BOOK REVIEW / Going like lambs to the slaughter, to die as cattle: The War Machine - Daniel Pick: Yale, pounds 19.95

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The Independent Online
IN THE spring of 1917, when the French army was rocked by large-scale mutinies, at least one regiment went to the front baa-ing like lambs on their way to the slaughter. It is a well-known episode from a war that has become synonymous with slaughter. And yet it rarely occurs to us to make a connection between the holocaust in the trenches and developments in the mechanisation of the butchery of animals. In the most illuminating section of an erratic book Daniel Pick does exactly this.

From the 1860s onwards, Pick explains, 'technology, factory production and calculated death were coming together in many new ways.' Chicago became the greatest cattle market in the world; railways delivered live animals to the Union Stockyards and carcasses were dispatched all over the United States. The idea of the perfect abattoir became a reality in Europe, too, as the speed and scale of slaughter and distribution increased with ever-improving mechanisation and efficiency. Employed at the Stockyards, a character in Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle watches the animals 'pressing on to their fate, all unsuspicious - a very river of death'.

The 'interconnecting resonances' set up by judicious citation such as this are powerful, persuasive and thought-provoking. A J P Taylor claimed famously that the First World War was tugged into existence by the inexorable logic of railway timetables. Cattle trucks had ferried livestock to the stockyards; now trains transported soldiers to the front. Once there, the concentrated technological and industrial might of artillery and machine guns meant that, in Owen's famous phrase, they died 'as cattle'.

Extrapolating from here, Pick follows the historian Zygmunt Bauman in seeing Auschwitz as 'a mundane extension of the modern factory system', the terminus of an industrial process whose end product is death.

Although the book's subtitle, The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, refers specifically to this section, the themes and concerns of the whole book are diverse. Throughout, Pick demonstrates his skill in drawing different sources together to reveal their overlapping nuances, but nowhere else in the book does he achieve the same suggestive and shocking momentum as in this central part. There are readings of an array of 19th- and 20th-century texts on war (from Clausewitz, Proudhon and De Quincey to the Freud-Einstein correspondence of 1932 subsequently gathered under the title Why War?), but the book never generates a coherence of purpose sufficient to take it beyond eclectic exposition of what are mainly unfamiliar texts.

One admires Pick's research but feels he is unsure of what to do with it. Consequently - and this feeling is so common to academic texts that it might actually be their function - one reads War Machine for its citations rather than the argument they are there to support. In Pick's case, in fact, the citations generate the surrounding commentary. In other words, what we have is an anthology of extracts bound together by a vast quantity of critical cement.

Don't get me wrong. There is considerable value in such an undertaking. Anthologies of writings on the First World War, for example, habitually start with the likes of Rupert Brooke looking forward to war 'like swimmers into cleanness leaping'. Pick goes farther back, to what he calls the 'Deep Sources' of the War.

For instance, already by the 1880s, Engels was making the extraordinary prediction that there would soon come a world war 'of an extension and violence hitherto undreamt of. Eight to ten millions of soldiers will mutually massacre one another and in doing so devour the whole of Europe until they have stripped it barer than any swarm of locusts has ever done. The devastation of the Thirty Years War will be compressed into three or four years, and spread over the whole Continent; famine, pestilence, general demoralisation both of the armies and of the mass of the people produced by acute distress. . .'

Similarly striking passages are scattered throughout a book which, despite its weight and substance, feels like a loose-leafed collection of research papers that have not yet found their definitive form.