"No pity party, no macho man." Psychologist Dave Grossman on surviving killing

Preston Gannaway, The Virginian-Pilot

When I did my story on the overextension of the PTSD diagnosis in vets (and elsewhere), I found Grossman's take on the psychic toll of killing (and almost being killed) among the most compelling. His "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society" is a unique and uniquely valuable contribution. Below, part of a story on a recent presentation Grossman (pictured above) gave at a recent Pentagon-sponsored conference on building resilience in warriors.

Dave Grossman puts humans into three categories: Ninety-eight percent are "sheep," content to graze and likely to stampede when they're threatened. One percent are "wolves," psychopaths with a propensity for violence who lack empathy. The other 1 percent: "sheepdogs," who have both empathy and a propensity for violence.

The sheepdogs are also called warriors, he said. They're not always liked or appreciated by the sheep, but they come to the herd's rescue when wolves threaten.

Grossman seemed to captivate the crowd Tuesday at a Pentagon-sponsored conference on warrior resiliency. Most in attendance wore camouflage military uniforms, but the two-day meeting includes civilian therapists and health care providers, as well as personnel from Veterans Affairs.

The program continues today with a video address from Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and concludes with a panel of "real warriors" talking about combat experiences.

Grossman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former professor of psychology at West Point, acknowledges the reality of combat stress and psychological trauma. World War II's "greatest generation" included 500,000 soldiers who were psychiatric casualties, he noted.

Still, he said, the vast majority of troops return from war stronger for their experience. Too many people believe what he called a Hollywood myth that portrays combat veterans as victims, forever scarred by their service. That myth creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that produces victims and destroys lives, he said.

Grossman is no John Wayne, however. In fact, he used the legendary Hollywood tough guy as an example of another potent myth.

"John Wayne was an actor," he told the packed ballroom at the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel, letting the message sink in.

He urged the audience to avoid both ends of the spectrum.

"No pity party, no macho man," he said over and over.

Posted via web from David Dobbs's Somatic Marker


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My father is a retired Major, and every male in my family over 40 is a veteran. I cannot express gratitude and admiration enough for those who serve. However, in my experience that 98% isn't 100 percent composed of "sheep." There are leaders and people with self preservation instincts in that group that aren't necessarily prone to solving problems and dealing with threats through violence as a natural or trained response.

I'm intrigued by the other ideas, and I'm convinced it was a fascinating presentation. I agree that warriors are needed for protection, but I think grouping non-military and non-psychopaths into one conglomeration of mindset is simplistic. However, it sure can make an impact to think of things that way.

Laura, I too think Grossman's 98/1/1% numbers are off, though I find the sheep/wolf/sheepdog metaphor apt, even if he's got the proportions funny -- and w the caveat that every metaphor has its limits.

Thanks v much for writing.

Grossman's theory sounds awfully like a justification or rationalization for the use of violence in a civilized society. Aren't his "sheepdogs" or warriors a kind of wolf more intelligent than the rest of the pack?

Interesting article. A sheepdog, a good sheepdog is the border collie. They give sheep "the eye" that puts them back in line. They are the smartest domesticated dog. I've read that domesticated dogs are all wolves with a case of arrested development. Border collies development has been arrested at a point right before a wolf would move in for the kill...thus, the eye. They are social, cooperative and follow command. A very apt analogy. On a funny satirical note, the same sort of analogy was made about the general population in the movie, "Team America." Hilarious.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink

Of course the main goal is not to glare at and bully sheep...but rather to protect them from wolves and guide them to water and grass.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink

I read Grossman's "On Killing" and found it very impressive.

His theory is that humanity recoil at the thought of killing other human beings & have to trained/ motivated to do so. "Primitive warfare" between "savage" tribes is often ore posturing and trading isnults rather than taking lives. Historically, in Napoleonic and Civil War battles, the lives taken were extremely low for the ammunition expended, allowing for the proximity of the forces. There are authenticated records of Civil War forces blazing away at each other, a few metres apart, with few lives lost. The theory, which seemed to be verified by some data from World War II, is that in battle soldiers (at least the citizeb soldiers that made up most armies) did not aim their weapons ,shooting too high or too low to kill anyone.

I have my doubts - for example, I know from my own reading of military is that maxiumum casualties are experienced after armies have been "broken" and the men are in flight. They can be picked off by a pursuing foe, who is (and this is key) no longer if fear of losing his own life. Perhaps, we are inhibited when the enemy has an equal chance of killing us. Once the odds are in our favour, we find it easier to attack and kill (or wound) a weak or fearful foe. Not great for humanity, eh?

I am not sure - I would just like to ask Grossman if I got the chance. Grossman also had concerns about TV violence and computer games reducing our natural inhibition to killing. IMHO there concerns are valid - there is a certain sanctification of violence that has crept into our society.

"The sheepdogs are also called warriors, he said. They're not always liked or appreciated by the sheep, but they come to the herd's rescue when wolves threaten."

I'm sure this went over very well with an audience in uniform, especially the officers. That's certainly the way a lot of them would like to think of themselves. Unfortunately, it's the wrong way for American servicemen to think of themselves. First, they are not protectors of the herd, they are servants of the herd. Second, calling 98 percent of people sheep encourages the disdain of the career officer for anyone subordinate to himself, especially civilians, who are, in fact, not his subordinates. It also encourages the mistaken notion that anyone in the military service has any business deciding where, when and how military force should be applied. They should, of course, offer their advice, but their duty is to follow legal orders.

I might point out the fact that it's usually the enlisted men and women who do the dying carrying out the orders of the warriors.

Does anyone remember Dwight Eisenhower? He never voted until he was out of the Army because he thought it was inappropriate to try to have any influence over the civilians who would be his commanders.

Before I get flamed for mentioning my experience, it ties to the point at hand: I was a navy corpsman with a specialty that put me in the lab. I enjoyed my job immensely, and after six plus years left with two ribbons: a good conduct ribbon and a national defense ribbon. I was not some grim, courageous warrior and was grateful I didn't have to go to Iraq. I'm also glad I didn't have to shoot at anyone for any reason. I was a single parent and had a son to consider. None the less my favorite poster about corpsman has this definition upon it: "Corpsman-a long haired, bearded Marine hating sailor, with certain medical skills who would go through the very gates of hell to tend to a wounded Marine." I'm very liberal, and while in I had a great deal of difficulty with a variety of attitudes that different Marines held. I was no officer...but I gotta tell ya, that sheep dog analogy really speaks to me.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink

in real life amerika the sheepdogs WORK for the wolves to keep the sheep from asking qeustions or protesting,but his numbers are wrong because any society counts on a man and woman or whatever having a family and when you have a family your slow to protest or risk arrest for your beliefs but everyone has their limits and i've about reached mine no i'm not a fox tard i voted for obama but he's got to quit bushes failed policies like the patriot act( if there was ever anything so grossly misnamed,patriot my ass ) why should we fight for the rich anyway OIL ENOUGH SAID

I think his motivations are good.

But his reading of the behaviors, motivations, and dynamics of and between sheep, wolves, dogs is wildly incorrect and rooted in myth and fairy tale. The metaphor beaks down due to his failure to apprehend the correct information. This failure leads him to draw false conclusions.

Humans are not sheep, watchdogs or wolves. And whereas sheep do not ever become wolves or watchdogs humans are much more mutable in attitudes and behavior. Both toward the positive and the negative.