultaneous sexual repression and obsession. But we may have
begun our escape from one denial only to fall into a new and possibly even more dangerous
A new repression, revolving around killing and death, precisely parallels the pattern
established by the previous sexual repression.
Throughout history man has been surrounded by close and personal death and killing.
When family members died of disease, lingering injury, or old age they died in the home. When
they died anywhere close to home, their corpses were brought to the house — or cave, or hut,
or hovel — and prepared for burial by the family.
Places in the Heart is a movie in which Sally Field portrays a woman on a small cotton farm
early in this century. Her husband has been shot and killed and is brought to the house. And,
repeating a Ritual that has been enacted for countless centuries by countless millions of wives,
she lovingly washes his naked corpse, preparing it for burial as tears streak down her face.
In that world each family did its own killing and cleaning of domestic animals. Death was a
part of life. Killing was undeniably essential to living. Cruelty was seldom, if ever, a part of this
killing. Mankind understood its place in life, and respected the place of the creatures whose
deaths were required to perpetuate existence. The American Indian asked forgiveness of the
spirit of the deer he killed, and the American farmer respected the dignity of the hogs he
As Garrison Keillor records in "Hog Slaughter," the slaughter of animals has been a vital
Ritual of daily and seasonal activity for most people until this last half century of human
existence. Despite the rise of the city, by the opening of the twentieth century the majority of the
population, .even in the most advanced industrial societies, remained rural. The housewife who
wanted a chicken dinner went out and wrung the chicken's neck herself, or had her children do
it. The children watched the daily and seasonal killings, and to them killing was a serious,
messy, and slightly boring thing that everyone did as a part of life.
In this environment there was no refrigeration, and few slaughterhouses, mortuaries, or
hospitals. And in this age-old living arrangement, throughout the life cycle, from birth to death,

death and killing were always before you — either as a participant or a bored spectator — and
no one could deny that it was a vital, essential, and common aspect of daily human existence.
And then, in just the last few generations, everything began to change. Slaughterhouses
and refrigeration insulated us from the necessity of killing our own food animals. Modern
medicine began to cure diseases, and it became increasingly rare for us to die in the youth and
prime of our lives, and nursing homes, hospitals, and mortuaries insulated us from the death of
the elderly. Children began to grow up having never truly understood where their food came
from, and suddenly Western civilization seemed to have decided that killing, killing anything at
all, was increasingly hidden, private, mysterious, frightening, and dirty.
The impact of this ranges from the trivial to the bizarre. Just as the Victorians put skirts
around their furniture to hide the legs, now mousetraps come equipped with covers to hide the
killer's handiwork. And laboratories conducting medical research with animals are broken into,
and lifesaving research is destroyed by animal-rights activists. These activists, while partaking
of the medical fruits of their society — fruits based upon centuries of animal research — attack
researchers. Chris DeRose, head of the Los Angeles—based activist group Last Chance for
Animals, says: "If the death of one rat cured all diseases it wouldn't make any difference to me.
In the scheme of life we're equal."
Any killing offends this new sensibility. People wearing fur or leather coats are verbally and
physically attacked. In this new order people are condemned as racists (or "speciests") and
murderers when they eat meat. Animal-rights leader Ingrid Newkirk says, "A rat is a pig is a
boy," and compares the killing of chickens to the Nazi Holocaust. "Six million people died in
concentration camps," she told the Washington Post, "but six billion broiler chickens will die this
year in slaughterhouses."
Yet at the same time that our society represses killing, a new obsession with the depiction of
violent and brutal death and dismemberment of humans has flourished. The public appetite for
violence in movies, particularly in splatter movies such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The
Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the cult status of "heroes" like Jason and Freddy; the popularity of
bands with names like Megadeth and Guns N' Roses; and skyrocketing murder and violent
crime rates — all these are symptoms of a bizarre, pathological dichotomy of simultaneous
repression and obsession with violence.
Sex and death are natural and essential parts of life. Just as a society without sex would
disappear in a generation, so too would a society without killing. Every major city in our nation
must exterminate millions of rats and mice each year or become uninhabitable. And granaries
and grain elevators must exterminate millions of rats and mice each year. If they fail to do this,
instead of being the world's breadbasket the United States would be unable to feed itself, and
millions of people around the world would face starvation.
Certain genteel sensitivities of the Victorian era are not without value and benefit to our
society, and few would argue for a return to communal sleeping arrangements. In the same
way, those who hold and espouse modern sensibilities about killing are generally gentle and
sincere human beings who in many ways represent the most idealistic characteristics of our
species, and their concerns have great potential value once we bring them into perspective. As
technology enables us to butcher and exterminate whole species (including our own), it is vital
that we learn restraint and self-discipline. But we must also remember that death has its place in
the natural order of life.
It seems that when a society does not have natural processes (such as sex, death, and
killing) before it, that society will respond by denying and warping that aspect of nature. As our
technology insulates us from a specific aspect of reality, our societal response seems to be to
slip deep into bizarre dreams about that "which we flee. Dreams spun from the fantasy stuff of
denial. Dreams that can become dangerous societal nightmares as we sink deeper into their
tempting web of fantasy.

Today, even as we waken from the nightmare of sexual repression, our society is beginning
to sink into a new denial dream, that of violence and horror. This book is an attempt to bring the
objective light of scientific scrutiny into the process of killing. A. M. Rosenthal tells us:
The health of humankind is not measured just by its coughs and wheezes but by the
fevers of its soul. Or perhaps more important yet, by the quickness and care we bring
against them.
If our history suggests unreason's durability, our experience teaches that to neglect it
is to indulge it and that to indulge it is to prepare hate's triumph.

"To neglect it is to indulge it." This is, therefore, a study of aggression, a study of violence,
and a study of killing. Most specifically, it is an attempt to conduct a scientific study of the act of
killing within the Western way of war and of the psychological and sociological processes and
prices exacted when men kill each other in combat.
Sheldon Bidwell held that such a study would by its very nature lay on "dangerous ground
because the union between soldier and scientist has not yet passed beyond flirtation." I would
seek to go in harm's way and effect not just a serious union between soldier and scientist, but a
tentative menage a trois between soldier, scientist, and historian.
I have combined these skills to conduct a five-year program of research into the previously
taboo topic of killing in combat. In this study it is my intention to delve into this taboo subject of
killing and to provide insight into the following:
• The existence of a powerful, innate human resistance toward killing one's own species and
the psychological mechanisms that have been developed by armies over the centuries to
overcome that resistance
• The role of atrocity in war and the mechanisms by which armies are both empowered and
entrapped by atrocity
• What it feels like to kill, a set of standard response stages to killing in combat, and the
psychological price of killing
• The techniques that have been developed and applied with tremendous success in
modern combat training in order to condition soldiers to overcome their resistance to killing
• How the American soldier in Vietnam was first psychologically enabled to kill to a far
greater degree than any other soldier in history, then denied the psychologically essential
purification ritual that exists in every warrior society, and finally condemned and accused by his
own society to a degree that is unprecedented in Western history. And the terrible, tragic price
that America's three million Vietnam veterans, their families, and our society are paying for what
we did to our soldiers in Vietnam
• Finally, and perhaps most important, I believe that this study will provide insight into the
way that rifts in our society combine with violence in the media and in interactive video games to
indiscriminately condition our nation's children to kill. In a fashion very similar to the way the
army conditions our soldiers. But without the safeguards. And we will see the terrible, tragic
price that our nation is paying for what we are doing to our children.
A Personal Note
I am a soldier of twenty years' service. I have been a sergeant in the 82d Airborne Division,
a platoon leader in the 9th (High Tech Test Bed) Division, and I have been a general staff officer
and a company commander in the 7th (Light) Infantry Division. I am a parachute infantryman
and an army Ranger. I have been deployed to the Arctic tundras, the Central American jungles,
NATO headquarters, the Warsaw Pact, and countless mountains and deserts.. I am a graduate
of military schools ranging from the XVIII Airborne Corps NCO Academy to the British Army

Staff College. I graduated summa cum laude from my undergraduate training as a historian, and
Kappa Delta Pi from my graduate training as a psychologist. I have had the privilege of being a
co-speaker with General Westmoreland before the national leadership of the Vietnam Veterans
Coalition of America, and I have served as the keynote speaker for the Sixth Annual Convention
of the Vietnam Veterans of America. I have served in academic positions ranging from a juniorhigh-school counselor to a West Point psychology professor. And I am currently serving as the
Professor of Military Science and Chair of the Department of Military Science at Arkansas State
University. But for all this experience, I, like Richard Holmes, John Keegan, Paddy Griffith, and
many others who have gone before me in this field, have not killed in combat. Perhaps I could
not be as dispassionate and objective as I need to be if I had to carry a load of emotional pain
myself. But the men whose words fill this study have killed.
Very often what they shared with me was something that they had never shared with
anyone before. As a counselor I have been taught, and I hold it to be a fundamental truth of
human nature, that when someone withholds something traumatic it can cause great damage.
When you share something with someone it helps to place it in perspective, but when you hold it
inside, as one of my psychology students once put it, "it eats you alive from the inside out."
Furthermore, there is great therapeutic value in the catharsis that comes with lancing these
emotional boils. The essence of counseling is that pain shared is pain divided, and there was
much pain shared during these periods.
The ultimate objective of this book is to uncover the dynamics of killing, but my prime
motivation has been to help pierce the taboo of killing that prevented these men, and many
millions like them, from sharing their pain. And then to use the knowledge gained in order to
understand first the mechanisms that enable war and then the cause of the current wave of
violent crime that is destroying our nation. If I have succeeded, it is because of the help given to
me by the men whose tales are told herein.
Many copies of early drafts of this work have been circulating among the Vietnam veterans'
community for several years now, and many veterans have carefully edited and commented on
those drafts. Many of these vets read this book and shared it with their spouses. Then those
wives shared it with other wives, and these wives shared it with their husbands. And so on.
Many times the veterans and/or their wives contacted me and let me know how they were able
to use this book to communicate and understand what had happened in combat. Out of their
pain has come understanding, and out of that understanding has come the power to heal lives
and, perhaps, to heal a nation that is being consumed with violence.
The men whose personal narratives appear in this study are noble and brave men who
trusted others with their experiences in order to contribute to the body of human knowledge.
Many killed in combat. But they killed to save their lives and the lives of their comrades, and my
admiration and affection for them and their brothers are very real. John Masefield's poem "A
Consecration" serves as a better dedication than any I could write. The exception to this
admiration is, of course, addressed in the section "Killing and Atrocities."
If in my absence of euphemisms and my effort to clearly and clinically speak of "killers" and
"victims," if in these things the reader senses moral judgment or disapproval of the individuals
involved, let me flatly and categorically deny it.
Generations of Americans have endured great physical and psychological trauma and
horror in order to give us our freedoms. Men such as those quoted in this study followed
Washington, stood shoulder to shoulder with Crockett and Travis at the Alamo, righted the great
wrong of slavery, and stopped the murderous evil of Hitler. They answered their nation's call
and heeded not the cost. As a soldier for my entire adult life, I take pride in having maintained in
some small way the standard of sacrifice and dedication represented by these men. And I would
not harm them or besmirch their memory and honor. Douglas MacArthur said it well: "However
horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and give his life for
his country, is the noblest development of mankind."

The soldiers whose narratives form the heart and soul of this work understood the essence
of war. They are heroes as great as any found in the Iliad, yet the words that you will read here,
their own words, destroy the myth of warriors and war as heroic. The soldier understands that
there are times when all others have failed, and that then he must "pay the butcher's bill" and
fight, suffer, and die to undo the errors of the politicians and to fulfill the "will of the people."
"The soldier above all other people," said MacArthur, "prays for peace, for they must suffer
and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war." There is wisdom in the words of these soldiers.
There is wisdom in these tales of a "handful of ashes, a mouthful of mould. / Of the maimed, of
the halt and the blind in the rain and the cold." There is wisdom here, and we would do well to
Just as I do not wish to condemn those who have killed in lawful combat, nor do I wish to
judge the many soldiers who chose not to kill. There are many such soldiers; indeed I will
provide evidence that in many historical circumstances these non-firers represented the majority
of those on the firing line. As a soldier who may have stood beside them I cannot help but be
dismayed at their failure to support their cause, their nation, and their fellows; but as a human
being who has understood some of the burden that they have borne, and the sacrifice that they
have made, I cannot help but be proud of them and the noble characteristic that they represent
in our species.
The subject of killing makes most healthy people uneasy, and some of the specific subjects
and areas to be addressed here will be repulsive and offensive. They are things that we would
rather turn away from, but Carl von Clausewitz warned that "it is to no purpose, it is even
against one's better interest, to turn away from the consideration of the affair because the horror
of its elements excites repugnance." Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of the Nazi death camps,
argues that the root of our failure to deal with violence lies in our refusal to face up to it. We
deny our fascination with the "dark beauty of violence," and we condemn aggression and
repress it rather than look at it squarely and try to understand and control it.
And, finally, if in my focus on the pain of the killers I do not sufficiently address the suffering
of their victims, let me apologize now. "The guy pulling the trigger," wrote Alien Cole and Chris
Bunch, "never suffers as much as the person on the receiving end." It is the existence of the
victim's pain and loss, echoing forever in the soul of the killer, that is at the heart of his pain.
Leo Frankowski tells us that "cultures all develop blind spots, things that they don't even
think about because they know the truth about them." The veterans quoted in this study have
had their faces rubbed in this cultural blind spot. We are truly, as one veteran put it to me,
"virgins studying sex," but they can teach us what they have learned at such a dear price. My
objective is to understand the psychological nature of killing in combat and to probe the
emotional wounds and scars of those men who answered their nation's call and meted out
death — or chose to pay the price for not doing so.
Now more than ever we must overcome our revulsion and understand, as we have never
understood before, why it is that men fight and kill. And equally important, why it is that they will
not. Only on the basis of understanding this ultimate, destructive aspect of human behavior can
we hope to influence it in such a way as to ensure the survival of our civilization.2

Killing and the Existence of Resistance: A World of Virgins Studying Sex
It is therefore reasonable to believe that the average and healthy individual — the
man who can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat — still has such an
inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his
own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility.... At the vital
point he becomes a conscientious objector.
— S. L. A. Marshall Men Against Fire
Then I cautiously raised the upper half of my body into the tunnel until I was lying flat
on my stomach. When I felt comfortable, I placed my Smith Wesson .38-caliber snubnose (sent to me by my father for tunnel work) beside the flashlight and switched on the
light, illuminating the tunnel.
There, not more than 15 feet away, sat a Viet Cong eating a handful of rice from a
pouch on his lap. We looked at each other for what seemed to be an eternity, but in fact
was probably only a few seconds.
Maybe it was the surprise of actually finding someone else there, or maybe it was just
the absolute innocence of the situation, but neither one of us reacted.
After a moment, he put his pouch of rice on the floor of the tunnel beside him, turned
his back to me and slowly started crawling away. I, in turn, switched off my flashlight,
before slipping back into the lower tunnel and making my way back to the entrance.
About 20 minutes later, we received word that another squad had killed a VC emerging
from a tunnel 500 meters away.
I never doubted who that VC was. To this day, I firmly believe that grunt and I could
have ended the war sooner over a beer in Saigon than Henry Kissinger ever could by
attending the peace talks.
— Michael Kathman "Triangle Tunnel Rat"

Our first step in the study of killing is to understand the existence, extent, and nature of the
average human being's resistance to killing his fellow human. In this section we will attempt to
do that.
When I started interviewing combat veterans as a part of this study, I discussed some of the
psychological theories concerning the trauma of combat with one crusty old sergeant. He
laughed scornfully and said, "Those bastards don't know anything about it. They're like a world
of virgins studying sex, and they got nothing to go on but porno movies. And it is just like sex,
'cause the people who really do it just don't talk about it."
In a way, the study of killing in combat is very much like the study of sex. Killing is a private,
intimate occurrence of tremendous intensity, in which the destructive act becomes
psychologically very much like the procreative act. For those who have never experienced it, the
depiction of battle that Hollywood has given us, and the cultural mythology that Hollywood is
based upon, appear to be about as useful in understanding killing as pornographic movies
would be in trying to understand the intimacy of a sexual relationship. A virgin observer might
get the mechanics of sex right by watching an X-rated movie, but he or she could never hope to
understand the intimacy and intensity of the procreative experience.
As a society we are as fascinated by killing as we are by sex — possibly more so, since we
are somewhat jaded by sex and have a fairly broad base of individual experience in this area.
Many children, upon seeing that I arn a decorated soldier, immediately ask "Have you ever
killed anyone?" or "How many people have you killed?"
Where does this curiosity come from? Robert Heinlein once wrote that fulfillment in life
involved "loving a good woman and killing a bad man." If there is such a strong interest in killing
in our society, and if it equates in many minds to an act of manhood equivalent to sex, then why
hasn't the destructive act been as specifically and systematically studied as the procreative act?

Over the centuries there have been a few pioneers who have laid the foundation for such a
study, and in this section we will attempt to look at them all. Probably the best starting point is
with S. L. A. Marshall, the greatest and most influential of these pioneers.
Prior to World War II it had always been assumed that the average soldier would kill in
combat simply because his country and his leaders have told him to do so and because it is
essential to defend his own life and the lives of his friends. When the point came that he didn't
kill, it was assumed that.he would panic and run.
During World War II U.S. Army Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall asked these average
soldiers what it was that they did in battle. His singularly unexpected discovery was that, of
every hundred men along the line of fire during the period of an encounter, an average of only
15 to 20 "would take any part with their weapons." This was consistently true "whether the
action was spread over a day, or two days or three."
Marshall was a U.S. Army historian in the Pacific theater during World War II and later
became the official U.S. historian of the European theater of operations. He had a team of
historians working for him, and they based their findings on individual and mass interviews with
thousands of soldiers in more than four hundred infantry companies, in Europe and in the
Pacific, immediately after they had been in close combat with German or Japanese troops. The
results were consistently the same: only 15 to 20 percent of the American riflemen in combat
during World War II would fire at the enemy. Those who would not fire did not run or hide (in
many cases they were willing to risk great danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run
messages), but they simply would not fire their weapons at the enemy, even when faced with
repeated waves of banzai charges.1
The question is why. Why did these men fail to fire? As I examined this question and studied
the process of killing in combat from the standpoints of a historian, a psychologist, and a soldier,
I began to realize that there was one major factor that was missing from the common
understanding of killing in combat, a factor that answers this question and more. That missing
factor is the simple and demonstrable fact that there is within most men an intense resistance to
killing their fellow man. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the
battlefield will die before they can overcome it.
To some, this makes "obvious" sense. "Of course it is hard to kill someone," they would say.
"I could never bring myself to do it." But they would be wrong. With the proper conditioning and
the proper circumstances, it appears that almost anyone can and will kill. Others might respond,
"Any man will kill in combat when he is faced with someone who is trying to kill him." And they
would be even more wrong, for in this section we shall observe that throughout history the
majority of men on the battlefield would not attempt to kill the enemy, even to save their own
lives or the lives of their friends.

Chapter One
Fight or Flight, Posture or Submit
The notion that the only alternatives to conflict are fight or flight are embedded in our culture,
and our educational institutions have done little to challenge it. The traditional American military
policy raises it to the level of a law of nature.
— Richard Heckler
In Search of the Warrior Spirit
One of the roots of our misunderstanding of the psychology of the battlefield lies in the
misapplication of the fight-or-flight model to the stresses of the battlefield. This model holds that
in the face of danger a series of physiological and psychological processes prepare and support
the endangered creature for either fighting or fleeing. The fight-or-flight dichotomy is the
appropriate set of choices for any creature faced with danger other than that which comes from
its own species. When we examine the responses of creatures confronted with aggression from
their own species, the set of options expands to include posturing and submission. This
application of animal kingdom intraspecies response patterns (that is, fight, flee, posture, and
submit) to human warfare is, to the best of my knowledge, entirely new.
The first decision point in an intraspecies conflict usually involves deciding between fleeing
or posturing. A threatened baboon or rooster who elects to stand its ground does not respond to
aggression from one of his own kind by leaping instantly to the enemy's throat. Instead, both
creatures instinctively go through a series of posturing actions that, while intimidating, are
almost always harmless. These actions are designed to convince an opponent, through both
sight and sound, that the posturer is a dangerous and frightening adversary.
When the posturer has failed to dissuade an intraspecies opponent, the options then
become fight, flight, or submission. When the fight option is utilized, it is almost never to the
death. Konrad Lorenz pointed out that piranhas and rattlesnakes will bite anything. and
everything, but among themselves piranhas fight with raps of their tails, and rattlesnakes
wrestle. Somewhere during the course of such highly constrained and nonlethal fights, one of
these intraspecies opponents will usually become daunted by the ferocity and prowess of its
opponent, and its only options become submission or flight. Submission is a surprisingly
common response, usually taking the form of fawning and exposing some vulnerable portion of
the anatomy to the victor, in the instinctive knowledge that the opponent will not kill or further
harm one of its own kind once it has surrendered. The posturing, mock battle, and submission
process is vital to the survival of the species. It prevents needless deaths and ensures that a
young male will live through early confrontations when his opponents are bigger and better
prepared. Having been outpostured by his opponent, he can then submit and live to mate,
passing on his genes in later years.
There is a clear distinction between actual violence and posturing. Oxford social
psychologist Peter Marsh notes that this is true in New York street gangs, it is true in "so-called
primitive tribesmen and warriors," and it is true in almost any culture in the world. All have the
same "patterns of aggression" and all have "very orchestrated, highly ritualized" patterns of
posturing, mock battle, and submission. These rituals restrain and focus the violence on
relatively harmless posturing and display. What is created is a "perfect illusion of violence."
Aggression, yes. Competitiveness, yes. But only a "very tiny, tiny level" of actual violence.
"There is," concludes Gwynne Dyer, "the occasional psychopath who really wants to slice
people open," but most of the participants are really interested in "status,, display, profit, and
damage limitation." Like their peacetime contemporaries, the kids who have fought in close
combat throughout history (and it is kids, or adolescent males, whom most societies traditionally
send off to do their fighting), killing the enemy was the very least of their intentions. In war, as in
gang war, posturing is the name of the game.

In this account from Paddy Griffith's Battle Tactics of the Civil War, we can see the effective
use of verbal posturing in the thick woods of the American Civil War's Wilderness campaign:
The yellers could not be seen, and a company could make itself sound like a
regiment if it shouted loud enough. Men spoke later of various units on both sides being
"yelled" out of their positions.

In such instances of units being yelled out of positions, we see posturing in its most
successful form, resulting in the opponent's selection of the flight option without even attempting
the fight option.

Adding the posture and submission options to the standard fight-er-flight model of
aggression response helps to explain many of the actions on the battlefield. When a man is
frightened, he literally stops thinking with his forebrain (that is, with the mind of a human being)
and begins to think with the midbrain (that is, with the portion of his brain that is essentially
indistinguishable from that of an animal), and in the mind of an animal it is the one who makes
the loudest noise or puffs himself up the largest who will win. Posturing can be seen in the
plumed helmets of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which allowed the bearer to appear taller
and therefore fiercer to his foe, while the brilliantly shined armor made him seem broader and
brighter. Such plumage saw its height in modern history during the Napoleonic era, when
soldiers wore bright uniforms and high, uncomfortable shako hats, which served no purpose
other than to make the wearer look and feel like a taller, more dangerous creature.
In the same manner, the roars of two posturing beasts are exhibited by men in battle. For
centuries the war cries of soldiers have made their opponents' blood run cold. Whether it be the
battle cry of a Greek phalanx, the "hurrah!" of the Russian infantry, the wail of Scottish
bagpipes, or the Rebel yell of our own Civil War, soldiers have always instinctively sought to
daunt the enemy through nonviolent means prior to physical conflict, while encouraging one
another and impressing themselves with their own ferocity and simultaneously providing a very
effective means of drowning the disagreeable yell of the enemy.
A modern equivalent to the Civil War occurrence mentioned above can be seen in this Army
Historical Series account of a French battalion's participation in the defense of Chipyong-Ni
during the Korean War:

The [North Korean] soldiers formed one hundred or two hundred yards in front of the
small hill which the French occupied, then launched their attack, blowing whistles and
bugles, and running with bayonets fixed. When this noise started, the French soldiers
began cranking a hand siren they had, and one squad started running toward the
Chinese, yelling and throwing grenades far to the front and to the side. When the two
forces were within twenty yards of each other the Chinese suddenly turned and ran in the
opposite direction. It was all over within a minute.

Here again we see an incident in which posturing (involving sirens, grenade explosions, and
charging bayonets) by a small force was sufficient to cause a numerically superior enemy force
to hastily select the flight option.
With the advent of gunpowder, the soldier has been provided with one of the finest possible
means of posturing. "Time and again," says Paddy Griffith,
we read of regiments [in the Civil War] blazing away uncontrollably, once started, and
continuing until all ammunition was gone or all enthusiasm spent. Firing was such a
positive act, and gave the men such a physical release for their emotions, that instincts
easily took over from training and from the exhortations of officers.

Gunpowder's superior noise, its superior posturing ability, made it ascendant on the
battlefield. The longbow would still have been used in the Napoleonic Wars if the raw
mathematics of killing effectiveness was all that mattered, since both the longbow's firing rate
and its accuracy were much greater than that of a smoothbore musket. But a frightened man,
thinking with his midbrain and going "ploink, ploink, ploink" with a bow, doesn't stand a chance
against an equally frightened man going "BANG! BANG!" with a musket.
Firing a musket or rifle clearly fills the deep-seated need to posture, and it even meets the
requirement of being relatively harmless when we consider the consistent historical occurrences
of firing over the enemy's head, and the remarkable ineffectiveness of such fire.
Ardant du Picq became one of the first to document the common tendency of soldiers to fire
harmlessly into the air simply for the sake of firing. Du Picq made one of the first thorough
investigations into the nature of combat with a questionnaire distributed to French officers in the
1860s. One officer's response to du Picq stated quite frankly that "a good many soldiers fired
into the air at long distances," while another observed that "a certain number of our soldiers
fired almost in the air, without aiming, seeming to want to stun themselves, to become drunk on
rifle fire during this gripping crisis."
Paddy Griffith joins du Picq in observing that soldiers in battle have a desperate urge to fire
their weapons even when (perhaps especially when) they cannot possibly do the enemy any
harm. Griffith notes:
Even in the noted "slaughter pens" at Bloody Lane, Marye's Heights, Kennesaw,
Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor an attacking unit could not only come very close to the defending
line, but it could also stay there for hours — and indeed for days — at a time. Civil War
musketry did not therefore possess the power to kill large numbers of men, even in very dense
formations, at long range. At short range it could and did kill large numbers, but not very quickly
[emphasis added].
Griffith estimates that the average musket fire from a Napoleonic or Civil War regiment
(usually numbering between two hundred and- one thousand men) firing at an exposed enemy
regiment at an average range of thirty yards, would usually result in hitting only one or two men
per minute! Such firefights "dragged on until exhaustion set in or nightfall put an end to
hostilities. Casualties mounted because the contest went on so long, not because the fire "was
particularly deadly."

Thus we see that the fire of the Napoleonic- and Civil War—era soldier was incredibly
ineffective. This does not represent a failure on the part of the weaponry. John Keegan and
Richard Holmes in their book Soldiers tell us of a Prussian experiment in the late 1700s in which
an infantry battalion fired smoothbore muskets at a target one hundred feet long by six feet high,
representing an enemy unit, which resulted in 25 percent hits at 225 yards, 40 percent hits at
150 yards, and 60 percent hits at 75 yards. This represented the potential killing power of such
a unit. The reality is demonstrated at the Battle of Belgrade in 1717, when "two Imperial
battalions held their fire until their Turkish opponents were only thirty paces away, but hit only
thirty-two Turks when they fired and were promptly overwhelmed."
Sometimes the fire was completely harmless, as Benjamin Mclntyre observed in his
firsthand account of a totally bloodless nighttime firefight at Vicksburg in 1863. "It seems strange
. . . ," wrote Mclntyre, "that a company of men can fire volley after volley at a like number of men
at not over a distance of fifteen steps and not cause a single casualty. Yet such was the facts in
this instance." The musketry of the black-powder era was not .always so ineffective, but over
and over again the average comes out to only one or two men hit per minute with musketry.
(Cannon fire, like machine-gun fire in World War II, is an entirely different matter, sometimes
accounting for more than 50 percent of the casualties on the black-powder battlefield, and
artil¬lery fire has consistently accounted for the majority of combat casualties in this century.
This is largely due to the group processes at work in a cannon, machine-gun, or other crewserved-weapons firing. This subject is addressed in detail later in this book in the section
entitled "An Anatomy of Killing.")
Muzzle-loading muskets could fire from one to five shots per minute, depending on the skill
of the operator and the state of the weapon. With a potential hit rate of well over 50 percent at
the average combat ranges of this era, the killing rate should have been hundreds per minute,
instead of one or two. The weak link between the killing potential and the killing capability of
these units was the soldier. The simple fact is that when faced with a living, breathing opponent
instead of a target, a significant majority of the soldiers revert to a posturing mode in which they
fire over their enemy's heads.
Richard Holmes, in his superb book Acts of War, examines the hit rates of soldiers in a
variety of historical battles. At Rorkes Drift in 1897 a small group of British soldiers were
surrounded and vastly outnumbered by the Zulu. Firing volley after volley into the massed
enemy ranks at point-blank range, it seems as if no round could have possibly missed, and
even a 50 percent hit rate would seem to be low. But Holmes estimates that in actuality
approximately thirteen rounds were fired for each hit.
In the same way, General Crook's men fired 25,000 rounds at Rosebud Creek on June 16,
1876, causing 99 casualties among the Indians, or 252 rounds per hit. And in the French
defense from fortified positions during the Battle of Wissembourg, in 1870, the French, shooting
at German soldiers advancing across open fields, fired 48,000 rounds to hit 404 Germans, for a
hit ratio of 1 hit per 119 rounds fired. (And some, or possibly even the majority, of the casualties
had to have been from artillery fire, which makes the French killing rate even more remarkable.)
Lieutenant George Roupell encountered this same phenomenon while commanding a
British platoon in World War I. He stated that the only way he could stop his men from firing into
the air was to draw his sword and walk down the trench, "beating the men on the backside and,
as I got their attention, telling them to fire low." And the trend can be found in the firefights of
Vietnam, when more than fifty thousand bullets were fired for every enemy soldier killed.2 "One
of the things that amazed me," stated Douglas Graham, a medic with the First Marine Division in
Vietnam, who had to crawl out under enemy and friendly fire to aid wounded soldiers, "is how
many bullets can be fired during a firefight without anyone getting hurt."
The focus of primitive tribesmen on posturing at the expense of fighting in times of war is
usually blatant and obvious. Richard Gabriel points out that primitive New Guinea tribes were
excellent shots with the bow and arrows they used while hunting, but when they went to war

with each other they took the feathers off of the backs of their arrows, and it was only with these
inaccurate and useless arrows that they fought their wars. In the same way, the American
Indians considered "counting coup," or simply touching their enemy, to be far more important
than killing.
This trend can be seen in the roots of the Western way of war. Sam Keen notes that
Professor Arthur Nock at Harvard was fond of saying that wars between the Greek city-states
"were only slightly more dangerous than American football." And Ardant du Picq points out that
in all his years of conquest, Alexander the Great lost only seven hundred men to the sword. His
enemy lost many, many more, but almost all of this occurred after the battle (which appears to
have been an almost bloodless pushing match), when the enemy soldiers had turned their
backs and begun to run. Carl von Clausewitz makes the same point when he notes that the vast
majority of combat losses historically occurred in the pursuit after one side or the other had won
the battle. (Why this occurs is a subject that will be looked at in detail in the section "Killing and
Physical Distance.")
As we shall see, modern training or conditioning techniques can partially overcome the
inclination to posture. Indeed, the history of warfare can be seen as a history of increasingly
more effective mechanisms for enabling and conditioning men to overcome their innate
resistance to killing their fellow human beings. In many circumstances highly trained modern
soldiers have fought poorly trained guerrilla forces, and the tendency of poorly prepared forces
to instinctively engage in posturing mechanisms (such as firing high) has given a significant
advantage to the more highly trained force. Jack Thompson, a Rhodesian veteran, observed
this process in combat against untrained forces. In Rhodesia, says Thompson, their immediate
action drill was to "shed our packs and assault into the fire . . . always. That was because the
[guerrillas] were not able to deliver effective fire, and their bullets went high. We would quickly
establish fire superiority, and rarely ever lost a man."
This psychological and technological superiority in training and killing enabling continues to
be a vital factor in modern warfare. It can be seen in the British invasion of the Falklands and
the 1989 United States invasion of Panama, where the tremendous success of the invaders and
the remarkable disparity between the kill ratios can be at least partially explained by the degree
and quality of training in the different forces.
Missing the target does not necessarily involve firing obviously high, and two decades on
army rifle ranges have taught me that a soldier must fire unusually high for it to be obvious to an
observer. In other words, the intentional miss can be a very subtle form of disobedience.
One of the best examples of an intentional miss was the experience of my grandfather John,
who had been assigned to a firing squad during World War I. A major source of pride from his
days as a veteran was that he was able to not kill while a member of that firing squad. He knew
that the commands would be "Ready, aim, fire," and he knew that if he aimed at the prisoner on
the command of "aim," he would hit the target he was aiming at on the command of "fire." His
response was to aim slightly away from the prisoner on the command of "aim," enabling him to
miss when he pulled the trigger on the command of "fire." My grandfather bragged for the rest of
his life about outsmarting the army in this manner. Of course, others in the firing squad did kill
the prisoner, but his conscience was clear. In the same way, generations of soldiers appear to
have either intentionally or instinctively outwitted the powers that be by simply exercising the
soldier's right to miss.
Another excellent example of soldiers exercising their right to miss is this mercenaryjournalist's account of going with one of Eden Pastora's (a.k.a. Commandante Zero) Contra
units on an ambush of a civilian river launch in Nicaragua:
I'll never forget Surdo's words as he gave his imitation of a Pastora harangue prior to
going into battle, telling the entire formation, "Si mata una mujer, mata una piricuaco; si
mata un nino, mata un piricuaco." Piricuaco is a derogatory term, meaning rabid dog, we

used for the Sandinistas, so in effect Surdo was saying "If you kill a woman, you're killing
a Sandinista, if you kill a child, you're killing a Sandinista." And off we went to kill women
and children.
Once again I was part of the 10 men who would actually perform the ambush. We
cleared our fields of fire and settled back to await the arrival of women and children and
whatever other civilian passengers there might be on this launch.
Each man was alone with his thoughts. Not a word was spoken among us regarding
the nature of our mission. Surdo paced back and forth nervously some yards behind us in
the protection of the jungle.
. . . The loud throb of the powerful diesels of the 70-foot launch preceded its arrival by
a good two minutes. The signal to commence firing was given as it appeared in front of
us and I watched the RPG-7 [rocket] arc over the boat and into the jungle on the opposite
bank. The M60 [machine gun] opened up, I raided off a 20-round burst from my FAL.
Brass was flying as thick as the jungle insects as our squad emptied their magazines.
Every bullet sailed harmlessly over the civilian craft.
When Surdo realized what was happening he came running out of the jungle cursing
violently in Spanish and firing his AK [rifle] at the disappearing launch. Nicaraguan
peasants are mean bastards, and tough soldiers. But they're not murderers. I laughed
aloud in relief and pride as we packed up and prepared to move out.
— Dr. John "American in ARDE"

Note the nature of such a "conspiracy to miss." Without a word being spoken, every soldier
who was obliged and trained to fire reverted — as millions of others must have over the
centuries — to the simple artifice of soldierly incompetence. And like the firing-squad member
mentioned earlier, these soldiers took a great and private pleasure in outmaneuvering those
who would make them do that which they would not.
Even more remarkable than instances of posturing, and equally indisputable, is the fact that
a significant number of soldiers in combat elect not even to fire over the enemy's head, but
instead do not fire at all. In this respect their actions very much resemble the actions of those
members of the animal kingdom who "submit" passively to the aggression and determination of
their opponent rather than fleeing, fighting, or posturing.
We have previously observed General S. L. A. Marshall's findings concerning the 15 to 20
percent firing rates of U.S. soldiers in World War II. Both Marshall and Dyer note that the
dispersion of the modern battlefield was probably a major factor in this low firing rate, and
dispersion is indeed one factor in a complex equation of restraints and enabling mechanisms.
Yet Marshall noted that even in situations where there were several riflemen together in a
position facing an advancing enemy, only one was likely to fire while the others would tend to
such "vital" tasks as running messages, providing ammo, tending wounded, and spotting
targets. Marshall makes it clear that in most cases the firers were aware of the large body of
nonfirers around them. The inaction of these passive individuals did not seem to have a
demoralizing effect on actual firers. To the contrary, the presence of the nonfirers seemed to
enable the firers to keep going.3
Dyer argues that all other forces on the World War II battlefield must have had somewhere
near the same rate of nonfirers. If, says Dyer, "a higher proportion of Japanese or Germans had
been willing to kill, then the volume of fire they actually managed to produce would have been
three, four, or five times greater than a similar number of Americans — and it wasn't."4
There is ample supporting evidence to indicate that Marshall's observations are applicable
not only to U.S. soldiers or even to the soldiers on all sides in World War II. Indeed, there are
compelling data that indicate that this singular lack of enthusiasm for killing one's fellow man
has existed throughout military history. A 1986 study by the British Defense Operational
Analysis Establishment's field studies division used historical studies of more than one hundred
nineteenth- and twentieth-century battles and test trials using pulsed laser weapons to

determine the killing effectiveness of these historical units. The analysis was designed (among
other things) to determine if .Marshall's nonfirer figures were correct in other, earlier wars. A
comparison of historical combat performances with the performance of their test subjects (who
were not killing with their weapons and were not in any physical danger from the "enemy")
determined that the killing potential in these circumstances was much greater than the actual
historical casualty rates. The researchers' conclusions openly supported Marshall's findings,
pointing to "unwillingness to take part [in combat] as the main factor" that kept the actual
historical killing rates significantly below the laser trial levels.
But we don't need laser test trials and battle reenactments to determine that many soldiers
have been unwilling to take part in combat. The evidence has been there all along if we had
only looked.
Chapter Two
Nonfirers Throughout History
Nonfirers in the Civil War
Imagine a new recruit in the American Civil War.
Regardless of the side he was on, or whether he came in as a draftee or a volunteer, his
training would have consisted of mind-numbingly-repetitive drill. Whatever time was available to
teach even the rawest recruit was spent endlessly repeating the loading drill, and for any
veteran of even a few weeks, loading and firing a musket became an act that could be
completed without thinking.
The leaders envisioned combat as consisting of great lines of men firing in unison. Their
goal was to turn a soldier into a small cog in a machine that would stand and fire volley after
volley at the enemy. Drill was their primary tool for ensuring that he would do his duty on the
The concept of drill had its roots in the harsh lessons of military success on battlefields
dating back to the Greek phalanx. Such drill was perfected by the Romans. Then, as firing drill,
it was turned into a science by Frederick the Great and then mass-produced by Napoleon.
Today we understand the enormous power of drill to condition and program a soldier. J.
Glenn Gray, in his book The Warriors, states that while soldiers may become exhausted and
"enter into a dazed condition in which all sharpness of consciousness is lost" they can still
"function like cells in a military organism, doing what is expected of them because it has become
One of the most powerful examples of the military's success in developing conditioned
reflexes through drill can be found in John Masters's The Road Past Mandalay, where he
relates the actions of a machine-gun team in combat during World War II:
The No. 1 [gunner] was 17 years old — I knew him. His No. 2 [assistant gunner] lay
on the left side, beside him, head toward the enemy, a loaded magazine in his hand
ready to whip onto the gun the moment the No. 1 said "Change!" The No. 1 started firing,
and a japanese machine gun engaged them at close range. The No. 1 got the first burst
through the face and neck, which killed him instantly. But he did not die where he lay,
behind the gun. He rolled over to the right, away from the gun, his left hand coming up in
death to tap his No. 2 on the shoulder in the signal that means Take over. The No. 2 did
not have to push the corpse away from the gun. It was already clear.

The "take over" signal was drilled into the gunner to ensure that his vital weapon was never
left unmanned should he ever have to leave. Its use in this circumstance is evidence of a

conditioned reflex so powerful that it is completed without conscious thought as the last dying
act of a soldier with a bullet through the brain. Gwynne Dyer strikes right to the heart of the
matter when he says, "Conditioning, almost in the Pavlovian sense, is probably a better word
than Training, for what was required of the ordinary soldier was not thought, but the ability to ....
load and fire their muskets completely automatically even under the stress of combat." This
conditioning was accomplished by "literally thousands of hours of repetitive drilling" paired with
"the ever-present incentive of physical violence as the penalty for failure to perform correctly."
The Civil War weapon was usually a muzzle-loading, black-powder, rifled musket. To fire the
weapon a soldier -would take a paper-wrapped cartridge consisting of a bullet and some
gunpowder. He would tear the cartridge open with his teeth, pour the powder down the barrel,
set the bullet in the barrel, ram it home, prime the weapon with a percussion cap, cock, and fire.
Since gravity was needed to pour the powder down the barrel, all of this was done from a
standing position. Fighting was a stand-up business.
With the introduction of the percussion cap, and the advent of oiled paper to wrap the
cartridge in, weapons had become generally quite reliable even in wet weather. The oiled paper
around the cartridge prevented the powder from becoming wet, and the percussion cap ensured
a reliable ignition source. In anything but a driving rainstorm, a weapon would malfunction only if
the ball was put in before the powder (an extremely rare mistake given the drill the soldier had
gone through), or if the hole linking the percussion cap with the barrel was fouled — something
that could happen after a lot of firing, but that was easily corrected.
A minor problem could arise if a weapon was double loaded. In the heat of battle a soldier
might sometimes be unsure as to whether a musket was loaded, and it was not uncommon to
place a second load on top of the first. But such a weapon was still quite usable. The barrels of
these weapons were heavy, and the black powder involved was relatively weak. Factory tests
and demonstrations of weapons of this era often involved firing a rifle with various kinds of
multiple loads in it, sometimes with a weapon loaded all the way to the end of the barrel. If such
a weapon was fired, the first load would ignite and simply push all the other loads out of the
These weapons were fast and accurate. A soldier could generally fire four or five rounds a
minute. In training, or while hunting with a rifled musket, the hit rate would have been at least as
good as that achieved by the Prussians with smoothbore muskets when they got 25 percent hits
at 225 yards, 40 percent hits at 150 yards, and 60 percent hits at 75 yards while firing at a 100foot by 6-foot target. Thus, at 75 yards, a 200-man regiment should be able to hit as many as
120 enemy soldiers in the first volley. If four shots were fired each minute, a regiment could
potentially kill or wound 480 enemy soldiers in the first minute.
The Civil War soldier was, without a doubt, the best trained and equipped soldier yet seen
on the face of the earth. Then came the day of combat, the day for which he had drilled and
marched for so long. And with that day came the destruction of all his preconceptions and
delusions about what would happen.
At first the vision of a long line of men with every man firing in unison might hold true. If the
leaders maintained control, and if the terrain was not too broken, for a while the battle could be
one of volleys between regiments. But even while firing in regimental volleys, something was
wrong. Terribly, frightfully wrong. An average engagement would take place at thirty yards. But
instead of mowing down hundreds of enemy soldiers in the first minute, regiments killed only
one or two men per minute. And instead of the enemy formations disintegrating in a hail of lead,
they stood and exchanged fire for hours on end.
Sooner or later (and usually sooner), the long lines firing volleys in unison would begin to
break down. And in the midst of the confusion, the smoke, the thunder of the firing, and the
screams of the wounded, soldiers would revert from cogs in a machine to individuals doing what

comes naturally to them. Some load, some pass weapons, some tend the wounded, some
shout orders, a few run, a few wander off in the smoke or find a convenient low spot to sink into,
and a few, a very few, shoot.
Numerous historical references indicate that, like their World War II equivalents, most
soldiers of the muzzle-loading-musket era busied themselves with other tasks during battle. For
example, the image of a line of soldiers standing and firing at the enemy is belied by this vivid
account by a Civil War veteran describing the Battle of Antietam in Griffith's book: "Now is the
pinch. Men and officers ... are fused into a common mass, in the frantic struggle to shoot fast.
Everybody tears cartridges, loads, passes guns, or shoots. Men are falling in their places or
running back into the corn."
This is an image of battle that can be seen over and over again. In Marshall's World War II
work and in this account of Civil War battle we see that only a few men actually fire at the
enemy, while others gather and prepare ammo, load weapons, pass weapons, or fall back into
the obscurity and anonymity of cover.
The process of some men electing to load and provide support for those who are willing to
shoot at the enemy appears to have been the norm rather than the exception. Those who did
fire, and were the beneficiary of all of this support, can be seen in countless reports collected by
Griffith, in which individual Civil War soldiers fired one hundred, two hundred, or even an
incredible four hundred rounds of ammunition in battle. This in a period when the standard issue
of ammunition was only forty rounds, with a weapon that became so fouled as to be useless
without cleaning after firing about forty shots. The extra ammunition and muskets must have
been supplied and loaded by the firers' less aggressive comrades.
Aside from firing over the enemy's heads, or loading and supporting those who were willing
to fire, there was another option well understood by du Picq when he wrote: "A man falls and
disappears, who knows whether it was a bullet or the fear of advancing that struck him?"
Richard Gabriel, one of the foremost writers in the field of military psychology in our generation,
notes that "in engagements the size of Waterloo or Sedan, the opportunity for a soldier not to
fire or to refuse to press the attack by merely falling down and remaining in the mud was too
obvious for shaken men under fire to ignore." Indeed, the temptation must have been great, and
many must have done so.
Yet despite the obvious options of firing over the enemy's head (posturing), or simply
dropping out of the advance (a type of flight), and the widely accepted option of loading and
supporting those who were willing to fire (a limited kind of fighting), evidence exists that during
black-powder battles thousands of soldiers elected to passively submit to both the enemy and
their leaders through fake or mock firing. The best indicator of this tendency toward mock firing
can be found in the salvage of multiply-loaded weapons after Civil War battles.
The Dilemma of the Discarded Weapons
Author of the Civil War Collector's Encyclopedia F. A. Lord tells us that after the Battle of
Gettysburg, 27,574 muskets were recovered from the battlefield. Of these, nearly 90 percent
(twenty-four thousand) were loaded. Twelve thousand of these loaded muskets were found to
be loaded more than once, and six thousand of the multiply loaded weapons had from three to
ten rounds loaded in the barrel. One weapon had been loaded twenty-three times. Why, then,
were there so many loaded weapons available on the battlefield, and why did at least twelve
thousand soldiers misload their weapons in combat?
A loaded weapon was a precious commodity on the black-powder battlefield. During the
stand-up, face-to-face, short-range battles of this era a weapon should have been loaded for
only a fraction of the time in battle. More than 95 percent of the time was spent in loading the
weapon, and less than 5 percent in firing it. If most soldiers were desperately attempting to kill

as quickly and efficiently as they could, then 95 percent should have been shot with an empty
weapon in their hand, and any loaded, cocked, and primed weapon available dropped on the
battlefield would have been snatched up from wounded or dead comrades and fired. There
were many who were shot while charging the enemy or were casualties of artillery outside of
musket .range, and these individuals would never have had an opportunity to fire their weapons,
but they hardly represent 95 percent of all casualties. If there is a desperate need in all soldiers
to fire their weapon in combat, then many of these men should have died with an empty
weapon. And as the ebb and flow of battle passed over these weapons, many of them should
have been picked up and fired at the enemy.
The obvious conclusion is that most soldiers were not trying to kill the enemy. Most of them
appear to have not even wanted to fire in the enemy's general direction. As Marshall observed,
most soldiers seem to have an inner resistance to firing their weapon in combat. The point here
is that the resistance appears to have existed long before Marshall discovered it, and this
resistance is the reason for many (if not most) of these multiply loaded weapons.
The physical necessity for muzzle-loaders to be loaded from a standing position, combined
with the shoulder-to-shoulder massed firing line so beloved of the officers of this era, presented
a situation in which — unlike that studied by Marshall — it was very difficult for a man to
disguise the fact that he was not shooting. And in this volley-fire situation, what du Picq called
the "mutual surveillance" of authorities and peers must have created an intense pressure to fire.
There was not any "isolation and dispersion of the modern battlefield" to hide
nonparticipants during a volley fire. Their every action was obvious to those comrades who
stood shoulder to shoulder with them. If a man truly was not able or willing to fare, the only way
he could disguise his lack of participation was to load his weapon (tear cartridge, pour powder,
set bullet, ram it home, prime, cock), bring it to his shoulder, and then not actually fire, possibly
even mimicking the recoil of his weapon when someone nearby fired.
Here was the epitome of the industrious soldier. Carefully and steadily loading his weapon in
the midst of the turmoil, screams, and smoke of battle, no action of his was discernible as being
something other than that which his superiors and comrades would find commendable.
The amazing thing about these soldiers who failed to fire is that they did so in direct
opposition to the mind-numbingly repetitive drills of that era. How, then, did these Civil War
soldiers consistently "fail" their drillmasters when it came to the all-important loading drill?
Some may argue that these multiple loads were simply mistakes, and that these weapons
were discarded because they were mis-loaded. But if in the fog of war, despite all the endless
hours of training, you do accidentally double-load a musket, you shoot it anyway, and the first
load simply pushes out the second load. In the rare event that the weapon is actually jammed or
nonfunctional in some manner, you simply drop it and pick up another. But that is not what
happened here, and the question we have to ask ourselves is, Why was firing the only step that
was skipped? How could at least twelve thousand men from both sides and all units make the
exact same mistake?
Did twelve thousand soldiers at Gettysburg, dazed and confused by the shock of battle,
accidentally double-load their weapons, and then were all twelve thousand of them killed before
they could fire these weapons? Or did all twelve thousand of them discard these weapons for
some reason and then pick up others? In some cases their powder may have been wet (even
through their oiled-paper coating), but that many? And why did six thousand more go on to load
their weapons yet again, and still not fire? Some may have been mistakes, and some may have
been caused by bad powder, but I believe that the only possible explanation for the vast
majority of these incidents is the same factor that prevented 80 to 85 percent of World War II
soldiers from firing at the enemy. The fact that these Civil War soldiers overcame their powerful

conditioning (through drill) to fire clearly demonstrates the impact of powerful instinctive forces
and supreme acts of moral will.
If Marshall had not asked the soldiers immediately after battle in World War II, we would
have never known the amazing ineffectiveness of our fire. In the same way, since no one asked
the soldiers of the Civil War, or any other war prior to World War II, we cannot know the
effectiveness of their fire. What we can do is extrapolate from the available data, and the
available data indicate that at least half of the soldiers in black-powder battles did not fire their
weapons, and only a minute percentage of those who did fire aimed to kill the enemy with their
Now we can begin to fully understand the reasons underlying Paddy Griffith's discovery of
an average regimental hit rate of one or two men per minute in firefights of the black-powder
era. And we see that these figures strongly support Marshall's findings. With the rifled muskets
of that era, the potential hit rate was at least as high as that achieved by the Prussians with
smoothbore muskets when they got 60 percent hits at seventy-five yards. But the reality was a
minute fraction of this.
Griffith's figures make perfect sense if during these wars, as in World War II, only a small
percentage of the musketeers in a regimental firing line were actually attempting to shoot at the
enemy while the rest stood bravely in line firing above the enemy's heads or did not fire at all.
When presented with this data, some respond that they are specific to a civil war in which
"brother fought brother." Dr. Jerome Frank answers such claims clearly in his book Sanity and
Survival in the Nuclear Age, in which he points out that civil wars are usually more bloody,
prolonged, and unrestrained than other types of war. And Peter Watson, in War on the Mind,
points out that "deviant behavior by members of our own group is perceived as more disturbing
and produces stronger retaliation than that of others with whom we are less involved." We need
only look at the intensity of aggression between different Christian factions in Europe in the past
and in Ireland, Lebanon, and Bosnia today, or the conflict between Leninist, Maoist, and
Trotskyist Communists, or the horror in Rwanda and other African tribal battles, to confirm this
It is my contention that most of these discarded weapons on the battlefield at Gettysburg
represent soldiers who had been unable or unwilling to fire their weapons in the midst of combat
and then had been killed, wounded, or routed. In addition to these twelve thousand, a similar
proportion of soldiers must have marched off that battlefield with similarly multiloaded weapons.
Secretly, quietly, at the moment of decision, just like the 80 to 85 percent of World War II
soldiers observed by Marshall, these soldiers found themselves to be conscientious objectors
who were unable to kill their fellow man. This is the root reason for the incredible ineffectiveness
of musket fire during this era. This is what happened at Gettysburg, and if you look deeply
enough you will soon discover that this is also what happened in the other black-powder battles
about which we do not necessarily have the same kind of data.
A case in point is the Battle of Cold Harbor.
"Eight Minutes at Cold Harbor"
The Battle of Cold Harbor deserves careful observation here, since it is the example that
most casual observers of the American Civil War would hold up to refute an 80 to 85 percent
nonfiring rate. In the early morning hours of the third of June 1864, forty thousand Union
soldiers under the command of Ulysses S. Grant attacked the Confederate army at Cold
Harbor, Virginia. The Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee were in a carefully prepared
system of trenches and artillery emplacements unlike anything that Grant's Army of the
Potomac had ever encountered. A newspaper correspondent observed that these positions
were "intricate, zig-zagged lines within lines . . . lines built to enfilade an opposing line, lines
within which lies a battery [of artillery]." By the evening of the third of June more than seven

thousand attacking Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured while inflicting negligible
damage on the well-entrenched Confederates.
Bruce Catton, in his superb and definitive multivolume account of the Civil War, states,
"Offhand, it would seem both difficult and unnecessary to exaggerate the horrors of Cold
Harbor, but for some reason — chiefly, perhaps, the desire to paint Grant as a callous and
uninspired butcher — no other Civil War battle gets as warped a presentation as this one."
Catton is referring largely to exaggerated accounts of Union casualties (usually claiming the
thirteen thousand casualties of two weeks' fighting at Cold Harbor as the casualty rate for the
one day's fighting), but he also debunks the very common misconception that seven thousand
(or even thirteen thousand) casualties occurred in "Eight Minutes at Cold Harbor." This belief is
not so much wrong as it is a gross oversimplification. It is quite correct that most of the isolated,
disjointed Union charges launched at Cold Harbor were halted in the first 'ten to twenty minutes,
but once the attackers' momentum was broken the attacking Union soldiers did not flee, and the
killing did not end. Catton notes that "the most amazing thing of all in this fantastic battle is the
fact that all along the front the beaten [Union soldiers] did not pull back to the rear." Instead they
did exactly what Union and Confederate soldiers had done over and over again in that war:
"They stayed where they were, anywhere from 40 to 200 yards from the confederate line,
gouging out such shallow trenches as they could, and kept on firing." And the Confederates
kept on firing at them, often with cannons firing from the flanks and rear at horrendously short
range. "All daylong," says Catton, "the terrible sound of battle continued. Only an experienced
soldier could tell by the sound alone, that the pitch of the combat in midafternoon was any lower
than it had been in the murky dawn when the charges were being repulsed."
It took over eight hours, not eight minutes, to inflict those horrendous casualties on Grant's
soldiers. And as in most wars from the time of Napoleon on down to today, it was not the
infantry but the artillery that inflicted most of these casualties.
Only when artillery (with its close supervision and mutual surveillance processes among the
crew) is brought into play can any significant change in this killing rate be observed. (The
greater distance that artillery usually is from its targets, as we will see, also increases its
effectiveness.) The simple fact appears to be that, like S. L. A. Marshall's riflemen of World War
II, the vast majority of the rifle- and musket-armed soldiers of previous wars -were consistent
and persistent in their psychological inability to kill their fellow human beings. Their weapons
were technologically capable, and they were physically quite able to kill, but at the decisive
moment each man became, in his heart, a conscientious objector who could not bring himself to
kill the man standing before him.
This all indicates that there is a force in play here. A previously undiscovered psychological
force. A force stronger than drill, stronger than peer pressure, even stronger than the selfpreservation instinct. The impact of this force is not limited to only the black-powder era or only
to World War II: it can also be seen in World War I.
Nonfirers of World War I
Colonel Milton Mater served as an infantry company commander in World War II and relates
several World War II experiences that strongly support Marshall's observations. Mater also
provides us with several instances in which World War I veterans warned him to expect that
there would be many nonfirers in combat.
When he first joined the service in 1933, Mater asked his uncle, a veteran of World War I,
about his combat experience. "I was amazed to find that the experience foremost in his mind
was 'draftees who wouldn't shoot.' He expressed it something like this: 'They thought if they
didn't shoot at the Germans, the Germans wouldn't shoot at them.'"
Another veteran of the trenches of World War I taught Mater in an ROTC class in 1937 that,
based on his experiences, nonfirers would be a problem in any future war. "He took pains to

impress us with the difficulty of making some men fire their rifles to avoid becoming sitting ducks
for the fire and movement of the enemy." There is ample indication of the existence of the
resistance to killing and that it appears to have existed at least since the black-powder era. This
lack of enthusiasm for killing the enemy causes many soldiers to posture, submit, or flee, rather
than fight; it represents a powerful psychological force on the battlefield; and it is a force that is
discernible throughout the history of man. The application and understanding of this force can
lend new insight to military history, the nature of war, and the nature of man.

Chapter 3
Why Can’t Johnny Kill?
Why did individual soldiers over hundreds of years refuse to kill the enemy, even when they
knew that doing so would endanger their own lives? And why, if this has been so throughout
history, have we not been fully aware of it?
Why Can't Johnny Kill?
Many veteran hunters, upon hearing accounts of nonfirers, might say, "Aha, buck fever," and
they would be quite right. But what is buck fever? And why do men experience during the hunt
that inability to kill that we call buck fever? (The relationship between the failures to kill on the
battlefield and failures to kill in the hunt are explored more completely in a later section.) We
must turn back to S. L. A. Marshall for the answer.
Marshall studied this issue during the entire period of World War II. He, more than any other
individual prior to him, understood the thousands of soldiers who did not fire at the enemy, and
he concluded that "the average and healthy individual . . . has such an inner and usually
unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it
is possible to turn away from that responsibility. ... At the vital point," says Marshall, the soldier
"becomes a conscientious objector."
Marshall understood the mechanics and emotions of combat. He was a combat veteran of
World War I, asking the combat veterans of World War II about their responses to battle, and he
understood, he had been there. "I well recall . . . ," said Marshall, "the great sense of relief that
came to [World War I] troops when they were passed to a quiet sector." And he believed that
this "was due not so much to the realization that things were safer there as to the blessed
knowledge that for a time they were not under the compulsion to take life." In his experience
that philosophy of the World War I soldier was "Let 'em go; we'll get 'em some other time."
Dyer also studied the matter carefully, building his knowledge on those who knew, and he
too understood that "men will kill under compulsion — men will do almost anything if they know
it is expected of them and they are under strong social pressure to comply — but the vast
majority of men are not born killers." The U.S. Army Air Corps (now the U.S. Air Force) ran
head-on into this problem when it discovered that during World War II less than 1 percent of
their fighter pilots accounted for 30 to 40 percent of all enemy aircraft destroyed in the air, and
according to Gabriel, most fighter pilots "never shot anyone down or even tried to." Some
suggest that simple fear was the force that prevented these men from killing, but these pilots
usually flew in small groups led by proven killers who took the nonkillers into dangerous
situations, and these men bravely followed. But when it came time to kill, they looked into the
cockpit at another man, a pilot, a flier, one of the "brotherhood of the air," a man frighteningly
like themselves; and when faced with such a man it is possible that the vast majority simply
could not kill him. The pilots of both fighter and bomber aircraft faced the terrible dilemma of air
combat against others of their own kind, and this was a significant factor in making their task

difficult. (The matter of the mechanics of killing in air battles and the U.S. Air Force's remarkable
discoveries in attempting to preselect "killers" for pilot training are addressed later in this study.)
That the average man will not kill even at the risk of all he holds dear has been largely
ignored by those who attempt to understand the psychological and sociological pressures of the
battlefield. Looking another human being in the eye, making an independent decision to kill him,
and watching as he dies due to your action combine to form the single most basic, important,
primal, and potentially traumatic occurrence of war. If we understand this, then we understand
the magnitude of the horror of killing in combat.
The Israeli military psychologist Ben Shalit in his book The Psychology of Conflict and
Combat, referring to Marshall's studies, says that it is "clear that many soldiers do not shoot
directly at the enemy. Many reasons are given; one of them — which, oddly enough, is not often
discussed — may be the reluctance of the individual to act in a direct aggressive way."
Why is this not often discussed? If Johnny can't kill, if the average soldier will not kill unless
coerced and conditioned and provided with mechanical and mental leverage, then why has it
not been understood before?
British field marshal Evelyn Wood has said that in war only cowards need lie. I believe that
to call the men who did not fire in combat cowards is grossly inaccurate, but those who did not
fire do, indeed, have something to hide. Or at the very least something that they would not be
very proud of and would readily lie about in later years. The point is that (1) an intense,
traumatic, guilt-laden situation will inevitably result in a web of forgetfulness, deception, and lies;
(2) such situations that continue for thousands of years become institutions based on a tangled
web of individual and cultural forgetfulness, deception, and lies tightly woven over thousands of
years; and (3) for the most part there have been two such institutions about which the male ego
has always justified selective memory, self-deception, and lying. These two institutions are sex
and combat. After all, "All is fair in love and war."
For thousands of years we did not understand human sexuality. We understood the big
things about sex. We knew that it made babies, and it worked. But we had no idea how human
sexuality affected the individual. Until the studies of human sexuality by Sigmund Freud and
researchers of this century we had not even begun to really understand the role that sex played
in our lives. For thousands of years we did not truly study sex and therefore had no hope of ever
understanding it. The very fact that in studying sex we were studying ourselves made impartial
observation difficult. Sex was especially difficult to study because so much of the ego and selfesteem of each individual was invested in this area full of myths and misunderstanding.
If someone was impotent or frigid, would he or she let that be common knowledge? If the
majority of the marriages of two centuries ago suffered problems with impotence or frigidity,
would we have known? An educated man of two hundred years ago would have probably said,
"They manage to make plenty of babies, don't they? They must be doing something right!"
And if one hundred years ago a researcher discovered that sexual abuse of children was
rampant in society, how would such a discovery be treated? Freud made just such a discovery,
and he was personally disgraced and professionally scorned by his peers and by society at
large for even suggesting such a thing. It is only today, one hundred years later, that we have
begun to accept and address the magnitude of sexual abuse of children in our society. Until
someone with authority and credibility asked individuals in privacy and with dignity, we had no
hope of ever realizing what was occurring sexually in our culture. And even under such
circumstances, society as a whole has to be sufficiently prepared and enlightened in order to
throw off the blinders that limit its ability to perceive itself.
In the same way that we did not understand what was occurring in the bedroom, we have
not understood what was occurring on the battlefield. Our ignorance of the destructive act
matched that of the procreative act. If a soldier would not kill in combat, when it was his duty

and responsibility to do so, would he let that be common knowledge? And if the majority of
soldiers two hundred years ago did not fulfill their duties on the battlefield, would we have
known? A general of the era would probably have said, "They manage to kill plenty of people
don't they? They won the war for us didn't they? They must be doing something right!" Until S.
L. A. Marshall asked the individuals involved, immediately after the fact, we had no hope of
understanding what was occurring on the battlefield.
Philosophers and psychologists have long been aware of man's basic inability to perceive
that which is closest to him. Sir Norman Angell tells us that "it is quite in keeping with man's
curious intellectual history, that the simplest and most important questions are those he asks
least often." And the philosopher-soldier Glenn Gray speaks from personal experience in World
War II when he observes that "few of us can hold on to our real selves long enough to discover
the real truths about ourselves and this whirling earth to which we cling. This is especially true,"
observes Gray, "of men in war. The great god Mars tries to blind us when we enter his realm,
and when we leave he gives us a generous cup of the waters of Lethe to drink."
If a professional soldier were to see through the fog of his own self-deception, and if he were
to face the cold reality that he can't do what he has dedicated his life to, or that many of his
soldiers would rather die than do their duty, it would make his life a lie. Such a man would be
apt to deny his weakness with all the energy he could muster. No, the soldiers are not apt to
write of their failures or the failures of their men; with few exceptions, it is only the heroes and
the glory that make their way into print.
Part of the reason for our lack of knowledge in this area is that combat is, like sex, laden
with a baggage of expectations and myth. A belief that most soldiers will not kill the enemy in
close combat is contrary to what we want to believe about ourselves, and it is contrary to what
thousands of years of military history and culture have told us. But are the perceptions handed
down to us by our culture and our historians accurate, unbiased, and reliable?
In A History of Militarism, Alfred Vagts accuses military history, as an institution, of having
played a large part in the process of militarizing minds. Vagts complains that military history is
consistently written "with polemic purpose for the justification of individuals or armies and with
small regard for socially relevant facts." He states, "A very large part of military history is written,
if not for the express purpose of supporting an army's authority, at least with the intention of not
hurting it, not revealing its secrets, avoiding the betrayal of weakness, vacillation, or distemper."
Vagts paints an image of military and historical institutions that for thousands of years have
reinforced and supported each other in a process of mutual glorification and aggrandizement.
To a certain extent, this is probably because those who are good at killing in war are quite often
those who throughout history have hacked their way to power. The military and the politicians
have been the same people for all but the most recent part of human history, and we know that
the victor writes the history books.
As a historian, as a soldier, and as a psychologist, I believe that Vagts is quite correct. If for
thousands of years the vast majority of soldiers secretly and privately were less than enthused
about killing their fellow man on the battlefield, the professional soldiers and their chroniclers
would be the last to let us know the inadequacies of their particular charges.
The media in our modern information society have done much to perpetuate the myth of
easy killing and have thereby become part of society's unspoken conspiracy of deception that
glorifies killing and war. There are exceptions — such as Gene Hackman's Bat 21, in which an
air force officer has to kill people up close and personal for a change and is horrified at what he
has done — but for the most part we are given James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Rambo, and
Indiana Jones blithely and remorselessly killing off men by the hundreds. The point here is that
there is as much disinformation and as little insight concerning the nature of killing coming from
the media as from any other aspect of our society.

Even after Marshall's World War II revelations, the subject of nonfirers is an uncomfortable
one for today's military. Writing in Army magazine — the U.S. Army's foremost military journal
— Colonel Mater states that his experiences as an infantry company commander in World War
II strongly supported Marshall's findings and noted several World War I anecdotes that suggest
that the problem of nonfirers was just as serious in that war.
Mater then bitterly — and appropriately — complains that "thinking back over my many
years of service, I cannot remember a single official lecture or class discussion of how to assure
that your men will fire." This included "such formal schooling as the wartime Infantry Leadership
and Battle School I attended in Italy and the Command and General Staff College at Ft.
Leavenworth, Kansas, that I attended in 1966. Nor do I remember any articles on the subject in
Army magazine or other military publications."5 Colonel Mater concludes, "It is as if there were a
conspiracy of silence around this subject: 'We don't know what to do about it — so let's forget
There does indeed seem to be a conspiracy of silence on this subject. In his book War on
the Mind, Peter Watson observes that Marshall's findings have been largely ignored by
academia and the fields of psychology and psychiatry, but they were very much taken to heart
by the U.S. Army, and a number of training measures were instituted as a result of Marshall's
suggestions. According to studies by Marshall, these changes resulted in a firing rate of 55
percent in Korea and, according to a study by Scott, a 90 to 95 percent firing rate was attained
in Vietnam. Some modern soldiers use the disparity between the firing rates of World War II and
Vietnam to claim that Marshall had to be wrong, for the average military leader has great
difficulty in believing that any significant body of his soldiers will not do their job in combat. But
these doubters don't give sufficient credit to the revolutionary corrective measures and training
methods introduced since World War II.
The training methods that increased the firing rate from 15 percent to 90 percent are
referred to as "programming" or "conditioning" by some of the veterans I have interviewed, and
they do appear to represent a form of classical and operant conditioning (a la Pavlov's dog and
B. F. Skinner's rats), which is addressed in detail in the section "Killing in Vietnam." The
unpleasantness of this subject, combined with the remarkable success of the army's training
programs, and the lack of official recognition might imply that it is classified. But there is no
secret master plan responsible for the lack of attention given to this subject. There is instead, in
the words of philosopher-psychologist Peter Marin, "a massive unconscious cover-up" in which
society hides itself from the true nature of combat. Even among the psychological and
psychiatric literature on war, "there is," writes Marin, "a kind of madness at work." He notes,
"Repugnance toward killing and the refusal to kill" are referred to as "acute combat reaction."
And psychological trauma resulting from "slaughter and atrocity are called 'stress,' as if the
clinicians . . . are talking about an executive's overwork." As a psychologist I believe that Marin
is quite correct when he observes, "Nowhere in the [psychiatric and psychological] literature is
one allowed to glimpse what is actually occurring: the real horror of the war and its effect on
those who fought it."
It would be almost impossible to keep something of this nature classified for more than fifty
years now, and those in the military who do understand — the Marshalls and the Maters — are
crying out their messages, but no one wants to hear their truths.
No, it is not a military conspiracy. There is, indeed, a cover-up and a "conspiracy of silence,"
but it is a cultural conspiracy of forgetfulness, distortion, and lies that has been going on for
thousands of years. And just as we have begun to wipe away the cultural conspiracy of guilt and
silence concerning sex, we must now wipe away this similar conspiracy that obscures the very
nature of war.

An Anatomy of Killing: All Factors Considered
The starting point for the understanding of war is the understanding of human nature.
--S.L.A. Marshall
Men Against Fire

Chapter One
The Demands of Authority: Milgram and the Military
Riflemen mass if orders sound unsure; They only are secure who seem secure ...
— Kingsley Amis "The Masters"

Dr. Stanley Milgram's famous studies at Yale University on obedience and aggression found
that in a controlled laboratory environment more than 65 percent of his subjects could be readily
manipulated into inflicting a (seemingly) lethal electrical charge on a total stranger. The subjects
sincerely believed that they were causing great physical pain, but despite their victim's pitiful
pleas for them to stop, 65 percent continued to obey orders, increase the voltage, and inflict the
shocks until long after the screams stopped and there could be little doubt that their victim was
Prior to beginning his experiments Milgram asked a group of psychiatrists and psychologists
to predict how many of his subjects would use the maximum voltage on their victims. They
estimated that a fraction of 1 percent of the subjects would do so. They, like most people, really
didn't have a clue — until Milgram taught us this lesson about ourselves.
Freud warned us to "never underestimate the power of the need to obey," and this research
by Milgram (which has since been replicated many times in half a dozen different countries)
validates Freud's intuitive understanding of human nature. Even when the trappings of authority
are no more than a white lab coat and a clipboard, this is the kind of response that Milgram was
able to elicit:
I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and
confident. Within 20 minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck, who was rapidly
approaching a point of nervous collapse. ... At one point he pushed his fist into his forehead and
muttered: "Oh God, let's stop it." And yet he continued to respond to every word of the
experimenter and obeyed to the end If this kind of obedience could be obtained with a lab coat
and a clipboard by an authority figure who has been known for only a few minutes, how much
more would the trappings of military authority and months of bonding accomplish?
The Demands of Authority
The mass needs, and we give it, leaders who have the firmness and decision of
command proceeding from habit and an entire faith in their unquestionable right to
command as established by tradition, law and society.
— Ardant du Picq Battle Studies

Someone who has not studied the matter would underestimate the influence of leadership in
enabling killing on the battlefield, but those who have been there know better. A 1973 study by
Kranss, Kaplan, and Kranss investigated the factors that make a soldier fire. They found that the
individuals who had no combat experience assumed that "being fired upon" would be the critical
factor in making them fire. However, veterans listed "being told to fire" as the most critical factor.
More than a century ago, Ardant du Picq found the same thing in his study based on a
survey of military officers. He noted one incident during the Crimean War in which, during heavy

fighting, two detachments of soldiers suddenly met unexpectedly face-to-face, at "ten paces."
They "stopped thunderstruck. Then, forgetting their rifles, threw stones and withdrew." The
reason for this behavior, according to du Picq, was that "neither of the two groups had a
decided leader."
Authority Factors
But it is more complex than the simple influence of orders by a leader. There are many
factors in the relationship between the potential killer and the authority that influence the
decision to kill. In Milgram's experiments the demands of authority were represented by an
individual with a clipboard and a white lab coat. This authority figure stood immediately behind
the individual who was inflicting shocks and directed that he increase the voltage each time the
victim answered a question incorrectly. When the authority figure was not personally present but
called over a phone, the number of subjects who were willing to inflict the maximum shock
dropped sharply. This process can be generalized to combat circumstances and
"operationalized" into a number of subfactors: proximity of the authority figure, respect for the
authority figure, intensity of the authority figure's demands, and the authority figure's legitimacy.
• Proximity of the authority figure to the subject. Marshall noted many specific World War II
incidents in which almost all soldiers would fire their weapons while their leaders observed and
encouraged them in a combat situation, but when the leaders left, the firing rate immediately
dropped to 15 to 20 percent.
• Killer's subjective respect for the authority figure. To be truly effective, soldiers must bond
to their leader just as they must bond to their group. Shalit notes a 1973 Israeli study that shows
that the primary factor in ensuring the will to fight is identification with the direct commanding
officer. Compared with an established and respected leader, an unknown or discredited leader
has much less chance of gaining compliance from soldiers in combat.
• Intensity of the authority figure's demands for killing behavior. The leader's mere presence
is not always sufficient to ensure killing activity. The leader must also communicate a clear
expectancy of killing behavior. When he does, the influence can be enormous. When Lieutenant
Galley first ordered his men to kill a group of women and children in the village of My Lai, he
said, "You know what to do with them," and left. When he came back he asked, "Why haven't
you killed them?" The soldier he confronted said, "I didn't think you wanted us to kill them." "No,"
Galley responded, "I want them dead," and proceeded to fire at them himself. Only then was he
able to get his soldiers to start shooting in this extraordinary circumstance in which the soldiers'
resistance to killing was, understandably, very high.
• Legitimacy of the authority figure's authority and demands. Leaders with legitimate,
societally sanctioned authority have greater influence on their soldiers; and legitimate, lawful
demands are more likely to be obeyed than illegal or unanticip