He has fangs and the capacity for violence

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

Josh Eells has written a rather unflattering piece on Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the “Killologist” training America’s cops, for Men’s Journal:

After his talk, Grossman and I went for dinner at a nearby sports bar, where he told me about his life. He lives with his wife, Jeanne — his high school sweetheart — and their two dogs in a small town outside St. Louis, Missouri (as it happens, 45 minutes from Ferguson). He spends almost 300 days a year on the road, usually coming home one night a week for what he jokingly calls “a conjugal visit and clean underwear” before heading out again. His oldest son, Jon, runs a family-owned gunsmithing company; his youngest, Joe, helps manage the speaking business. His middle son, Eric, is an Air Force combat controller with nine combat tours and three Bronze Stars.


It was at Arkansas State that Grossman published On Killing, in 1995, to much acclaim. The Washington Post called it “an illuminating account of how soldiers learn to kill and how they live with the experience of having killed”; the New York Times called it “powerfully argued” and “full of arresting observations and insights.” The book even made fans in Hollywood: While promoting his World War II movie Fury a few years back, Brad Pitt told an interviewer, “If you want to better understand the accumulative psychic trauma incurred by our soldiers, read On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.”

Though Grossman calls himself a behavioral scientist, he is not a researcher in the traditional academic sense. He wrote On Combat, a study on how soldiers and police officers cope with the stress associated with deadly conflict, using what he calls an “interactive feedback loop” — gathering stories from combat veterans, then presenting the information to people he trains. He’s more of a Malcolm Gladwell type, compiling anecdotes and fashioning them into a digestible narrative. As his chief qualifications, Grossman cites the “body of information I’ve crafted over the years” and his ability to “speak from the heart.” “I truly am one of the best people on the planet in a couple of areas,” he told me. “Whether it’s preparation for a life-or-death event or walking the sheepdog path, I really feel like I’m the preeminent authority.”


In his famous sheepdog essay, Grossman talked about how sheepdogs can sometimes accidentally scare the sheep. The sheepdog “looks a lot like the wolf,” he wrote. “He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot, and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed.”


  1. Haven’t read his other books, but On Killing was mostly bunkum. The first order of business when you’re proposing a model like his is to make sure it squares with the existing base of empirical fact. If it doesn’t, then you need to explain why either existing knowledge is inadequate (in which case a research program is in order) or you need to rework the model.

    I don’t know why anyone pays attention to him, or his predecessor S.L.A. Marshall. At least Grossman doesn’t appear to have fabricated data like Marshall is suspected of doing. He just didn’t bother to apply much skepticism to Marshall.

  2. Borepatch says:

    “Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed.”

    The Orlando Castillo incident suggests that this is only half right.

  3. Kirk says:

    Grossman is a man of limited intellect, and sadly typical of a lot of US military officers I’ve worked with, over the years. His education was “a mile wide, and an inch deep…”, then he was “selected to instruct” at West Point, which is really not that much of an attainment. You go looking at his “scholarship” in On Killing, and there is really fuck all for real quantified research–He’s all about repeating what others have said or done, and there’s been virtually no real independent work done by him to support his theories. He came up with some sweet-smelling BS, researched to support the same, and managed to parlay that into a lucrative career. Much like Marshall, as a matter of fact, who never actually did the research or gathered the actual data to support his thesis. It’s all bullshit, all the way down.

    Grossman is one of those pedants who, when you talk to him about his ideas, responds to queries about counterfactual evidence against his ideas by restating his thesis, and moving on. I met the man personally, back when he was getting started, and still in the Army. He was still an unknown, and hawking his book outside the little bookstore at Fort Lewis. Talking to him, since I’d read his book when it came out, was… Interesting. I got the distinct impression he believes what he is selling, but is blind to his own intellectual and factual limitations.

    If he’d limited his theory to saying that “well-socialized members of modern Western societies experience reluctance to kill parties they identify as peers…”, that would be one thing, and something I’d agree with. To say that there’s a mystical, in-born, inherent “reluctance to kill” bred into every human born? LOL… Lemme introduce you to some folks living along the Horn of Africa, Mr. Grossman, and then have you read some unexpurgated history of human affairs, inclusive of Roman interaction with the Gauls, Dacians, and innumerable others. After that, let me introduce you to the Mongols, who sacked Samarkhand and gutted most of the inhabitants while searching for swallowed gems. I could go on for a couple of pages, and I’ll note that when I brought these examples up in a one-on-one conversation, Mr. Grossman was pretty nonplussed–And, I don’t think it was because a Staff Sergeant was daring to question a Lieutenant Colonel, either. He genuinely hasn’t got answers for that crap.

    Some people positively enjoy killing, and do it with great gusto. Think about what it took to be a Mongol trooper, using a sword to hack your way through your share of civilians before stacking their heads in pyramids across Central Asia, and then reflect on how little we hear about any of them suffering the least little sign of PTSD-related funks. Yeah.

    Don’t even get me started on the other Paddy Griffith- and S.L.A. Marshall-engendered bullshit he spouts, because it’s like the idiot never did a single real infantry mission with live NCO leadership on board. Anyone who’s run even the simplest training with live troops, and who is slightly familiar with reality as it is lived on the front lines should find themselves wondering what the hell all the junior NCOs were doing in Marshall’s imagination–Nothing? They wouldn’t have noted that 75% or better of their troops weren’t firing ammo, when they did resupply? And, what of the supposed “super soldiers” who were actually firing and doing most of the fighting? Just what the hell did Marshall think these guys were doing, after the battle? Saying “Gee, thanks for all the moral support, guys…?”. Yeah, right–Pull the other one. If Marshall was right, I think we might have the answer for why there was such a high rate of loss among replacements–They were getting killed by the guys doing the fighting, because they were angry they weren’t doing their share. But, that’s an asinine idea, so… The question should be, if Marshall and Grossman are correct, what the hell are these guys in the supposed 10% that are doing all the real combat doing after the action? Why the hell are they tolerating the non-participation of the rest of their units?

    Stop and think about it, and you suddenly realize, as I did, that Marshall and, thus, Grossman are full of shit. I know from my own military experience that if I were risking my life out ahead of the rest of my guys, and survived, there would sure as hell have been some pointed discussions after the fact, and the next time we came under fire, I’d be behind them pushing the lazy bastards to do their jobs.

    However, comma… This isn’t a “thing”. What Marshall and Grossman mistake for an “unwillingness to kill” is actually more like “I can’t see the damn enemy, and I’ve got no idea what the hell to be doing with myself…”. Their mistaken framing of all this is pretty much of a piece with their general obtuseness, and if I’m not mistaken, neither Marshall or Grossman were ever actually on the pointy edge of things themselves. Ever.

    Consider that: You’re taking advice on the nature of combat from men who have never done combat. See something wrong, there?

  4. CMOT says:

    What’s the antidote to Grossman? What should we, and America’s cops, be reading?

  5. Graham says:

    Kirk, I’m the least qualified man around to expound on combat or killing, but I’ve studied military history quite a bit and reading your takedown on Grossman and Marshall was bracing stuff.

    I feel better about my day having read that.

    Pity SLA Marshall’s ghost looms so large that a doofus coworker has even cited him to me. Though just his basic thesis, not him by name.

    This is the kind of guy who can cite Malcolm Gladwell but never Nassim Taleb.

  6. Graham says:

    I second CMOT’s question. If there is one, I would read that.

  7. Kirk says:

    Graham and CMOT (Cut me own throat?),

    I honestly don’t know. I just know the bullshitters when I see them. Grossman has a huge following, but he’s also got a lot of detractors, especially in the SF community.

    I’m currently working my way through a work by a Brit, “The Combat Soldier: Infantry Tactics and Cohesion in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, 1st Edition by Anthony King”, and I have to say it’s a dense work of questionable value. The author means well, he’s done a lot of scholarly research, but… There’s a lot of credulity, and he’s never “been there”.

    Which speaks to a major problem we have with this field–The people who know, don’t write, and the people who write, don’t know.

    Anthony King is like a virgin trying to document what sex is by interviewing people waiting in line for, and coming out of a whorehouse. You can’t really talk about this stuff accurately unless you’ve got first-person knowledge of it, and the people who do have that first-person knowledge don’t speak the language of the sociologist, and they simply don’t think in terms of trying to systematize and reduce this stuff to terms understandable to the academic.

    I have struggled with this stuff for most of my adult life, having made a career out of the military–Nothing I’ve encountered in print, aside from what is probably the most seminal work on the issue, John English’s A Perspective on Infantry, which is sadly long out of print. Used copies are going for around $800.00-900.00, these days, and they’re worth it.

    The root problem is, as I’ve said, that the people who could best discuss the realities of these things are not the sort of people who tend to think about them, or write them down. Which is a hell of a problem, because the US Army officer corps is the sort of institution that requires an academic breakdown of an issue before it can understand or acknowledge it as a problem, and if you can’t articulate it in terms they can grasp…? Yeah.

    Socrates was a line-dog hoplite, as was Xenophon. They could write lucidly about the combat experience they lived, and did so. The guys who are currently carrying the spears for us are not by trait, education, or training the sort of people who can reduce this to terms understandable to the outside world.

    If I were king for a day, and running the US Army, I’d go out and hand-select a couple of bright young junior combat arms NCOs, push their asses through an academic sociology program focused on data-gathering, and then send them back to the field to do on-the-ground research on the issues of training, cohesion, and operational factors going into small unit operations. There is a lot we don’t know or have documented, in terms of what could be termed “tribal knowledge”, things related to how we run training, organize the units, and operate with them. I can tell you from subjective experience that the US Army has not one ‘effing clue about how to built or foster real cohesion in its units, nor does it have a truly systematized process for conducting individual training and what they term “Soldierization”. The training and acculturation process, indoctrination, if you will, is so inconsistent and vague as to be nonexistent–Which is, I am convinced, a large part of what goes into the problems like Marwan and any of the other major indiscipline problems we’ve had.

    And, a lot of this has come in and grown up precisely because we don’t have this stuff written down and discussed anywhere, so when the officers and civilians come in and say “Hey, no more hazing…”, the traditional military guys can only go “Oh, OK… We don’t know why we do that, anyway…”. The reality is, that kind of thing has a role in many things, not the least of which is bonding the soldier to the unit, and vice-versa. Because it’s not part of a carefully-considered program or process, it has existed outside of leadership control, and has led to the abuses that have driven the mindless total ban on such things. But, banning them has left the units much less tightly bonded, and our cohesion has suffered because of it.

    And, then there’s the idiotic mentality that people are fungible spare parts, and that any soldier with X training substitutes for another, when the fact is that you do not get a cohesive unit out of throwing a bunch of people with the requisite ranks and specialties into a box and then shaking it. The amount of turbulence in the units we’ve deliberately created over the years since WWII with the individual replacement system is just… Nuts. They slowed it down, a lot, since 2001, but they still have way too much changeover going on. A lot of PTSD and disciplinary problems are exacerbated by the constant churn of commanders and personnel–In order to ensure a proper and effective recovery from high-stress combat action, the commander and soldier should not be changed out immediately after a return from overseas, but that’s how we have been doing it. You have cases where there were enlisted guys who were stalwart rocks on their first deployment, returned home, got transferred to another unit that was in the pipeline to go over in six months, did the same damn thing over again, and then on about their third turn in the barrel, broke. Now, since none of these commanders they worked for knew the soldier through all of this, they did not allow for the fact that he’d been stressed past the point of functionality, and when disciplinary and other issues surfaced midway through deployment three, well… That lack of continuity led to tragic results. I know of at least one guy with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and an exemplary record during his initial deployments who gradually turned into a major problem by about the fourth time over. His story ended in a dishonorable discharge and suicide, and stemmed, I believe, from piss-poor personnnel management practices and the constant changeover in commanders.

    I’m going to continue to argue that we still don’t know what the hell we are doing in a lot of respects, and an awful lot of that stems from the fact that we do not study this subject with sufficient depth and rigor at the levels we need to be doing it.

  8. Handle says:

    Kirk is right on target, and echoes many of the sentiments I expressed during the series of posts about the book 2.5 years ago. I think they got rid of that little bookstore on what is now JBLM, though I’m sure there are plenty of copies at the base library, alas. Kirk, if you ever find yourself IVO the DC metro, please ask our esteemed host to put us in touch, as I’d be happy to treat you to a drink. That goes double for you too, Isegoria.

  9. Bruce says:

    Kirk: English On Infantry.

    Yes! great book. Not much else out there. Jerry Pournelle, whose Strategy of Technology might be in a new edition with extended commentary by Martin van Creveld this summer. Maybe Tom Kratman’s essays measure up. (I don’t get his fiction, but his nonfiction is remarkably smart and informed, though a little flashy.)

    Re: hazing,

    Middle-management military has strong institutional reasons to oppose hazing. Anyone from major on up, anyone working in an office, it’s stupid and pointless, screws up the collegial atmosphere necessary for office work, and adds to the military soap opera crap that ruins garrison troops. E-1 to E-4, young guys in rude health, low-paid to the point where all their kids are on food stamps, doing hard labor and getting routinely frustrated and extremely angry and physically using weapons and tools in dirty and unsafe conditions, they are going to cuss everything and bash stuff, including each other, and their lives depend on a strong E-4 to E-1 hierarchy. That doesn’t make ‘hazing’ good. It needs to be stopped cold routinely, and always canalized by leaders who know the difference between rough men cussing and kidding around, and actual abuse. Leaders need to know in their bones that abuse and use overlap.

    This takes great leaders at the E-4 to E-7 level especially, and good 0-1 to 0-3 officers. Great leaders E-4 to E-6 level are vital. The difference between middle management military and dirt-level military is not going to go away and should not. We need both. This gets taught in NCO schools, as well it should. It won’t get reported in D party house media except as talking points about icky fascism, moral dominance games based on their righteous aversion to military service, and status claims to be so securely middle class that they would inevitably go middle management military should they ever lower themselves to serve at all.

    I’d say the best thing we could do for hazing is raise E-1 to E-4 base pay so their kids aren’t all on food stamps, which annoys them.

  10. Kirk says:

    Thanks, Handle. I doubt I’ll ever get that far East, again, but I’ll take your generous offer with me if I do…

    Bruce; Key thing to remember is that English is in two very different editions–The first, which is the one he initially expanded off a thesis he did, is A Perspective on Infantry, and the second version is co-authored with Gudmundsson, and is the one titled simply On Infantry. It is, I’m afraid, an inferior book that leaves a lot out from the earlier version written by just English.

    Your other point about hazing, though… Mmmm… Not so much, really. And, this is a classic example of the officer community “class” not getting about how all this crap actually works down at the bottom levels. They see a guy getting his rank “hammered in” after a promotion, and they see “abuse of soldier”. Reality is… It’s not that damn simple. It really isn’t.

    And, don’t take what I’m saying here to say that I support hazing, or think it’s a good idea. It’s just that I have a better understanding of what the hell is going on, here, than most of the officers apparently have.

    You want strong, cohesive primary groups, going into combat. Once in combat, you want to be able to rebuild those primary groups, and then send them back. So, how does that happen? What works?

    What you identify as “hazing” fills a key role in all that, in that it serves two purposes: One, it is a “rite of passage” thing, where the new soldier is accepted into the existing primary group, and two, it serves as a marker for the new soldier, telling him that he’s now a trusted member of the group.

    Where the problems come in is where the command bans this crap and then forces it underground, where it goes out of control and over the top, becoming actively inimical to unit bonding.

    Yes, it’s something we older guys look at and go “Damn, that’s immature as hell…”, but the fact is, it’s a shortcut to “proving oneself” in a combat unit.

    You have to step back and look at this stuff, and try to figure out where it all fits, in terms of “sociological role”. Similar to a gang “jumping-in” deal, what’s actually going on with a lot of hazing is that the two sides of the experience are proving themselves to one another, and doing buy-in on the whole interpersonal bonding thing. Once you’ve bought in, by putting up with the hazing, you’re less likely to withdraw from the unit, and the unit is less likely to withdraw from you.

    Where you run into problems is when the process slides out of leadership control, and tips over the edge from “harmless ape behavior” to actively abusing the new soldier.

    I had an incident that was borderline happen in one of my units. Stopped it, sat down with the responsible parties, all “senior junior enlisted” guys who weren’t yet NCOs, and threw the whole “OK, this is what is going on here…” sociological thing at them, and when I got done with it, the two of them were looking at me like I’d just told them Santa Claus wasn’t real. They were really turned off when I set them to figuring out a unit-specific “safe” bonding ritual for us to follow, in order to get that crap under my control. It was like I’d just told them Santa wasn’t real, and, oh, hey… By the way, you’re buying the presents for the younger kids, and staying up late to help me wrap them.

    Enthusiasm for the abusive shit dropped like a rock, and I like to think I got a better bonding thing going with the rest of the platoon.

    Unfortunately, when you explain what you’re doing, just like with a joke, a lot of the magic goes away.

    Which may or may not be a good thing–I really screwed with some of my junior NCOs by explaining exactly why it was so important that they took good care of their troops in garrison, which in my cold-blooded assessment for their benefit, was so that when the time came, and they asked those troops to go do something that stood a good chance of killing them, they’d want to do it.

    As I said, there’s a lot of this stuff we simply don’t bother to study, teach, or fully understand. It’s all tribal knowledge, passed on from soldier to soldier, over time. Ever wonder why so many old soldiers insist on being the ones to feed their troops, NCOs working the mess line in the field until all the junior enlisted have eaten, while the platoon sergeant and LT eat last? Consider this: In training a dog, who has the most power? He who feeds… The food coming from your hand into that of the soldier is a powerful thing, the Alpha of the pack portioning out the kill to the juniors. Ask the average NCO who does this, and they’ll just tell you it is the way they were taught to handle that situation, and they don’t “get” the power part of the equation, at all. But, subconsciously, that’s what’s going on.

    Like a lot of things, I’d prefer to have some experimental proof of this stuff, but nobody is doing the research on it. I suspect that in units where the field messing arrangements are set up so that the NCOs and officers are passing out the food, the group cohesion is probably better than in the units where they don’t do that. I’ve observed that many a time, but since it’s all subjective, I can’t prove a damn thing.

    And, again, somebody really badly needs to take a look at this stuff with an eye towards getting it down on paper and being able to explain just what all these things “do”, in terms of what makes a good unit function well. Since it isn’t set down and systematized into a framework comprehensible to our college-educated and indoctrinated officer corps, well… That’s why they keep doing stupid shit like shut down company messing arrangements in favor of “efficiency”. To my mind, the T-Rat canned food mess arrangements of today’s field Army are superior in terms of logistics, but totally inferior in terms of leadership and cohesion generation. And, pointedly, there wasn’t anyone even thinking about that aspect of it all, when we made the decision to do away with the company mess elements and go to this pre-packaged food BS for the field.

  11. Handle says:

    True “hazing” story, from Fort Lewis, as it happens.

    Battalion was told they would be losing their unit area during a deployment, and moving to different part of base when they got back. The decrepit Korean War-era barracks were finally going to be demolished, and the new digs given to a new unit that would move in while the old one was gone.

    The news came just a week before wheels up, ADVON already downrange, and in the middle of the million hectic and urgent things that have to get done. So everything had to be completely packed up and moved out, and since there was no other time to do it, the Soldiers who lived in the barracks were getting in done at night. Which means they didn’t have a lot of adult supervision, if you know what I mean.

    One of the things you get when packing up is giant, industrial sized bolts of bubble wrap: tall as a man, and wide as his outstretched arms.

    What do you get when you mix bored, anxious, unsupervised junior enlisted Soldiers, in the middle of the night, with a completely empty barracks, and enormous supplies of huge-sheet bubble wrap? And maybe also some alcohol, although no one admitted to it.

    Shenanigans. That’s what you get.

    So this group decides they’ll wrap one of the posse up in impregnable bubble armor. They anticipated those “Zorb Sumo Wrestling” bubbles by a few years.

    And then try to hit him as hard as they can and see if he can feel it. Because “That’s Joe!”

    They roll it around and around, with his arms at his sides in the middle, and then they tie it tight with some 100mph tape.

    Then they proceed to wail on the poor bastard. Started with punches. “I didn’t feel a thing, pussy!” “Oh yeah?” Then the kicks. Escalation of force, you might say.

    But the coup de grace was when somebody decided to go all the way down the barracks hallway, you know, so they could pick up as much speed as possible in their imagined attempt at a Bruce Lee flying kick or Mortal Kombat finishing mood or something. Because after all what could go wrong?

    What went wrong was that, with his arms to his side, he had no way to exercise his protective extension reflex, and landed straight on his jaw, shattering it in a few places. I can’t remember if he kept all his teeth. I do remember there was some blood to clean up. All the sworn statements included the word “screaming”.

    Well, at least these morons do the right thing, cut him right out of his transparent sarcophagus with their Gerbers, get the CQ to call staff duty, and get him to the Madigan emergency room pronto.

    But, obviously, he ain’t going on the deployment. And when you lose a guy within those critical days before heading over there, it was a report straight to the CG.

    Brigade CO calls the whole chain of command and some other officers from sister units in and wants the whole brief on what happened. Gets a perfectly accurate story, to wit, “moron shenanigans + lots and lots of negligence and recklessness = serious injury.”

    What else is new?

    But no. “I don’t think so. I think this was hazing! I think they were picking on that guy, beating him up, with everybody getting in on the punching and kicking. The whole gang. Maybe initiating him before the deployment, who knows, who cares. But I want it investigated as probable hazing.”

    He was a good CO, but boy, was he out to lunch on this one. Everyone did the sideways glances at each other thing, non-verbally and telepathically communicating with each other, “Are you gonna tell him, or do I have to? And how do we put this delicately, diplomatically, you know, in a way that won’t guarantee me below center mass on my OER?”

    To their credit, the battalion commander created an opening for the Company level officers to talk, and the LT and Company Commander stood up for their guys. Lots of other folks did the “conspicuous nodding” thing, hoping that it would create a strong impression of emergent consensus around the Truth, which would penetrate the Brigade CO’s skull through some kind of osmosis.

    It didn’t. He wanted it investigated that way, and so it was. Lots of people got really nervous that the small amount of trouble they thought they were in had just become a real risk of a huge amount of trouble.

    But fortunately, in the hustle and bustle of the deployment, everybody just forgot about it, and the wise Brigade Jag just made it disappear quietly. Which was all for the best.

  12. Kirk says:

    Handle, that story sounds awfully… familiar. You guys were over in the Banana Belt, by the Rangers? 25 ID, before all the insane reflagging went on?

    Anyway, your story highlights another of those “unforeseen consequences of minor changes” things, particularly in regards to barracks life. Time was, the junior enlisted weren’t left alone to reenact Lord of the Flies in the barracks, after hours. Those old open-bay buildings over on North Fort Lewis, where they had the two rooms at the opposite end of the floor from the latrines…? Yeah, those; that’s where the Platoon Leader and the Platoon Sergeant used to live, back in the “old days”, and up to about the slightly-post-Vietnam era. You didn’t have an opportunity to get up to serious “shenanigans”, ‘cos the boss lived with your ass 24/7, and if you did…? LOL; woe unto ye who awoke the Platoon Sergeant.

    They made the force more married, in hopes of keeping people around. That pulled full-time senior enlisted supervision out of the barracks. Then, more and more of the mid-ranking NCOs got married, and still more of the supervision left. Now, it’s just the few single junior NCOs and the unmarried privates in the barracks, and it’s just not the same as it was.

    Effects on cohesion and unit soldierization processes? You tell me; nobody really knows. I can tell you that there are things going on in the modern barracks that were unheard of “back in the day”, and that I’m subjectively convinced there are some issues happening with the whole acculturation process that I can’t quantify, but they are there.

    It’s like the basic design of those new barracks over on North Fort–We were hauled in, back during the design phase, and asked “What do you think…?”. We basically told them they were nuts, and that the designs they’d come up with were going to lead to problems in that there was no real way to monitor the damn things with all those open balconies and entrances, and that the idea of having one charge of quarters for an entire battalion-sized billeting area was fundamentally insane. They ignored us, and once we’d moved over there into those, the exact issues we’d brought up sprang out of the ground like so many dragon’s teeth. The new buildings were actually inimical to unit cohesion and discipline, not to mention junior NCO development.

    Like I’ve been saying, there’s a lot more to all this crap than the geniuses we have running things even begin to recognize, which is sad. We could be doing a much better job, and getting better results for all concerned, all the way around.

  13. Handle says:

    @kirk, send me a line at handle -at- multizionism -dot- com

  14. Tom Kratman says:

    Bruce, point the first is that I am not screwing with you here.

    Usually folks who dislike my fiction are on the left and understand it — or at least what I am doing with it — perfectly well. Most military types do get it and like it, I think. (That’s not a majority; I am not that well known.)

    So, what is it that you don’t get about it? Maybe I can help.

  15. Bruce says:

    Kirk,thanks for the tip on English.

    I had my crows tacked on twice. No muss, no foul. Some other guys went to medical, twenty guys in a row coming out of the weight room and karate chopping the same spot. For me it wasn’t a big deal either way, only three or four guys each time. Senior petty officers kept an eye on things.

  16. Kirk says:

    Bruce, you’re welcome. English is an author I’d like to be able to chain to a desk somewhere, preferably in a good military library, and tell him to produce or go hungry. We need more like him. The stuff he did on the Canadian Army is illuminating as hell, too. I don’t think I’ve read anything of his that wasn’t worth the effort, which is all too common in this field. Gudmundsson, I’m looking at you…

    The whole “hazing” thing is something that’s gotten way out of control. The more you try to push that stuff underground, the more that goes on in the shadows to substitute for it, and it does serve a purpose, whether or not we want to admit it. My take on it is that it needs to be under active control of the leadership, just like the Navy traditions around crossing the Equator. Men are creatures of ritual and ceremony; the silly little things we do all have a role, somewhere, and the trick is to puzzle it out, and make it work effectively for you as a leader.

    I would offer the principle behind Chesterton’s Fence as a basic operating idea whenever you go to start changing even the most minor of things in the military:

    “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” “

    The traditions and customs of our strange culture in the military may simply be artifacts of age-old BS; on the other hand, they aren’t likely to have survived unless they served some purpose, and when you see everyone doing it, or something similar…? Well, you ought to think very, very carefully about what the hell you’re actually doing when you modify or reform it. The Law of Unintended Consequences has a way of biting you in the ass when you don’t actually know what the hell you’re doing, and I would submit that we really, really do not have a very good handle on what the hell we’re doing down at the levels below battalion. Mostly because those are areas that are dominated by those reservoirs of corporate knowledge, the NCOs, who are generally absolute shit at trying to explain things in comprehensible terms to their officer peers — and, indeed, don’t really know themselves, either, being the beneficiaries of tribal knowledge that hasn’t ever really been either articulated or authenticated.

  17. Bruce says:

    Kratman, I like the Anderson, Heinlein, Niven, Pournelle, Zelazny SF. I like Larry Correia and David Drake also. What I’ve seen of your stuff isn’t like Ringworld or Lord of Light. It isn’t pure action like Drake or Correia either. You were describing well-organized military units, not piratical mercenaries. Well-organized military units don’t have as much cheap drama. And really, would it hurt you to blow up a few planets and have some of your characters riding flying Tyrannosaurs?

    If you have some pure SF I’d get it. Like I said, I like your nonfiction.

  18. Tom Kratman says:

    I can’t really fault your tastes, Bruce; I like all those, too. Unfortunately, I don’t think I could do that kind of thing, even if I wanted to.

    Why not? Welllll….my purpose tends to be didactic. That pretty much drives what I write; without it…frankly…no motivation. Entertainment is the price I have to pay to get you guys to self-educate.

    Cities is the most I can do. I can’t of the top off my head remember how many of those I’ve blasted away, but it’s on the less than planetary scale, maybe less than continental.

    Note, however, that the things I did “with” Ringo weren’t really done with him. Instead, they’re rather more than 99 44/00 percent mine, playing in his universe. Not done to an outline or to spec, in other words. So, while I can’t give you flying Tyrannosaurs, I can offer a few helpings of Posleen (a kind of bucket-full-of-assholes ugly reptilian centaur) in flying sleds.

    Best I can do.

  19. Tom Kratman says:


    It took me a while to get what was really bugging me about your post on hazing…and it isn’t your post but the hazing.

    If you dig back, or if you’re both curious and lazy and ask me to find it again, I did an article on safety that was published in Infantry Magazine circa 1985. The title was, most unimaginatively, “On Safety,” and it was a hit piece on the Army’s safety program. It was based largely on the ways things were done in the old 193rd, in Panama, in the 70s and 80s. Short version of that is that we were using more ammunition than the 82d, with essentially no safety constraints, and with no particular accident rate (unless we were running LFXs for the 75th, which is a whole ‘nother story).

    When I say “more than the 82d, I don’t mean that the 193rd used more than a brigade of the 82d, nor even that a battalion in the 193rd used more (I speak of 4.2: and below, here) than a battalion of the 82d, but that each of the three line battalions in the 193rd used more ammunition (again, 4.2″ and below) than the entire 82d airborne division. Every company live fired at least 13 times a month with, again, no noticeable safety constraints. It was the only place I’ve ever served where you could tell range control to “fuck off” and make it stick.

    One of the things I didn’t mention in it was an aspect of the safety program that was inherently unsafe. This was that training, safetied-down to the point on mind-numbing dullness, did not give young men the action they craved, hence drove them to behaviors off duty that were preposterously unsafe.

    It hit me, just recently, that silly crap like the jaw injury you described is very likely precisely caused by the mind numbing dullness of what passes for training these days. By way of illustration, a fan recently wrote me that, in yet another of the freaking monthly suicide prevention briefings, he told the chaplain, “If I have to sit through one more of these things I WILL kill myself.”

    So, too, the troops, bored to death with those and SHARP and mandatory training that has managed (not for the first time, by the way) to eat up the entire year, go find things on their own that are exciting, fun, and make them feel like men.

    And the solution seems to me obvious; make training dangerous again. It transfers risk from what you can’t control at all to what you really can, and gives young men what they need to keep them from doing the incredibly dumb shit (BTDT) they’ll find to do on their own.

  20. Tom Kratman says:

    Correction: my bad; where it says “you” or “your” it should be “Handle’s post” or “Handle.”

  21. Kirk says:

    LTC Kratman,

    I agree with you, and the same issue is at the heart of the hazing thing/ This stuff is a natural behavioral phenomenon, and if it isn’t present in your troops, well, it’s like Patton supposedly said “If they won’t f**k, they won’t fight.”

    The key issue is, all this crap absolutely must be under the control of the commander, or his representatives lower in the command chain. If it goes on in the shadows, it’s just like that old deal with what makes the difference between the “peer leader” and the “ring leader”. On the one hand, the peer leader has been co-opted to use his influence for the good of the unit and under the commander’s guidance. A ring leader, on the other hand, is out of anyone’s control but his own, and is often inimical to the purpose of the command.

    Troops are gonna do stupid, risky shit. That’s just a fact of life. That’s what they joined the military to do, to prove themselves and “have fun”, for a given value of “fun”. You can either turn that drive to serve the needs of the Army and the commander, or you can let it fester beneath the surface, and watch it come spouting forth when you need it least.

    What strikes me as a bit of a waste is that it’s only now, about ten years after retirement, that a lot of this stuff is crystallizing for me, and I’m looking back over the years and seeing things I missed while I was “in the mix”. There’s a lot of stuff in the behavioral patterns of the typical young male that we use in motivation and indoctrination that I think we could be doing a much better job with, and we are just not doing it.

    My opinion is that everything in the first two years or so of a soldier’s career is critical to what follows. Get him in with a good unit, with a bunch of good influences, and you’ll turn an average guy into a superior soldier. Same guy, bad units and bad influencers in terms of peers and junior leaders above him, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to really “fix” him, if he goes south.

    Although, there is the phenomenon of “good soldiers” coming out of bad experiences, which I think could maybe describe my first few years in the Army. Stories I could tell… Sheesh. I still don’t know why the hell I re-enlisted that first time. Fortunately, I got to a good unit, and met with a better class of mentors than I’d had, or that would have been it, after my second term.

  22. Tom Kratman says:

    It was an assignment to Panama that saved me, actually.

    My first tour, ’75 and ’76, was with the 101st. It was a division in bad shape, in almost every way imaginable. A lot of it was officers who were, I am sure, very good at hunting VC, but really had no clue how to train troops. Some was societal, as in Co D, 2/502d had organized, chartered, dues-paying chapters of the Klan, the Panthers, and the American Nazi Party. Some was that the average troop quality, at the time, was pretty low.

    I’d never have stuck it out except that I got sent to the 193rd — I think through the good offices of my Brigade CSM, Harvey Appleman; I was division soldier of the month for October ’75, so Harvey liked me. There were problems in the 193rd, sure, but they were trivial in comparison, while the Army life down there was everything a young man on testosterone overdose might want.

    It was…just great.

  23. Kirk says:

    Re: Hazing — An interesting article that shows some actual fair-minded research into this subject came up on Instapundit today, and I thought I’d highlight it. This is precisely the sort of thing I’m getting at, and why it’s critical not to ban this BS, but to get it under control of the leadership.

  24. Tom Kratman says:

    Yes, things don’t survive for thousands of years without some good reason.

  25. Kirk says:

    All the more reason to apply the principles behind Chesterton’s Fence.

    If you don’t know why the hell something is there, or done, don’t screw with it until you at least have a good, solid working hypothesis for what that particular thing does or influences.

    I really think that one of the biggest problems with our modern era is that we don’t pay enough damn attention to the whys and wherefores of traditional customs and lifestyles. Everybody today is so damn smart, and sure that our ancestors were a bunch of dummies, especially since conditions have changed so much from those that once obtained.

    However, there are still a lot of fundamentals that remain essentially unchanged, and the “new and improved” ain’t addressing the issues as well as the old values and mores.

    You can color me as not being a huge fan of most of what we’ve done over the last hundred years, because I think they started out from false premises and assumptions, leading to some severe dysfunction in modern society. The reaction, which will come, is going to be epic, over-done, and entirely unnecessary.

    I’m just wondering how far back it’s gonna go, to tell the truth. It’s always interesting to observe the blissninnies on the sidelines going “Oh, my Gawd! I had no idea that was going to happen!” Yep. ‘Cause you’re an idiot.

  26. Tom Kratman says:

    There’s a German retired naval type I know who once pointed out to me that we really need to repeal the enlightenment. That’s probably where we took the really big wrong turn.

  27. Kirk says:

    I think the thread of essential idiocy was always there. You can find it in some writings of the Romans I’ve seen, and the blissninny mentality actually goes back to the dawn of the Christian church. The Puritans and Quakers were not the first idealists along the lineage–Far from it. The ancient Mideast is littered with the remains of the various Christian millennialist sects that died out, and if you go back, you’ll find various things that are very similar among the pagans.

    Chalk it up to human nature, I guess. The idiots will always, always be with us.

  28. Tom Kratman says:


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