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 by Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman “We are Training our Kids to Kill”

LieutenantColonel Dave Grossman is a retired professor of Psychology and Military Scienceand a former U.S. Army Ranger who founded a new field of scientific studycalled “killology,” which investigates how and why people kill each otherduring wartime, the psychological costs of battle, the root causes of violentcrime, and the process of healing that victims of violence must go through (seemore of Grossman’s biography at  Following a Bachelor’s of Science at ColumbusCollege in Georgia and a Master’s in Education at the University of Texas,Grossman joined the army, where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel andserved as a professor at both the United States Military Academy at West Pointand as Chair of the Department of Military Science at Arkansas StateUniversity.  The author of three books—On Killing: The Psychological Cost ofLearning to Kill in War and Society (1995), Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie andVideo Game Violence (1999), and OnCombat (2004)—he spends nearly three hundred days each year on the road,consulting and giving workshops about combat and violence.



  I am from Jonesboro, Arkansas. I travelthe world training medical, law enforcement, and U.S. military personnelabout the realities of warfare. I try to make those who carry deadly forcekeenly aware of the magnitude of killing. Too many law enforcement andmilitary personnel act like “cowboys,” never stopping to think about who theyare and what they are called to do. I hope I am able to give them a realitycheck.


  So here I am, a world traveler and anexpert in the field of “killology,” and the (then) largest school massacre inAmerican history happens in my hometown of Jonesboro, Arkansas. That was theMarch 24, 1999, steelyard shooting deaths of four girls and a teacher. Tenothers were injured, and two boys, ages 11 and 13, are in jail, charged withmurder.

Virusof Violence


  To understand the why behind Jonesboroand Springfield and Pearl and Paducah, and all the other outbreaks of this “virusof violence,” we need to understand first the magnitude of the problem.


  The per capita murder rate doubled inthis country between 1957 when the FBI started keeping track of the data—and1992. A fuller picture of the problem, however, is indicated by the ratepeople are attempting to kill one another—the aggravated assault rate. Thatrate in America has gone from around 60 per 100,000 in 1957 to over 440 per100,000 by the middle of this decade. As bad as this is, it would be muchworse were it not for two major factors.

  First is the increase in theimprisonment rate of violent offenders. The prison population in Americanearly quadrupled between 1975 and 2002. According to criminologist John J.DiIulio, “dozens of credible empirical analyses . . . leave no doubt that theincreased use of prisons averted millions of serious crimes.” If it were notfor our tremendous imprisonment rate (the highest of any industrializednation), the aggravated assault rate and the murder rate would undoubtedly beeven higher.


  The second factor keeping the murderrate from being any worse is medical technology. According to the U.S. ArmyMedical Service Corps, a wound that would have killed nine out of tensoldiers in World War II, nine out of ten could have survived in Vietnam.Thus, by a very conservative estimate, if we had 1940-level medicaltechnology today, the murder rate would be ten times higher than it is. Themurder rate has been held down by the development of sophisticated lifesavingskills and techniques, such as helicopter medevacs, 911 operators, paramedics,CPR, trauma centers, and medicines.

  Today, both our assault rate and murderrate are at phenomenally high levels. Both are increasing worldwide. InCanada, according to their Center for Justice, per capita assaults increasedalmost fivefold between 1964 and 2002, attempted murder increased nearlysevenfold, and murders doubled. Similar trends can be seen in other countriesin the per capita violent crime rates reported to Interpol between 1977 and2002. In Australia and New Zealand, the assault rate increased approximatelyfourfold, and the murder rate nearly doubled in both nations. The assaultrate tripled in Sweden, and approximately doubled in Belgium, Denmark,England-Wales, France, Hungary, Netherlands, and Scotland, while all thesenations had an associated (but smaller) increase in murder.

  This virus of violence is occurringworldwide. The explanation for it has to be some new factor that is occurringin all of these countries. There are many factors involved, and none shouldbe discounted: for example, the prevalence of guns in our society. Butviolence is rising in many nations with Draconian gun laws. And though weshould never downplay child abuse, poverty, or racism, there is only one newvariable present in each of these countries, bearing the exact same fruit:media violence presented as entertainment for children.


Killingis Unnatural


  Before retiring from the military, Ispent almost a quarter of a century as an army infantry officer and apsychologist, learning and studying how to enable people to kill. Believe me,we are very good at it. But it does not come naturally; you have to be taughtto kill. And just as the army is conditioning people to kill, we areindiscriminately doing the same thing to our children, but without thesafeguards.

  After the Jonesboro killings, the headof the American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Juvenile Violence came totown and said that children don’t naturally kill. It is a learned skill. And they learn it from abuse and violence inthe home and, most pervasively, from violence as entertainment in television,the movies, and interactive video games.

  Killing requires training because thereis a built-in aversion to killing one’s own kind. I can best illustrate thisfrom drawing on my own military research into the act of killing.


  We all know how hard it is to have adiscussion with a frightened or angry human being. Vasoconstriction, thenarrowing of the blood vessels, has literally closed down the forebrain—thatgreat gob of gray matter that makes you a human being and distinguishes youfrom a dog. When those neurons close down, the midbrain takes over and yourthought processes and reflexes are indistinguishable from your dog’s. If you’veworked with animals, you have some understanding of what happens tofrightened human beings on the battlefield. The battlefield and violent crime are in the realm of midbrainresponses.


  Within the midbrain, there is apowerful, God-given resistance to killing your own kind. Every species, witha few exceptions, has a hardwired resistance to killing its own kind interritorial and mating battles. When animals with antlers and horns fight oneanother, they head butt in a harmless fashion. But when they fight any other species, theygo to the side to gut and gore. Piranhas will turn their fangs on anything,but they fight one another with flicks of the tail. Rattlesnakes will biteanything, but they wrestle one another. Almost every species has thishardwired resistance to killing its own kind.

  Whenwe human beings are overwhelmed with anger and fear, we slam head-on intothat midbrain resistance that generally prevents us from killing. Onlysociopaths—who by definition don’t have that resistance—lack this innateviolence immune system.


  Throughout all human history, whenhumans fight each other, there is a lot of posturing. Adversaries make loudnoises and puff themselves up, trying to daunt the enemy. There is a lot offleeing and submission. Ancient battles were nothing more than great shovingmatches. It was not until one side turned and ran that most of the killinghappened, and most of that was stabbing people in the back. All of theancient military historians report that the vast majority of killing happenedin pursuit when one side was fleeing.

  Inmore modern times, the average firing rate was incredibly low in Civil Warbattles. British author Patty Griffith demonstrates in his book The Battle Tactics of the Civil Warthat the killing potential of the average Civil War regiment was anywherefrom five hundred to a thousand men per minute. The actual killing rate wasonly one or two men per minute per regiment. At the Battle of Gettysburg, of the 27,000 muskets picked up from thedead and dying after the battle, 90 percent were loaded. This is an anomaly,because it took 95 percent of their time to load muskets and only 5 percentto fire. But even more amazingly, of the thousands of loaded muskets, overhalf had multiple loads in the barrel—one with 23 loads in the barrel.

  Inreality, the average man would load his musket and bring it to his shoulder,but he could not bring himself to kill. He would be brave, he would stand shoulderto shoulder, he would do what he was trained to do; but at the moment oftruth, he could not bring himself to pull the trigger. And so he lowered theweapon and loaded it again. Of those who did fire, only a tiny percentagefired to hit. The vast majority fired over the enemy’s head.

  During World War II, U.S. Army Brig.Gen. S. L. A. Marshall had a team of researchers study what soldiers did inbattle. For the first time in history, they asked individual soldiers whatthey did in battle. They discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of theindividual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemysoldier.


  That is the reality of the battlefield.Only a small percentage of soldiers are able and willing to participate. Menare willing to die. They are willing to sacrifice themselves for theirnation; but they are not willing to kill. It is a phenomenal insight intohuman nature; but when the military became aware of that, they systematicallywent about the process of trying to fix this “problem.” From the militaryperspective, a 15 percent firing rate among riflemen is like a 15 percentliteracy rate among librarians. And fix it the military did. By the Korean War, around 55 percent of thesoldiers were willing to fire to kill. And by Vietnam, the rate rose to over90 percent.


 The method in this madness: desensitization.

 How the military increases the killing rateof soldiers in combat is instructive, because our culture today is doing thesame thing to our children. The training methods militaries use arebrutalization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and rolemodeling. I will explain each of thesein the military context and show how these same factors are contributing tothe phenomenal increase of violence in our culture.



  Brutalization and desensitization arewhat happen at boot camp. From the moment you step off the bus you arephysically and verbally abused: countless pushups, endless hours at attentionor running with heavy loads, while carefully trained professionals take turnsscreaming at you. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked anddressed alike, losing all individuality. This brutalization is designed to break downyour existing mores and norms and to accept a new set of values that embracedestruction, violence, and death as a way of life. In the end, you aredesensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survivalskill in your brutal new world.

  Something very similar to thisdesensitization toward violence is happening to our children through violencein the media—but instead of 18-year-olds, it begins at the age of 18 monthswhen a child is first able to discern what is happening on television. At that age, a child can watch somethinghappening on television and mimic that action. But it isn’t until childrenare six or seven years old that the part of the brain kicks in that lets themunderstand where information comes from. Even though young children have someunderstanding of what it means to pretend, they are developmentally unable todistinguish clearly between fantasy and reality.


  When young children see somebody shot,stabbed, raped, brutalized, degraded, or murdered on TV, to them it is asthough it were actually happening. To have a child of three, four, or fivewatch a “splatter” movie, learning to relate to a character for the first 90minutes and then in the last 30 minutes watch helplessly as that new friendis hunted and brutally murdered is the moral and psychological equivalent ofintroducing your child to a friend, letting her play with that friend, andthen butchering that friend in front of your child’s eyes. And this happens to our children hundredsupon hundreds of times.

  Sure, they are told: “Hey, it’s all forfun. Look, this isn’t real, it’s just TV.” And they nod their little headsand say okay. But they can’t tell the difference. Can you remember a point inyour life or in your children’s lives when dreams, reality, and televisionwere all jumbled together? That’s what it is like to be at that level ofpsychological development. That’s what the media are doing to them.

  The Journalof the American Medical Association published the definitiveepidemiological study on the impact of TV violence. The research demonstrated what happened innumerous nations after television made its appearance as compared to nationsand regions without TV. The two nations or regions being compared aredemographically and ethnically identical; only one variable is different: thepresence of television. In every nation, region, or city with television,there is an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within 15years there is a doubling of the murder rate.



  Why 15 years? That is how long it takesfor the brutalization of a three-to five-year-old to reach the “prime crimeage.” That is how long it takes for you to reap what you have sown when youbrutalize and desensitize a three-year-old.

  Today the data linking violence in themedia to violence in society are superior to those linking cancer andtobacco. Hundreds of sound scientific studies demonstrate the social impactof brutalization by the media. The Journal of the American MedicalAssociation concluded that “the introduction of television in the 1950’scaused a subsequent doubling of the homicide rate, i.e., long-term childhoodexposure to television is a causal factor behind approximately one half ofthe homicides committed in the United States, or approximately 10,000homicides annually.” The article wenton to say that “. . . if, hypothetically, television technology had neverbeen developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in theUnited States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults”(June 10, 1992).


  Classical conditioning is like thefamous case of Pavlov’s dogs they teach in Psychology 101. The dogs learnedto associate the ringing of the bell with food, and, once conditioned, thedogs could not hear the bell without salivating.


  The Japanese were masters at usingclassical conditioning with their soldiers. Early in World War II, Chineseprisoners were placed in a ditch on their knees with their hands bound behindthem. And one by one, a select few Japanese soldiers would go into the ditchand bayonet “their” prisoner to death. This is a horrific way to kill anotherhuman being. Up on the bank, countless other young soldiers would cheer themon in their violence. Comparatively few soldiers actually killed in thesesituations, but by making the others watch and cheer, the Japanese were ableto use these kinds of atrocities to classically condition a very largeaudience to associate pleasure with human death and suffering. Immediately afterwards, the soldiers whohad been spectators were treated to sake, the best meal they had had inmonths, and to so-called comfort girls. The result? They learned to associatecommitting violent acts with pleasure.

  The Japanese found these kinds oftechniques to be extraordinarily effective at quickly enabling very largenumbers of soldiers to commit atrocities in the years to come. Operant conditioning (which we will look atshortly) teaches you to kill, but classical conditioning is a subtle butpowerful mechanism that teaches you to like it.

  This technique is so morallyreprehensible that there are very few examples of it in modern U.S. militarytraining, but there are some clear-cut examples of it being done by the mediato our children. What is happening to our children is the reverse of the aversiontherapy portrayed in the movie AClockwork Orange. In A Clockwork Orange, a brutalsociopath, a mass murderer, is strapped to a chair and forced to watchviolent movies while he is injected with a drug that nauseates him. So hesits and gags and retches as he watches the movies. After hundreds ofrepetitions of this, he associates violence with nausea, and it limits hisability to be violent.


  We are doing the exact opposite: Ourchildren watch vivid pictures of human suffering and death, and they learn toassociate it with their favorite soft drink and candy bar, or theirgirlfriend’s perfume.


  After the Jonesboro shootings, one ofthe high-school teachers told me how her students reacted when she told themabout the shootings at the middle school. “They laughed,” she told me withdismay.

  A friend of mine, a retired army officerwho teaches at a nearby middle school, uses the movie Gettysburg to teach hisstudents about the Civil War. A scene in that movie very dramatically depictsthe tragedy of Pickett’s Charge. As the Confederate troops charge into theUnion lines, the cannons fire into their masses at point-blank range, andthere is nothing but a red mist that comes up from the smoke and flames. Hetold me that when he first showed this heart-wrenching, tragic scene to hisstudents, they laughed.

  A similar reaction happens all the timein movie theaters when there is bloody violence. The young people laugh andcheer and keep right on eating popcorn and drinking pop. We have raised ageneration of barbarians who have learned to associate violence withpleasure, like the Romans cheering and snacking as the Christians wereslaughtered in the Colosseum.

  The result is a phenomenon thatfunctions much like AIDS, which I call AVIDS—Acquired Violence ImmuneDeficiency Syndrome. AIDS has never killed anybody. It destroys your immune system,and then other diseases that shouldn’t kill you become fatal. Television violence by itself does not killyou. It destroys your violence immune system and conditions you to derivepleasure from violence. And once you are at close range with another humanbeing, and it’s time for you to pull that trigger, Acquired Violence ImmuneDeficiency Syndrome can destroy your midbrain resistance.


  The third method the military uses isoperant conditioning, a very powerful procedure of stimulus-response,stimulus-response. A benign exampleis the use of flight simulators to train pilots. An airline pilot in trainingsits in front of a flight simulator for endless hours; when a particularwarning light goes on, he is taught to react in a certain way. When anotherwarning light goes on, a different reaction is required. Stimulus-response,stimulus-response, stimulus-response. One day the pilot is actually flying ajumbo jet; the plane is going down, and 300 people are screaming behind him.He is wetting his seat cushion, and he is scared out of his wits; but he doesthe right thing. Why? Because he has been conditioned to respond reflexivelyto this particular crisis.


  When people are frightened or angry,they will do what they have been conditioned to do. In fire drills, childrenlearn to file out of the school in orderly fashion. One day there is a realfire, and they are frightened out of their wits; but they do exactly whatthey have been conditioned to do, and it saves their lives.

  The military and law enforcementcommunity have made killing a conditioned response. This has substantiallyraised the firing rate on the modern battlefield. Whereas infantry trainingin World War II used bull’s-eye targets, now soldiers learn to fire atrealistic, man-shaped silhouettes that pop into their field of view. That isthe stimulus. The trainees have only asplit second to engage the target. The conditioned response is to shoot thetarget, and then it drops. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response,stimulus-response—soldiers or police officers experience hundreds ofrepetitions. Later, when soldiers are on the battlefield or a police officeris walking a beat and somebody pops up with a gun, they will shootreflexively


and shoot to kill. We know that 75to 80 percent of the shooting on the modern battlefield is the result of thiskind of stimulus-response training.

  Now, if you’re a little troubled bythat, how much more should we be troubled by the fact that every time a childplays an interactive point-and-shoot video game, he is learning the exactsame conditioned reflex and motor skills?


  I was an expert witness in a murder casein South Carolina offering mitigation for a kid who was facing the deathpenalty. I tried to explain to the jury that interactive video games hadconditioned him to shoot a gun to kill. He had spent hundreds of dollars onvideo games learning to point and shoot, point and shoot. One day he and hisbuddy decided it would be fun to rob the local convenience store. They walkedin, and he pointed a snub-nosed .38 pistol at the clerk’s head. The clerkturned to look at him, and the defendant shot reflexively from about sixfeet. The bullet hit the clerk right between the eyes—which is a prettyremarkable shot with that weapon at that range—and killed this father of two.Afterward, we asked the boy what happened and why he did it. It clearly wasnot part of the plan to kill the guy—it was being videotaped from six differentdirections. He said, “I don’t know. It was a mistake. It wasn’t supposed tohappen.”

  In the military and law-enforcementworlds, the right option is often not to shoot. But you never, never put your quarter inthat video machine with the intention of not shooting. There is always somestimulus that sets you off. And when he was excited, and his heart rate wentup, and vasoconstriction closed his forebrain down, this young man didexactly what he was conditioned to do: he reflexively pulled the trigger,shooting accurately just like all those times he played video games.


  This process is extraordinarily powerfuland frightening. The result is ever more “homemade” pseudo-sociopaths whokill reflexively and show no remorse. Our children are learning to kill andlearning to like it, and then we have the audacity to say, “Oh my goodness,what’s wrong?”

  One of the boys involved in theJonesboro shootings (and they are just boys) had a fair amount of experienceshooting real guns. The other one, to the best of our knowledge, had almostno experience shooting. Between them, those two boys fired 27 shots from arange of over 100 yards, and they hit 15 people. That’s pretty remarkable shooting. We runinto these situations often—kids who have never picked up a gun in theirlives pick up a real gun and are incredibly accurate. Why? Video Games.


Bibliographic Information:

The essay above appeared on pages 496-502 of…

  Book title:    The Prose Reader: Essays for Thinking,Reading and Writing

  Editors:  Kim Flachmann and Michael Flachmann

  City of Publication:  Boston

  Publisher and Year:  Prentice Hall, 2011

  Medium:    Print

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