I've debated for several days after reading "On Killing" whether to post a review or not. I have tremendous respect for the author and his professional credentials but must disagree with his thesis and especially his use of two sources in particular. The author is a devotee of S.L.A. Marshall as were many until two works in the late 1980s cast serious doubts on Marshall's methodology and even his personal character. This blew open while I was a graduate student, specializing in military history and therefore became a topic of intense debate within my circle of fellow students and professors, especially my mentor, who was a British Commando in WWII. The second source I would debate is some of the information the author took from Paddy Griffith's works on the American Civil War.
The underlying thesis of "On Killing" is that mankind is instinctively hard wired Not To Kill. How I wish that was true, and yet our bloody record across recorded history and plenty of evidence even prior to recorded history shows the exact opposite. We are, by instinct "killer angels." Read "War Before Civilization" as but one counter argument. But directly to my concern about the author's sources. "SLAM" Marshall's reputation was built on alleged interviews, hundreds of them, immediately after combat during WWII in which he asserts that at least 75% of combat infantry never fired their weapons, thereby proving that soldiers, at least American soldiers abhor killing and try to avoid doing so even at the risk of their lives.
Marshall's work was called into serious doubt in the late 1980s by one history who simply ran a "time analysis" on how many soldiers Marshall claimed to have interviewed and came up with an impossible number of hours to have achieved the number of interviews he claimed, in other words falsified data which was turned about to fit his thesis. David Hackworth, who served with Marshall was scathing in his comments about serving directly with the man. When it comes to WWII I feel the author of "On Killing" neglected a near infinite number of variables that affect men in combat. . .green vs. veterans, nature of combat, open field vs. the terror of close up urban where indeed one or two of a squad are usually heavily engaged with the rest provide cover, hauling ammunition for machine guns and back up, etc. Even more significant, as Keegan repeatedly points out in his exceptional works, the level of brutality rapidly escalates due to such issues as defense, especially if defending one's own country from invasion verse offense, difference in ethnicity and especially difference in race and religion which truly trigger the darker side of our nature. But one example, German troops transferred from the Russian front to France were actually briefed that this was now a different enemy and rules of war again apply. As to "our guys" in that war, I have yet to interview a vet of the Pacific War who said there was any civility or urge not to kill, the hatred ran that deep, fueled as well by racial difference. In the European theater any vet I interviewed would almost smile when discussing combat against Italian troops, but when confronting the Waffen SS it was to the death and usually no prisoners and fought by all with hatred.
I know this is a long review but I must comment on a second topic the author covers at length and that is our Civil War and what I felt was his over reliance on the works of "Paddy" Griffith, yet another author I have respect for even when I disagree. The author of "On Killing" dwells repeatedly on the fact that on average between 200-250 rounds were fired for each casualty inflicted and thus again leaps to the conclusion that this demonstrates his thesis that soldiers on both sides, either deliberately aimed high, or even went so far as to mimic loading their guns and not firing at all.
I must counter on several points. The author asserts that the typical range of Civil War combat was 30 yards. Definitely not true! (a belief shored up by such films as Patriot or even the opening scene in Glory). Typical range, especially as the war dragged out and killing effectiveness increased, was typically two hundred yards or more. Close in volley fights, at fifty yards or less, such as Groveton, August 1862 were indeed rare, except when opposing sides tangled into each other in woods such as at the Wilderness.
I've personally run some live fire tests with others and not just reenactments with everyone running about shooting blanks. The biggest factor affecting aimed fire. . .smoke, and smoke and more smoke, carpets of it that within minutes all but blinded both sides. At two hundred and fifty yards a mis-aim of even a few millimeters too high translates into a minie ball into the tree tops four hundred yards away. Third, try putting a percussion cap on the nipple of a rifled musket when all is confusion and terror, and finally something we of course could not simulate, the fear because "they are shooting back." Add in exhaustion, bad food, close friends torn apart by your side, these were the deciders of rifle fire effectiveness, not a 75% rate of those who refused to kill no matter what the situation. The author cites the number or rifles found at Gettysburg with two or more bullets rammed into them and to my amazement asserts that to actually then put on a percussion cap and fire it for real would clean out the half dozen or more minie balls and powder charges jammed in. I would suggest handing that assignment over to Myth Busters and standing well clear. I ascribe this to terrified kids who in many cases first jammed a bullet down the barrel rather than the powder and in the confusion did not even know they were no longer shooting. I actually have done that a few times with loading, thinking I had fired but the percussion cap had fallen off then loaded again, (firing blanks only) and the kickback was certainly a shocker and realization that even in a simulation I could get rattled!
Definitely time for a conclusion I think. I give this book four stars because it is obviously well researched even though I think the author has "chased his thesis up the wrong tree," I nevertheless welcome the debate it creates. I do wish I could hold a more optimistic view of humanity when it comes to the subject of our brutality towards each other. A point I do wish had been covered in more detail is my own belief that high technology weapons and media now make killing even easier. We no longer look directly into the eyes of the man we kill, hear his screams and see that "inner light" go dark. Our alleged entertainment usually involves brutal deaths, the more the better in the latest James Bond movie for example, Youtube and other sources are flooded with "cool" night vision footage of enemies being blown apart and though I do detest the Taliban and their creed as an enemy we must confront, it is a bit disturbing when watching a human being shredded by 30mm cannon fire and to read the comments that it is "cool." It has become the desensitizing conditioning of first person "shoot `em ups" of Xbox translated into realities.
Even if you disagree with the author's thesis that we as a species recoil from killing, the book will nevertheless provoke reflective thought and I am seriously considering using it as text book in my classes that deal with warfare.