“On Combat”, by Col. Dave Grossman, with Loren Christensen, Warrior Science Publications, © 2008
I first ran into Col. Grossman a few years ago, at a large SciFi convention, where he was conducting a panel based on his book, “On Killing”. He was discussing the odd fact that most soldiers in combat don’t aim their weapons at enemy soldiers, but only fire in their general direction; in other words, they shoot not to kill or wound, but only to make the other guy keep his head down. He went on to mention that soldiers who do deliberately fire to hit the enemy tend to be “older brothers” – used to having somebody else to protect. That made me consider sisters, so I stuck my hand up and asked: “What are the kill-ratio figures for women soldiers?” After all, girl-children are raised with the assumption that they’ll have to spend much of their lives taking care of other people – usually children, and husbands. Grossman replied that very few statistics were available, except for Israel – and the Israeli figures showed that, yes, The Female Of The Species Is More Deadly Than The Male. I was twitted about that, by various fans, for the rest of the convention. I suspect that the colonel remembered my question, and guessed the reasoning behind it, because he sent me an autographed copy of his new book, “On Combat”.
This is a fascinating work, on several levels. Primarily, it’s a detailed study of “The psychology and physiology of deadly conflict” with suggestions for improved training of soldiers and police. As such, it’s been praised and enthusiastically taken up by military and police instructors from Washington to Berkeley, and I can see why; his comparison of heart-rates and neuro-muscular performance is alone worth the price of the book.
But as I read it, I noticed a general attitude in the writing; it presents not just the details but the very phenomena as great astounding revelations. For me, this raised the question: why did this book have to be written at all?
Don’t we know all these basic facts already? Don’t we already know that the more you practice – with weapons and tactics, as with anything else – the more competent you get? Surely, after all these ages of humans battling the environment and each other, and having speech and even literacy to pass on our experience, we should know all these things. The understanding that, for example, when dealing with furious effort and deadly combat the body tends to empty its bladder, bowels, stomach and sinuses, should be as much a part of our common culture as the knowledge of how to make fire. And didn’t we all learn about “interpersonal violence” as children, in schoolyard scuffles or Cowboys ‘n’ Indians games in the park?
Then I remembered that, no, there is a large class of Americans who really did grow up thoroughly ignorant of violence and all the implications thereof. They’re the ones who need to read this book. And that, of course, raised the question of just whom Grossman wrote this book for.
America’s dirtiest little secret is that we really do have a class structure, and that it bears a nasty resemblance to the culture of feudalism. At the top, the royalty, are the notorious 1%: the super-rich, the managers of the financial “industry”, the global movers and shakers, who rule 80% of our – and the world’s – economy, and therefore politics. The next rank down, the new aristocracy, is what’s commonly called the upper middle class: the wealthy professionals, the business administrators, the upper-rank politicians and governmental bureaucrats. Below that – and, in our present economy, sliding rapidly into the status of the working class – is the middle-to-lower middle class, what used to be called the bourgeoisie, or villeins: lower professionals, middle-level-on-down bureaucrats, small business owners, and so on. Below that – and often making more money, but still with lower status – is the classic working class, previously called yeomen. Below that, of course, are the poor: working-poor – serfs – at best, and beggars at worst. We all know this, though nobody – except maybe the Occupy movement – talks about it.
What nobody mentions is that each of these classes has its own culture – and the dominant culture in America is promulgated by the aristocracy and practiced, sometimes desperately, by the bourgeoisie. We could fairly call it Middle-Class Liberalism.
There are complex historical reasons why the 21st-century American middle class wound up with the cultural attitudes of the 19th-century British aristocracy, but the most influential of those ideas was that a Proper Person never does for himself any physical labor he can hire someone else to do – except for amusement. One never cleans one’s own toilets, cooks one’s own meals or washes one’s own laundry – and above all, one never commits one’s own violence. No, one hires the Lower Orders to do that. One doesn’t even learn about such nasty low-class stuff. And of course one insulates one’s children against any such experience, or even knowledge.
The next step, of course, is to assume that what’s proper for oneself is proper for everyone else; therefore, to have a peaceful and orderly society, the schools and all other childcare institutions must keep the children from any experience or even knowledge of evil-evil violence. The idea is that what the children aren’t taught they’ll never learn.
It doesn’t work, of course. The first time a kindergarten bully smacks another kid and steals his lunch, the forbidden knowledge sprouts anew. Wiser parents then take their kids to the nearest dojo and teach them how to fight efficiently, but all too many try everything-and-anything else in defense of their precious philosophy. The result is an awful lot of kids who grow up with totally unrealistic and ignorant attitudes toward violence. Then many of these children grow up to take positions of political and economic power.
These are the people that Grossman is trying to teach and persuade.
One proof is in the polite lies that he applies judiciously, just before appeals for better and more thorough training, with never a whisper of how much those improved training systems will cost. A professional grant-writer couldn’t have done it better. For instance, Grossman spends much time claiming that interpersonal violence is “the universal phobia”, an idea which certainly warms the heart of the Middle-Class Liberal. Now surely he knows that there are, and always have been, societies – the Spartans, the Mongols, the Arab terrorists – who not only don’t fear violence but actively lust for it. Yet, when he mentions these societies at all, he attributes their lust for violence to intense training. He sculpts his constant theme -- the importance of training -- to appeal shamelessly to the Middle-Class Liberal philosophy of social determinism, which holds that human minds are blank slates which only react to what they’re taught (except, of course, for a few quirks provided by genetics).
A similar polite lie is his repeated claim that this is a decade of juvenile violence “unprecedented in history”. Now surely Grossman is at least marginally aware of the 30 Years’ War, or the 100 Years’ War, or the condition of Russia after the Mongol invasions. He must have noticed that no less than Julius Caesar, some 2000 years ago, noted that crime, juvenile and adult, and civil violence increase during and immediately after a war. He must also be aware of current conditions in Africa, where children are drafted into adults’ wars and often become bandits thereafter. He carefully avoids mentioning these so as to pander to the arrogant guilt of Middle-Class Liberalism, which covertly boasts that Nobody Is As Wicked As We (except for obvious examples like Hitler).
And never mind the dozen pages that he devotes to zealously riding the current Middle-Class Liberal hobby-horse of The Danger of Violent Video-Games.
In short, Grossman’s writing is aimed at charming and seducing Middle-Class Liberal bosses – upper-level military officers and police chiefs – into accepting the necessity of using his advanced training techniques. This is rather like persuading a UC Berkeley professor into buying a pistol for home protection, not to mention training with it. It can be done, provided you use the right language; I once saw a class offered in a Berkeley community college called “The Zen of Shooting: Firearms Handling for Gentle People”. In “On Combat” Grossman is using that trick, apparently with good effect, to make advanced combat training techniques palatable to bosses who don’t like to even think about violence.
This is one case where the end does justify the means. I wish him luck.
--Leslie <;)))>< )O(