Random Facts About … Our Reluctance to Kill One Another


By David Martin —

Looking at all the horrible news coming out of our internet tubes lately, you’d think we humans have an inborn propensity for killing one another. A study of men in combat reaches the opposite conclusion: On their own, most men are reluctant or refuse to kill their fellow man even if that fellow is your sworn enemy who’s doing his best to kill you and your buddies.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman was an Army Ranger, paratrooper, West Point professor, and is a military historian. Grossman’s book, “On Killing,” was nominated for nonfiction Pulitzer Prize. In that book, Grossman analyzes anecdotal material and official studies about soldiers’ behavior in battle and concludes that until late in the 20th century when training methods were changed, only about one in five men in combat would actively try to kill the enemy. What would the 80% nonkillers do? Few of them were cowards who turned tail and ran. Instead, the nonkillers would fire their weapons harmlessly in the air or refuse to shoot at all.

The U.S. Civil War accounts for more casualties than any other American war, but considering battlefield tactics of lines of men relatively close to each other while standing in full view of the enemy and considering the powder and bullets that were expended — the casualties were actually fewer than might be expected. The reason, Grossman concludes, based on his study of historical material, is that soldiers on both sides of the conflict either refused to fire or shot their guns over the heads of the enemy. In fields after a Civil War battle, rifles were found with multiple loads that had never been fired. Soldiers were loading, not firing, loading again, not firing, and so on.

Grossman relies heavily on World War II studies conducted by Army Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall and his historians who interviewed thousands of soldiers in 400-plus infantry companies immediately following close combat with German or Japanese troops. According to Grossman: “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. Those who would not fire did not run or hide — in many cases they were willing to risk greater danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages. They simply would not fire their weapons at the enemy, even when faced with repeated waves of banzai charges.”

(Some military historians and experts vigorously disagree with Marshall’s World War II studies and with Grossman’s conclusions about American soldiers’ reluctance to kill the enemy. These experts claim that any lack of action against an enemy on the part of American troops was the result of the fog of war, not a reluctance to kill.)

Grossman found that the one-in-five willing to kill statistic did not hold true in several instances: naval action, artillery units, air combat, and in wars from the Vietnam Era onward. The reason for the higher kill involvement in naval, artillery, and air combat is straightforward: the action in those units involved directing fire at inanimate objects (ships, planes, distant targets) and not other men.

The reason for the willing-to-kill ratio going up so dramatically in Vietnam and later combat arenas will be the subject of next week’s Random Facts column.

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