Blood and guts, not ribbons or braid

Time to Kill
September 12, 1997

Combat soldiers are trained to kill. They are instructed in a great many other more or less useful skills, but if the enemy will not surrender or retreat he has to be killed or maimed in order for soldiers to achieve their objective. These platitudes are repeated here because so much of the history of the second world war treats killing as a kind of byproduct of modern war-making. Indeed the current concern with the horror of casualty in wars involving western forces - in the Gulf, or in Bosnia, for example - suggests that we have lost sight of the fact that in a state of war, and in lower level forms of conflict, nothing can prevent killing. War may be the continuation of politics by other means, but the means are bloody and savage.

Historians have tended to take killing for granted. Once trained, armed, and deployed in the battle zone, soldiers become simply the instruments of processes over which they have little control, valuable historically only to the extent that their fighting power can be used to explain the wider outcome of the battle. Their fate is usually expressed in terms of casualties suffered. Military accounts seldom say "army X killed 20,000 of army Y". Yet killing is what soldiers have to do.

In the second world war most soldiers were conscripts who had little or no military training. The hard-core career armies were small, and in many cases quickly diluted. Men and boys who would never kill anyone in their lives, indeed for whom killing was an exceptional and illegitimate social phenomenon in civilian life, were now asked to shed old values and to contemplate, indeed prepare for, legitimised forms of killing. That many of them found it very difficult to do in face-to-face combat, even to save their own lives, is evidence of what a terrible effort is required to turn many civilians into killing machines.

Time to Kill is not just about killing. Its title is a neat pun, for many soldiers found that brief periods of frenzied violence were interspersed with long periods of dull routine, waiting for the next engagement.

The essays that fill Paul Addison and Angus Calder's book are the fruit of a conference in Edinburgh in 1995 that was set up to explore the nature of military life from the point of view of those who had to do the fighting. The result is a remarkable triumph. The contributors almost all focus on the central question of the conference, which gives the collection a coherence so often lacking in essay publications. The essays are packed with information and overflow with stimulating perspectives. No one with a serious interest in the second world war can afford to overlook them. They are written at a level that can engage both the academic specialist and the general reader. There lurks a firm editorial hand here, for which the editors deserve nothing but praise.

The theme of both conference and book is the soldier's war in the West. There is a sailor's war and an airman's war that have related, but different, histories. They are excluded here entirely. In effect the subject is the combat infantry, for there is little here about artillery or even armour. The vast rear services, which saw one American in combat for every six who was not, feature only to the extent that they aroused the resentment or envy of the fighting troops. Nor does the book confine itself just to the war in the West. We have two articles on the Soviet Union, two on Germany, which focus on the eastern front, and a number on the Mediterranean and Middle East. This is all to the good, for it allows any reader to draw broader comparisons than an over-concentration on the last year of war in Europe would have allowed.

The infantry were, above all others, at the sharp end of war. They took three-quarters of combat casualties, because it was they who seized and occupied ground after the artillery and the aircraft had done their work. They were the first to feel the effects of the counter-attack. They were usually the ones who engaged in hand-to-hand combat with rifles, bayonets, improvised weapons, even bare hands. For all this, killing actually features very little in the many experiences described or quoted in the book. There is one case of a British officer who ran amok with a revolver after an ambush; the veteran GI, Steve Weiss, describes the execution and death agonies of a French collaborator. The only vivid description of war from close-up comes from a woman medical orderly in John Erickson's illuminating discussion of Soviet battlefield experience: "awful ... not for human beings ... men strike, thrust bayonets into stomachs, eyes, strangle one another. Howling, shouts, groans." It may well be that veterans do not or cannot dwell on the actual moment when they killed someone, but it also reflects the nature of battle experience. Men were killed by bombs, shell fragments or grenades, usually long distance. It was possible to take part in an engagement without ever seeing the enemy. Mortar fire probably accounted for more casualties than any other weapon.

The image that emerges from the many accounts of a soldier's life in European, American and Commonwealth armies is almost uniformly bleak. War was a psychological shock for which many, perhaps most, soldiers were unprepared. Allied forces in North Africa and Italy averaged 23 per cent casualty rate from "neuropsychiatric disorders", or what was known as battle exhaustion. Some men could be returned to combat, but many were unable to continue, their psychological disablement accompanied by physical paralysis, uncontrollable trembling, persistent vomiting and so on. Terry Copp, in one of the best pieces in the book, on the First Canadian Army, demonstrates that the authorities made almost no allowance for psychological battle damage, and so found it difficult to replace casualties in the Normandy invasion. The effect was to make combat experience worse for those who could continue to fight, because of the prolonged periods of fighting and the slow supply of reserves.

Morale was difficult to maintain under any circumstances. Soldiers resented officers whose orders they could not understand; poor supply of food and amenities seems to have affected western armies more than others; persistent exposure to bombing, mortar-fire and heavy artillery created, unsurprisingly, terror, inertia and depression. Infantrymen could see clearly that they were expendable, and it is perhaps the more surprising that in democratic armies they did not resist more the unequal sacrifice asked of them.

This raises one of the central issues of the book. In a provocative opening essay John Keegan starts with the assertion that a rational army would run away. His answer to this Hobbesian paradox is not simply to assert that war is irrational, but to ask "why soldiers fight". The answer he first gave in the 1980s - "inducement, coercion, narcosis" - he rightly rejects as platitudinous, but his new answers - the "big man" on the battlefield, a sense of honour, mechanistic impulses to "cruelty, frenzy and fantasy" - take us little further. At worst they are unprovable, at best mere generalisations.

The great virtue of the collection of essays that Keegan prefaces is that they demonstrate the entirely relative nature of any answer to the question of why men fight. No theory of combat motivation can possibly hope to embrace experiences as diverse as ritual tribal conflict and 20th-century total war. Motivation to fight is socially and culturally specific. We can make sense of it only by disaggregating the many impulses to fight, even within the same army, or even the same unit. Theo Schulte makes the point, in his stimulating survey of German military behaviour in the Soviet Union, that historians have been loath to borrow from disciplines such as anthropology or social psychology to explore the question of motivation in war. These may supply some of the conceptual apparatus or the language that military history lacks, but the task of explaining motivation, to the extent that it is historically recoverable at all, is not entirely beyond the historian's grasp.

It is clear that the attitude and behaviour of soldiers in battle owes a good deal to the social and cultural milieu in which the army is raised. This seems an obvious point, but it is seldom made. All too often the social roots and cultural outlook of recruits are ignored once they are in uniform. Yet this almost certainly plays a major part in explaining the many differences. There is, for example, a fundamental difference between a rural army and an urban one. Britain fielded forces drawn from the most heavily urbanised European state. Half Germany's soldiers in 1941 were peasants; in the Soviet and Romanian cases well over half. British soldiers were used to a higher level of amenity and resented the harsh conditions of military life more, as the article by J. A. Crang, one of the most stimulating and suggestive in the book, makes evident. Soviet soldiers were hardy and brutal because the conditions of rural life in the Soviet Union were exceptionally tough and occasionally bloody. If British soldiers had been asked to slaughter a pig in the 1940s, few could have done it; peasant recruits would not have given it a second thought.

Combat motivation was affected by many things directly related to the value-systems or cultural outlook of those who organised or led those forces. Class mattered a good deal, as the essays on British and Commonwealth forces demonstrate. But even in the United States it showed. The two essays on GIs by Theodore Wilson and Reid Mitchell are full of fascinating detail on the relationship between ordinary soldiers and officers. The infantry were selected negatively, on the grounds that anyone with a decent IQ score (questions included "what is the term in lawn tennis for zero") could go on to officer training or push a pen, while anyone who was close to or at illiteracy could be shot at. There underlay in this a deliberate attempt to mobilise manpower along the lines of scientific management, greater skill or "intelligence" being rewarded with a progressively smaller risk of making it to the front line. In Germany the system worked very differently. Aptitude got you into uniform; illiteracy left you digging fortifications.

Race also mattered. The British used Commonwealth troops, millions of them, but those from Africa and India were used in the main as crude labour, and where they fought, were denied the promotion prospects of white soldiers. David Killingray and Gerald Douds expose the many paradoxes that this situation created. Indian troops, properly led and provisioned, fought as well, if not better, than British troops. Their motivation is difficult to fathom, but Douds cites one Indian soldier writing back from Italy: "We do not hope to come back soon (how many soldiers could say that?), not before the death of Hitler". What Hitler meant to an Indian villager fighting in Italy is hard to imagine, but it meant enough to keep him fighting in bitter weather against a harsh enemy thousands of miles from home.

That was, of course, the condition facing millions of soldiers. It is sometimes used to explain what has become the most contentious debate about military motivation, the behaviour of German soldiers. None of the contributors questions the view that German soldiers fought better than any others. Yet the German paradigm needs to be approached more critically, for by 1944 the bottom of the recruitment barrel had been reached, and millions who fought for Germany were non-Germans. Germans, too, suffered terrible combat strains. If German forces had always been as well-armed materially and morally, and as tactically adept, as the essays here suggest, it is difficult to see why they lost.

The German example is presented in the book, however, to test the question of what makes people kill. For German soldiers did not just kill other soldiers. They starved and murdered prisoners-of-war; they rounded up and murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians, Jews and non-Jews; they were hated and feared even by their own allies. No new answers are presented here, but the German case has a degree of exceptionalism to it that makes any general theory of combat motivation or willingness to kill difficult to sustain. Whether it was the nature of the conflict in the East (a case that is hard to make in the light of atrocities perpetrated in other theatres throughout the war) or a result of ideological indoctrination (for which the evidence is still flimsy), German behaviour for an army so professional and technically modern has still not been satisfactorily explained.

In a final flourish at the conference, Keegan challenged the assorted dons sitting in front of him with the assertion that they could never hope to write effective military history because they had not experienced war. No doubt Sergeant John Erickson, among others, might have shouted him down. This volume belies Keegan's arrogance. The contributors have succeeded in recapturing with a welcome candour the reality of the soldier's experience of war, and they have done so by exposing its diversity and the often contingent character of that experience. The wider question of why men fight and kill does not have a reducible answer. If it did, war might now be merely history.

Richard Overy is professor of modern history, King's College, London.

Time to Kill: The Soldier's Experience of War in the West, 1939-45

Editor - Paul Addison and Angus Calder
ISBN - 0 7126 7376 8
Publisher - Pimlico
Price - £14.00
Pages - 472

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