Simple pleasures of killing

An Intimate History of Killing
May 14, 1999

Richard Overy on a disturbing study of the ease with which men kill.

Nato is fighting a very 1990s war in the Balkans. So far there have been no Nato combat deaths, few other casualties. The conflict is media-friendly to a degree (the Serbs have allowed western reporters to remain in the country while their compatriots slowly bomb Serbia to bits). Above all there has been no view of the enemy, no face-to-face killing; instead there is a futuristic, high-tech campaign, war by remote control.

A matter of miles across the Macedonian frontier the now old-fashioned pattern of war flourishes undiminished. Serb soldiers and Kosovo Liberation Army fighters butcher each other, while civilians are tortured and massacred as though this were 1699, not the cusp of the new millennium. The avenging Serbs appear to take a perverse pleasure in the rediscovery of an older, perhaps ageless, barbarism. They kill with apparent ease, face-to-face. No push-button war here.

Why do men kill so easily, and with such casual, unpremeditated brutality? Some will blame the Serbian character, or the bitter legacies inherited from centuries of tribal conflict; others see Milosevic as a second Hitler, driving his troops to excesses in a vicious race war. Joanna Bourke, on the evidence of this deeply disturbing and challenging study of wartime killing, would argue that Serbs and Kosovars are only doing what men in modern combat have always done: they kill easily and, in many cases, with unalloyed pleasure.

An Intimate History of Killing is an extraordinary tour de force . It is meant to provoke, but its conclusions are rooted in massive scholarship; it overturns the entire western mythology of modern combat and gives back to wartime killing a raw, unmediated reality. Bourke's central aim is to show what happens when men kill other men in close physical combat. In 11 powerfully written chapters, she explores wartime killing by British, American and Australian servicemen in the two world wars and Vietnam. She argues that men are strongly influenced by narratives of combat woven in peacetime. Sustained by warrior myths and delusions of personal heroism, men are predisposed to see killing as desirable. In the context of war, which legitimises acts of physical violence criminalised in civilian life, men discover what Bourke calls "the pleasures of killing", a macabre delight in the act of destroying other human lives, which borders at times on the erotic.

All of this challenges what she sees as the conventional perception of war as a dirty, grim business in which men are traumatised by having to kill others, and then permanently brutalised by the experience. The evidence from hundreds of combat diaries, letters and psychologists' surveys suggests the opposite. Fear of dying, not fear of killing, is the most debilitating emotion for soldiers, inducing high levels of trauma. Most psychiatric casualties come before combat, not afterwards; on the battlefield men instrumentalise those fears in order to kill. "Once you've accepted your own death," according to one of Bourke's Vietnam veterans, "you can become really proficient at killing because it is no longer important if you die." Many other veterans attest to the difficulty of killing face-to-face for the first time, but the act of killing arouses in almost all the men whose experiences Bourke explores a lurid satisfaction, a spasm of delight and physical release. Far from inducing trauma, men find psychological solace in accepting responsibility for savage acts within the cramped moral universe of love for one's comrades and empathy for the man whose life one has ended.

This conclusion will shock many. The numerous and lengthy quotations Bourke uses to demonstrate her central thesis are repellent, their cumulative effect deeply demoralising. Yet the men whose killing we view here are not psychopaths, driven by a savage bloodlust or bitter hatreds. They are, once again, "ordinary men". Bourke argues that few of her killers feel strong hatred for the enemy and that the best killers are men whose outward personas were modest and sensible. The wild man on the battlefield is a liability; hatred is rightly seen by the military authorities to be so psychologically destructive that it inhibits combat effectiveness (though this did not stop the British experimenting with grotesque hate-training in the second world war, bombarding recruits with loudspeakers blaring out "Kill the Hun!").

What Bourke highlights is the very functional view of combat taken by most veterans. Men who could not kill were not doing their job, indeed did not survive for very long. Most veterans seem to have been able to distinguish clearly between the act of killing on the battlefield - even casual atrocities against enemy wounded or prisoners - and killing in civil society. As a result they were seldom brutalised by combat, particularly if they were on the winning side. Bourke suggests that the most hardened battlefield killer was able to adjust to civilian life with little evidence of trauma, in many cases more emotionally rounded than men who had not killed. Remorse was seldom expressed.

The absence of regret even extended to those who committed the most savage atrocities. Here Bourke confronts the most difficult issue of all. The evidence is overwhelming that soldiers in battle committed atrocities routinely. This is not a surprising conclusion, but western historiography has for long maintained the image of the clean war in contrast to the dirty war fought on the eastern front between 1941 and 1945. The most atrocious war was Vietnam, where many American servicemen treated the civilian population on both sides as mere objects to be killed, terrorised and sexually abused. Few of the veterans cited here regarded killing civilians as wrong. Those who could not take part later confessed to feelings of inadequacy, of letting down their comrades. Many of Bourke's Vietnam killers responded in just the way that Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men of police battalion 101 responded when they murdered civilians in cold blood in the forests of Poland in 1942.

This is an obvious but disturbing parallel. If Bourke is right about the "pleasures of killing" her conclusions directly challenge those efforts to explain the exceptionalism of the behaviour of German forces on the eastern front. The work of Omer Bartov and others has suggested that there were particular reasons for the savage violence meted out to Jews, partisans and POWs which stemmed from ideological indoctrination and the peculiar character of the German army's experience in Russia, with high losses and progressive "de-modernisation". There are, of course, contingent reasons that explain the savagery of the Vietnam war. These have much in common with the German experience (a distant and hostile terrain, overt racism, the fear generated by guerrilla fighting, a climate of official "permission" for atrocity). Yet Bourke, like Browning, suggests that "ordinary men" can kill with very little preparation, oblivious to the wider structures of ideology or conventional morality, indifferent to the environment of conflict. "I kill for no reason!", wrote one American sniper in Vietnam.

The chilling evidence that killing does not need a wider structure of explanation will sit uncomfortably with Daniel Goldhagen's assertion that Germans killed Jews for reasons derived from the long history of German-Jewish confrontation, though it will help to explain his argument about the evident pleasure many German soldiers and policemen derived from killing their victims, the same pleasure apparently displayed in Kosovo. In a context where men are encouraged to kill and maim, it is only the extraordinary man who will stand out and say no. The morality of killing in war becomes entirely self-referring. Serb civilians killed by Nato are "accidents of war", not murdered non-combatants.

This exceptional book will provoke both outrage and approval. It is uncomfortable to recognise the ease with which men (and very occasionally women) can kill in war. Bourke may well be challenged on just how typical her cross-section of killers really is. Millions of men and women in the armed forces of all three wars never saw combat; even within combat formations, we know, and Bourke acknowledges, that only a small percentage actually kill the enemy. Of that proportion an even smaller percentage actually kill the enemy in face-to-face combat, even fewer with the bayonets and knives whose bloody work overpopulates the pages of Bourke's text. There may be a greater degree of self-selection among Bourke's killers than is immediately apparent.

There will also be many who refuse to countenance the evidence that British, American and Australian servicemen could not only derive pleasure from killing, but could commit routine atrocity. The storm generated by James Bacque when he suggested almost ten years ago that the West mistreated German POWs, resulting in widespread deaths, demonstrated how firmly embedded is the mythology of the clean war. More worryingly, Bourke's conclusions may well be exploited by those who argue that German exceptionalism has been exaggerated. If Vietnam could stimulate atrocity, what is the difference between the Waffen-SS torching a Soviet village and murdering its inhabitants, and the destruction of My Lai? War is war; the pathology of killing is universal. This would be a misleading conclusion. Lieutenant Calley was put on trial for My Lai and convicted, despite the hostility of much American opinion. German forces in the USSR were encouraged to behave barbarously by the so-called "criminal orders" issued directly from Hitler's headquarters.

This is an important contrast, and it highlights perhaps one of the weaknesses of Bourke's thesis. By eliding the experiences of three wars spread over a period of 50 years the text suggests that the patterns of killing are in some sense ahistorical, or rather not historically determined. The effect is to blunt the differences between the three wars, and between the different theatres of war, while it fails to identify longer historical processes (all those veterans of the American-Japanese war whose sons went to fight in Vietnam against Japs by another name). It may be necessary not only to deconstruct the act of killing, as Bourke does so well, but to disaggregate its historical occurrence. Fighting on Okinawa was different from fighting at the Somme, however universal the act of killing.

It is impossible to do justice here to the richness and complexity of Bourke's argument. An Intimate History of Killing is a compelling text, though not for the faint-hearted. Throughout the book Bourke attempts to avoid passing judgement, though the copious use of the word "murder" as well as "killing" betrays a profound distaste for the craft her subjects are engaged in. Nato's electronic war may bypass face-to-face combat, but if anyone still doubts Bourke's central conclusions they might watch the footage of Nato forces on the ground, straining at the leash. Killing is still what soldiers want to do.

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

An Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in 20th-Century Warfare

Author - Joanna Bourke
ISBN - 1 86207 214 0
Publisher - Granta
Price - £25.00
Pages - 555

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