Mormonism and Embodiment: Learning from Killing

July 1, 2013 | 58 comments
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2013-07-01 On KillingThis week I finished reading On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War in Society, but I knew I would be writing about the book on Times And Seasons long before I finished it. Despite the seemingly narrow focus of the title, On Killing has broad and sweeping implications for understanding human nature, and it has particular if unexpected relevance to Mormon theology.

I  must start with the central thesis of the book, however, which is that humans have an incredibly strong inhibition against killing other human beings. The first quantified research in this field came from the work of S. L. A. Marshall who, in post-action surveys during World War II, found that only 15% – 20% of infantry rifleman in close quarters combat fired their weapons at the enemy. This result seems shockingly counter-intuitive, but Grossman draws on a wide range of data from other wars–everything from the campaigns of Alexander the Great to the American Civil War–to show that Marshall’s findings are not an anomaly. They are the norm.

Grossman goes on to explain how the reluctance to kill factors into the complex nature of combat stress with more shocking historical data. He writes that “Prior to World War II, psychologists and military theoreticians… predicted that mass bombing of cities would create the same degree of psychological trauma see on the battlefield in World War I.” First Britain and later Germany endured precisely such massive bombing campaigns:

During the months of firebombings and carpet bombings, the German population experienced the distilled essence of the death and injury suffered in combat. They endured fear and horror on a magnitude such as few will ever live to see. This Reign of Fear and horror unleashed among civilians is exactly hat most experts hold responsible for the tremendous percentages of psychiatric casualties suffered by soldiers in battle. And yet, incredibly, the incidence of psychiatric casualties among these individuals was very similar to that of peacetime.

This bewildering results stands in contrast to the experience of combat soldiers in World War II. Grossman summarizes a study by Swank and March and which found that:

After sixty days of continuous combat, 98% of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties of one kind or another. [The study] also found a common trait among the 2 percent who are able to endure sustained combat: a predisposition toward “aggressive psychopathic tendencies.”

The difference between the reactions of soldiers and civilians (along with other non-combatants subject to combat danger) is two-fold. First, only the soldier must wrestle with an an obligation to kill the enemy. Secondly, the horrific danger of air raids and artillery spares non-combatants from what Grossman calls “the Wind of Hate”, by which he means the dehumanizing hatred which the enemy soldier must employ to overcome his own reluctance to kill. Killing from 10,000 feet is relative easy, both for the bombardiers and pilots and also–in a sense–for their victims below. Neither must see the face of the other.

From there, Grossman goes on to explain how modern armies incorporated aspects of psychological conditioning to overcome this inhibition. In Vietnam, an estimated 90% – 95% of American infantryman fired at the enemy during combat, which is one reason the United States never lost a conventional military confrontation in that war. However, as Grossman argues, the long-term effect of the killing conducted by American soldiers combined with the lack of traditional support mechanisms at home led to unprecedented psychiatric casualties long after the war had ended. Grossman also goes on to argue that the violence of modern American media is functionally equivalent to the desensitizing training of modern militaries without the safeguards of strict obedience to authority. According to his research, it is only advances in life-saving medical technology which artificially keep homicide rates low despite ever increasing violence from our combat-conditioned youth.

All very interesting, you may say, but what does any of it have to do with Mormonism? I believe it has a lot to tell us about the unique Mormon belief that coming to Earth and receiving a physical body is ascent rather than descent.

The first thing to note is that when killing is accomplished at a psychological distance–via artillery or even a sniper’s scope–the resistance drops drastically. Secondly, this resistance to kill is not uniquely human. On the contrary, the inter-species “fight of flight” response is replaced or augmented in almost all species with a “posture or submit” response that avoids intra-species killing. Together, these observations prove that the moral virtue of empathy and the heroic resistance to shedding the blood of our fellow human beings is a property we inherit primarily via our bodies, not our spirits.

The second thing to note is that it is not killing or death that are the real focus of trauma, but rather antipathy itself. Impersonal death–even the horrific massacres of massive air-raids–do not hold the trauma that comes from being so despised by another human being that they will look you in the eye with loathing and kill you closely, personally, and almost intimately. It is hating and hatred that traumatize more than killing and death.

So what are some possible conclusions to draw from these observations? The first is simply a renewed awe at God’s handiwork. So often we think of our bodies as being low and base, and even when Mormons try to rise above our anti-body intellectual heritage oftentimes the best we can do is praise the physicality of the body, as though it were a particularly well-engineered locomotive device for our spirits. Not to knock opposable thumbs, but there is simply more to our mortal bodies than exceptional tool-use capabilities. Quoting from Grossman again:

Holmes records another veteran who…observed that some of the marines he was with in Vietnam reached a point of reflection after battle in which they “came to see the young Vietnamese they had killed as allies in a bigger war of individual existence, as young men with whom they were united throughout their lives against the impersonal ‘thems’ of the world.” Holmes then makes a timeless and powerful perception about the psyche of the American soldier when he notes that “in killing the grunts of North Vietnam, the grunts of America had killed a part of themselves.”

The biological inhibition to killing is not merely evolutionarily convenient. It carries a profound philosophical payload. Our very bodies bear within them the drive to love and value each other in a resistance to killing so strong that in reality many would rather die than kill. It’s as though God had inscribed the blueprints of Zion in our very DNA, if only we have the eyes to see what is written there.

Another conclusion is that, by thrusting our spirits into this maelstrom of passion and danger, we are subject to much greater–or at least much more acute and immediate–ethical considerations than a spirit unaided may be able to appreciate. There is, therefore, a chance for faster moral development because of the increased moral sampling of our mortal bodies.

But, for a third and most speculative conclusion, we may go even farther than that. What if the body is not merely a means to provide the spirit with greater opportunity for moral growth, but is itself an integral part of that growth? After all, Mormons do not believe that our physical bodies are merely useful instruments during our mortal probation, but that–in some sense–this spirit-body fusion is a permanently elevated form of being. How can this be?

If I assume for a moment that the “I” we think of when we deliberate consciously is roughly synonymous with our spirit and everything else comes from the body, I think it’s possible to create a model to answer that question. If we were required to decide every moral response through conscious deliberation it’s easy to see how our progress and development could be slow and stunted. In this life, where time and deliberation are finite resources,we would go from exhausted to paralyzed to dead within a week if every decision had to be made via conscious deliberation. Even in the pre-mortal existence, however, it’s easy to see how offloading some of our moral learning into reflexive storage could provide useful advantages.

And that, in a sense, is what we can do with the feedback system that exists between mind and body. After all, when we’re hungry or exhausted, our capacity to deliberate and act ethically are constrained. But we can also exercise conscious decisions to outsmart our bodies, most frequently by selecting an environment conducive to providing the incentives we know are likely to lead to good  behavior. In simple terms: try to stay out of the kitchen when you’re fasting. It’s a lot easier not to eat if you avoid going near food than it is to wrestle with your appetite once you smell fresh strawberries in June. Over time, relatively infrequent, conscious decisions can have a cumulative effect on our body: crafting and creating character through habit, practiced response, and self-conditioning.

We are born into unruly, imperfect, and recalcitrant bodies full of their own behaviors, preferences, desires and motivations and those that aren’t baked into our DNA are often learned from our environment before we are old enough to understand what is going on. There is no blank slate or fresh start. And yet our bodies do not represent just a challenge to overcome or a struggle to endure, but perhaps also divine promise as we turn the untamed wilderness of our inner lives into a garden of love and beauty.

Although I think there’s a lot more to consider, that’s as far as I’ll go today. I just want to wrap up with a final thought from Grossman’s sensitive book:

We may never understand the nature of this force in man that causes him to so strongly resist killing his fellow man, but we can give praise for it to whatever force we hold responsible for our existence.

 

58 Responses to Mormonism and Embodiment: Learning from Killing

  1. Kent Larsen on July 1, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Wow, Nathaniel. You’ve blown my mind. Fantastic, elevating thoughts. Its going to take a while to digest, but I’m stunned with the possibilities.

  2. Kent Larsen on July 1, 2013 at 9:48 am

    One thought that is perhaps a bit peripheral: If becoming hateful does psychological damage (as the studies you cite indicate), then clearly we need to avoid such feelings (a tall order). But on some level, aren’t we sent here to learn how to control such feelings? And isn’t exposure part of the process of learning that control?

  3. Nathaniel Givens on July 1, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Kent,

    This is really the same question as asking whether or not Lucifer is actually a good guy because if there must be opposition in all things someone needs take the role, right? If we require exposure to sin to grow, then should we be grateful to the great tempter?

    So it’s a problem, but it’s not a new one. And I don’t have a good answer. My starting point is simply Matthew 18:7:

    Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!

    In any case, you’re absolutely right that I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with Grossman’s book and with the literature on the psychology of violence more generally. I hope more folks give the book (or similar research) a read and share their thoughts on it.

  4. danithew on July 1, 2013 at 10:36 am

    I thought SLA Marshall’s claims about low percentages of soldiers firing to kill had been debunked. Years ago I was studying violence quite a bit, and came across some information about what SLA Marshall had written and was quite astounded by it – but then came across some other sources that contradicted his findings. But like I said, it’s been years. I would have to search again to come up with what I had found at that point.

  5. Nathaniel Givens on July 1, 2013 at 10:53 am

    danithew-

    Yeah, I kind of got the impression that there was some contention about the SLA Marshall stats, but what really impressed me about that section of the book was the extensive research Grossman had done to validate the results from other studies. Mostly what he did was look at theoretical lethality of weapons (for example, the Prussians stood up a bunch of large sheets of wood and had their musketeers fire volleys at various ranges and then counted the hits) vs. the actual casualty rates from major battles, and his findings were all largely in line with the SLA Marshall numbers.

    Another really surprising piece of historical evidence came from thousands and thousands of discarded muskets found at Gettysburg. A very large proportion had been loaded multiple times without firing, some as many as a dozen times! Grossman argued–convincly, I thought–that the only explanation for this was that soldiers were intentionally pretending to engage in combat by loading, aiming, and then not actually firing their weapons.

    In any case, this is off the top of my head and I’m going back to the earliest sections of the book, but my overall impression (as someone who has no expertise in this field) was that Grossman did a very good job of substantiating the SLA Marshall findings and responding to criticisms. I was convinced, anyway, and it certainly contradicted my notion of combat entirely.

  6. Howard on July 1, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Very interesting suff!

    If I assume for a moment that the “I” we think of when we deliberate consciously is roughly synonymous with our spirit and everything else comes from the body I don’t think this is correct. The “I” of conscious deliberation is our mind. Our spirit is the “I” of communing with God. It is largely an undefended egoless openness and willingness to lovingly connect. It is much more meditative than contemplative.

    …aren’t we sent here to learn how to control such feelings?. I would substitute transcend for control. Do you really believe Jesus wanted to kill people but has such great control that he didn’t? Perfecting the natural man is impossible to do, the natural man is put off by transcendance of the mighty change of heart.

  7. Michael H. on July 1, 2013 at 11:07 am

    “But, for a third and most speculative conclusion, we may go even farther than that. What if the body is not merely a means to provide the spirit with greater opportunity for moral growth, but is itself an integral part of that growth? After all, Mormons do not believe that our physical bodies are merely useful instruments during our mortal probation, but that–in some sense–this spirit-body fusion is a permanently elevated form of being. How can this be?”

    I personally feel that spirits, being bodies, are what we, as humans on Earth, would consider a “lower” sort of creature: incapable of thinking and feeling quite as a human would. By melding the spirit with a human body, God actually increases the moral and intellectual capacity of the spirit, which would otherwise be stunted (just as plugging a dog’s mind into a human one, if it could be done, would open up new modes of experience). You’ve pointed to some things (empathy/antipathy) that could be examples of what humans (and not spirits) can experience and learn exclusively from Earth life – things we should not take for granted, especially since we, as Mormons, can’t justifiably jump on a sort of neo-Platonic dualist mind/body bandwagon.

  8. danithew on July 1, 2013 at 11:22 am

    If SLA Marshall was right, it’s very interesting data. I just remembering being quite excited about what he came up with and then read something that seemed to say there was a serious problem with his data. But googling around I’m not finding it.

  9. Nathaniel Givens on July 1, 2013 at 11:30 am

    I found one just now, here: http://hnn.us/articles/1356.html

    I don’t think that it was as powerful as it sounds, however. It criticizes SLA Marshall’s methods, but doesn’t actually provide any evidence to counter his findings. Which, given that his findings were compatible with so much additional evidence, leaves them tentatively intact, as far as I can tell.

    Also, as Grossman points out, the findings seriously question a lot of what we tell ourselves about, war, combat, and killing. It would be surprising if there weren’t vocal critics for that reason alone.

    Still, if you find something more damning, let me know.

  10. Jax on July 1, 2013 at 11:38 am

    But on some level, aren’t we sent here to learn how to control such feelings? And isn’t exposure part of the process of learning that control?

    We also need to repent, but intentionally sinning so that we can repent would be foolishness indeed. I’d think the person who simply doesn’t get angry is much better off than the one who controls their anger… much like the person who never views pornography is better off than the one who overcomes the addiction. A torn piece of cloth can be patched and made strong again, but the untorn piece is better still.

  11. Howard on July 1, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Jax,
    You’re arguing naïveté over knowledge. Does that sound Godlike?

  12. Michael H. on July 1, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Over the past few months I’ve tended to interpret “opposition in all things” not as “being presented with at least two morally disparate options from which to choose” but as “having within oneself the capacity to choose.” As humans, our powers of deliberation allow us to envision alternatives and, as such, “oppose” one part of ourselves to other parts.

    Even under the reading of it as a selection between goodness and sinfulness, however, always choosing the right doesn’t necessarily engender naivete. If one follows God while knowing the alternatives to some degree, I think that could be Godlike. I’d also argue, moreover, that it’s improper to think of sin as permanently marring a piece of cloth; that comes close to the recent discussions about equating virtue with virginity.

  13. Kent Larsen on July 1, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Re: my comment on controling feelings

    I like the idea that we should talk more about transcending evil feelings instead of controlling them.

    But I think my remarks have moved to a different sphere (philosophical/religious) than what I intended. I guess I’m looking at it more from a physical or functional view — how the body operates, so to speak.

    Or, perhaps my relatively poor philosophical chops are showing…

  14. Howard on July 1, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Religion elevates sin over self knowledge but at least the serious contemplation of sin including murder is required to obtain self knowledge. Taboo breaking at least to a point is a powerful learning tool ask Abraham and Isaac.

  15. Nathaniel Givens on July 1, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Kent-

    Or, perhaps my relatively poor philosophical chops are showing…

    Never fear to rescue philosophy from the professionals! I can think of no worse fate for the discipline than to be abandoned in the clutches of tenured professors. ;-)

    Sorry, Ben and Adam! (But you both know I’m right.)

  16. Jax on July 1, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    Howard,

    No I’m not.

    I think it is better to not be depressed than to fight to overcome depression. Better to be socially normal instead of fighting psychotic problems. Is a person naïve because they have never had schizophrenia? Or naïve because they aren’t a cleptomaniac? Is a person more god like for having controlled sadistic desires or for having never had them?

    A person who doesn’t have to struggle with anger issues is better off than one who does. Each can develop a God-like nature/character, but the one who has to overcome anger has a bit more to do.

    Michael,

    all analogies fall apart at the edges the further they are stretched… so I know the cloth one isn’t perfect. But even if it doesn’t work well for virtue/virginity topic that doesn’t mean it can’t work well for others.

  17. Howard on July 1, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Jax,
    Who’s natural man has a craving to be schizophrenic? People usually don’t choose to have anger issues it is usually an unresolved part of their childhood they must work through to become more God like. We all have challanges to work through, when they are minor simple obedience works when they are compulsions it doesn’t. Avoidance teaches little.

  18. samuel david kress on July 1, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    just buried our warrior father who fought for four years in the Pacific during world war II. Your topic really hit home. As we read his journal it was clear that he tried to stay away from situations where he would have to kill another human being. That was impossible in his situation. My father did not die but he was clearly damaged by that experience. wonder what type of man he would have grown to be without having experience that trauma so young? on a personal level I strongly agree with your topic.

  19. Jax on July 1, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Who’s natural man has a craving to be schizophrenic?

    Nobody. That was my point. No one should want to have to overcome anger issues either. That’s why it is better (maybe “more blessed” would be a better term) not to experience anger issues. If you have anger problems, overcome them! But if you don’t have them, don’t say to yourself, “I need to start being angry so that I can overcome it.”

    Avoidance teaches little.

    Maybe it teaches little, but it demonstrates alot. There are a lot of scenarios where avoidance is impossible, because we simply don’t know every situation in advance. But avoidance of negative things when we DO know is a sign of God-like self-control. So avoiding pornography is better than willfully experiencing it so that we can “overcome” it. So… if you’re a Vet and you KNOW that watching war movies brings up lots of anger/fear/rage/etc… then avoiding those movies and remaining calm/peaceful is a better idea than watching them so you can ‘overcome’ those emotions.

  20. Howard on July 1, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    So avoiding pornography is better than willfully experiencing it so that we can “overcome” it.. This is not self evident or supportable. God is pornography naive? God is pornography vulnerable? You are buying into simplistic black/white teachings that may be a good place to start but they are preschooler level.

  21. Matty on July 1, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    My question is more basic, and possibly seems a bit silly- I’m not disagreeing, but I don’t understand why you believe that this proves something about the physical body that couldn’t be explained by the spirit?

    My question is – why would I be wrong in looking at the same data and writings at which you are looking and deciding: “Oh, this shows that the human spirit is resistant to killing off the bodies of other human spirits? This obviously shows that we are spiritual beings.”

    I must have missed something at the very base level here.

  22. Nathaniel Givens on July 1, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    Matty-

    My question is – why would I be wrong in looking at the same data and writings at which you are looking and deciding: “Oh, this shows that the human spirit is resistant to killing off the bodies of other human spirits? This obviously shows that we are spiritual beings.”

    “Prove” might be a strong word, but here are the two key reasons for my belief:

    1. It’s not unique to humans. It’s a pretty common behavior across most animals (and maybe even plants). That makes me skeptical that it has to do with our spirit, which is perhaps in some sense unique. (Maybe animals have spirits too, and the moral spirits of animals hesitates to kill, but it seems strange to ascribe ethics to animals.)

    2. It’s easily fooled by tricks that our body hasn’t evolved to handle. If your spirit is what resists killing, why would it be easy to circumvent it by using a scope on your rifle? That seems odd. But it’s not off if your body is being tricked since bodies didn’t evolve with lenses and such.

  23. Michael H. on July 1, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Regarding animal spirits: there’s ample material in scripture and in Joseph Smith’s other statements to support the idea that animals have spirits. They might not have human-level ethics (and would hence be unaccountable to human moral standards, perhaps including killing of one’s own kind), but they can have things that guide their actions. Perhaps dealing with the constraints of evolved bodies and moralities is the purpose of all life, not just human life.

  24. ceejay on July 1, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    @22. “Maybe animals have spirits too, and the moral spirits of animals hesitate to kill…”

    This is what popped up into my mind as I read the article above. I’m not skeptical about ascribing ethics to human spirits because I don’t think it’s weird to ascribe ethics to animals spirits. I still eat them though.

  25. Jonathon on July 1, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Very interesting. I immediately thought of the wars toward the end of the Book of Alma where every chapter seemed to contain something along the lines of “we wouldn’t kill them if they didn’t attack us.” It seems that Moroni et al were spending a lot of energy justifying their actions and, specifically, reinforcing the idea that they were the victim. I wonder if the psychological effects differ between people who kill in self defense versus those who kill as an aggressor.

  26. Nathaniel Givens on July 1, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    Jonathon-

    I wonder if the psychological effects differ between people who kill in self defense versus those who kill as an aggressor.

    Grossman actually has an entire section dedicated to analyzing atrocities. The whole book is really worth reading, but the short version is that atrocities are very empowering in the short run because, once young soldiers murder innocent women and children, they naturally trigger a defensive mechanism to see all of their enemies as subhuman, which makes them much more effective in combat in the short run. In addition, they have additional incentive to fight because if they lose they will be tried.

    In the long run, however, Grossman argues that atrocities are counterproductive. He references Germany World War II troops who would fight to the last man against Russians, but surrender at the first honorable opportunity to American forces. The American reputation for fair play protected our soldiers.

    In addition, committing atrocities does indeed lead to even worse psychological trauma if the defense mechanisms cannot be maintained.

    There’s much more, and–like I said–I really recommend reading the whole thing. It’s definitely in my all time top-3 nonfiction at this point.

  27. Kent Larsen on July 1, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    “…once young soldiers murder innocent women and children, they naturally trigger a defensive mechanism to see all of their enemies as subhuman…”

    BBC radio news has discussed a recent film about the anti-communist Indonesian killings of 1965-1966. According to the filmmaker (who was interviewed on the program) those who perpetrated the atrocities bragged for his film about what they did, instead of showing any shame. The filmmaker explained that these people weren’t sociopaths in general, they just had to justify their actions.

    Sounds exactly like what you are describing.

  28. Mtnmarty on July 1, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    Nathaniel,

    Your example of the Germans against the Russians vs. Americans leads me to think that you are conflating acceptance of a dominance hierarchy with a positive feeling, ethic or empathy for those one with whom one is in a violent struggle. Couldn’t reluctance to kill just be a recognition of war as a symbolic power struggle?

    Your post reminded me of a common observation about competitive sports involving children – one can tell within the first few minutes which team is dominant because one team will become passive relative to the other after just a few interactions.

    I don’t think the passive children were expressing any positive feeling towards those other children – in fact they often very much express dislike of them (they’re mean, they cheat, they are unfair, etc.) even though they usually passively submitted – I’m talking pre-teens here.

    Similarly, it seems like the reluctance to kill or even to be significantly cruel toward others relies on a certain fear of retaliation – either directly or through cosmic retribution. This is the essence of bullying – kids are notoriously more cruel to those that are weaker or lack allies that can extract revenge.

    Animals also conserve resources by usually not competing to the death but only until dominance is established. All of this seems consistent with self-interested behavior and not to involve any significant love or respect beyond what is necessary to establish a hierarchy.

    It seems an altogether too rosy an interpretation of the reluctance to kill. For example, it doesn’t seem to have had much impact on the number of people volunteering to serve in those wars, or even in any general avoidance of war for populations.

    It also doesn’t seem like not killing enemy combatants increased their standing as fellow humans either. Once taken prisoner they were subject to a lower status such as slavery or abuse.

    Interesting post. This may be beneath your dignity to contemplate but what do you make of the current fascination and best-selling status of dominance related fiction (Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.) Is this just garden variety titillation or does it speak to real concern about fundamental issues related to body, spirit and interpersonal relations?

  29. Nathaniel Givens on July 1, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    Mtnmarty-

    It seems an altogether too rosy an interpretation of the reluctance to kill.

    I don’t think it would be a good idea to recapitulate the entire book, but I assure you that the argumentation is careful and retaliation isn’t an adequate explanation for the resistance to kill or the trauma associated with interpersonal violence. Nor are militaristic societies proof to the contrary either since those eager young men–once they find themselves face-to-face with the enemy–only then discover just how deep this aversion to violence really is.

    And of course there are many ways to overcome the aversion. Grossman talks about things like obediance to authority, in-group loyalty, diffusion of responsibility, and many other factors.

    What I’ve given here are only some of the aspects most relevant to certain ideas of Mormon theology.

  30. Mtnmarty on July 1, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Thanks, I just like the theological parts that go to the level of loving one’s enemies. You are raising great points that love is embodied.

    All of these seem social and hard to distinguish their personal, internal effects from avoiding reputational degradation and the resulting risk of retaliation.

    Since many of these psychological measures are inherently social ( think of visual and auditory acuity and basic cognitive skills like ordering events in time, arithmetic etc.) versus ability to perform socially like hold a job, etc. with anxiety, depression, PTSD being somewhere in the middle, its hard to understand what is human nature from what is socialized.

    Take something like the decline of the duel. The fact that many duels weren’t lethal supports the case, but the change in the rate of duels seems harder for me to tell whether we are moving from or to natural behavior.

    In rough terms, is it fair to simplify what you are saying to the proposition that the fact that we have bodies make it hard to sin and stay sane?

  31. Mtnmarty on July 1, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Missing second paragraph of my post which is quoting your:

    And of course there are many ways to overcome the aversion. Grossman talks about things like obediance to authority, in-group loyalty, diffusion of responsibility, and many other factors.

  32. geekgreg on July 1, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    Wow. Super interesting stuff even without your impressive insights. Well written also!

    As a somewhat related idea, I’ve often wondered if our cyber interactions aren’t a way that we use to try and regain the unembodied state we once had. I compare the emotions, sensations, etc. that I experience in online forums such as this to the experience of real-life human interaction with those I love and I have no doubt that the body, or at least the whole experience of “living,” has a profound effect on our spiritual growth.

  33. Cameron N on July 1, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    Any mention of how video games relate to actual contexts in these studies?

  34. Nathaniel Givens on July 1, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    geekgreg –

    I’d never thought about that before–about the unembodied nature of cyber-interactions possibly hearkening back to pre-mortal existence–and I’ll have to think about it some more now.

    Cameron N-

    I think his treatment of video games actually one of the weakest elements of book. Primarily because his emphasis is on video games that have a physical gun to shoot, but those are generally relegated to arcades and are increasingly rare. Outside of a Time Crisis at your movie theater or Dave and Busters, they are basically gone.

    His case was stronger when he talked about the advent of the anti-hero in cinema, but overall the mass media portion was the weakest link in an incredibly good book. I got the impression that it wasn’t really substantially updated from the first (1996) edition, and that Grossman is just not an expert in pop/youth culture the way he is in military history and psychology. I appreciated his insights and don’t discount them, but you can kind of take or leave the last section of the book, I think.

  35. Jax on July 1, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    This is not self evident or supportable. God is pornography naive? God is pornography vulnerable? You are buying into simplistic black/white teachings that may be a good place to start but they are preschooler level.

    Yeah, all those simple minded prophets are just holding back our development, huh? I guess we should run out and partake of all the pornography we can get so that we will KNOW what it is all about, just like God. And no R-Rated movies??? Please? How will I know what I’m missing if I obstain? And how will I possibly ever be as good as God if I don’t get addicted to crack? He must know what it’s like, and so I have to too!!

  36. Michael H. on July 1, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    Nathaniel – Elder Bednar gave a fireside talk entitled “Things As They Really Are” in which he decried the potential of virtual reality to lure us into valuing disembodiedness and the premortal state (exactly what Satan, he argues, wants us to do). My primary objection to the talk is that such a critique could be leveled against any type of communication technology; even writing itself is a technology that allows us to mediate our persons in a disembodied fashion.

  37. Cameron N on July 2, 2013 at 12:25 am

    Thanks for sharing Nathaniel. I might add that the advent of motion controls and virtual reality in home gaming (eg Wii, Kinect, Move etc) allow such visceral interactions with much more realistic graphics than arcades ever had.

  38. Rameumptom on July 2, 2013 at 7:46 am

    This gives some interesting insights into some events in the Book of Mormon:
    1. Nephi not wanting to slay Laban with the sword.
    2. The Anti-Nephi-Lehites refusing to fight, and many of the attacking Lamanites dropping their arms and joining them.
    3. The last battles of the Jaredites, where some thirsted for blood; while others wished for death but kept fighting, etc. The howling and cries at night over the dead, etc., definitely show a severe PTSD.

  39. Howard on July 2, 2013 at 8:30 am

    Jax,
    There is a middle ground, not black (crack) not white (abstinence), a gray area, nuance that can safely but convincingly provide knowledge and experience in place of naivete. The black and white world is for beginners, it is how children think until they finally mature, if they mature. The prophets elevate sin avoidance over knowledge, it is simply a beginning lesson and it maintains social control. But God is not naive and if we are to become like him we cannot be naive either. The spirit if you allow him with teach you taboo breaking as an intermediate lesson sidestepping the prophets and scripture as in Abraham and Isaac, etc. If ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.

  40. Jax on July 2, 2013 at 9:54 am

    Howard,

    Either you’ve smoked crack or you haven’t. There is no “I’ve kinda tried it” gray zone. Up until you’ve inhaled it you “HAVEN’T” done it.. and the moment you do then you will forever be in the “HAVE” done it category. There is no gray zone in between.

    Your version of “God is not naïve” would justify us doing anything under the premise of gaining knowledge through experience. God isn’t naïve about murder, is there a nuanced way to do it? God isn’t naïve about adultery, is there a nuanced way to do it? God isn’t naïve about a lot of things that we are never to do. Christ never did any of those yet he gained the experience he needed… and before we gain godhood so will we. Mortality isn’t the testing ground for it though. Mortality is a test for one thing

    And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;

    Obedience

  41. Howard on July 2, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Jax,
    “Either you have or haven’t” is black and white thinking and that totally misses the point of nuanced thinking, doesn’t it? God isn’t naïve about murder, is there a nuanced way to do it? I’m sure he’s caused many and witnessed many more. Yes there is a nuanced way to learn about murder, Abraham didn’t actually kill Isaac did he? Yet I suspect the experience taught him a great deal about what killing would be like and well as about his love for his son and his love of God and probably much more! I’m not attempting to justify you doing “anything”. In stead I’m pointing out that avoidance teaches little but obedience and that obedience is an elementary school lesson when compared to what we must learn to become Godlike.

  42. Bryan S. on July 2, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Howard,

    I think maybe some real world examples would help clarify. You did point out Abraham but it doesn’t really apply to modern life unless you are suggesting people mock kill their children to understand what it would be like. I don’t see how causing and witnessing murder is exactly a desirable thing either (maybe you’re counting movies and video games?)

    While Jax is creating stark black and white examples you haven’t really produced anything as a counter point aside from naive is bad and not god-like.

    In my view I kind of see it this way. Trying crack and getting addicted is pretty much never a good idea, but educating yourself about what crack is, what it does to you, how the drug trade world works, meeting some of the people in that world and getting to know them, etc… could all be useful and enlightening things. They are also things that I don’t think Jax has argued against.

  43. Howard on July 2, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Bryan S.,
    How is a lesson about killing different in modern life than it was in Abraham’s day? Has killing changed? Of course not. The difference is not the times we live in, the difference is Abraham was being tutored and tested by God and today we tell each other the spirit has declined to a barely detectible whisper. Nonsense! Learn to hear and follow the Spirit and you will eventually be taught taboo breaking as an intermediate lesson. Sin avoidance will not make you Godlike, simply God friendly. It prepares you to sit quietly in the audience like children and watch.

  44. Bryan S. on July 2, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Howard,

    Have you almost sacrificed your child?

  45. Mark N. on July 2, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    This is probably completely off-topic, but the first thing that came to mind are the Book of Mormon references to the Nephites and Lamanites slaughtering each other. Does that come to play here as evidence for or against the book somehow?

    When I was a brand new missionary in France 38 years ago, one of the first people I remember giving a Book of Mormon to was a self-professed Communist (the Communist party being a legitimate political party in France; this took some getting used to for an American kid who had been brought up in an environment that taught that Godless Communists were about the worst people on the planet), with whom we set up a follow-up appointment some time later to see what he thought of the Book of Mormon.

    He hated it, and his biggest gripe was the Nephite/Lamanite wars, which were clearly caused by religion. He would never be able to venerate or respect a book where a lot of the focus in the book was on wars of religion. (I guess I should be gratified to the extent that he was willing to regard the accounts of war in the book as being true, at least to the point of his using the accounts as evidence of religion being worthless in solving the problem of man’s inhumanity to man.)

    Being a newbie missionary, I didn’t have a response for him (nor was I really required to come up with one; the onus for that was basically on my senior companion), and we left him, providing him with no real answers to his objections, somewhat mystified by his take on the B of M.

  46. Bryan S. on July 2, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    Howard,

    OK sorry, snark aside. I’m still struggling to grasp what you are getting at specifically. Some clarification would really help beyond “break taboos”.

  47. Howard on July 2, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    Have you almost sacrificed your child? … I’m still struggling to grasp what you are getting at specifically. Some clarification would really help… No I haven’t almost sacrificed my child, but there have been many very significant sacrifices along this path most of which your average LDS church goer would decline. I’m a sell what you have, give it to the poor and follow him disciple of 10 years now. I enjoy easy access to the Spirit and profound personal revelation. Some of the spirit led training I received included observing extreme torture and murder scenes from several viewpoints; the victim, the perpetrator and as a impartial witness. In order for a perpetrator to leave transgressions of this magnitude behind and progress he must clearly understand all three viewpoints (giving rise to the concept of blood atonement as a means to acquire some of this knowledge btw). The 4th viewpoint is that of God which includes a caring understanding of the mitigating circumstances of the perpetrator’s makeup; his genetic and socialized predisposition to commit these crimes. But this intellectualized description falls very short of conveying the true impact of such a lesson, like Abraham you are brought to believe in my case through a trance that you are witnessing the real thing and this belief makes such a simulation a very, very potent lesson.

  48. Howard on July 2, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Without this training how many of you can view a murderer in a truly Godlike way? Isn’t you sympathy strongly with the victim and your strong disdain with the perpetrator? Is it possible for you to feel and understand the murder’s pain, understand him as a victim, help him progress? Now make the case for how rote obedience and sin avoidance makes you Godlike.

  49. Jax on July 2, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    Despite your experiences Howard, you are still naïve about what it feels like to commit murder (unless your holding back about your experiences). And you are still naïve about all the possible nuances involved… murdering a child vs an adult vs elderly; man vs woman; with a gun v knife v car v poison v strangulation; with their child watching; with their spouse watching; and on and on and on… God knows all those things, and while you may disagree, I think it is far better to avoid them and not.

    There are more things to experience during mortality than any person could possible hope to do. No one could view all the movies, read all the books, talk to all the people, view all the sights… so we’re to read from the best books, go about doing good, and be anxiously engaged in a good cause. We ought not spend our time trying to learn about evil. There are more GOOD things to do than anyone can do… learn about them, experience them, and leave the rotten things for eternity.

    re; pornography. You say avoiding it is naïve? I say it is wisdom! I know it exists. I know what it is. I’ve seen it in movies, had the magazines thrown in my face, heard the bawdy stories (I’m a vet… impossible to avoid). I’ve experienced it without willfully searching for it. I often have the words/images come unbidden to my mind. I wish they wouldn’t. I’d much prefer the naiveté I had. And though you say the naiveté isn’t God-like, I say that the purity is. Only an absolute fool would say “I need to experience pornography” and search it out and let it fill his/her mind.

    Our counsel is to “let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly…” You can not do that unless you avoid things that lack virtue. You’ll come across them anyway, but willfully exposing yourself to them is folly!

  50. Howard on July 2, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    Well Jax, that comment brings us closer together because you’re allowing for and providing some nuance now. You’re right I’m still naive about murder but far less naive and far more Godlike having meditated and contemplated on it at the Spirit’s direction.

    We ought not spend our time trying to learn about evil. Well perhaps not, it can be a dangerous path but you can’t argue God is evil naive, God must be evil knowledgeable in a very big way.

    pornography. You say avoiding it is naïve? I say it is wisdom! It may be wisdom but avoiding it won’t make you more Godlike, understanding it will. I’ve been through the pornography worm hole and eventually came out the other end being able to take it or leave it. The trip offered a lot of self knowledge but it isn’t a path I necessarily recommend. However, with some 30% of Mormon men hooked, it’s past time to stop catastrophizing about it and put the issue in perspective. It certainly isn’t a reasonable cause for divorce or church discipline except in the extreme. The problem with porn is that it’s highly addictive and the main problem with that is with it’s current content it teaches and reinforces emotionally disconnected sex and isolation by hiding in the closet. Perhaps the BYU channel should help bring it into the open by offering church approved porn showing emotionally connected couples and offer it as marriage therapy for the perpetual 30% or so of priesthood holders who are already hooked. It wouldn’t be the end of the world and boy what a guilt/shame relief for those guys and their families!

  51. Jax on July 2, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    Howard,

    I’m glad you think we’re getting closer here. I’m not sure I’ve moved though. I say avoid… but not hide in your house afraid someone might say something vulgar or that you’ll see a dirty picture.

    My “avoid” is basically just making a conscious choice not to participate. Being in the Army meant I was exposed to some horrible stuff… but I always choose to avoid as much of it as possible. We can’t hide from the world… I think you and Bryan S. were reading me as saying “HIDE! The world is evil!” When really I mean “Look around, the world is wonderful! Just be selective.”

  52. Howard on July 2, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    Well not you necessarily Jax but a lot of the LDS population does think or act as if they’re hiding from these things. Anyway thanks for the discussion, always a pleasure.

  53. Jax on July 2, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    Unfortunately true Howard…

    Thanks!

  54. WalkerW on July 4, 2013 at 12:03 am

    Nathaniel,

    Check out Berkley’s ‘Greater Good’. Here’s an article by Grossman:

    http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hope_on_the_battlefield

  55. Rachel Whipple on July 4, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    I thought this was very interesting:

    Grossman also goes on to argue that the violence of modern American media is functionally equivalent to the desensitizing training of modern militaries without the safeguards of strict obedience to authority.

    It is the best argument against media violence that I’ve seen. Some depictions of violence can serve to increase our natural revulsion of killing each other (watching Saving Private Ryan made physically sick; I didn’t feel amped up on glory, just horror and fatigue and pain that made it so I couldn’t watch all of the film) but many action flicks are just about choreographing cool-looking violent scenes.

  56. Jax on July 4, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    It is the best argument against media violence that I’ve seen

    Yep!

  57. Patricia K on July 4, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    I read On Killing years ago, in conjunction with Mary Midgley’s Wickedness and Witchcraft in the Southwest.

    I think it’s very possible that this (still developing) resistance to killing is a later refinement in humankind, not one we’ve had all along.

    Also: What I learned from reading these three books together is that there is more than one way to “kill” another human being–more than one way to take somebody’s life besides physically killing that person.

    Nathaniel, you might try Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, if you haven’t done so already. His thesis: Despite appearances, we’re living in a time of unprecedented peace after a long journey out of early- to mid-civilization periods, which times were saturated with systematic and culturally accepted violence, human on human.

  58. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 7, 2013 at 7:28 am

    In the book “Sergeant Nibley, PhD”, Hugh Nibley confirmed with his own observations as a frontline intelligence gatherer that few of his companion soldiers ever fired with the intent to kill an enemy soldier. He was involved in D-Day, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge.