soldiers are reluctant to kill -- 6/2/16

Today's encore selection -- from On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col Dave Grossman. Most soldiers are reluctant to fire their weapons when confronted by the enemy:

"During World War II, U.S. Army Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall asked the average soldiers what it was that they did in battle. His singularly unexpected discovery was that, of every hundred men along the line of fire during the period of an encounter, an average of only 15 to 20 'would take any part with their weapons.' This was consistently true 'whether the action was spread over a day, or two days or three.'

"Marshall [and his team] based their findings on individual and mass interviews with thousands of soldiers in more than four hundred infantry companies, in Europe and in the Pacific, immediately after they had been in close combat with German or Japanese troops. The results were consistently the same: only 15 to 20 percent of the American riflemen in combat during World War II would fire at the enemy. ... The question is why. ... [The answer] is the simple and demonstrable fact that there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it. ...

"There is ample supporting evidence to indicate that Marshall's observations are applicable not only to U.S. soldiers or even to the soldiers on all sides in World War II. Indeed, there are compelling data that indicate that this singular lack of enthusiasm for killing one's fellow man has existed throughout military history. ...

"Paddy Griffith estimates that the average musket fire from a Napoleonic or Civil War regiment (usually numbering between two hundred and one thousand men) firing at an exposed enemy regiment at an average range of thirty yards, would usually result in hitting only one or two men per minute! Such firefights 'dragged on until exhaustion set in or nightfall put an end to hostilities. Casualties mounted because the contest went on so long, not because the fire was particularly deadly.'

"Thus we see that the fire of the Napoleonic -- and Civil War-era soldier was incredibly ineffective. This does not represent a failure on the part of the weaponry. John Keegan and Richard Holmes in their book Soldiers tell us of a Prussian experiment in the late 1700s in which an infantry battalion fired smoothbore muskets at a target one hundred feet long by six feet high, representing an enemy unit, which resulted in 25 percent hits at 225 yards, 40 percent hits at 150 yards, and 60 percent hits at 75 yards. This represented the potential killing power of such a unit. The reality is demonstrated at the Battle of Belgrade in 1717, when 'two Imperial battalions held their fire until their Turkish opponents were only thirty paces away, but hit only thirty-two Turks when they fired and were promptly overwhelmed.'

"Sometimes the fire was completely harmless, as Benjamin McIntyre observed in his firsthand account of a totally bloodless nighttime firefight at Vicksburg in 1863. 'It seems strange ...,' wrote McIntyre, that a company of men can fire volley after volley at a like number of men over a distance of fifteen steps and not cause a single casualty. Yet such was the facts in this instance.' The musketry of the black-powder era was not always so ineffective, but over and over again the average comes out to only one or two men hit per minute with musketry. ...

"Muzzle-loading muskets could fire from one to five shots per minute, depending on the skill of the operator and the state of the weapon. With a potential hit rate of well over 50 percent at the average combat ranges of this era, the killing rate should have been hundreds per minute, instead of one or two. The weak link between the killing potential and the killing capability of these units was the soldier. The simple fact is that when faced with a living, breathing opponent instead of a target, a significant majority of the soldiers revert to a posturing mode in which they fire over their enemy's heads."


Lt. Gol. Dave Grossman


On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society


Back Bay Books


Copyright 1995, 1996, 2009 by David A. Grossman


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