Monday, June 16, 2008

Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman - How Not To Learn To Kill

By discussing and studying how soldiers and law enforcement officers are trained to kill, Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman believes we can begin to understand the connections between our children, an increasingly violent society, and violent entertainment.

I recently stumbled on an interesting book. On Killing - The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. I wouldn't normally buy a book of this sort but I thought it would provide valuable insight into a character in a novel I'm writing. Joe is a Vietnam vet with issues and I needed to understand those issues to get inside his head.

The Pulitzer prize nominated book by Dave Grossman was full of the insight I needed but it was also so much more. As the mother of five children, I became engrossed in his analysis of the techniques the military uses to train new soldiers for combat - this triad of conditioning includes these concepts: desensitisation, demoralization, and denial.

He points out that after WWII commanders noted that only a small percentage of the soldiers actually fired their close range weapons during combat. So during the years between WWII and Vietnam a training was devised to overcome a soldier's reluctance to kill. This included closely simulated combat and targets that look like and in some cases bleed and explode like human bodies. After the implementation of this type of conditioning the individual soldier's fire rate increased from around 10% in WWII to 95% in Vietnam. According to Grossman this is called "the quick kill response" or "operating with the safety off".

In his book he lays out sound reasoning to demonstrate that "we" as a society are teaching our children to operate with the safety off.

Children as young as six years old spend hours a day playing video and computer games. Their slightly older brothers and sisters are playing, too and totally engrossed in life-simulation (RPG) games. Some are fun like Thrillville - where kids build, design, and run their own amusement parks. Some are slightly provocative like The SIMS - where the child build their own people and the worlds and situations they live in. For better or worse they are God in the SIMS world. They decide if the SIMS character has a happy life or if they live or die.

Then their are the games like the Grand Theft Auto series (and there are many others. This is a lucrative genre) which through RPG format use the same conditioning techniques as the military but without the safe guards and controlled setting.

Lt. Colonel Grossman believes that these games are a factor in the rise in non-discriminant violence among young people. They desensitize the child to acts of violence against other humans (and animals). They demoralize the simulated victims of the violence (an example is the picture at the left taken from Grand Theft Auto) and they teach kids to deny the consequences of their acts. After all they're not real people so it's okay...until the day they transfer this conditioning to life. An example of this would be the Columbine High School Massacre of 1999.

All of this sounds doom and gloom but it's not. Thanks to Lt. Colonel Grossman's research we can be armed with the knowledge of how people learn. We can identify the "smoking guns" in our homes. And we have the awareness that we can do it differently.

Say no to violent video games - specifically games that involve the killing and demoralization of other human characters in real life or combat settings.

Say no to violent movies - movie violence is only useful if it shows the fullness of the situation. This would be a movie like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan which are horrific but actually are deterrents to violence because they show the emotional and societal consequences of the acts. Gratuitous torture movies, like the ones that have recently flooded our theaters have no redeeming value and teach us to gain entertainment value from the painful death of another.

Pay attention to the ratings on games - know what you are buying and giving permission to your children to play. Educate yourself first.

There are many factors upon which the web of a violent society depends. This is only one but think about how much would change if we eliminated just this one type of violent stimulus from our children's daily routine. As John Lennon said, "Imagine."

On Killing is valuable reading for anyone with influence over a child and a fitting gift for any parent. Lt. Colonel Grossman uses his experience as a West Point psychologist, as a solider and a scholar to write a compelling book. He should be commended for presenting this provocative thesis. He has his critics and some do not agree but as a mother his work resonated with me. Read it and decide for yourself.


AxeCity said...

Games and movies are very effective in changing children behaviour. It could be a good tool to improve their characters, a thing which isn't actually happening!

I just can see a red flag warning us about the negative effects of those things on children these days, as movies and games will never stop, it's the parents job completely for now.

Lisa McGlaun said...


I agree. It's up to the parents but I will also be glad when emotional wellbeing is more important than profit to companies like Rockstar Games that makes Grand Theft Auto. They've been sued many times and know that what they are doing is hurtful.

I also believe that as adults we've also become desensitized to the suffering of others...all you have to do is look at the prime time TV line up to see that is true. We watch shows like 24 and CSI for entertainment.

I am amazed at the varieties of torture and criminal perversion in those shows.

Thanks for the comment. I appreciate it.


Anonymous said...


I appreciate your article. I am a Police Officer and previously served in the Marine Corps. I am very impressed that you have taken the time to read Lt. Colonel Grossman. I am a big fan of Lt. Colonel Grossman! Every mother should be aware of the psychological damage that music, video games, and television can have on us and our children. Anyone that disputes that is lying to themselves! I know we can not keep our children in a bubble, but we can monitor what they see and hear. We can also talk them about issues and teach them the difference between fantasy and reality. Churches have been teaching this through the Bible for years, but many people do not want to listen. Now they wonder why we have so many problems with violence in society. It is funny how so many people think they are smarter than Jesus Christ the creator of the universe. Please keep spreading the message! God Bless You!


Sean J. Kennedy

Anonymous said...

I really like when people are expressing their opinion and thought. So I like the way you are writing