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media-violenceKILLOLOGY, is the study of the psychological and physiological effects of killing and combat on the human psyche.The scholarly study of the destructive act, just as sexology is the scholarly study of the procreative act. In particular, killology focuses on the reactions of healthy people in killing circumstances (such as police and military in combat) and the factors that enable and restrain killing in these situations. This field of study was pioneered by  Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

The soldier’s choice

Grossman claims in his book On Killing that a soldier is faced with four options once they have entered into combat.[1] These are:

  1. Fight: as the name implies this is the standard that defines the soldiers role as actively trying to defeat the enemy by use of their training.
  2. Flight: this option involves the combatant fleeing the engagement.
  3. Posture: This action involves the soldier falsely showing active participation in combat. In actuality they are not being effective in deterring the enemy from success. This is a major point of concern for commanders as it is difficult to tell the difference between a soldier posturing or fighting.
  4. Submit: Submission to the enemy during an engagement is a direct act of surrender. In the animal kingdom, this is used by lesser combatants to prevent them from being injured after they can ascertain the triviality of their battle.

In traditional psychology most species are only warranted the flight or fight options, but this is a narrow minded view of what can be going on. Humans especially can be more complex than other animals. With Grossman’s addition of Posture and Submit, a much larger scope of emotions can be analyzed.

The problem of non or miss-firing soldiers

SLA Marshall did a study on the firing rates of soldiers in World War II. He found that the ratio of rounds fired vs hits was low; he also noted that very few soldiers were aiming to hit their targets.[2] This was a major problem for the US government and allies during World War II. New training implements were developed and hit rates improved. The major concepts changed were minor, but effective. First, instead of shooting at targets shaped as bulls eyes, the United States Army switched to targets with a silhouette that mimics an average human. Training also switched from a 300 yard slow fire to a rapid fire at different time and distances intervals from 20 to 300 yards. With these two things hitting targets became a reaction that was almost automatic. A targets pops up and you engage as fast as possible to score the most points. This time constraint caused the thought processes in shooting to be shortened enough to prevent soldiers from having the ability to think completely about the action they are carrying out.

It should be noted that some authors have discredited SLA Marshall’s book, stating that the book may be more of an idea of what was occurring and not a scientific study of what was happening.

Another important factor that increased fire and hit rates is the development of camaraderie in training. Soldiers are taught that their actions do not only help or harm themselves but the whole unit.[3] This recurring theme in recollections collected from war veterans is the idea that they were not fighting for themselves at the time but more concerned for the people to their left and right. This ideology is ancient and was recorded by Sun Tzu in his book The Art of War “If those who are sent to draw water begin by drinking themselves, the army is suffering from thirst.”[4]

Increase in PTSD since World War II

Some research has been done to say that the increase of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the military is caused by the increase of firing rates.[1] This brings up the classic debate of correlation vs causation. Many believe that other factors have been influencing PTSD such as decompression time after conflicts, and the lack of moral sovereignty in engagements.[1]

World War II and Vietnam

Vietnam is viewed by some as less popular war than World War II. Many people who were sent to fight there thought that there was no reason for the engagement and did not feel a moral obligation to fight. In World War II many felt that they were stopping an evil empire from overtaking the globe. This helped the World War II troops’ mettle to be steadfast.

Another problem with PTSD rates after World War II is the fact that there is far less decompression time for the soldiers.[1] During World War II the main way back home was on a boat trip that took weeks. This time was spent with others who had had similar experiences and could understand the problems faced by others.[1] During Vietnam soldiers were sent via draft to one year rotations by plane. When you arrived to your unit it was usually by yourself and you were shunned. This shunning was a result of the senior members being afraid to befriend someone who had a much higher chance of being killed than the experienced combatants. Once your time in country was over you were once again sent back home by yourself. There may have been other veterans with you but they were from a plethora of other units and you did not know them well enough to share the hardships you had seen.

Finally one of the worst displays of environmental stressors was once you made it back home you were demonized by the public and discarded as a human being. Compare that to the treatment World War II veterans received when they came home from the European Theatre or the Pacific Theatre. Parades were thrown, everyone thanking the soldiers, even the invention of V for Victory was made to quickly show military members support. That symbol was changed into the Peace sign and used to show disapproval of the war in Vietnam just a few years later. These things among many others caused Vietnam to have the highest post war depression, suicide, and PTSD rates. To this day many are only now getting the counseling that they need to overcome the mental problems brought upon them from their service in Vietnam.[1]

Modern engagements

In engagements in the modern era such as Desert Shield and Desert Storm through Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom there is still a problem with a lack of decompression time. The training has improved so you train and deploy with the people you will be fighting with.[5] But many times when you reach home you are given time off, and if one is in a reserve unit you most likely go back to work and only see your brothers in arms once a month. This lack of time to debrief and decompress can cause a feeling of isolation that only worsens the effects of PTSD. Grossman states in his book that everyone who experiences combat comes back with PTSD, the only question is to what extent their mind and psyche are damaged and how they cope with it.


Grossman’s theory, based on the World War II research of S.L.A. Marshall, is that most of the population deeply resists killing another human. While Marshall’s work has been shown to be unsystematic, his findings have been corroborated by many later studies.

As a result of Marshall’s work, modern military training was modified to attempt to override this instinct, by:

  • using man-shaped targets instead of bullseye targets in marksmanship practice
  • practicing and drilling how soldiers would actually fight
  • dispersing responsibility for the killing throughout the group
  • displacing responsibility for the killing onto an authority figure, i.e., the commanding officer and the military hierarchy (See the Milgram experiment)

By the time of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War, says Grossman, 90% of U.S. soldiers would fire their weapons at other people.

He also says the act of killing is psychologically traumatic for the killer, even more so than constant danger or witnessing the death of others.

Grossman further argues that violence in television, movies and video games contributes to real-life violence by a similar process of training and desensitization.

In On Combat (Grossman’s sequel to On Killing, based on ten years of additional research and interviews) he addresses the psychology and physiology of human aggression.

killology1Grossman’s Warrior Science Group consultants are human behavior studies specialists with credentials in psychology, educational psychology, training, military history, and modern warfare. Each project is unique, and each project is customized to meet the needs of the client. Col. David Grossman, Director, personally contributes to and supervises all projects.

Warrior Science Group examines how culture and society change when one human being kills another. The lives of individuals and families in our society can be literally transformed and the world can become a safer place through education about the causes and impacts of violent behavior.



Warrior Science Group