Magazine article The Spectator

Close Encounters of a Lethal Kind

Magazine article The Spectator

Close Encounters of a Lethal Kind

Article excerpt


by Joanna Bourke

Granta, L25, pp. 564

At a time when the United States has apparently forsworn face-to-face killing in war (as opposed to in high school) it is salutary to be reminded that this was once what soldiers were trained to do.

True, as Joanna Bourke points out, the majority of the tens of millions of casualties in the two world wars were not killed at close quarters by enemy soldiers but were blown to pieces by artillery shells or planeloads of bombs. Nevertheless, face-toface killing was what men were supposed to do in battle. And the fact that so many men in the 20th century did indeed manage to bayonet, shoot or otherwise kill other men 'intimately' raises some profoundly important questions.

How does an individual who has spent most of his life as a civilian in peacetime become a killer? Is it something that has to be drummed into him by training? And if so, what is the best way of doing so? Or are men innately violent, merely requiring the opportunities of war to revert to primordial savagery?

If, like me, you were raised on a diet of Wilfred Owen, Oh What a Lovely War! and Vietnam movies, you will tend to assume, as I once did, that war is a thoroughly horrible experience in which soldiers are traumatised victims. Go back to the diaries, letters and memoirs of men who served in the wars, and you find a different and more disturbing story. Far from being shell-shocked martyrs, many men in the first world war were capable of furious violence against the enemy; and a crucial minority even relished the adrenaline rush of combat.

How to explain this? Having been impressed (though not wholly convinced) by Freud's argument that a kind of `death instinct' manifested itself during the first world war, I turned to Joanna Bourke's book with high expectations. In The Pity of War, I was able to devote only a couple of chapters to these questions. Here are 564 pages dealing not only with the first world war but also with the second and the Vietnam war; and drawing on an impressive range of unpublished and published sources. What is more, the book won a prize, the Fraenkel Prize for Contemporary History, even before its publication.

There is no doubt that Bourke has found some choice and harrowing material. For example, James Jones's comment in The Thin Red Line that killing `dirty little yellow Jap bastards' was `like getting screwed the first time'. First world war Tommies generally did not express themselves so crudely, but their sentiments were sometimes similar:

I saw a Hun, fairly young, running down the trench, hands in air, looking terrified, yelling for mercy. I promptly shot him. It was a heavenly sight to see him fall forward.

Or consider Harold Peat's account of how the Canadian Contingent retaliated after a German gas attack:

Then, with what strength we could gather, did we kill and kill and kill. More, we butchered savagely. Sharp, twisting bayonet points, clubbed guns, a knife ... snatched quickly . .. buried to the haft ... swift death . . . swift gorging of hate . . lust of battle ... revenge ... madness!

'I really loved fucking killing,' she quotes one Vietnam veteran as saying. The expletive conveys an unintended truth: as Freud understood, killing (for some men) carries a sexual charge. …

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