On Combat:

The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace

Bibliographic Content

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

2008

Warrior Science Publications

Kindle, Paperback (403 pages), Audible (18hrs:41min)

Synopsis from Author

On Combat looks at what happens to the human body under the stresses of deadly battle the impact on the nervous system, heart, breathing, visual and auditory perception, memory - then discusses new research findings as to what measures warriors can take to prevent such debilitations so they can stay in the fight, survive, and win. A brief, but insightful look at history shows the evolution of combat, the development of the physical and psychological leverage that enables humans to kill other humans, followed by an objective examination of domestic violence in America. The authors reveal the nature of the warrior, brave men and women who train their minds and bodies to go to that place from which others flee. After examining the incredible impact of a few true warriors in battle, On Combat presents new and exciting research as to how to train the mind to become inoculated to stress, fear and even pain.


Expanding on Lt. Col. Grossman s popular "Bulletproof mind" presentation, the book explores what really happens to the warrior after the battle, and shows how emotions, such as relief and self-blame, are natural and healthy ways to feel about having survived combat. A fresh and highly informative look at post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) details how to prevent it, how to survive it should it happen, how to come out of it stronger, and how to help others who are experiencing it. On Combat looks at the critical importance of the debriefing, when warriors gather after the battle to share what happened, critique, learn from each other and, for some, begin to heal from the horror. The reader will learn a highly effective breathing technique that not only steadies the warrior s mind and body before and during the battle, but can also be used afterwards as a powerful healing device to help separate the emotion from the memory. Concluding chapters discuss the Christian/Judeo view of killing in combat and offers powerful insight that Lt. Col. Grossman has imparted over the years to help thousands of warriors understand and come to terms with their actions in battle. A final chapter encourages warriors to always fight for justice, not vengeance, so that their remaining days will be healthy ones filled with pride for having performed their duty morally and ethically. This information-packed book ploughs new ground in its vision, in its extensive new research and startling findings, and in its powerful, revealing quotes and anecdotes from top people in the warrior community, people who have faced the toxic environment of deadly combat and now share their wisdom to help others. On Combat is easy to read and powerful in scope. It is a true classic that will be read by new and veteran warriors for years to come.

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“The military does not dress young troops in uniforms, shave their heads and make them march just for the fun of it. They do these things because if the young warrior cannot submit his will to authority about inconsequential things, such as the way he dresses and how he wears his hair, then he cannot be trusted to submit his will to authority for important things, such as employing deadly force only when a situation calls for it, no matter how bad the provocation.” [Section Three, Chapter Seven]



“Our goal is to create warriors like this, preferably before they go into combat for the first time. ‘Forewarned is forearmed,’ and we must send our warriors into combat as well armed and well informed as humanly possible.” [Section Two, Chapter One]

Summary of Book from War Is My Business

Behavioral and Psychological Responses


One of the most important topics covered in Grossman's book is the physiological responses to combat and killing. In most instances, short of actually being shot, struck, or physically injured in some way, all of the things that happen to the body are self-imposed – be they benefits or hindrances. One goal of Grossman is to understand this reality and to work at optimizing the good elements while minimizing the bad.


At first, he provides a heart-rate spectrum to help the reader understand how certain physiological responses relate. The numbers for relative heart rates provided aren’t exact since different body types and levels of health will differ between people, but these averages do provide a good spectrum for analysis. It isn’t meant to be used while in such dire situations – you won’t have time to check your pulse – but understanding what will happen to your body as your heart-rate increases, and what you can do to improve your performance, are what matter.


Condition White (<80 bpm)

Condition Yellow (100 bpm)

Condition Red (120-140 bpm)

Condition Gray (140-180 bpm)

Condition Black (>180 bpm)


I don’t want to dig too deeply into this, leave that up to Grossman when you read or listen to it, but we can touch on a few things.


  • Most of society lives in Condition White – with a resting heart-rate and oblivious to the potential danger around them.

  • Warfighters, police officers, and those that reside in dangerous areas usually reside in Condition Yellow – a state of constant vigilance about their surroundings, always cognizant of their environment, keeping their backs to walls, scanning people in the room, and aware that threats are always possible.

  • Condition Red we see the loss of fine motor skills, but an increase in visual and cognitive reaction times, increased strength, reduced pain, and overall better performance – considered the optimal condition for combat.

  • Beyond Condition Red would be Condition Black in which the heart-rate gets so high, and the body is flushed with so many hormones, that performance begins to deteriorate significantly – tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, vasoconstriction (which can be useful), up to the loss of bladder and bowel control, gross motor functions, and even freezing in place.

  • But before Condition Black, the skilled warrior can control themselves and maintain their heart-rate to such an extent that they can reside in the middle-ground of Condition Gray, which is much more manageable.



The body releases various hormones (adrenaline, endorphins, cortisol, etc.) to help ready itself for survival, which in turn causes the aforementioned benefits and drawbacks. By understanding what may happen, we can prepare ourselves and others for that eventuality to not be blind-sided by it or even prevent it from occurring – e.g., staying out of Condition Black. Additionally, it helps inform us of some of the odd behaviors we see in others that undergo preparatory training, engage in combat, and tackle the subsequent trauma.


Almost one-third of the book is dedicated to discussing the various impacts of the mind and body – providing anecdotes of individuals engaged in life-and-death engagements to how these may manifest. Grossman delivers much greater detail, but I will leave that for you to discover; however, I will bring up a few critical aspects that I would like to discuss.


Training Processes


“You do not rise to the occasion in combat, you sink to the level of your training. Do not expect the combat fairy to come bonk you with the combat wand and suddenly make you capable of doing things that you never rehearsed before.” [Section Two: Chapter Two]


In our own section of The Human Domain, we discussed the nature of human decision making – the brain's inference of stimuli and subsequent decision-making reactions. Grossman hits on this system when the forebrain – i.e., critical thought processing – is taken out of the equation, and humans act more instinctually to external and internal stimuli. The goal in understanding this is to shape our automated responses so that in time-sensitive and stress-filled situations, we respond in desirable ways.


Lt. Col. Dave Grossman says:


“By thinking through exactly what we want a warrior to do in combat, and training him to say or do exactly the right thing in training, we can insure that the right words and actions will be there when lives are on the line.” [Section Two, Chapter Two]


You have the ability to do the same thing that anyone else can do. You just need to develop the neural pathways that allow you to do it. By drilling actions through repetition, focusing on proper maneuvers and body position, and avoiding wasteful actions, we are strengthening specific neural processes that allow us to execute a particular task more efficiently. When you hear about the number of hours it takes to be classified as an expert or master in a specific skill, what is fundamentally being discussed is the amount of time it may take for those pathways to develop to such a degree that it can be executed with ease. It becomes a near instinctual action that requires little thought and would take considerable effort to deviate from on the practitioner’s part.


Grossman promotes constant drilling in actions that individuals would need to do to survive a combat scenario and defeat a threat. If you don't drill those actions, if you don't strengthen those neural pathways while you have the time, you can't expect to be able to do it when your heart-rate skyrockets and your body and being flushed with various stress hormones. You will panic, fumble, and forget the step you need to do. You will invariably do something – even if the something is nothing – but if you drill responses to these types of scenarios, your brain will fall back on this training.


Avoid Training Bad Habits


“If the trainee is conditioned to stop when he is hit (as if the scenario is over), he programs an undesirable and potentially self-destructive action into his mind.” [Section Three, Chapter Two]


What you drill in training will become manifest when a combat scenario becomes a reality. This means the elements of the training environment present – only because it is a training environment - will be executed in the real world. Remember, everything you do in training becomes hardwired in the brain the more you do it. Grossman provides several examples of this, causing law enforcement officers and federal agents problems – some, unfortunately, resulting in death.


“One example of this can be observed in the way police officers conducted range training with revolvers for almost a century. Because they wanted to avoid having to pick up all the spent brass afterwards, the officers would fire six shots, stop, dump their empty brass from their revolvers into their hands, place the brass in their pockets, reload, and then continue shooting… After the smoke had settled in many real gunfights, officers were shocked to discover empty brass in their pockets with no memory of how it got there. On several occasions, dead cops were found with brass in their hands, dying in the middle of an administrative procedure that had been drilled into them.” [Section Two, Chapter Two]


This story's moral is to ensure that training is conducted from initial actions all the way to completion. If it doesn't make sense to pause at a particular point in the real world or introduce some non-critical action, don't make it a part of the training.


Evolution of Combat Technology


“The concept of an “evolution” of combat is appropriate since the battlefield is the ultimate realm of Darwinian natural selection. With few exceptions, any weapon or system that survives for any length of time does so because of its utility, not simply because of superstition. Anything that his effective is copied and perpetuated, and anything ineffective results in death, defeat and extinction.” [Section Three, Chapter Six]


As I brought up in Life and Evolution, evolution has as much to do with death as it does life and as much to do with your environment as it does yourself. It is all about relationships and can a creature survive under those conditions. In the crucible of combat, individuals and groups are tested - not just in their own physical abilities but also in the quality of their training, organization, doctrine, and equipment. We improve upon our abilities to thrive in combat while simultaneously shaping environmental conditions so that our adversaries do not.


Environments change over time, as human and non-human variables shape them. Because of this, tactics and strategies that have worked in the past may fail to achieve the same results. Why is that? Because the tactics and strategies employed were solutions to specific environmental and mission variables. In mathematical terms, when the equation changes, so too does the solution. Therefore, military minds seek to analyze the nature of contemporary environments and adjust established methods in order to survive. We know, or speculate, which solutions are suitable since they don't shape conditions that result in failure.


Grossman discusses a history of technological conflict between offensive and defensive weapons, armors, and transportation modes. He emphasizes four attributes that are sought after in military tech, and humanity has engaged in thousands and thousands of years of arms races based around these attributes – force, mobility, distance, and protection. This includes the discussion of the psychological edge that these attributes can provide the warrior as they engage in combat against fellow human beings.

On Combat for Business

Behavioral and Psychological Responses


Looking at Grossman’s spectrum of physiological responses, we can see an obvious cross-over to other areas – since the topic deals specifically with a function of the human body. Since the spectrum applies to increased heart rates and hormonal releases, its reference and historical applications in the military sphere can apply to any human endeavor that may produce similar situations.


Some careers revolve around physical activity, which can increase that heart-rate up to Condition Red. Working construction, warehousing, fieldwork, firefighting, logging, etc. all have moments of physical exertion that make the heart race. Similarly, all jobs can have their moments of unexpected threats that can come out of apparently nowhere – like active shooters and natural and human-made disasters. As your heart rate increases, you may lose certain fine motor skills, but gain increased strength and improved pain tolerance. However, too high and even basic motor skills may be impossible to perform, and you may suffer from various other hindrances. As a result of what Grossman has shown us, and what was mentioned above, we need to look out these things in the business environment.


Training Processes


Grossman talked about the need to train actions so that they become instinctual. We must focus on training all the actions required to follow through a particular activity or event, as we may not have time to think about it. It is also important to avoid actions that don't contribute to the desired process – such as pauses or resets in training – so that they aren't unintentionally replicated. By drilling desirable actions during training, we can ensure an effective real-world response.


In business, there are scenarios in which time is critical, and people are stressed. Developing a step-action process for issues, and drilling those steps constantly will ensure smooth and satisfactory responses. This will help prevent compounding problems. Responses to active shooters, natural disasters, building fires, public relations disasters, etc., should be drilled so that when they occur, everyone knows what to do and how to respond – even when they are pressured or scared.


If the heart-rate gets too high – especially at those rare times when your survival is on the line – and your body starts to suffer from the stress, all you will have are those instinctual processes to fall back on. Grossman even spoke of times in which people couldn’t dial 911 because of their stress-induced blurred-vision and fumbling fingers. Therefore, those times in which people may be stressed to the point they don't have time to think through their processes, they must be drilled to ensure they become instinctual.


Avoid Training Bad Habits


When people are stressed, pressured, or scared, they begin to act relatively autonomously. They "sink" to the level of their training, and act on instinct based on what they have learned – through experience or habit – in the past. This means that they may not be critically thinking of their actions – their forebrains are merely observers as their midbrains take over.


If one trains for these dangerous scenarios, when it becomes a reality, they act how they trained. Without thought of whether each action is appropriate, they will simply do what they have done before. This means that if there were steps conducted during training that shouldn’t be done in the real world, they might still do it.


For example, Grossman tells us in one instance, a police officer was practicing how to disarm a perp by training with his wife. She would hold the handgun, and he would skillfully disarm her. He would return the weapon to her each time so that he could drill those actions multiple times until it was muscle memory. But in the future, when at a convenient store, he had to do the same thing to a robber:


“In the blink of an eye, the officer snatched the gun away, shocking the gunman with his speed and finesse. No doubt this criminal was surprised and confused even more when the officer handed the gun right back to him, just as he had practiced hundreds of times before.” [Section Two, Chapter Two]


We just need to remember that in times of high stress, when heart-rates skyrocket, what appears to be illogical or irrational behavior can still be executed if the procedure has been drilled into the individual. Therefore, all elements of training should be focused on drilling from a start-to-finish perspective. Even if you mess up a step, keep going while trying to compensate for the mistake. You can and should do it again once complete, but knowing how to be flexible and recover after a mistake is also a valuable training tool that allows you to learn to be adaptive. But you must complete the reps. You can’t just stop and start from the beginning again, as you won't be able to do it in the real world.


Evolution of Combat Technology


The business sector had already appropriated Darwin’s concepts when implying that the free market akin to “survival of the fittest.” Demand for products and services, creating new markets, and innovating on existing offerings helps shape the economic environment. This alters the conditions by which businesses are established and dissolved – much like the conditions that dictate life and death in nature and on battlefields.


When the business adopts new technology, marketing techniques, and organizational structures, it is similar to military organizations over time. They are looking to achieve an edge within the market so that they can survive and thrive. A business that fails isn't necessarily as disastrous for those involved as it would be for military personnel failing in their endeavors. However, the consequences for business are strong nonetheless – fortune or bankruptcy, luxury or poverty, accolades or obscurity. These consequences are the drivers that lead people to do what it takes to succeed.


There are those, however, that are unable to make the necessary changes. They fail to assess their environments and adapt accordingly. Kodak lost significant market share to their digital camera competitors, not because they didn't want to create their own, but the lion's share of their business model was based around selling the film and not the cameras – they just couldn't part with their primary breadwinning products. Blockbuster and Hollywood Video would lose out to Netflix mail-delivered services and eventually digital streaming. Many physical books, toys, and game stores have suffered from the rise of Amazon. Those businesses that have succeeded and continue to thrive do so because they are able to function in relation to current market trends. They live despite the threats through adaptation and business itself evolves accordingly.

Conclusion


Grossman’s book, On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, provides the reader – or listener of the audiobook – a glimpse of the human being under times of high stress and psychological trauma. We can learn what to expect when we or others become involved in these situations and can even begin to analyze and speculate others' actions. You begin to see why people act illogically, why a police officer may mistake a wallet or phone for a weapon, and why people who have to kill are constantly trying to justify the reasons why. Additionally, you see why people sometimes end their own lives many years after a psychologically traumatic event – seeing the signs and methods for helping others deal with the trauma.


The battlefield is a unique environment that most businesspersons will never come close to experiencing. But you may have employees that have experienced it, and this book may help you understand them. You may be exposed to traumatic events at work or in your personal lives, and this book will help you and those you care about survive the incident and deal with the aftermath. You also learn more about the human condition and the strengths and weaknesses of the human mind and body – how it evolved within our socially-oriented species. Supported by various studies and anecdotal stories, I find this book very enjoyable and would highly suggest you pick it up.


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