Today, my guest is LTCOL Dave Grossman. He requires very little introduction, as I’m sure most of my audience will be intimately familiar with his books, most notably the one that has revolutionised the way we think and talk about combat. The book is of course ‘On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society’, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; has been translated into multiple languages; is on the US Marine Corps Commandant’s Required Reading List; and is required reading at the FBI academy and numerous other academies and colleges around the world.
He is now the director of the ‘Killology Research Group’ and is on the road almost 300 days a year, training elite military and law enforcement organisations worldwide about the reality of combat.
During our chat, we discussed a range of topics, including
- Non-firers in combat and how we made killing a conditioned response
- How anonymity can enable violence and the importance of non-verbal communication
- The logic behind the term ‘killology’
- What LTCOL Grossman means by the phrase ‘no pity party, no macho man’
- Sleep deprivation and its effects on our societies
- The issue with high doses of caffeine in energy drinks
- The impact of sleep deprivation on ethical decision making in soldiers and first responders
- Social blind spots and how they impact our decision making
- The blind spot of creating a generation desensitised to violence and war
- How medical technology decreases murder and death rate, and thereby hides an increase in violence
- How otherwise good people come to do bad things, particularly in war
- ‘Killing enabling factors’ and how they can lead to atrocities
- ‘The virus of violent crime’ and its implications for our future
- The need to understand causes of violence, not means to carry it out
- The power and danger of information
Since I’ve barely scratched the surface of LTCOL Grossman’s extensive biography, you can find an extended version here. You can find a list of other books he has written over the years, including the two mentioned in our chat—’On Combat’ and ‘Assassination Generation’—here.
Listen to the podcast here
LTCOL Dave Grossman – On Killing, Combat, Sleep, ’Blind Spots’ And Everything Else In Between
In this episode, my guest is Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman. He requires very little introduction, as I’m sure most of my audience will be intimately familiar with his books. Most notably, the one that has revolutionised the way we think and talk about combat. The book is On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has been translated into multiple languages. It is on the US Marine Corps Commandants’ required reading list. It’s required reading at the FBI Academy and numerous other academies in colleges around the world.
During his extensive career, Colonel Grossman taught Psychology and Military Science at West Point. He’s also a former Army Ranger who has combined his experiences to become the founder of a new field of study, which he termed Killology. Through this and the energy which he brings to the subject, he has encouraged discussions around the world that have challenged the way we talk about the act of killing in war, the psychological costs of war, the ongoing increase in violent crime and the process of healing by survivors of violence in war and peace.
Throughout this time and apart from writing On Killing, the perennial bestseller, he has published a further 5 nonfiction books, 4 novels and even 2 children’s books. He’s the Director of the Killology Research Group. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he has been on the road almost 300 days a year, training elite military and law enforcement organisations worldwide about the reality of combat. Colonel, I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of your extensive biography. Nonetheless, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Welcome to the show.
Thanks. It’s my pleasure. The whole business began when I was a young paratrooper 82nd Airborne Division in 1974. It went on up to the rank of buck sergeant and then went to OCS, but the 82nd Airborne is our unit ready to punch out anywhere, anytime. We knew we could be in combat tomorrow, and we had Vietnam veterans all around us. We wanted to know what combat was going to be like. They wouldn’t say it. It was like this taboo topic.
Fast forward, I went to OCS and became an officer. I was going to grad school en route to teaching at West Point in the late 1980s. I said, “I’ll do my graduate thesis on killing,” not homicide but lawful killing. The truth is that there are not too many other people that have done much work on that topic. It’s not hard to be the leading expert in a field of one. We pulled everything together. In the book, in a nutshell, people point to some horrible crime and said, “That proves mankind is a killer.” I said, “That’s an outlier.” It’s one in a million.
Here in America, there’s one terrible murder. There’s 1 in 330 million that you hear about. What about the 99.9% who will go a lifetime, never killed anybody or even tried? Think about that. Divorce, infidelity, layoff or traffic accidents. In a lifetime of provocation, less than 1 in 1,000 citizens will even seriously attempt to take a human life. Explain that. What we realised is inside the brain of most healthy species is this hardwired resistance against killing your own kind.
That makes absolute sense from an evolutionary standpoint.
If your territory were in meeting battles and went to the death, it’d be terribly counterproductive. The piranha will sink their teeth and anything that hits the water to other piranhas. Rattlesnakes will wrestle each other, but they’ll sink their fangs and anything else. Animals with antlers and horns are usually the most harmless manner. There are some major exceptions out there but the same thing’s true of mankind.
I had an article in an archaeological magazine co-authored with a guy. It’s a great peer-reviewed archaeological journal about how in ancient wars, almost nobody got killed in the actual battle. It’s the pursuit afterwards where all the killing happens. You look at the early chariot. This one guy with the spear takes out the horse and then the chariot. What value was there in this thing? They weren’t shock troops. They stayed back, and then they were the pursuit element.
In combat, the average soldier in World War II wouldn’t pull the trigger, but crew-served weapons almost always did. If you had a machine gun with a gunner and an assistant gunner, there’s this mutual accountability. Here’s the chariot with the archer and the driver. You suddenly have this crew-served weapon and mobility advantage. We looked at battle after battle. Alexander the Great and all of his battles supposedly never lost more than a couple of hundred men to the sword because he always won. We looked at the United States’ invasion of Panama a little while back, taking Noriega out of control. We said, “We killed all those guys.”
Six months later, we found out those guys are still alive. They sought this for a game of soldiers, snuck off to their village and went back to life. That’s a reality throughout life. We just never went back. The king wants to say, “I killed 40,000 of the enemy in this vast battle,” when the truth is the vast majority of them got the hell out of there. We got this image of these battles. Atrocity is another whole dynamic. When they’re helpless, and you’re killing them off with selected individuals, that’s a different story. In the heat of battle, when we become angry, the forebrain shuts down, the midbrain takes over, and we slam into that resistance.When we become angry in the heat of battle, the forebrain shuts down, the midbrain takes over, and we slam into resistance. Click To Tweet
You are touching on so many interesting threads that I want to unpack. One of the things that I want to ask before we get to that is I want to try and understand Dave Grossman a little bit. There’s this larger-than-life man who has been part of my life at least since 2003 when I first read On Killing and On Combat a number of times. Maybe let’s start a little bit with who you were as a young man and what motivated you initially to go to the military. What was it that drove young Dave Grossman to join the military?
I had a lot of influencers in my early life. One of the most influential authors was Robert Heinlein and especially his book, Starship Troopers. Half of all infantry officers have read it. It was on the FORCE Comm officers’ recommended reading list, and they’re shoving it down the throat of the other half to make them read. It’s a terribly influential book. It takes this individual who enlists in this elite organisation, goes to OCS and becomes an officer. It became my life chart. It started much earlier.
I remember when I went to the first grade. I didn’t go to kindergarten. The school started first grade at that time in that location. The icebreaker teacher said, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” I said, “I’m going to be a soldier. That’s all I ever wanted to do.” Here I am, a young soldier. I went to one of the more elite units that I could find with a minimum of knowledge.
These Vietnam veterans are all around us. We wanted to know what killing was about and what it was like. If somebody said, “How’s sex with the wife? How has it been going on? How often do you get into it,” you blow them off. “Masters and Johnson are doing a scholarly study, and they’ve got this survey. You might tell them.” That’s what happened. As an Army Ranger going to be a West Point psych professor and a buck sergeant doing scholarly research, people would talk to me.
We found out about this resistance to killing. About 15% of the rifleman would fire in World War II. If a leader stood over their shoulder and demanded that they’d fire, most of them would but when the leader’s gone, they’d stop firing. They’d be brave. They’d run ammo. They’d rescue wounded, but for a moment of truth, they wouldn’t pull the trigger. We see the Battle of Gettysburg, where we policed up all the used-up muskets at the end of Gettysburg, and the vast majority were loaded.
It is a valuable commodity of muzzle-loading muskets. Logically, you’d think that they’d at least take one shot and then throw it away. We’ve got the ones that have been loaded and loaded. You got this vision of the guy that stands up there and won’t pull the trigger, puts it down, loads it up, takes it up again and again, won’t pull the trigger. We’ve got over a dozen rounds lodged up the barrel of that weapon. The truth is, with those old black powder weapons, all you’ve got to do is tap it off, and the one round will push all the others out. You’re still a functional weapon.
This dynamic of resistance to killing has been there throughout history. In the American Legion Magazine about a decade back, it was offended by this guy saying that most of our soldiers wouldn’t pull the trigger. They had this big thing if you were at war and you didn’t pull the trigger, tell us about it. They never talked about it again. I know what happened to them because I get those kinds of emails all the time. People said, “My friends died, and I didn’t pull the trigger.”
At the end of World War II, we knew it was an issue, and we overcame that problem by making killing a conditioned response. In World War II, we shot up bullseye targets. We have never known cases of any bullseye ever attacks in our troops. If you’ve been in the Armed Forces of any first-world nation, you never once shot a bullseye. A man-shaped silhouette pops into the field of view. You hit the target. The target drops. It’s a stimulus-response.
A young Sergeant Grossman goes to night school to get a two-year degree to go to OCS. My very first class was Psych 101. I had a great teacher. She said, “Take something that you’re learning and see how the models that you’re learning apply to what you’re doing in your life.” I said, “Look at modern marksmanship training. The military is a perfect example of opera conditioning.” It was the first college paper I ever wrote. We’ve got the reward schedule and stimulus-response. It’s all in there.
Let’s talk about that because that’s an important point that maybe some of my civilian readers won’t necessarily have a clear context to. You made the point that it’s not a bullseye. Anybody that’s been in any of the modern Army certainly doesn’t fire the bullseye unless we’re zeroing weapons. Apart from that, the target is an image of some sort or a computerised graphic. We use an upscaled computer game, which you can line up in an entire section. Maybe you can talk about that a little bit. Why has that had such a profound impact? What is the impact? Your book talks about the difference in firing between World War II to Vietnam, how drastic that difference was.
In World War II, between the individual right ones, 15% to 20% would pull the trigger and are left to their devices. By the Korean War, we got over 50%. By Vietnam, we got 98%, but we weren’t getting the hit rate. There was a lot of spray and prayer going on. The modern video simulators brought us up to a whole new level of not just shooting but hitting the target. Simulator fidelity is the buzzword. The more realistic the simulator, the more that transfers to reality.
It is like video games. Realism is a holy grail of video games. This fidelity is the holy grail, and they’re both the same. We talk about how the fact that the same conditioning techniques are happening in video games to children. It’s a factor in the equation that’s going on there. One of the interesting things about On Killing is we talk about them. I coined the term Killology and it’s been pretty widely accepted. It’s like Suicidology or Sexology.
Criminology is not about teaching people to be criminals. Killology is not about teaching people to kill. We were pretty good at that. It’s understanding the factors that enable and restrain their killing in society. I’ll give you one example. I had an article early in the pandemic saying, “Let’s think very carefully about everybody wearing a mask.”
Israeli research says that if you’re kidnapped or captured, and your captors blindfold you or put a hood over you, you’re far more likely to be killed by your captors. “I can’t see them. I’m not a threat to them, so I’m less likely to be killed.” That’s not what’s keeping you alive. What’s keeping you alive is looking into the eyes of another human being and having to kill them. That’s why in a firing squad, we put the blindfold on them. We don’t do that for them. “Do you want to still be blindfolded?” “No.” You are still brave, but we don’t care.
It’s for those pulling the trigger.
We can deny your humanity. Anything we can do to deny somebody’s humanity increases violence. The headsman or axeman always wore a mask and a hood. It empowers anonymity and violence. We know people will say things online. They would never say face-to-face. The mass creates that same kind of anonymity. We got to look at the section and third-order effects. Maybe it’s worth it. Maybe it needs to be done, but let’s be sure we understand the costs that are involved.
When I teach my law enforcement classes, I’d say from your very youngest days, you saw their face, and they saw your face. You smile and they smile. At a gut-biological level, you don’t understand. They don’t see your face. You can’t communicate anymore. Everything has changed. Talk with your hands a lot. Do that thumbs up there. You’d be amazed. I’m in aeroplanes every day, and we’re all masked up. I give them the thumbs up, and they’re just so grateful.
Somebody’s broken through that barrier. You can’t see their smile or their frown, but you see that heads and thumbs up. One thing that comes out of this pandemic is we’ll talk with their hands a lot more. If fighter pilots tie their hands together, they can’t talk but understand how we can enable and restrain violence and how the mask can allow the dehumanisation of your victim and create anonymity for the attacker. These are the ways Killology can be applied to understand what’s going on in our society.
On Killing came out and did a lot of important things, but I thought what was at the core of combat was the act of killing. There’s a tendency to make too much of that. Survivor guilt and the horrible things that you see. We talk about moral injury, and I’m the guy that introduces that concept. We can’t take that too far. The people who came home from World War II were, in general, just fine. They were the greatest generation. There is a capacity to be empowered by warfare and come out stronger from this situation. A sizeable percentage is not, and the price of war is very high. It’s never taken lightly.
In my presentations, I began to move towards a balancing act. I called no pity party, no macho man. If you think combat will destroy you, then you’re halfway home to being destroyed. We’ve got a lot of myths out there. We talk about 22 veterans a day in America who take their life. We can tell this is true, but the word veteran is different than a combat veteran. In the 40s, 50s and 60s, we drafted everybody. Elvis Presley was drafted. Elvis was a veteran. He served for two years. He got out. Most of those 22 veterans a day taking their life are 70, 80 and 90-year-old men. Suicide among the elderly is a different topic. Worldwide, we are facing a horrendous explosion of suicide. There is a great suicide in law enforcement and firefighters in the military, but there’s also an explosion of suicide in children and normal citizens.
What do you put that down to? That’s another area that I wanted to discuss.
The one new factor. Do an online search for the global epidemic of sleep deprivation. The primary impact of sleep deprivation is impaired judgment. It makes you stupid. You do stupid stuff. The most stupid thing any living organism can ever do is to kill themselves. Every single living organism has a powerful drive to self-preservation. You have to have profoundly impaired judgment to kill yourself. Alcohol and suicide have always been very related.Every single living organism has a powerful drive to self-preservation. You need to have profoundly impaired judgment to kill yourself. Click To Tweet
Alcohol creates impaired judgment. You make a bad decision. You never get a chance to rethink it. The most pervasive form of impaired judgment worldwide is this epidemic of sleep deprivation. Sleep is a biological blind spot. Our bodies don’t know how to make us get enough sleep. It always happened naturally. It got dark every night, and there was nothing to do. It was dark. We had a little talking and had a little sex rolled over, and went to sleep. The body didn’t have to make us sleep. It happened naturally. We invented the electric light, the television and the video game. Also, social media and cell phones. Our bodies don’t know how to make us get enough sleep. Without a doubt, it is a key factor.
My book, Assassination Generation, is one of my most important books. We had stopped teaching our kids to kill. We updated it and changed the format a lot to Assassination Generation. I recommend it terribly highly. This dynamic of sleep deprivation is a key factor in our teen suicides and tweenagers. 10, 11 and 12-year-olds call themselves tweenagers. In America, tweenage girls’ suicide rate has tripled per capita in the last decade. Here’s parenting 101 for the 21st century. When you send your kid to bed at night, take their cell phone away from them. No cell phone, laptop or television in the room. They have got to go to their room and sleep in a dark room.
I talk a lot about sleep hygiene. I had a cop come up to me during the break in one of my classes. He said, “I had a good girl. She was an A student. She said, ‘Dad, it’s embarrassing. You don’t have to take my cell phone every night. You can trust me.’” He said, “I trust her. I let her keep her cell phone, but my little girl took her life. We never knew the hell she was living until we looked at the text messages on her cell phone. It was night after night of ceaseless, relentless and vicious bullying.” He can’t ignore that stuff. We’re not wired that way.
He said, “It was heartbreaking to see her up night after night, all night long, trying to defend herself and find somebody to stand up for her. I understood my little girl was bullied to death. What I didn’t understand until now was she was sleep deprived, tormented and bullied to death in front of my eyes and I let it happen. I can’t ignore that text message in the middle of the night. How do we expect our kids to?”
The incredibly addictive video games that each generation is more immersive and more powerful. I tell all the old timers, “Everybody remembers Tetris.” Think Tetris on steroids with crack and each generation is more immersive. Its research tells us video games are responsible for at least 15% of all divorces in America. Spouse says, “Decide what’s important, your family or that game.” That’s easy.
It’s a powerful drug.
It is a digital crack. It’s addictive. I tell my cops and my military, “There is nothing wrong with any adult playing any game unless it gets the way of your sleep, family, life or job.” It is designed to put us in a flow state, the video game. Set a timer. Play for 1 hour or 2. Ding, the timer goes off. Use your steely warrior discipline. Save the game and move on.
“I play a major massive metamorphic online orgasmic game. You can’t do anything 1 hour or 2 a night.” “Decide what’s important. Is your oath as a peace officer important? Is your vow of marriage important? Is your family important? Is your job important? Is your health important or is the game important? Decide now.” “That game is important.” “Cool. Quit your job right now. Move near your parent’s basement and draw unemployment. Buy a Johnny Economy-sized bag of Cheetos. Play video games all night long.” Millions of people are doing that.
If you want to have a life and you want to uphold your responsibility to your family, job, vow, marriage or oath as a peace officer, you got to get those things under control. I tell him, “I see it. You look at me like a deer in the headlight.” He said, “You’re talking straight to me.” “It’s cool. Nobody ever told you that but now you know. You know well that I’m right. You can’t deny it. We can’t keep doing business that way.” Social media and the internet never sleep. You’re up all night long on social media. We’ve got calls. People who text you in the middle of the night without a good reason are not your friends.
We cut this worldwide epidemic of suicides. We also have a worldwide explosion of traffic deaths. Decade after decade, we brought traffic deaths down, airbags, seat belts and medical technology. Over the last decade and in virtually, every nation on the planet, traffic deaths are back up again. What is the new factor? We know sleep deprivation and alcohol are the two major factors in traffic deaths.
The third major cause of death that has exploded is opiate overdoses. Why opiates? Prescription opiates have always been there. Why is there suddenly a demand? Sleep deprivation creates chronic pain. The tendons of muscle never tend to relax fully. The mega doses of caffeine are stopping us from getting deep-cycle sleep. The tendons and muscles never relax. This global epidemic of caffeine abuse combined with sleep deprivation is designed to create massive chronic pain. I hear all the time, “Doc, give me a pill to fix it.” You don’t need a pill. You need more sleep. Knock the caffeine shortly out to lunch that’s stopping you from getting deep cycle sleep.
That’s right particularly on the coffee and the caffeine side of things. I was a caffeine addict. Like anybody who served, without a doubt, and that has been particularly on deployments, that seems to be the thing that keeps you going. For years, as you triggered me, when you said after lunch, it was when I stopped because of the half-life of coffee. It’s about 6 to 8 hours.
If you drink a cup of coffee at your midday, by the time it’s time to start winding down, that coffee is still half buzzing in you. That’s a challenge. A number of times, I’ve heard people say, “I can have a coffee before going to bed and I’d go to sleep.” I was one of those. I used to have a coffee before going to bed enough to fall asleep. The reality is that sleep is never a clean, deep sleep. That’s the challenge.
We’ve got this new dynamic. Aside from that, our Armed Forces in America have not had a war for many years. For the first fifteen years, we passed out energy drinks like water, the company with those pallets of energy drinks. We gave them to the troops. Aren’t we nice guys? Several years ago, in two major Department of Defence-wide studies, for all practical purposes, there was a complete ban on energy drinks. They’re like alcohol. If you’re an adult and you want to buy your own, we’re not going to stop you but we’ll never give it to you.
In an academic environment, the ones taking the most drinks were the ones with the worst grades. In a tactical environment, the ones pounding down the most energy drinks were the ones most likely not often to do the job. All there is in that stuff is a mega dose of caffeine and some stuff to make you metabolise it quickly. It will give you a one-hour burst of physical ability and then you crash.
Before a PT test or an athletic event, one energy drink is not a bad idea. It’ll give you one hour burst and then you crash. The second one is not doing anything but building your tolerance and addiction. Understand that when we look at our suicides, so much of what’s going on is a broader societal dynamic and we’ve got to be able to try to call out, what are the suicides caused by war? They are real. That is a factor.
The other dynamic that I talk about, no pity party, is this idea that everybody has PTSD. I show them the data right off the VA website that about 11% of the troops who didn’t deploy have PTSD. About 1 out of 10 of the general population, when they push the right button, will probably get a post-traumatic response. About 16% of the ones who did deploy have PTSD and about 5% contract post-traumatic stress disorder.
A lot of people have post-traumatic stress because post-traumatic growth gets on with life. In post-traumatic stress disorder, we throw that D in there far too lightly. I trained at the national intranet and psych conferences. There’ll always be some Brit that says, “Our troops aren’t at 5% PTSD. Why are the Americans so much higher?” They’re not but our media is invested in this attack on our veterans.
The Vietnam veterans were spit on. It did happen. They were villains and baby killers fighting an evil war. Now, they’re victims. There were damaged goods, having been destroyed by war. They’re not. With this emphasis on the negative, we got to have a balanced approach. War is not to be taken lightly. There is a terrible cost. At the same time, please keep it in perspective. No pity party, no macho man. Years ago, an old Miami detective came up to me and said, “Colonel, you tell these kids, ‘Don’t try to be the macho man.’ I got in my shooting. It’s eating me alive. Most cops get in a shooting. It’s no big deal but some of it is. We’re there for them.”
“It was two years of hell after my police shooting. I was losing my family, job and mind. Finally, before the divorce, my wife convinced me to get help. Two months later, it was all over. I could have ended it any time. The docs are good and they get better every day for being good at treating PTSD.” That balancing act, beware of that pity party and that expectation that combat will destroy you. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Beware of that macho man. If there is a problem, deal with it and have faith that help can help.
Aristotle virtualises the mean of two extremes. Don’t go to either of the extremes. That’s a powerful message and an important one in the current climate. You’re spot on. While Australia is certainly not as vocal about our veterans’ and veterans’ suicides, we are starting a big investigation and inquiry into the number of veteran suicides.
It’s deeper into those. Here in the States and almost anywhere else, when we start looking deeply at those veteran suicides, we find out that sleep deprivation is part of it. There is something in the veteran that makes us want to escape and flee reality. The video games, binge-watching TV, the social media all night long, the veteran might be especially vulnerable to that. That is a predisposing factor.
You hit the nail on the head there. It’s almost the gateway to a whole lot of trauma and drama that follows sleep deprivation because it is so easily facilitated. It also reminds me of another important point and that is the impact of sleep. We know through extensive research that sleep deprivation impacts our ability to make moral and ethical decisions. It’s an important and a particularly interesting topic.
I’ll be keen to hear your thoughts on sleep deprivation. I’ve seen it myself with energy drinks and caffeine, living on a buzz or a high. I was never a combat soldier. I was on intelligence. We still worked long hours and days. We lived on caffeine or Red Bull. I wonder what you have to say about the compounding impact of that sleep deprivation over time on our ability to make ethical decisions in war and combat.
I’ll move into my book On Combat, because prior to the war, I retired and was trained in law enforcement. They’re the only ones in combat every day. I still am very much invested in this law enforcement community. The elephant in the living room is sleep-deprived police officers making life-and-death decisions. One of the things that I do in their class is talk about the fact that without sleep, the brain reverts to a primitive pattern. The prefrontal cortex slows down. The amygdala goes into overdrive. Impulsive fight or flight becomes more likely.
Healthy people’s brains can mimic pathological psychiatric patterns when they’re sleep deprived. That’s huge. We got another. It’s a 2017 study from Sheriff’s Department in King County, Washington State, which is a huge sheriff’s office. They found out that if an officer works four hours of additional overtime in a week, the odds that they’ll discharge a firearm go up 15%. In this whole dynamic of what’s happening in this law enforcement community, truck drivers and airline pilots are required to log enough sleep. The cops aren’t. That should enrage us.
One of the things that our whole society should be up in arms about is sleep-deprived first responders, driving vehicles at high speeds, making life-and-death decisions and being sleep deprived. That should enrage us. I’m in an aeroplane every night and if they don’t have a rest as a crew, they cancel the flight. Better no pilot than a tired pilot. In the same way, better no cop than a tired cop. It is better to have no cop than to have somebody walk out there and make bad decisions. We got to embrace that.
It’s this challenge to our civilisation. My next book after On Killing was On Combat. What I realised was at the core is auditory exclusion. How in the hell could we have had 500 years of gunpowder combat and not let people know the shots get muted in combat? This is insane, the things we don’t know. We think we’re like the wisest civilisation that’s ever existed. We send people off to war and we don’t even understand what’s happening. We don’t understand the reality of combat, the simplest little things like tunnel vision, slow motion time and auditory exclusion that people want to combat not knowing.
The book On Combat is what I wrote for my kid going into the fights. It’s in its 3rd or 4th edition. We got so much to add to On Combat Volume 2, which is case studies and applications. We’ll go into some detail on that but this is what people going into the fight need. The killing is academic. It’s interesting. For a tiny percentage, it’s traumatic but for most people, it’s other factors that blindside. What happens in the event is scary. What happens after the event when you re-experience it scares the lights out of you but it is not PTSD.
A gunshot goes off. Your heart is pounding. You’re gasping for air. It’s normal. It becomes PTSD when you try not to think about it. You will drive yourself crazy trying not to think about it. You got to make peace with the memory and separate the memory from the emotions. One of the breathing exercises that’s always been what I’ve used, in recent years we changed to a bottle of water. What we have is fight or flight and rest and digest. It’s this dynamic of this backlash of rest and digest.A memory becomes PTSD when you try not to think about it. You will drive yourself crazy trying not to think about it. You got to make peace with it and separate it from the emotions. Click To Tweet
Take a knee and have a swig from your canteen. It’s incredibly calming. It is sending a mechanism that says, “We’re safe.” Have a drink of water, calm somebody down and give them the ability to separate the memory from the emotion. A friend of mine is one of our nation’s leading therapists for Federal agents. She started using this. We interview the agent about the incident. Every time they start to become emotional, they stop and take a swig of water.
She told me, “It took 14 years of practice and 6 years of college and that stupid bottle of water is doing well as I’ve ever done.” It’s not always that easy. There is more complex PTSD. There are other dynamics involved. What are the factors that we come out of combat with is survivor guilt. “Why me? Why am I alive and they’re dead?” What I tell people is it’s important. Survivor guilt is not PTSD. It’s grieving. It’s a loss. It’s hard but it’s normal.
In the normal cycle of life, we will all bury our parents. If anything were more normal, the parents would die before their children. It’s hard. In most people’s lives, one of the hardest things you’ll ever do is to bury your parents. Is that PTSD? No. Does it destroy us? In most cases, no. We’re a little bit wiser people. We lost our parents so it’s precious every minute can be. Would they want us to be destroyed? No.
In this violent world, is there anything more normal than some of our comrades would pay the ultimate price? Would they want us to be destroyed? No. Survivor guilt is something we got to pull out as a separate strand in the equation. It’s the healing process and everything that goes with that. That’s the On Killing and On Combat in a nutshell.
Can I pick up on one point that you made so eloquently? That is the inevitable fact that we are not as autonomous, rational, free-thinking or free-playing individuals as we think we are. There are all of these various impacts. Sleep is one of them. We may think that when we’re sleep deprived, “No, I’m fine. I’m okay.” We also know after eighteen hours, you’re clinically or legally drunk.
The other impacts of the environment, the group, the identity that one embodies and the role that one plays, all of that has an impact on the behaviours that we then go and carry out. There’s a fallacy in our minds where we think that we are autonomous, rational beings who make our decisions independent of the environment. Do you have any thoughts on that? You’ve touched on that in a number of different areas.
A favourite topic of mine is social blind spots and auditory exclusion, the resistance to killing. I like to use the example of the necktie. The fashions come and go over 100 years. The necktie has been there and it starts at your crotch. It comes up here. It’s got a big knot at the end. It’s a dick. The thing about it is that it works. If you wear your power suit with a big red power tie and your detective knocks on the front door and the little monkey brain goes, it works. That’s why we keep doing it. Women almost never wear a tie. If they do, it’s like their waitress is demeaning.
Women will wear anything men wear but they won’t wear a tie because the monkey brain says, “Who’s that?” It doesn’t work. People said, “Dave, you’re crazy out.” Maybe but you’ll never see a woman reach up to adjust a guy’s tie quite the same way again. They were all wearing dicks. They got elders of the church and the little kid wearing his red tie. They’re all wearing dicks when they see it.
Another social blind spot that I talk about is mowing the lawn. We have to beat our vegetation into a homogenous species and cut it to a certain level. Why do we do that? If we were worried about global warming and greenhouse, we’d have a meadow in it. Why don’t we have a meadow on the front lawn? My city wouldn’t let us get away with growing a meadow in the backyard. They were buying you for it. Why do we have to do that? Our ancestors had to cut down every tree.
When I was at West Point, there was a great historical dynamic. They got Port Putnam halfway up down the mountainside and interlocking fields of fire with these redoubts. You took all the trees off because you wanted us to see it. The trees weren’t there. The trees were a valuable resource. They were firewood and furniture. It’s where the Indians and wild creatures were. The symbol of civilisation was the acts. We would cut down all the trees and leave one in the middle of the field. Have you ever seen one tree in the middle of the field? I suffered this one tree to live that demonstrates my mastery over nature. 100 years ago, we said, “Wait a minute. We need trees.”
Here in America, we admitted Arbor Day. All of a sudden, about 100 years ago, we said, “No, we don’t want to cut down every tree. That’s not fair. That’s not good. We want to plant and grow trees. We need trees.” You see their mindset of cutting down every tree. We’ve taken that far further with mowing our lawn. How much pollution is created? How many chemicals do we shock that lawn with 100 years ago? Why did they have to beat their lawn? Why is there only one species of plant cut to a certain level? It’s insane.
My favourite example is breathing. A friend of mine wrote a book and it’s called Breath. He talks about toddlers in pre-schoolers. You got that adorable little pot belly that hangs out there. Somewhere around five years old, we all learned the Superman pose and suck our gut in. We start doing horizontal and vertical breathing. We look at pictures of primitive tribes all standing there and their guts are hanging out. You’re like, “Look at them.” No, we’re the ones that got it wrong. They know how to breathe. We can’t even breathe right.
Healthy breathing is horizontal breathing. You breathe in and the belly goes out. Let that twinkly tumour hang out there. You breathe out and the belly relaxes. We can’t even breathe right. We’re dicks and we don’t even see it. We beat our lawn into submission. We don’t even see it. I got a book On Hunting and it will be the definitive book on hunting. I had a book come up On Spiritual Combat. I have my most successful book out of the starting blocks as far as reviews and other things but I dabbled with the idea of a book called On Depravity. What’s truly depraved?
When you look at what our society is headed toward, I dabbled into some pretty sick stuff that I couldn’t deal with anymore. Dog sex is out there that maybe become the norm. Also, family sex. The sexuality of children at a young age is done deal with. That’s out of the bag. Those things are depraved but the depravity that will destroy us is violence.
Sex is a healthy part of most people’s lives. It’s up to you if you want to do it within limits but violence has no place in most people’s healthy lives. This obsession with violent television, movies and video games and most importantly of all, how we inflicted upon our children, in the end, when we look at all of this lack of ability to be self-aware, the one that has the most capacity to destroy us is violence. The way we glorify war, movies and TV shows.
I’d seen a movie on TV called Back to Bataan. It was a great World War II propaganda movie. A little five-year-old Grossman looked at it and said, “That’s what I want to do. I’m going to be a soldier.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing but to have inflicted that stuff on a kid at five years old. This stuff is far worse. It’s child abuse. Up until children are 5, 6, sometimes 7 or 8 years old, what they see on TV or in the movie is the same as real life. They can’t discern them. We talk about the children of war and children who see death and destruction.
The truth is physiologically speaking, the one watching a horror movie or war movie is having the same physiological response to their child’s body. When we talk about children of war, we need to understand we’re creating a generation of people who are desensitised and embracing violence. Even more so, when we vilified law enforcement, we take criminals and criminal behaviour, we hold that up in a positive manner.
Right up until the 1960s, in Hollywood, the television industry was operated by a code called the Hays Code. Hollywood said, “We know the stories we tell will have an impact on our society. We have a responsibility to tell stories that will have a positive impact.” Most of the code could be said in three words, “Crime doesn’t pay.” Criminals will not be depicted in a positive manner. Law enforcement overall would not be depicted in a negative manner.
In the late 1960s and getting worse and worse every decade, we turned that on its head where we glorified criminals and vilified law enforcement. The result is horrendous. Let’s cut to the chase on how bad the situation is. There’s another social blind spot that is terribly important. Medical technology is holding down the murder rate. This is so important. The number of dead people badly misrepresents the problem because the docs are saving even more lives every year.
We had a great study that came out in the early 2000s, the Homicide Major Journal. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, medical technology cut the murder rate to 1/3 or 1/4 of what it would otherwise be. That is to compare murders in the ‘90s with the ‘60s. You have to multiply the murders in the ‘60s by a factor of about 4. The leaps and bounds of lifesaving technology were coming off the battlefield. Since the early 2000s, it’s astounding.
Tourniquets alone. Every cop has tourniquets. If a cop slaps on a tourniquet and saves a crime victim’s life, you’ve prevented a murder. Some medical experts believe that tourniquets alone have cut the murder rate in half in America in the last decade. In 2020, we had the George Floyd riots and Defund the Police movement. All the attacks and the vilification of the media are showing the same over and over again. What’s the result of that?
This didn’t happen and it is not the pandemic doing it because we’re not seeing it in all these other nations. It was these riots that did more harm in property value than we’ve ever seen in the history of our nation. We talk about inflation-adjusted dollars. We compare the minimum wage from the 1960s and 1990s without aligning it with inflation. We’re lying. We compare the murder rate between the ‘90s and ‘60s and don’t allow for medical technology. We’re lying. Just as we have inflation-adjusted dollars, we need medically adjusted murders. When we do that, it will transform the way we see it.
In 2020, we had a 37% increase in homicides across America. The worst we’ve ever seen was a 12.5% increase in 1 year in the 1960s. The worst annual increase in homicides was 12.5% in 2020. We’re looking at 37%. It’s not three times worse than the 1960s. It was 10 to 20 times worse. When we began to understand it, people say, “The murder rate is back to the 1990s level.” No, it’s much worse than that. It’s at levels we’d never seen before. It’s worse than the 1960s level. I can tell you in one sentence, “You get it. Medical technology holds down the murder rate. The number of dead people underrepresented the problem.” Why doesn’t our entire civilisation embrace that and accurately reflect the level of violence in our society?
What about violent assaults? Is that the same then?
It’s a temptation to use the aggravated assault rate in America. The problem is it’s too easy to fudge that data. Where do we draw that magic line between ag assault and simple assault? We’ll make the ag assault rate say whatever you want it to say but dead is dead. Murder is murder. Murder is pretty solid data but it’s flawed data. Unless you allow for medical technology, then it is almost perfect. To reflect how bad the situation is, everything else we can fudge the data on but dead is dead. There are some people fudging the data on murder.
Cops tell me stories about when we reported at the national level for the first 24 hours and we don’t know the cause of death, it goes up to the national recording level. It’s an unknown cause. One guy told me, “Sergeant has been murdered.” “We don’t know. You’re not the coroner.” “He’s got three bullet holes in him. He’s murdered.” “You don’t know that. You’re not the coroner. It’s an unknown cause of death.” We bring our murder rate down as far as what’s reported at the national level by waiting 24 hours before we say, “I guess he was murdered.” That murder didn’t get reported. People can play with the murder rate but it’s about the best gold standard that we have.
The important point to make there is it doesn’t even have to be intentional. That’s a systematic requirement that a coroner needs to pronounce somebody’s cause of death. It might not be a bad intention for somebody intentionally trying to bring the murder rate down but the result is the same. That multiplied across the country.
It’s happening at an unconscious level. Medical technology is holding down the murder rate. Why don’t we all embrace that? Why don’t we all accurately reflect the situation? It keeps coming back to these social blind spots. There are things we don’t want to talk about and things we don’t want to confront. The truth of it is that we’re the least self-aware and healthy civilisation the world’s ever seen. We’ve got this image of ourselves as the epitome of human achievement. Everything from the necktie to mowing the lawn, to not knowing the reality of combat to hiding from ourselves the reality of crime rates. It’s certain times.Medical technology is holding down the murder rate. Click To Tweet
That’s a nice way to bring us back to that question of the impact and the environment because I want to hone in on that a little bit. I don’t want to come back to the kind of virus of violence, as you refer to it. One of the things that I’m grappling with to contextualise and understand myself and I’ve spoken about this to various other guests in my show, is how a perfectly healthy soldier who is noble, honourable, well trained and ethically sound, we see declined.
It’s not always but sometimes. We know this, not just in recent conflicts but we know in Vietnam how the line got blurred between what is right and what is wrong. Not easily necessarily. You talk about this one example of in Vietnam, a person on a bike wearing black pyjamas was very much closely tied to the Viet Cong. You kill him because the excuse was, “I’m sure he’s Viet Cong. Why else would he be riding away from us?”
This is quite relevant for us in Australia at the moment because some of our Special Forces soldiers are accused of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. I’m pretty sure there’s something similar in the US in the UK. I certainly don’t want to cast judgment on him. What I’m trying to do is understand how good people come to do bad things. Talking about the environment, how does that happen?
Every one of these accusations has been looked at very carefully. The memory distortions that come out of combat are powerful. We had a thing a while back when one SEAL guy in Vietnam said, “We’ve murdered this room full of innocent civilians.” Everybody else said, “No, we didn’t.” Is he hiding it? Is it a memory distortion?
I’ll give you an example. I was training a bunch of cops. Afterward, a cop came up to me and said, “I want you to understand how powerful these memory distortions can become. I shot this guy. He was charging me with a knife. He was 3 feet away. I knew I had been cut. I kept looking at my hands to look for blood. I’m in the vehicle with friends going back to the station.”
“I said, ‘Do you see any blood?’ ‘No. There’s no blood there.’ ‘Are you sure there’s no blood?’ ‘Yes, there’s no blood there.’” He believed with such intensity that he had been cut. Over and over again in the face of no blood on his hands, he can’t believe that because that belief was so intense that even in the face of being wrong, he keeps trying to re-embrace that belief that happened at the time. First off, give everybody their day in court.
That was the point I was making. I couldn’t agree more, which is why I’m stressed, alleged.
The truth is we know it can happen. The best model I have is that model from On Killing of the killing enabling factors. We have My Lai, the massacre that happened in Vietnam, as a great example. We’ve got a unit that’s been in combat continuously so they’re horrendously sleep deprived. That’s one of the predisposing factors. They had a beloved sergeant who had been killed in combat, another predisposing factor.
They got a leader demanding that they commit this crime. They’ve got group dynamics in which all of them are together. The reason why we have a lot of people in our firing squad is the diffusion of responsibility in this. We’ve got this dynamic of dehumanising the enemy. You’ve got almost a perfect dynamic in which all of the factors come into play. It’s so important in warfare that we overcome that.
After Vietnam, the United States Armed Forces became the first armed forces in history, without a doubt. We see it pretty much worldwide where we teach our soldiers how to disobey an illegal order. In 1974, Private Grossman was in basic training. We had a film. That’s an illegal order and you must have followed that order. If the chain of command won’t deal with it, then go to the chaplain. What a revolution on the battlefield.
We fought this war with fewer atrocities and these kinds of things. Ever before in history, we’ve been so careful about collateral damage and yet it still happens. It’s hard. The things that are hard for soldiers to live with are not killing and not necessarily the survivor guilt but that person that got in the way and was the child that was killed by accident the enemy shoved at us to create a situation in which you had to make the decision.
I want to capitalise on that point to be explicitly clear about my stance on this. You’ve captured it quite neatly. We fall for the trap and we often use the term a few bad apples. The few bad apples that have gotten rotten and have steered away. What you said as well is arguably, if all the conditions are right and met, it’s inevitable. This is the whole piece about us not being these glorious, autonomous free-thinking, freewheeling beings. We are an animal that is programmable. As the point you are making with all of the training that we go through, we are programming our soldiers to become far better. That is a stimulus-response as you rightly point out.
To close the loop on that, it’s important for your readers to understand that. When you become frightened, the forebrain shuts down and the midbrain takes over. That’s where that resistance, the killing comes in. The way we make frightened people do what we want them to do is by offering and conditioning. A kid in a fire drill, a pilot in a flight simulator, the space shuttle goes down into their last second they’re doing drills that they’ve been drilled to and things they’re trying to do to fix the problem.
A pilot is going down an aeroplane full of people as a jetliner is going down. That pilot is scared out of his wits. They’re going to die. There’s no doubt about it. To the last second, they’re in the process of trying different possibilities. That pilot has been drilled on emergency responses. They don’t panic or run away. They keep going. That’s the power of operating condition, stimulus-response. We’ve turned the modern military into the condition response and that becomes the new dynamic deterioration.
Thanks for that. That all speaks a lot to how I perceive the world as well. I’m conscious of your time. We maybe start wrapping it up. I do want to take us out on this key message that you have and that is this virus of violent crime that we’re seeing through violent games. The US is a particular case study and you’re quite vocal about that. I’ll hand it over to you. Maybe give me your thoughts on where we are at the moment. What is the threat? What are the dangers?
We’ve talked about the fact that the murder rate is being held down by medical technology, why we got that down. When we get an accurate reflection of how bad it is, it’s mind-boggling but it’s even worse than that. The DSM, the bible of psychology on PTSD, says, “Whenever the cause of your trauma is human in nature, the degree of trauma is usually more severe and long-lasting.”
People die of natural causes every day. With disease and heart disease, people die every day. One serial killer or one serial rapist can paralyse a city. The poor Darwin massacre in Australia transformed the way a nation operated. That same day, thousands of Australians died from natural causes that didn’t change their behaviour. Traffic accidents are accidents. They don’t change their behaviour. On 9/11, 3,000 citizens were murdered. We went to war. Our way of life changed forever. That same year, more than 30,000 people were killed by traffic accidents, which changed nothing.
Understand that a human being with its violent, interpersonal human aggression is the most psychologically corrosive thing anyone will ever face. That’s what we’re looking at, this virus of violence and the explosion of violence. I cover it in my book, Assassination Generation, which is terribly important to understand the magnitude of the threat. In 2020 and 2021, things came unglued in America. The annual homicide rate increased 10 to 20 times worse than anything we have ever seen before. It keeps coming back to that whole dynamic. In the end, it’s the depravity that society can’t live with.
In the end, this self-delusion that is the most capacity to destroy us is our failure from the terms with the sick stuff we’re feeding our children, the predisposing factors to violence and the trauma that was inflicted upon our children at a young age. Desperately, we’ve got to get that one under control. We can keep wearing our ties and mowing our lawns. The one craziness that we can’t sustain that is dooming our civilisation is our failure to understand how bad the situation is and the harm that’s being done by feeding this stuff to our children. The same operant conditioning that we give military and law enforcement is being done to children without the safeguard of discipline. That should enrage us.
One of the things that I can’t ask because you’ve been quite vocal on this as well, and this is maybe my cultural programming here, so maybe help me understand, for us in Australia, it is the link between homicide rates, particularly in the US, which we also know in Australia is certainly amongst the highest in the developed OECD countries. Maybe it is not necessarily in the world because there are places that are far higher than the US.
For us, the natural link is that there are so many guns in the US so therefore, if the environment is such that children are programmed or desensitised to violence, then there’s accessibility to weapons. To us, it seems like there’s a natural correlation between the availability of guns, the programming that occurs and then the resultant violence. Where do you sit on that? I won’t put words in your mouth.
We’ve got Mexico right south of us there. It’s valuable to go to Wikipedia and look at world homicide rates. There’s a list of every nation on the planet. Click on the rate and click it again, get the worst ones on top. Look at the 30 most violent nations on the planet. With the exception of Brazil and South Africa, which have limited gun rights, every single one of those nations has got unarmed citizens.When we lack the ability to be self-aware, the one that has the most capacity to destroy us is violence. Click To Tweet
How are those gun laws working out for Mexico? How’s that working out for Columbia or Guatemala? How’s all that working out? The truth is when we say, “America has the highest murderer in a developed nation,” what they do is anything with a higher homicide rate than us, they take it off the list, and then they say, “These are the developed nations.” When you dig into that, it’s far more complex than that.
Quite frankly, I’ve heard the figure, and it’s probably accurate that 1/3 of all the homicides in the world are occurring in Latin American and South America. Almost with very few exceptions, maybe in Brazil, where there are limited gun rights, you’ve got these gun laws. How’s that working out for those nations? It’s more complex than that. The dynamic of being able to protect yourself is a critical part of it. Around the world, if you’re a politician or wealthy, you have armed security. The peasants and the peons will never have the same right. I am my family’s secret service. I’m very well trained. It’s my hobby and sport.
We’re not peasants and peons who’ve been robbed of our ability to protect ourselves, as has happened in Mexico or all of Latin America and across vast chunks of the world. We look at nations like Russia, semi-totalitarian nations. Russia has had juvenile mass murders and its college massacre in Crimea with 20 dead and 50 wounded.
We look at China, the one nation in the world that has probably succeeded in confiscating all guns. We see daycare masters and kindergarteners with access to hatchets, knives and swords. There was a guy with a hammer in a daycare and their skulls were in one by one. We get report after report of mass murders in China done with knives. It’s not about what’s in their hand. It’s about what’s in their head.
I couldn’t agree more. That speaks to that environment. Any kind of weapon is merely a means to an end that is already motivated by something else. If I understand you correctly, that’s an important point. It could be a whole range of factors. As we talked about as soldiers, it could be a range of factors that bring a person to that one point where violence through whatever means, whether it’s a pistol, an assault rifle, a knife or a pole, doesn’t matter. It’s going to be the motivation behind it to drive it.
It is so easy to look at one factor and think that’s going to solve it all. Part of what’s going on here is the media will never point the finger back at themselves. They will never admit that there’s any harm done. The commercials are worth vast amounts of money because it influences behaviour but they accept no responsibility for what’s in between the commercials. They’ve got to point the finger somewhere else. It is easy to point it to some inanimate object and claim that’s what’s responsible for it. If we get rid of all those guns, does it all go away? We’ve got a complex dynamic going on, but in America, we believe.The media will never point the finger back at themselves. They will never admit that there's any harm done because of them. Click To Tweet
I hope I’m wrong, but as we see things coming on unglued around the world, we may say a time in Australia, “Why are we punishing law-abiding citizens when criminals continue?” An island nation, which has complete control of its borders, might be able to do this, but our nation with 3,000 miles of border with Mexico and very porous coasts, as far as being able to get around the border and bring things in, we can’t stop millions of tons of marijuana and cocaine coming in the nation. All of a sudden, we can’t stop millions of illegal aliens, but we’re going to wave a magic wand to stop all the guns.
That is why I empathise with your perspective. The reality for the US is such that if you asked all the law-abiding citizens to hand their guns back, they might, but what about all the non-law-abiding criminals? They certainly won’t hand their guns back. You are therefore disempowering the population. Another point in the US is the pressure on the police. We are hearing whispers of it here. The whole idea of defunding the police and removing particular holds and so on from the police cut those that are protecting the population off their feet. It’s playing a part. It’s partially that narrative of media and the competing narratives that exist as well.
Of all the topics we could look at, you are focusing like a laser beam on the most important topic in the world. We can live with a variety of depraved and crazy dynamics in our society but this is the one that will destroy us and we need to get right. I always try to take time in every podcast. When I was a kid, we had three TV networks. One is maybe two newspapers in every city and a couple of national magazines, maybe half a dozen. If you didn’t get on that limited handful of media outlets, your voice would never be heard.
Now, we have this breakthrough of information. We have the podcast revolution, which is one of the most profound and positive dynamics in our civilisation. I commend you for your dedication to looking deeper into this topic and I commend your readers for seeking more information than a three-minute soundbite. That represents one of the most hopeful dynamics. In the midst of all the other insanity, there are some positive things that are happening and this is one of them. Hats off to you. I wish you the very best in your future endeavours in this direction, Maz.
Colonel, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for your time.
Take care and God bless.