Books I am currently reading to satisfy my curiosity and increase my understanding of myself, the people around me, and the world at large:
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman
This is an engrossing look at the psychology of killing from ancient times through the Vietnam War. According to Grossman, the vast majority of soldiers in combat (not just in the military, but actually in combat) have never killed and have never even fired their weapons at an enemy soldier. This is due to a healthy psychological barrier. Starting in Vietnam, the U.S. began using a new type of combat training that makes firing a weapon more instinctual, undercutting the natural psychological barrier. As a result, firing rates have gone up dramatically. This has implications for our military, as well as our law enforcement. An increase in someone's willingness and ability to shoot must come hand in hand with increased ethical and situational awareness training.
Grossman also addresses PTSD and the support structures that make PTSD less likely, and the book is worth reading for that section alone, particularly if you have a family member in the military or law enforcement.
On Killing is not without flaw. First, where are the sources? Some of the data feels questionable and Grossman does little to acknowledge critics. Also, Grossman should stop with his area of expertise (killology), and not foray into cultural exposition. After some hyperbole about Hollywood and video games in the introduction, I read the rest of the book with one eyebrow raised. Still, it is a fascinating read and will introduce most readers to a new subject they know little about.
Man's Search for Himself by Rollo May
Boredom. Anxiety. Fear. Loneliness. These are characteristic symptoms of the modern self. As western culture shed cultural rituals and traditions after the dissonance of WW2, we found our orientation towards meaning shaken. The ancient ways gave us stability and a sense of affirmation that we were doing something meaningful with our lives. But the cultural revolutions that happened in the early 20th century have left us to seek and create our own meaning (this is one of the things we will talk about in a coaching session). Rollo May wrote this insightful book in 1953, but it is prophetic in the way it foreshadows the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, and later, postmodernism.
Rollo May (d. 1994) was one of the fathers of existentialist psychology and was incredibly well read. This book draws on philosophy (kierkegaard), psychology (Freud), Greek myth, and theology (May earned a degree at Union Theological Seminary and was a pastor before becoming a psychologist. He was also lifelong friends with influential theologian Paul Tillich). While this book is clearly dated (some of the psychological trends he describes are more pertinent to my parents' generation), nevertheless, it is invaluable for the insights it gives into the making of our national ethos, and the evolution of our self-perception. Reading May, I find myself stimulated and challenged to become more fully myself, and I have to thank my wife for introducing me to one of her favorite psychologists.
Reading these books side by side has been illuminating. Grossman is concerned with a mechanical question: How are humans, who are naturally reticent to kill, made into more effective killing machines? His answer has to do primarily with unconscious conditioning. May, on the other hand, sets the reader on a journey that frees the person from unconscious influences to move towards a complete and independent self that is full of wonder and intention. Together, these books lead to intriguing questions for reflection: How does the soldier, or the person conditioned to a response for the sake of survival, become a whole person? What is the proper place of authority, the kind of authority that asks to be obeyed without question, in a mature humanity?