Books: Over the top and out of their heads

Do men at arms enjoy the carnage they cause? Frank McLynn praises an unflinching study of bloody fun in the front line
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
An Intimate History

of Killing

by Joanna Bourke

Granta, pounds 25, 564pp

NO GODDAM sonofabitch ever won a war by dying for his country; he won it by getting the other poor dumb sonofabitch to die for his." General George Patton's striking words skate over the problem. How exactly does one train the "ordinary" man to be a killer in wartime? How does one get him to fight at all? As Joanna Bourke rightly argues, these issues have scarcely been addressed in serious literature. It is simply assumed that the gung-ho ethos of, say, the US Marines will spontaneously produce its own ideology of combat. But, as Michael Hickey demonstrated in his recent volume on Korea, and Bourke herself shows from her examination of the two world wars and Vietnam, so-called "bug-out fever" takes a lot of overcoming.

Bourke argues that if the experience of warfare were universally perceived to be as grim as in, say, Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That, one of two things would happen. Either war would become impossible and the pacifists' dream fulfilled, or civilisation itself would be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of brutal soldiers, returning in their millions to destroy "normal" life.

That neither of these events takes place is strong evidence for a kind of dualism in the human male, and possibly the female. In wartime sane, well-adjusted men can be socialised into efficient killing machines - "willing executioners" - yet smoothly make the transition back to normal life. This is because certain psychic mechanisms can be energised in wartime. We are back with the pleasure principle again.

Bourke argues that legitimised killing in wartime can produce feelings of pleasure and even creativity. She outlines the various ways in which being a warrior has compensations. In the first place, the chances of dying may have been overstated, and in the second there are massive rewards for being a licensed killer. One can role play, and imagine oneself a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood; there is a kind of comradeship and love not available in civilian life; one may be introduced to new horizons, become aware of new worlds beyond the ghetto, factory and mill, and even achieve a breakthrough into a world of different values.

Most of all, there is the sexualisation of warfare: not just the "orgasmic" pleasure of killing, but the freedom from restraint on rape. Bourke establishes that it was routine in Vietnam for combat platoons to kidnap desirable women from Vietnamese villages and then gang-rape them, moving on the next night to repeat the experience. Whether the woman was killed after the mass rapes depended entirely on how G I Joe was feeling that night.

This leads Bourke into a depressing, stomach-churning section on war crimes. She is to be commended for her unflinching courage in facing up to this dark aspect of mankind. Two conclusions seem inescapable. First, war crimes are a ubiquitous feature of warfare, and although the criminals at Nuremberg deserved their fate, their trial and execution was no more than hypocritical "victor's justice". Second, theorists of human perfectibility must have been considering a species other than homo sapiens. There is not a chance in a million that the "normal" depravity analysed by Bourke could form the basis for a New Jerusalem.

Bourke's book, buttressed by massive scholarship and a complete absence of parti pris, is an outstanding achievement and completely convincing as far as it goes. But I wonder if her main thesis - that the best killers are ordinary people full of love and empathy, who do not suffer significant postwar trauma - is not vulnerable to two telling objections.

First, she concentrates on US, British and Commonwealth troops in three conflicts where their casualty rates were extremely low. The Americans lost more men killed in their Civil War than in the two World Wars and Vietnam combined. I am doubtful that the thesis of pleasure and creativity as compensation could be sustained in, say, the "Great Patriotic War" of 1941-45 between Germany and the Soviet Union, in which 50 million people died. Moreover, her thesis that returning veterans are not made unfit for civilian life seems refuted by one salient statistic: 55,000 Americans were killed in combat in Vietnam, yet 100,000 US veterans committed suicide after their return.

I would not want to suggest that this is anything other than a splendid and original contribution to a debate which must entail ultimate questions about the meaning of being human. Bourke includes fascinating, if depressing, chapters on the role of military psychologists, padres and women, and allows no facile answers to emerge. Her mastery of the psychoanalytical literature is impressive, and throughout there are the unmistakable signs of a broad intelligence at work rather than a narrow specialism.

Her excessive concentration on face-to-face killing with the bayonet may raise some eyebrows, but it seems all the old cliches are true. Corporal Jones, according to Bourke, was right: "They don't like it up'em, Captain Mainwaring."