Breeding natural born killers?

By Giles Fraser
October 22, 2008

James Bond is a psychopath. That, at least, is the conclusion that I have reached after reading Lt Col Dave Grossman’s astonishing work, On Killing (Back Bay Books, 1995). Lt Col Grossman was a US Army Ranger and paratrooper, who went on to lecture in military psychology at West Point.

Although he admits that he has never killed anybody, his work is a broadside against the fantasies of easy killing that have built up in our cultural imagination. Surprisingly, perhaps, the greatest stress on the field of battle is not the threat of death, but the prospect of killing.

After the end of the Second World War, Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall argued that only 15 to 20 per cent of soldiers who were able to fire on the enemy actually did so. It was a finding that shook the military estab­lishment. In 1986, the British Army did a study of Brig. Gen. Mar­shall’s work, analysing the perform­ance of several combat units during a number of 19th- and 20th-century battles. It concluded that his findings were accurate.

What Lt Col Grossman suggests is that a huge percentage of soldiers become conscientious objectors at the point of firing their weapon. Many simply aim over the heads of their enemies. Most soldiers cannot kill. Human beings have an inbuilt psychological resistance to the taking of human life.

Next week, the new Bond film (the fantastically-named 'Quantum of Solace') comes out. Once again, 007 kills with ease. But this is make-believe. Sure, a handful of people — perhaps two per cent, psychologists say — have a diminished resistance to killing, and these are the psychopaths. But the vast majority, when faced with the reality, find it an incredibly difficult thing to do.

This is why training in the army involves repetition, doing the same thing again and again, so that you come not to think about it. The soldier fires just as Pavlov’s dogs drool. This form of conditioning can significantly increase firing rates — as can the enhancement of denial defence mechanisms: soldiers do not shoot people, they shoot targets.

Lt Col Grossman thus asserts that, since Brigadier General Marshall’s findings, “A new era of psychological warfare has dawned, not upon the enemy, but upon our own troops.”

All this might be vital for the creation of effective soldiers. But what does it do to these people when they are demobilised? No wonder vet­e­rans often have so many problems.

More worrying still, Lt Col Grossman suggests that the media, especially video games, replicate many of the psychological tech­niques used by the military to over­come our resistance to killing. No wonder the murder rate is rising among the young.

Lord, have mercy.

See also: theologian Walter Wink on 'Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence' -


(c) Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London. He is author of 'Christianity with Attitude' ( This article is adapted with thanks from a piece in the Church Times newspaper.

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