Saturday, June 30, 2012

War is about killing, not dying

I recently read On Caanan's Side by Sebastian Barry, in which a brother, son, and grandson of the main character were all deeply traumatised by experiences of war. The story was told by the grandmother, and never described the actual conditions of war, only dealing with the returning men and their burden of horror. War seemed to be about turning innocent men into victims.

This focus on the loss and victimhood in war seems quite common. Joanna Bourke's excellent An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare argued, however, that war isn't about victimhood and dying. War is about killing, and those violent struggles often evoked memories in survivors of pleasure, pride and excitement. Bourke wrote:
William Broyles was one of many combat soldiers who articulated this ambiguity. In 1984, this former Marine and editor of the Texas Monthly and Newsweek explored some of the contradictions inherent in telling war stories. With the familiar, authoritative voice of `one-who-has-been-there', Broyles asserted that when combat soldiers were questioned about their war experiences they generally said that they did not want to talk about it, implying that they `hated it so much, it was so terrible' that they would prefer it to remain `buried'. Not so, Broyles continued, `I believe that most men who have been to war would have to admit, if they are honest, that somewhere inside themselves they loved it too.' How could that be explained to family and friends, he asked? Even comrades-in-arms were wary among themselves: veterans' reunions were awkward occasions precisely because the joyous aspects of slaughter were difficult to confess in all circumstances. To describe combat as enjoyable was like admitting to being a bloodthirsty brute: to acknowledge that the decisive cease-fire caused as much anguish as losing a great lover could only inspire shame. 
Perhaps both those on the pro-war and those on the anti-war sides are a bit misleading on this. One anti-war narrative depicts soldiers as the pathetic victims of the rich ruling classes, forced into war out of desperate poverty. The brilliant British comedy Blackadder Goes Forth, for example, had its aristocratic general bristling with martial vigor and fighting spirit far, far behind the WWI trenches in the comfort of his sumptuous headquarters while the working class soldiers were sent to pointless butchery by German machine guns. 

But this view of soldiers as victims denies them any agency, rendering them directionless pawns. As Bourke pointed out, many soldiers sought battle and relished it:
Killing had a spiritual resonance and an aesthetic poignancy. Slaughter was `an affair of great and seductive beauty'. For combat soldiers, there was as much mechanical elegance in an M-60 machine gun as there was for medieval warriors in decorated swords. 
In some great 20th century wars men were conscripted to fight without their volunteering, but many others flocked to war from neutral countries without compulsion. Historian Bernard Kelly described the motivations of Irish people who volunteered to join the British military during World War II in this interesting podcast by The History Network; Ireland was neutral during the war, yet tens of thousands voluntarily joined up with Britain to fight Nazi Germany. Their motivation was not generally ideological, Kelly explained, as few seemed to care who they were fighting and why. Rather, war gave them an opportunity to travel to strange places, have adventures, impress girls with their uniforms and earn money. Some were running away from poverty and unemployment in Ireland, but many others were just bored and eager for a chance to fight and kill. 

Even today, contrary to this narrative of soldiers as poor victims of capitalism, those who volunteer to join the United State military are disporportionately wealthy, not poor:
Only 11 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 came from the poorest one fifth (quintile) of neighborhoods, while 25 percent came from the wealthiest quintile. These trends are even more pronounced in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, in which 40 percent of enrollees come from the wealthiest neighborhood...

The facts do not support the belief that many American soldiers volunteer because society offers them few other opportunities.
Maybe those young people who choose to join the army do it because they look forward to fighting and adventure and killing. As children we stalked one another in gunfights and catchings; as teens many of us played gruesome war computer games. It must be exciting to create the massive explosions on enemy targets for real that we all rejoiced over in adolescent action films.

The pro-war, or at least pro-military view also seems to sometimes play down the killing aspect of soldiering. One hears of ceremonies in commemoration of those soldiers who risk their lives for their countries, and so on. This rhetoric makes it sound like they walk unarmed into battles and take bullets on behalf of their nations' civilians. But they're armed to the teeth! They don't go to war to orphan their own children, they go to war to orphan the enemies' children. War isn't about dying and sacrifice, it's about killing and making other people sacrifice. Terry Pratchett's marvellous Jingo has the following quote that sums things up nicely:
“It is always useful to face an enemy who is prepared to die for his country," he read. "This means that both you and he have exactly the same aim in mind.”
So I am uneasy about solemn ceremonies of respect towards fallen soldiers that talk so much about their sacrifice. They had tried, after all, to make other people sacrifice and other families mourn. Perhaps Sebastian Barry's soldiers would be more realistic if, instead of returning to civilian life as ruined shells of men, they returned nostalgic, missing the excitement of combat. Bourke wrote:
Did actual combat dent the pleasures of imaginative violence? For most combatants, the answer must be `no'. Time and time again, in the writings of combatants from all three wars, we read of men's (and women's) enjoyment of killing. This book contains innumerable examples of men like the shy and sensitive First World War soldier who recounted that the first time he stuck a German with his bayonet was `gorgeously satisfying ... exultant satisfaction'. Second Lieutenant F. R. Darrow found that bayoneting Prussians was `beautiful work'. `Sickening yet exhilarating butchery' was reported to be `joy unspeakable' by a New Zealand sapper....


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. When these men sign up for war I can imagine that they are very enthusiastic about it. But once they experience it and realise there is as much dying as killing, I imagine that for most it is an awful experience. When WWII started the German people did not rush out into the streets in wild jubilation as they had done when WWI broke out. In fact most were quite nervous about another war as they had learned harsh lessons the first time. While I think you're probably right, that there are people who enjoy war, I think it must surely be a scarring experience. It would be interesting to get a figure on what percentage of soldiers who experience front line action suffer post traumatic stress...

    I'm glad you brought this up though. It was a fairly regular occurrence to see American or British soldiers' bodies being removed from a military plane, which had flown in from Iraq or Afghanistan, by other immaculately dressed soldiers to the sound of a lonesome brass instrument. Their coffins shrouded by a flag. And the news reports would be about how sad all this was and that he died for his country. I always thought, ok, I can feel for his family, but not for him. He was not conscripted. He signed up himself. He knew he could be killed. He knew his job was to kill others. He lived by the sword and he died by it.

  3. Cheers David, indeed. I recommend Joanna Bourke's book on this if you get the chance. She describes a wide mixture of reactions to war. In World War I the armies were concerned that many soldiers were not shooting their weapons. They'd go through training, be faced in battle by enemy soldiers trying very hard to kill them, but they'd either not fire their weapons or deliberately shoot over the heads of the enemy. The armies had to figure out ways to train conscripts more effectively to be willing to kill - which is creepy.

    Other soldiers, though, relished it. They enjoyed watching targets vaporise in massive explosions. They felt excitement and pleasure in shooting and stabbing, even in mutilating corpses. Fascinating. Some people just enjoy it.

  4. The brave recipients of the victoria cross share the trepidation of disclosing to the citizen reporter the sense of euphoria felt when the other man dies at your hands; I mention them for they for a short while become famous curiosities - not celebraties, closer to freak than hero. Normally the question is why did yor risk your life for your country? The question should be why do you risk your sanity and humanity by killing for your country? Were the recipient to show a sense of victory in killing they would be ostrasized and possibly belittled. They must for our sake show they did not enjoy the situation and reflect they are not special and anyone of us would have done the same, and yet most of us would not or could not have done the same. The are special in that it is but a small percentage of us will kill calmly, most of us are too scared to kill.That is why the award is given, because the ability to kill effectively and efficiently for your country is a rare trait. We would all rather be the stretcher bearer valiantly moving under fire to rescue our injured comrades. Why because in our societies killing is a crime - while risking ones life to rescue others is honourable. Killing is a crime - and yet in war those good at killing are rewarded; then they return and find themselves to be worthless, and now despise themselves for killing on the order of politicians who have no honour. We are decieved and we decieve ourselves, for without deciet insanity beckons.

  5. Thank you, interesting input there indeed.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.