Shoot to Kill

Some people claim that it is really, really difficult for humans to psych themselves up to kill another human.  They often cite a claim by S. L. A. Marshall that only a small fraction  – less than 25% – of WWII American combat infantrymen fired their weapons in battle.

Other people (Dave Grossman in particular) have built major theoretical structures on this observation,  saying that humans have a built-in mental module than inhibits us from killing conspecifics (presumably for the good of the species).  Grossman parlayed this line of thought into a stint as a professor of psychology at West Point.

Which is pretty impressive, especially when you consider that it’s all bullshit.  S.L.A Marshall’s ‘data’ is vapor; there was and is nothing to it.  He made shit up, not just on this topic.   There’s every to reason to think that the vast majority  of infantrymen throughout history did their level best to kill those on the other side –  and there’s a certain satisfaction in doing so, not least because it beats them killing you.

You have to wonder about a universal human instinct that apparently misfired in every battle in recorded history.

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148 Responses to Shoot to Kill

  1. “You have to wonder about a universal human instinct that apparently misfired in every battle in recorded history.”

    Point taken. On the other hand, why should I take gcochran9’s undocumented claims over those of some other guy I’ll never meet?

    • magusjanus says:

      well, you could do your own research. and you’d find say Spiller’s work on Marshall’s bs. as well as Marshall’s outright fabrications about his own “combat” history.

      Ultimately you have to decide what sources you find trustworthy and which aren’t (and why/when). From my several years of reading Cochran’s blog I’d humbly volunteer that he’s earned some credibility for not lying and for being pretty straightforward and almost always correct (including speculations).

      Which is more than I can say for most outlets, especially “official” academia of the NYT, fashionable mainstream progressive variety.

      • David Hackworth in his book About Face shows Marshall as pretending to write accurately about a battle but instead actually writing fiction in order to make the story more dramatic and appealing. So I’m not surprised that Greg says Marshall made up shit. He certainly did in Vietnam.

      • L says:

        The quality of that paper (NYT) has gone down like never before under the new editor.

    • pyrrhus says:

      Here’s a little thought experiment–let’s say that your little tribe or h/g group, whatever that may be, is in a fight for survival with another group. You, a member of that group, refuse to fight or kill members of the other group. If your group loses, all the males will be killed, at least. You will not reproduce after that. If your group wins, the other fighters will not be pleased with you, and even if they don’t kill you out of hand (likely),the women will think you are pathetic. How do these pacifist genes get transmitted?

      • “well, you could do your own research”

        Magusjanus, if you take a look at my blog, you may find it to be filled with speculation and nonsense, but I doubt anyone will accuse me of failing to cite sources.

        “Here’s a little thought experiment”

        No, I see your point immediately; I think it’s very strange that so many people I’ve met describe feeling difficulty killing so much as a chicken. On the other hand, well, I’ve met big muscular men who talk about having trouble killing chickens.

        • Asher says:

          Were they trying to choke them? ‘Roids do that, ya know.

        • ursiform says:

          Some people find it easier to kill another person than to kill another type of animal. But individual cases do not justify generalizations.

        • Boris Bartlog says:

          My dad cried after taking an axe to one of our roosters and had to send the other fifty chickens to the butcher to be taken care of, out of sight out of mind. On the other hand, I’ve killed over two thousand chickens without a problem. I do think there was a generation, born 1940 or so, that was little exposed to blood and gore growing up; the same people that were shocked and revolted at the realistic violence when Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ hit the big screen.

          • CBurd says:

            Don’t know about that. The generation that experienced combat in World War Two favoured movies that were psychologically realistic but avoided showing grisly details. Partly this was due to censorship, but I think it’s pretty obvious that postwar generation had far more lurid tastes than their elders. I think people who have never experienced real violence and suffering are able to accept them simply as thrilling images. The movies of Quentin Tarantino are a prime example, with their abandonment of a moral viewpoint and psychological realism in favour of…

            …I have no words to express my disgust for his kind of cinema.

          • Dave says:

            Gore porn?

      • If there were no reluctance to kill other humans, intra-group violence would be a bigger problem than inter-group violence. The tribe would kill itself off before the enemy got the chance.
        Obviously people can kill, but most need to be psyched up to kill other people face to face, something that early 20th century armies had largely stopped doing. It’s easier the more different the other guys are, so differences in uniform, race, even smell can help.

    • Kate says:

      “why should I take gcochran9’s undocumented claims over those of some other guy I’ll never meet?”

      because he’s grumpy! in the old days one knew who was knowledgeable because they were grumpy; allowed to be grumpy. not unpleasant just slightly irritated by the lesser intellects around them. that privilege is now preserved for people who make money. we seem to admire them being annoyed with people who haven’t got the knack. we don’t value knowledge anymore, the sort of all-encompassing understanding of biological processes, mathematical possibilities, and historical trends, that greg has. but we do, as a culture, value material wealth more and more it seems. why bother building a house of cards when ‘pick-up 52’ is so much fun?

    • Patrick Boyle says:

      When I was in the Army on the rifle range the sergeant did indeed cited the statistic that most troops in the Second World War didn’t fire their weapons. But this wasn’t attributed to any kind of peaceable instinct but rather just a natural reluctance to put your head up above the rim of the entrenchment where it could be shot. We were also instructed to go around screaming ‘kill, kill, kill’ at every opportunity.

      We had all been civilians just a few weeks earlier but there wasn’t much doubt we would have happily committed any sort of wartime atrocity in battle. Ever was it so.

  2. Tim says:

    Who are you going to believe, social scientists or these lying mountains of dead bodies?

  3. ziel says:

    But dogs do seem to react to other dogs with quite a bit less hostility than to other non-human animals – more like playmates, generally (with obviously some exceptions). Perhaps that’s a neotenous trait – but couldn’t such a trait also be prevalent among humans?

  4. Hesse Kassel says:

    Human beings a pretty reluctant to kill other people under normal circumstances. Not too surprising considering how dangerous it is. The tough bit is not to get soldiers to kill, but to get them to accept the risk of being killed.

    The armed forces have all sorts of tricks to persuade soldiers from training systems, to military discipline, to military justice, to military decorations. It seems to work fairly well, but running away or shirking is still fairly common.

    • Jay1 says:

      You have to wonder about a universal human instinct that apparently misfired in every battle in recorded history.

      This reminded me of something I heard on a podcast. Richard Wrangham said this (about armies going face to face):

      The way that violence tends to happen is by people avoiding direct confrontation, waiting until they can commit the violence from a safe perspective. In fact there was a study over a hundred years ago of what happens when armies are sent towards each other; and very often they just slide past each other and don’t hit each other at all, or they stop before they can get within the range of their weapons.

      Do you know what study he’s talking about?

    • dearieme says:

      The Duke of Wellington said something to the effect that all regiments will occasionally lose their nerve and run for it; what mattered was that the men should eventually obey orders again and return to the fray.

  5. I recall reading about that and thinking immediately it must be wrong. If shooting people at a distance were so abhorrent, then that would apply even more to arrows, spears, darts. And really close work, like knives, swords, or running over folks with your horse would be right out.

    I never followed up on that. Too lazy or something. I did wonder if he was describing himself and finding ways to extend it to others.

  6. FredR says:

    When I first heard this theory, I spent 10 minutes googling and decided that the evidence was nonexistent. Why were people (including but not limited to the military) so eager to believe it?

    • Sean II says:

      Not sure why the military would accept such hooey, but it sure makes a nice lullaby for everyone else. One good example is that Grossman spends a lot of time (and perhaps makes a bit of extra money) talking to schools about active shooter “prevention”. What he tells them is an appealing story: your kids aren’t nasty little primates at all, ready to run wild at the first sign of a lapse in the vigilance that restrains them. They’re just noble savages who’ve been horribly desensitized by movies and video games.

      Parents and teachers eat it up, in the amusing belief that they’re getting the truth straight from a real-life tough guy who knows just how hard it is to make men tough.

      Gotta love the chutzpah.

  7. Gerard Mason says:

    The currently-fashionable mind-set seems to include beliefs that: 1) all morality is relative and all ethical systems are equally valid, 2) ‘progressive’ morality is just that little bit more valid than every other system, is the one that most people in most cultures will tend towards if they are allowed to choose, and is in fact the ‘correct’ one. Since these beliefs are usually contextual at different times, people — progressives at any rate — never seem to notice that they hold directly contradictory views.

    The Romans and the Greeks used to expose unwanted babies at birth, and I would be surprised if they were the only cultures that ever practised this. In other cultures people have estimated valour and honour by the number of scalps you collected, encouraged widows to burn themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre, torn out their enemies hearts as sacrifices to the gods, enslaved other humans, eaten other humans, killed all their brothers on ascending to the throne — and apparently found all this quite normal.

    I agree with the poster who said that the real reason for aversion to killing is the likelihood of failing and being killed or injured yourself, and would add also the likelihood of being found out and punished.

    • Gerard Mason says:

      Not to mention that in our own dear culture a timely reclassification has moved the killing of unborn infants from the category of grave crime to something any female can demand, with a consequent change of associated emotions from fear and guilt to a little mild depression. Real instincts don’t change over those timescales, do they?

      • Abortion is another good example of human squeamishness, just like exposure. The infant in the womb can’t be seen, and everyone pretends the killing is a medical procedure. The lies and cant ‘woman’s right to choose’ – around abortion are a product of the human aversion to killing.

    • Exposing infants is a good example of human reluctance to kill. They’d much rather leave the living baby alone and let nature takes its course. If it were not for the reluctance to kill, the unwanted babies would be actively killed, as with livestock.

      • gcochran9 says:

        “a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food; whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled, and I make no doubt, that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or ragout.”

  8. SteveB says:

    I read Grossman’s book years ago with my (except for me) left-wing Book Club. He spent the first part of the book assembling evidence that face-to-face, and in the heat of battle, men do not, in fact, try to kill their opponents, instead preferring to ‘posture’ or ‘submit’. The remainder of the book was devoted to his theories about not-to-kill instincts in humans, which he felt followed from the evidence.
    I pointed out that he himself notes that most of the killing in a battle was at the end, when one side gives up and flees. Apparently soldiers will enthusiastically kill people who are running away and offer no threat. The rest of the club refused to discuss this, so enamoured were they of Grossman’s theories, and I left soon after.

    • Priceequation says:

      Was there any mention in Grossman’s book of how easy it is to get shot in the inner-cities of large American cities? Most convicted killers from big city USA claim the reason they killed their opponent was pretty simple: for not respecting them or showing deference, for trying to steal their woman/prevent them from hooking up with woman X or woman Y or for making them look bad in male-male competition. Things like that. How did Grossman explain the endemic inner-city violence of Latin America, Africa, S. Asia etc? The theory sounds pretty dumb.

  9. eurogenes says:

    Here’s an interesting thesis:

    American Soldiers and POW Killing in the European Theater of World War II

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Yes, but the Brits and Americans still did less of it than any of the other major armies. Think of the POW policy of the Nazis, the Red Army and (shudder) the Japanese. WWII was just a brutal war, and even the good guys, (or at least, the much better guys) did some terrible things. The fact that other armies did worse certainly does not excuse war crimes, but pretending that the U.S. Army was unique in doing this sort of thing is disingenuous.

  10. cassander says:

    in modern conflict, the vast majority of casualties are caused by indirect fire weapons and artillery, not rifles. Grossman overstates reluctance to kill, his thesis is better stated as is reluctance to kill under certain circumstances, specifically individual combat with ranged, direct fire weapons.

    • Patrick Boyle says:

      I have no doubt that there is among most people a certain reluctance at first to kill some one. But this is quite easy to overcome.

      I was a medic in the Army. The first time I had to stick a needle in someone else’s arm I got the shakes – rather like the medical students witnessing their first autopsy. But later on it became routine. I didn’t give it a second thought.

      Fathers used to ‘blood’ their sons in the hunt so as to ‘make them a man’. The blood games in the arena were at least in part public policy to accustom the urban Roman populace to the sight of blood. Farm lads naturally grow up with the blood of domestic animals, but the City Fathers were concerned that the delicate sensibilities of city dwellers needed to be tempered with the necessity of killing.

      The Special Forces at one time gave each recruit a dog. At some point in their training they were told to stick their knife in their pet’s eye. Better to overcome your reluctance in the Dog Lab than out on your first patrol.

      • reiner Tor says:

        The Special Forces at one time gave each recruit a dog. At some point in their training they were told to stick their knife in their pet’s eye. Better to overcome your reluctance in the Dog Lab than out on your first patrol.

        However, I would be scared if my comrade killed his pet in cold blood. I’d prefer a comrade who might waver before killing an enemy, but would never ever kill a comrade. And killing your pet (especially a pet as loyal as a dog) comes too close to killing a comrade for my taste. I like the idea of having soldiers kill animals to learn the taste of killing, especially killing dogs (they are probably more human-like and so more suitable for such training) than most other animals, but first forcing the soldiers to keep them as pets? This is disturbing. I would use unknown dogs for the job: after all, you won’t know the enemy soldiers either.

        • gcochran9 says:

          There is a suggestion that something very similar happened among ancient Indo-Europeans.

        • Patrick Boyle says:

          This story may not be true. I certainly never did anything like that myself, but it was told to me by a personal acquaintance named Bob, who was indeed in the Special Forces at the time. He was crazy guy. Trust me – a very crazy and a very dangerous guy.

          If you go on the Web there are also accounts of the Special Forces shooting their dogs in the ‘Dog Lab’. If you knew Bob you wouldn’t doubt that such things are possible. He was always trying to get into gun fights with blacks in downtown Washington. I did see that.

          • gcochran9 says:

            There used to a be a German Shepherd on my Sunday paper route: tried to get me every time. Eventually its owners gave it to the Army, where they shot it to help train medics in treating large-caliber bullet wounds.

      • Isegoria says:

        Grossman recommends hunting for that reason in a recent Art of Manliness podcast.

        Also, I don’t think American Army Special Forces have ever done anything like you suggest, but Soviet Spetsnaz certainly felt that no soldier should be afraid of blood.

  11. cassander says:

    forgot to mention that while SLA Marshall is not the most reliable source in the world, his findings were almost universally accepted by ww2 veterans. Had he been far wrong, there would have been some pushback.

    • gcochran9 says:

      He was completely wrong. If soldiers hasn’t been firing, low-level commanders would have seen it, kicked them in the ass, and complained mightily about it in their accounts of the war. Didn’t happen.

      • My grandfather in law in the Third Infantry early 1945 recounted his platoon firing at two fleeing German scouts who had been ambushed at close range. Most of the men were shooting, but only in the general direction of the enemy; few were really shooting to kill. One of the Germans was killed in the first volley, the other got away.

        • There weren’t any complaints, and even though this unit was involved in heavy combat there was not a lot of massed infantry fire. Most activity was sitting, walking, being shelled (both by Germans and fellow US), hiding, trying not to die. There was an ambush by a German 88mm on his column that killed a lot of men, and a counter-attack by German ‘Tigers’ (official history says they were tank-killers) likewise.

        • gcochran9 says:

          It’s called ‘missing’.

          • Would 30 men firing repeatedly at a moving, non-human firing-range target be likely to miss? I’m not sure.
            Anyway my impression is that Marshall’s apparent claim that 80% of soldiers in combat did not fire their weapons at all was (a) made up and (b) wrong. Most soldiers did fire – they did what their comrades were doing. But neither would it be true to say that all or nearly all soldiers always did their level best to kill the enemy (I’ve seen one or two accounts of this actually happening, in close-quarters urban combat, and witnesses remarking on how unusual it looked, “like a Western movie” – not like the real combats they were used to seeing). With a typical unit you seem to get a pretty standard 80-20 distribution, 20% of the men do 80% of the killing and other exceptional stuff such as capturing prisoners. (My grandfather in law’s oral history is here BTW – the war stuff is in the middle, it does not have all the recorded tales but it has a good few).

          • It’s remarkable to me how differently men behave when operating a squad-crewed weapon, eg Bill Powell describes a German counter-attack by ‘Tigers’ near Colmar (official history says they were tank-killers with no turret but Tiger chassis, so same armour). The unsupported US rifle infantry fled or hid, but the US soldiers manning the anti-tank gun kept firing at the enemy, shells bouncing off the Tiger armour, until the enemy killed them.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I guess the archers at Crécy and Agincourt were shooting to miss: boy, if they’d really tried, they would have wiped out most of the chivalry of France.

      • CBurd says:

        Weren’t they shooting unaimed volleys?

        • gcochran9 says:

          At Agincourt, volley fire at a distance, and aimed fire when the French men-at-arms closed, up to point-black fire. I’d guess on the order of 100 arrows per French death, accurate compared to modern warfare, where it’s more like 10,000 bullets per casualty. Although that’s about to change…

          Not counting the French prisoners killed by archers, perhaps a few thousand. That was probably knife-work.

      • Firing up in the air to blanket an area is completely different from trying to kill an individual target. And of course most people can shoot to kill an individual target who is actively trying to kill them – what we have is a reluctance to kill, not an absolute prohibition.

    • Anonymous says:

      Not only kicked them in the ass but shot them in the head – with or without a court martial. That alone would be a strong motivator to improve one’s shooting accuracy.

    • dearieme says:

      “In his memoirs Marshall said he once went across from El Paso into Juárez and ordered a hamburger and a beer in the Black Cat, a casino owned by Villa. The general walked in and bet a friend that he could shoot a comb off a waitress’s head; the bullet struck her in the forehead, and she fell dead, her skull split open. Marshall claimed to remember both men laughing uproariously. It was, he said, his first sight of a shooting death; he was fifteen years old.” I’d say he was a fantasist.

  12. I saw somewhere an explication of Marshall’s work that claimed he was right about many infantrymen not firing in battle but wrong about the reason. The correct reason not being reluctance to kill but instead reluctance to expose oneself to enemy fire (particularly when your ability to actually hit anything with your weapon seemed doubtful).

    • Steve Sailer says:

      William Manchester’s WWII memoir “Goodbye, Darkness,” has an account of his first kill, in a sniper v. sniper duel on Okinawa. It don’t recall him being all that emotionally conflicted over it — the Japanese sniper was trying to kill him, after all — but it did take a fair amount of training to be able to perform competently under extreme pressure. The Japanese soldier could fire at him from behind a rock while exposing only part of his face but Manchester was, I believe, left handed and needed to roll out completely from behind his rock to shoot.

      Firing squads traditionally issued some soldiers blanks at random so they could tell themselves they maybe didn’t really kill the prisoner., so there was some sensitivity to a reluctance to shoot somebody in cold blood.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        George MacDonald Fraser wrote about killing several Japanese soldiers in his WWII memoir, “Quartered Safe Out Here”, and did not express any particular regret, if anything quite the contrary. Neither he nor Manchester strike me as being psychopaths, or anything close to it. Fraser also never mentioned men not firing their weapons in combat.

  13. ursiform says:

    We now know that even sweet, cuddly, pacifist chimpanzees will kill each other. What hope for people?

  14. ursiform says:

    By the way, sweet, cuddly, pacifist dolphins sometimes kill each other, as well. Oh, the humanity!

  15. Xenophon Hendrix says:

    I found this article and this one. It’s rather embarrassing, because I believed the writers who cited Marshall.

  16. MawBTS says:

    I bet the crew of the Enola Gay weren’t trying to hit Hiroshima, it was just an accident.

    • James Kabala says:

      I think believers in this theory distinguish bombing people you cannot see from afar (supposedly easier) from shooting people you can see up close (supposedly harder).

    • cassander says:

      Grossman specifically talks about how bomber pilots never had any issues dropping bombs, for a variety of reasons, physical distance, inability to see the targets, the mechanical nature of bomb dropping, etc.

      • gcochran9 says:

        He’s lying or seriously deluded. History is chock-full of armies that positively reveled in close-in killing. Read about routs, when an army broke: casualties could be extremely high.


        • Cassander says:

          He also talks about how people are willing to kill routes. You really should read the book before proclaiming it nonsense.

          • gcochran9 says:

            No. Look, I’ve read hundreds of books on military history; if he’s right, every one of them is wrong. His key sources are known to be bogus: he goes out of his way to misinterpret stuff with known explanations, like multiply-loaded Civil War rifles. He’s a bullshitter.

  17. jamesd127 says:

    Personal experience: I have great difficulty killing a chicken, but if I think a human threatens me or mine, what is really hard is not killing him.

    • Kindke says:

      I have the same experience, what I have found is that something needs to flip the “kill switch” in my brain for me to want to do harm, serious harm, or even kill another human.

      It is nigh impossible to do harm and kill someone just out of pure savagery and for the sake of doing it. That sort of disinhibition requires brain tumours or brain defects.

      I think this why people report having difficulty killing animals, something ( or someone ) needs to slight you or threaten/disrespect you in order for you to have violent motivations against it.

      You might not want to kill a chicken, but what if it broke into your house one night and tried to peck your eyes out while you was sleeping? Suddenly the violent urge is there.

    • Eugine_Nier says:

      Yet even children who grew up on farms don’t have this problem.

      • hoodathunkit says:

        @ “Yet even children who grew up on farms don’t have this problem.

        Not true. Farm families today typically deliver animals to a butcher. For on-premises butchering, about 49-of-50 farmers have another person perform the kill, but do the rest themselves. It isn’t the blood or gore, it’s about the life.

        It is deskism to equate butchering with homicide.

        • Eugine_Nier says:

          Farm families today typically deliver animals to a butcher.

          Maybe in 21st century America. The stories I heard are from a farm in rural Mexico where the parents would send their teenage kids out to kill a chicken for dinner.

  18. IC says:

    Hermann Goering’s Quote
    On War And The People

    “Naturally the common people don’t want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, IT IS THE LEADERS of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is TELL THEM THEY ARE BEING ATTACKED, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. IT WORKS THE SAME IN ANY COUNTRY.”

    –Goering at the Nuremberg Trials

    • IC says:

      Ideology on average people like magic – creating plenty of cannon fodder.

    • georgesdelatour says:

      I’ve often seen that Goering remark being quoted on the internet, usually with no attempt to assess it critically. People seem to think that merely posting it verbatim is an utterly devastating contribution to any debate.

      I’d say that, in September 1939, Poland really was being attacked. It wasn’t simply a matter of unscrupulous Polish politicians lying to the Polish people, telling them falsely that they were being attacked.

      The Nazi-Soviet occupation led to Poland losing its leaders. At least the leaders had to flee, and become a government-in-exile in London. Most of the leader class still in Poland were murdered at Katyn (that was the whole point of Katyn, BTW).

      Somehow this leaderless, abolished Polish nation managed to field more than half a million partisan volunteers to fight against the Nazis; often – as in the Warsaw Uprising – with no backup from anyone. It’s significantly more than the French managed, even though France was far easier to supply from London.

      I don’t think you can explain Poland’s contribution to WW2 in terms of Goering’s theory of lying, brainwashing leaders.

      • IC says:

        People will fight back at any perceived attacks which include real one or brain-washed one.

      • Richard Sharpe says:

        Most of the leader class still in Poland were murdered at Katyn (that was the whole point of Katyn, BTW).

        Somehow this leaderless, abolished Polish nation managed to field more than half a million partisan volunteers to fight against the Nazis; often – as in the Warsaw Uprising – with no backup from anyone.

        I find the juxtaposition of these two items somewhat interesting.

        • georgesdelatour says:

          You mean the uprising was ultimately pointless? It was in retrospect.

          • ursiform says:

            They expected the Red Army to support them. Instead, Stalin let the Nazis slaughter the Poles before taking Warsaw.

            Ultimately, they failed to understand Stalin’s true aims and character.

          • reiner Tor says:

            Stalin let the Nazis slaughter the Poles before taking Warsaw.
            Ultimately, they failed to understand Stalin’s true aims and character.

            Soviet troops were exhausted before Warsaw, with their lines of communications stretched, and with increasing German resistance (German lines of communications got shorter…) there was no way they could have captured Warsaw.

            Warsaw is roughly as far away from Gomel as Strasbourg is from Omaha Beach, I can see no reason why the Soviets should have easily been able to push further when the Allied offensive ground to a halt after comparable distances.

            Previously, the Soviets did “help” the Polish partisans in Eastern Poland: they chased the Germans out, then invited the Polish leaders to their headquarters for talks, only to arrest them at gunpoint, then disarm the leaderless Polish Armia Krajowa soldiers, offering them to join the Armia Ludowa. Those who refused (the vast majority, as far as I know) were deported to Siberia.

            I personally cannot see a reason why Stalin would have behaved differently in Warsaw, if he could easily move into Warsaw. Obviously, he couldn’t.

          • Richard Sharpe says:

            No. It seems that somehow, in your mind, the fact that the Soviets killed large numbers of the Polish elites is related to (or caused) their resistance against the Nazis.

          • georgesdelatour says:

            Have you heard of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact? You do understand that the September 1939 invasion of Poland was a co-ordinated, joint Nazi-Soviet invasion? Many Polish military, political and intellectual leaders were captured by the Soviets. Stalin gave the order to execute the most prominent 22,000 of them in March 1940. But only a coterie in the Politburo and the NKVD knew they’d been killed. Most Poles believed their leaders were still alive, held in POW camps deep in the USSR. The point is, even if alive, they were clearly not available to lead the Polish partisans.

            When Nazi Germany attacked the USSR in June 1941, the invader and invaded of 1939 were reconciled. Poland and the USSR promptly signed the Sikorski–Mayski Agreement, committing them to fight together against the Nazis. The Polish government in London immediately asked about the missing men, and Stalin said that the Soviet authorities had “lost track”of them in Manchuria. The Nazis discovered the mass grave at Katyn in April 1943.

  19. RCB says:

    I read the first few chapters of Pinker’s recent book on violence. He argues that the frequency of violence (very broadly defined in his book) really has changed dramatically even in historical time (i’m sure he wasn’t the first to do this). I don’t know what mechanisms he used to explain this change. Some trends seem too fast (e.g. across a few generations) to be genetic evolution, though I remember Henry Harpending suggesting in a talk somewhere that law and order in England (or elsewhere in Europe) could have imposed strong selection pressures against violent men. Not sure if he did the numbers, though.

    I remember hearing (can’t remember from where) that things like the Rape of Nanking were much more common in the past, but without visual documentation, most people never heard of such atrocities, and so there was no outrage. As war documentation improves, people can’t get away with such crimes. The implication being that if the wars of history were accompanied by video cameras, folks would have been a lot more “ethical.” I doubt this is entirely true, since the definition of “ethical” surely changes over time, and folks might have been more accustomed to violence in the past anyway. But it seems plausible that documentation has played some role in recent history. Not sure if anyone has looked into this seriously.

    • ursiform says:

      If the Japanese had actually captured China and held it for an extended period the outrage would have been much less. I don’t think video cameras would have made much difference, they were probably proud of their brutality.

      Even without pictures, many such past events are well documented. But they are rarely taught in schools because they violate the belief that people are generally peaceful and only attack each other under extraordinary circumstances.

    • HBD chick suggests that forbidding cousin marriage expands the idea of “my folk” to a larger set, and was responsible for much of the reduction of violence from the 13th C on that Pinker reflects on. Also, growth of nationalism over tribalism, a larger grouping. Go over and visit her site. She’s been at this quite a while across a variety of cultures. Pinker drops a hundred hints that there actually is some genetic, selective, evolutionary reason for the reduced violence of NW Europe. His official position, however, is that gee, it was the Renaissance, and even more the Enlightenment – yeah, check the dates on those – that account for most of it. He’s a very smart man. He may be attempting to titrate the amount of medicine he believes the culture can bear.

      Or he may just be unwilling to give up his Enlightenment fetish.

  20. Ilya says:

    Off-topic, but thought that this is in vein with what Dr. Cochran has been mentioning regarding the medical profession:
    Apparently, medical professionals in some sub-fields still kill more than they cure!

  21. Pingback: Citizen X and the Pareto distribution | Entitled to an Opinion

  22. Isegoria says:

    I’ve been reading Grossman’s work — not On Killing, but Defeating the Enemy’s Will and other essays — and excerpting it on my own blog recently.

    As for S.L.A. Marshall, I get the impression that he thought he was “telling it like it is” in his Men Against Fire, but he presented his “findings” from talks over a few beers as systematic data collection via after-action interviews, so it would be scientific.

    I don’t know how accurate his impressions were, but many other sources have come to similar conclusions — but with a very different tone and no scientific pretenses.

    I can say the same of Grossman, who gains credibility with some audiences by referring to a reluctance to kill, while losing it with others. If you read what he writes, he’s describing when and how soldiers will kill, as well as when they won’t. They will kill if they’re on display — firing a crew-served machine-gun, for instance, or when the sergeant’s at their shoulder — and they will kill if the enemy is sufficiently foreign, or running away, etc.

    I find his emphasis on posturing credible, because we know soldiers — and wannabe soldiers — have always emphasized looking badass and making a lot of noise.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Who came to similar conclusions, from careful observations? Shit, it’s not that complicated: every squad leader knew the score, and the guys resupplying small-arms ammunition did as well.

      Name one credible source for this silliness. There are two things going on here: the idea appeals to soft-headed social liberals, and people (like a lot of high brass) that don’t like having to deal with citizen soldiers rather than long-term professionals. I’m sure that the citizen-soldiers of WWII (especially in the US & England) didn’t much like dealing with the professional officers either, mostly because they weren’t very competent.

      People are reluctant to get killed. but they’re not that reluctant to kill. They never have been.

      • Isegoria says:

        Grossman cites many, many sources other than S.L.A. Marshall — although many don’t discuss a reluctance to kill, but rather something that Grossman (not unreasonably) interprets that way.

        For instance, Grossman cites Swank and Marchand’s World War II study, which noted the existence of 2 percent of combat soldiers who are predisposed to be “aggressive psychopaths” and apparently do not experience the normal resistance to killing or the resultant psychiatric casualties associated with extended periods of combat.

        To his credit, Grossman dislikes the term psychopath for such men and suggests a very different term.

        (My own post on this should appear in a couple days.)

        • Isegoria says:

          The new post is up. An excerpt:

          According to Gwynne Dyer (War), United States Air Force research concerning aggressive killing behavior determined that 1 percent of USAF fighter pilots in World War II did nearly 40 percent of the air-to-air killing, and the majority of their pilots never even tried to shoot anyone down. This 1 percent of World War II fighter pilots, Swank and Marchand’s 2 percent, Griffith’s low Napoleonic and Civil War killing rates, and Marshall’s low World War II firing rates can all be at least partially explained if only a small percentage of these combatants were actually willing to actively kill the enemy in these combat situations.

          There’s more than one way to interpret that data, of course.

          • ursiform says:

            I find the claim about fighter pilots being just barely believable. Toward the end of the war there were a large number of fighter pilots who did nothing but escort bombing raids, and many of them may never have had anything to shoot at. That the top 1% did a disproportionate share of the killing is reasonably explained by their having greater skill and aggressiveness, as well as opportunities. But that in no way proves that most fighter pilots were unwilling to shoot. That some were more aggressive than others in creating opportunities to shoot is not proof that the others wouldn’t take a shot when they had one.

            I suspect the statistics were different for Navy pilots in the Pacific, where they were fighting a different kind of air war.

            The problem here is the cherry picking of data to support a predetermined conclusion without bothering to understand what the data really mean.

            • gcochran9 says:

              Grossman is absolutely full of it. He claims that soldiers in the Civil War deliberately fired to miss. He cited an account that mentioned many unfired weapons found after Gettysburg, many with multiple loads. Multiple loading happened: but the procedure for firing a Civil war rifle was a lot more complicated than with a modern rifle, and if you screwed up, it wouldn’t fire. Which you might well not notice in the middle of a battle, and thus load it again.

              The idea that soldiers are oh-so-reluctant to kill in battle is false and silly, but the fact that many people have bought into it is revealing.

      • dearieme says:

        My father, who was a citizen soldier, told me that every obviously competent officer he dealt with was either from the Reserves or from “civvy street”. The professionals were largely duds. Perhaps not among the engineers or the artillery, but he wasn’t in either.

        • gcochran9 says:

          It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s the way it was in WWII – for the US and Britain. Maybe worse for England, because the US Army was originally tiny and had to rely more on newbies. I don’t have the same impression for the Germans, at all: they had a much more competent officer corps.

          In the American Civil War, many officers were smart. West Point, in those days, was a way of getting a free engineering education – I think they attracted talent. Later, in the US, the Army was seen as a career for losers.

  23. Fake Herzog says:


    Your influence has spread to the famous (among reactionary cranks like us) “Isegoria” blog:

    Keep up the good work.

  24. IC says:

    If you really enjoy killing another human, be a cop.

    At least one of my high school classmates tell me why he became policman. He was looking for any excuse that he could use his gun.

    Proffesional soldiers have lousy odd to get killed.

  25. Greying Wanderer says:

    “Why were people (including but not limited to the military) so eager to believe it?”

    Why did so many people so soon after millions of them had actually been in battle believe it?

    It’s a mystery.


    If it’s only a tiny minority who do almost all the killing then the same small minority (or half of them anyway) would be the ones killing all the prisoners and if the ability to kill easily is a genetic trait then it could have declined over time so a modern western population could have a smaller percentage of killers than they did in the past.

    The inner city gang culture is effectively a psychopath breeding program.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      almost all the close-up killing I should say – as artillery does most of the total amount – which is the interesting point. if people can’t see who they’re killing then it – if there is an it – doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue so it – if there is an it – is partly visual.

      my personal theory is it’s connected to empathy and mirror neurons and such like so aiming at someone who is close enough to actually hit triggers dissonance through imagining self getting hit by a bullet. i think normal people shut their eyes when they fire.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        I’m not saying they don’t fire btw just that they don’t fire at anything close enough to hit except with their eyes closed.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Since it doesn’t happen, you’re wasting your time trying to explain it. So shut up already.

        If 75-85% of US infantry soldiers weren’t firing, their squad leaders and platoon leaders and company commanders would have noticed – maybe wondered why most of the men never needed more ammunition.
        Then they would have done their best to get them to fire. None of this happened.

        • Ilya says:

          I’m a relative wimp, but I’d definitely fire to kill, and also make sure the bastard is dead, before I have to advance further. Just so that they don’t kill me first/back. Fear can actually be a great motivator for not-over-the-top ruthlessness.

        • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

          Of course they could have fired without firing towards the enemy or, at least, with out aiming at anyone. That would consume ammo to little effect.

        • Greying Wanderer says:

          You’re wrong on this.

          Imagine you’re standing in a trench or foxhole and firing level then your head is up. If you lower your head then your rifle goes up so the people not lowering their head will be doing all the killing and the people hiding will be firing high.

          There’s a lot of ways this can be true without it having anything to with people being “nicer”.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        my personal theory is it’s connected to empathy and mirror neurons and such like so aiming at someone who is close enough to actually hit triggers dissonance through imagining self getting hit by a bullet. i think normal people shut their eyes when they fire.

        You know, armies know about empathy and fear and shit, and they train soldiers to avoid all that sort of stuff. Of course, it doesn’t work with all of them, but it works with enough. They shoot deserters as well, which helps keep the rest in line.

    • melendwyr says:

      It’s not a mystery. There is war mode, and civilian mode. No society – even a tiny band of hunter-gatherers – could sustain itself if its people treated each other the way they treated enemies of the tribe.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        Alternatively no settled, civilized society could sustain itself with the level of ease of killing that is normal in HG or pastoralist groups.


        Option A) everything is environmental except homosexuality

        Option B) everything is genetic except relative ease of killing

        Option C) relative ease of killing is genetic too and as such the frequency within a population goes up and down depending on the balance of selection pressures

        (and therefore is much higher among (most) HGs and pastoralists and gradually declines over time amongst farmers down to some low minimum say c. 2%)

  26. DK says:

    That’s pretty much what my grandfather kept saying: there wasn’t much of a heroism anywhere, and there wasn’t a glory in it – it’s either kill or be killed; that simple. I can’t remember the exact number but an average time to live for a Soviet infantryman private during WWII was something astonishingly short – two or three months? Grandpa was got lucky – he managed to get into a “reconnaissance-sabotage” unit.

  27. Hokie says:

    Is it possible that Marshall looked at the wrong line of a chart to get the 25% number? Maybe it was the percent of the overall troops (sailors, pilots, merchant marine, etc) rather than combat infantry that fired their weapons. Or did he just make it up?

  28. Erik Sieven says:

    if there would be any psychological barrier to killing other humans it could have only stopped killing them with bare hands, or maybe a primitive weapon like a club. it would barely affect a situation with a gun.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      1) If there was a barrier then what would be a likely source? Mother-baby imo – a mechanism to stop mothers hitting too hard when angry at their kid.

      So that would be one selection pressure in one direction.

      In a hyper-violent HG type environment then there would also be an opposite selection pressure in favor of ease of killing (with gender effecting the balance between the two pressures).

      If you removed the hyper-violent selection pressure then the balance between the two would shift and the frequencies of “empathy” vs ease of killing would change.


      2) What form would such a mechanism take? It wouldn’t matter if it did the job so what about if the mechanism was imagining self getting hurt the exact same way so hitting the baby conjured up an image of self being hit or trying to stab or shoot someone conjured up an image of self being stabbed or shot. In that case the empathic reaction would be a form of vicarious cowardice.


      Combine 1) and 2) and what do you get?


      “it could have only stopped killing them with bare hands, or maybe a primitive weapon like a club. it would barely affect a situation with a gun”

      I’d say visual range so less of a barrier at 300 yards then at 50 yards and no barrier* for artillery, drone operators or B52s.

      (*excluding exceptionally imaginative artistic types)

      imo people miss live targets at ten feet with handguns because they shut their eyes.

  29. Sean says:

    People take risks and kill for the same reason they do most things: behavior is contingent on the social environment.That is why Audie Murphy said he took out a load of Germans “Because they were killing my friends ” .

    Patton:”When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt from your face and you realize that it’s not dirt, it’s the blood and gut of what was once your best friend, you’ll know what to do.”

    The poor performance of the US army infantry in WW2 needing explaining. it was actually due to the US army policy on how to use manpower. On paper it was effective, but it brought a lot of total strangers into units, which disrupted their cohesion.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      It also wasn’t particularly poor, considering the context. Dupey estimated that it the British and American infantry were about equal to each other, that it took about 1.2 American or British soldiers to equal one German, and that all of the above were superior, man for man, to the Soviets, Chinese, and Japanese. Being tied for second best isn’t bad for an army that was essentially extemporized about a year prior to the war, when the U.S. Army was actually smaller than the army of Romania. But, yeah, U.S. replacement policy was terrible, it might have been designed to damage unit cohesion.

      • The British had the regimental system, which creates valuable cohesion and esprit d’corps. The Americans didn’t and don’t, so if anything it’s remarkable that they were mostly comparably effective. If anything I suspect that Americans in 1944 had a lower initial reluctance to kill than British; American murder rates and use of firearms have been much higher than in Britain for centuries. Britain and Germany at the start of WW2 both had pretty pacified populations, moreso than Russia or America. From anecdotes I’ve seen the Germans regarded the Russians as superior in hand-to-hand melee combat; they were less reluctant to get their hands dirty.

        • Toddy Cat says:

          “From anecdotes I’ve seen the Germans regarded the Russians as superior in hand-to-hand melee combat; they were less reluctant to get their hands dirty.”

          That’s certainly believable – the Red Army soldiers were primarily from pretty rough rural backgrounds, and they had good reason to hate the Nazis. Having SMERSH or whatever the Hell it was behind them probably didn’t hurt their aggressiveness, either.

  30. Jacobite says:

    I’ll tell you what: this shirking of duty in the face of the enemy, running away, and killing your pet dogs is quite strongly frowned upon in the United States Marine Corps. In the cases where it occurs the folks who do so invariably end up either being killed by the enemy or locked up in the brig or psych ward.

  31. Kate says:


    December 29, 2014 at 3:18 pm “Why did so many people so soon after millions of them had actually been in battle believe it? It’s a mystery.”

    Psychobabblists have something called, I think, ‘shift to risk’ – the idea that a group will take bigger risks because members can ‘blame’ each other for what happens. Extrapolating, one might imagine that people who had been engaged in mass homicide might like to think, afterwards, that it was the other guys what done it.

    December 29, 2014 at 3:56 pm “my personal theory is it’s connected to empathy and mirror neurons”
    December 30, 2014 at 2:38 am “1) If there was a barrier then what would be a likely source? Mother-baby imo”

    I read something similar once; 02/19/2013 at 5:04 AM



    • gcochran9 says:

      What makes you think that combat veterans ever believed this?

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Good point. My Dad was a combat infantryman in WWII, and if he ever heard of SLA Marshall, it’s news to me. As for his views on this, Dad was an NCO, and he had lots of stories about the men he served with, many not really complimentary, but he never mentioned not firing in combat. And as an NCO, it’s the sort of thing that he would have noticed.

      • Kate says:

        I don’t. I tend to believe what you say. But some men avoid conscription and some go AWOL, so it’s possible that some veterans prefer to believe they might not have killed as many as others did.

        I think this is the most interesting topic you’ve raised. I wouldn’t mind being a sniper but I wouldn’t enjoy a melee.

  32. It’s very common for animals to show reluctance to kill other animals of the same species, while being much more ready to kill other species. It’s hardly surprising that humans show the same reluctance. Of course this reluctance can be overcome, but most of those historical battle deaths are killings of captives with blows from behind, or fleeing foes hit from behind.
    My grandfather-in-law described his experiences fighting at Colmar in the Third Infantry Division, and they seem to fit what I know of SLA Marshall’s thesis. Men using squad-crewed weapons showed no reluctance to use them effectively, but most infantry firing personal weapons did.

    • ursiform says:

      There is great reluctance to kill likely relatives, which is bad for gene survival. But in mammals that live in male dominated groups it’s not unusual for a new alpha male to kill infants to increase his breeding opportunities. Chimps kill chimps from other bands, but rarely chimps from their own band (who are probably related to them). With humans we devise many ways to separate “us” from “them”, and there is much more reluctance to kill “us” than to kill “them”.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      With all due respect, Simon, to both you and your Grandfather – in law, I don’t think that your Grandfather’s experiences do support Marshall. Marshall didn’t say that infantry soldiers fired wildly, or didn’t fire against targets against which rifle fire would have been ineffective, like tanks – he said that they didn’t fire at all. There are plenty of very believable and confirmed accounts of wild firing and poor marksmanship, but that wasn’t what Marshall was saying. But you’re certainly right about the crew-served weapons – that’s why both the WWII Germans and the U.S. Marines made the LMG the center of their infantry squads. The WWII era U.S. Army was probably in error in depending so much on the Garand, fine weapon that it was.

  33. Sean says:

    Combat veterans in their latter years come to believe all kinds of things. For example in one of his later books Ernst Junger wrote “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger; and what kills me makes me incredibly strong.”. There is nothing like that in Storm Of Steel, which was written when combat was much fresher in his mind. And though in SoS Junger tells of an incident where he got hunting fever and slaughtered the enemy mercilessly, he says a comrade watching was taken aback.

    See, combat veterans are are affected by the social environment like everyone else. Junger was in post WW1 Germany, so he got increasingly Nietzschean. In the post WW2 West people liked to believe that totalitarian ideology was responsible for humans killing, so the intellectual milieu was favourable to the idea that soldiers of the democratic Westerner states were reluctant to kill

    Of course the real reason humans kill is nothing to do with the ideology (many believers in ideologies of peace and cooperation have become extremely murderous). No, humans’ just have an innate propensity to identify with a symbolic community and defend its members. Read Gerd Gigerenzer and Bruce Hood

  34. Count Doofus says:

    Referecing an amateur historyan, battle efficiency follow paretian 20/80, with top 20 soldier making all work and the rest couching, panicking and shooting aimlessy. Maybe this is what SLA refers.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Nope. He’s referring to nothing at all: “John Westover, Marshall’s assistant, who traveled across Europe with him and who was usually present at the interviews, does not remember Marshall’s ever asking about the refusal to fire. “Nor does Westover ever recall Marshall ever talking about ratios of weapons usage in their many private conversations,” writes Spiller.”

      Soldiers certainly vary in aggressiveness, but that’s mostly a function of how much risk they’re willing to take, rather than reluctance to kill.

  35. Sean says:

    Early in the war, Audie Murphy shot two Italian officers in the back at long distance as they were riding away on horses. Some of his comrades remonstrated with him.

    He had a broad face, Audie Murphy. There is certainly something to the idea that a proportion of people are by nature not repelled by the thought of inflicting serious injury on others.

    • ursiform says:

      I don’t believe Audie Murphy showed any special proclivity to hurt people after the war ended. Perhaps he was just more interested in winning a modern war than pretending to be chivalrous.

      • Sean says:

        He threatened to kill one of his directors, and he was charged with assault with intent to endanger life after giving another unfortunate fellow a pistol whipping. Murphy was a gambler, he had serious problems with alcohol like so many of the most highly decorated soldiers.

        Modern war is drone killing by remote control from 7,000 miles away, where there is no possibility of any risk.

  36. Cplusk says:

    This famous youtuber cites the claim by S. L. A. Marshall too:

  37. Dale Force says:

    It really gets silly when even if you buy everything Marshall wrote, he isn’t a good source for the claim. In later books, he says after some training changes, 63% of American soldiers in Korea used their weapons. Some support for innate reluctance to kill!

  38. Steven C. says:

    Some military commanders did worry that the average soldier was reluctant to kill enemy soldiers; but probably the real problem was that their soldiers were either incompetent or overly cautious. On the other hand it can be useful if the enemy believes that you are willing to take them prisoner or let them flee instead of slaughtering them; it’s still a victory for your side. I believe that someone did a study of battles for which there were reliable casualty figures and determined that the winning side had greater casualties as often as lesser casualties compared to the losing side.

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