The Global Arms Bazaar at Century’s End
Buy These Planes, or Else! The Hard Sell of Military Advertising
NATO Expansion: Jackpot for US Companies?
Small Arms, Global Challenge: The Scourge of Light Weapons
Beating Swords into Ploughshares: Military Conversion in the 1990s
Technological Change and Biological Warfare
Malcolm R. Dando and Simon M. Whitby
Nuclear Weapons: Instruments of Peace
Ernest W. Lefever
The False God of Nuclear Deterrence
Russia’s Nuclear Imperative
Anatoli and Alexei Gromyko
Reflections on the Kosovo War
New World Disorder: The Roots of Today’s Wars
Child Soldiers: The Destruction of Innocence
The Lust of Battle: Pain, Pleasure and Guilt
Chomsky's Tour de Force on Palestine
Volume 1 ● Number 2 ● Autumn 1999—Weapons and War
The Lust of Battle: Pain, Pleasure and Guilt
Within this gory articulation of war as experienced by British, American and Australian service personnel (the nationalities I will focus on in this article) there are two stories—both fundamental to battle and both passionately narrated by combat soldiers—which commentators have tended to shy away from. The first is this: we know so much about how “our men” died for their country, yet barely anything about how they killed for it. One of the aims of my recent book, An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare, is to put killing back into military history. The second feature that is scarcely ever mentioned involves acknowledging that many British, American and Australian combatants during the two world wars and the Vietnam War found that the act of killing another person in warfare could be extremely pleasurable.
This is not to deny the obvious fact that many acts of warfare were either terrifying or, more frequently, demeaning, frustrating and disorientating. Even for combatants (and only one in eight servicemen during the First World War actually experienced battle) most of the war was spent behind the lines carrying out menial chores. When in the front lines, life was ugly and frightening. Combatants quickly discovered that the threat of physical devastation could only be endured through stoicism, by shortening perceptions of time and resolutely trying to ignore the threatening environment. The First World War soldier, William Clark, in his unpublished memoir held in the archives of London’s Imperial War Museum (hereafter IWM), summarised this attitude when he wrote:
You became hardened in the trenches, you got fed up with being frightened and hungry, cold, wet and miserable and often you just didn’t care whether you survived. Seeing so many corpses became just another sight. Often when you moved in the trenches you trod and slipped on rotting flesh. Your feelings only came to the fore when it was a special mate who had been killed or wounded and then it would go quickly away. Because what you really wanted to do was to go to sleep, get warm, get clean and have a good meal.
For those who could not maintain such levels of detachment, there was madness. The number of combatants who suffered psychiatric collapse was worrying for the military establishment. Overall, 25 per cent of all Allied discharges during the 1914–18 war and between 20 and 50 per cent during the 1939–45 war were labelled “psychiatric casualties”. In Korea, since over 25 per cent of combatants were diagnosed as “severe” psychiatric casualties while only 12 per cent of combatants were killed, men fighting there were twice as likely to become psychiatric casualties as to be killed by enemy fire.
Initially, levels of breakdown during the Vietnam War were surprisingly low. Frequent rest periods, limited tours of duty, the nature of the combat (brief skirmishes followed by a lull), effective evacuation of the wounded, the absence of prolonged artillery bombardment and the success of the psychiatric policy of “immediacy, expectancy, simplicity and centrality” meant that less than two per cent of men suffered psychiatric breakdown during service. In contrast to the other conflicts, however, Vietnam servicemen were much more likely to suffer after their return to civilian society. Estimates varied widely, but the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (which surveyed 829,000 veterans) found that one-quarter were suffering some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. These men were the most terrible legacy of the war.
A Distorted Picture
However, such statistics obscure two facts. First, most people who broke down in war never got anywhere near the killing fields. Indeed, psychiatrists throughout the twentieth century argued that it was precisely the inability to find an outlet for their aggressive desires that led men to collapse emotionally. Modern warfare was anonymous warfare: for long periods men were subject to attack yet were unable either to identify the enemy or to respond. It was those feelings of impotence engendered in modern warfare that imposed an insufferable burden on servicemen.
Second, the emphasis on psychiatric casualties (and, it must be said, an elite literary canon represented by the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen) has obscured the fact that the majority of combatants coped very well with the ordeal of battle. Indeed, most combatants confessed that they had experienced a “happy war”. The startling thing that emerges when we read the letters and diaries of British, American and Australian combatants (rather than that broader category of “servicemen” who may or may not have seen battle) during the First World War, Second World War and the Vietnam War is that the language of trauma and pain represents only half their story. The same soldiers who would admit on one page of their diary or in one letter to feeling miserable or petrified would confess in their next diary entry or letter to feelings of immense joy when engaged in the act of killing. Historians have tended to report only one-half of these accounts, assuming that the trauma was the “normal” response while any reports of pleasure were pathological and untypical. Whatever our own response to such accounts, if we are to respect our historical subjects it is important that we listen very carefully to all their stories, even the unpalatable ones.
What do we find when we do so? In narratives written immediately prior to battle, it is common to read accounts which exude an almost boyish enthusiasm for the forthcoming bloodshed. Many men were like Alfred E. Bland, whose letters to his wife are held in the IWM. On 30 January 1916 he can be heard enthusing about the “change to come—real business with real Germans in front of us. Oh I do hope I shall visibly kill a few”. The actual experience of battle confirmed, rather than dented, such sentiments. Time and time again in the writings of Allied combatants throughout the century we read of their enjoyment of killing. In his unpublished memoirs (again in the IWM), the First World War soldier Wilfrid Thomas Colyer described bayoneting an enemy soldier as “gorgeously satisfying … exultant satisfaction”. The same act was described as “beautiful work” by another First World War combatant, F. R. Darrow, in a published collection of his letters.
Airmen were also enraptured by homicidal violence. During the Second World War, a gunner known only as “Bob” described himself as being “elated” when he shot down a German plane, mainly because this meant that his “score” had improved. “Life wasn’t too bad after all,” he reflected in The Fighter Boys (1942). After a “kill”, admitted combatants in the airman’s paper Slipstream (1946), they “all felt much better”. There would be “a good deal of smacking on the back and screaming of delight”. In the words of another combatant, Henry De Man:
I had thought myself more or less immune from this intoxication until, as trench mortar officer, I was given command over what is probably the most murderous instrument in modern warfare … One day … I secured a direct hit on an enemy encampment, saw bodies or parts of bodies go up in the air, and heard the desperate yelling of the wounded or the runaways. I had to confess to myself that it was one of the happiest moments of my life.
He admitted in his thought-provoking reflections The Remaking of a Mind (1920) that he had yelled aloud “with delight” and “could have wept with joy”. “What,” he asked, “are the satisfactions of scientific research, of a successful public activity, of authority, of love, compared with this ecstatic minute?” Fear, anxiety, pain: these are the familiar stories of combat. But excitement, joy and satisfaction were equally fundamental pleasures inspired by scoring a good, clean “kill”.
Such comments (and my research has uncovered thousands of similar sentiments expressed in letters and diaries during the two world wars and the Vietnam War) were not expressions of some “aggressive instinct” inherited from the animal world. Servicemen learnt the language of war from innumerable cultural sources, ranging from combat literatures and films to military training itself.
The Gentler Sex?
Nor were they indicative of some innately aggressive masculinity. Commonplace assumptions linking bellicosity with masculinity and the pacific temperament with femininity need to be overturned. Even today, images of war tend to portray men as warriors and women as grieving wives, mothers and daughters left behind and calling for peace. Conventionally, this dichotomy has been constructed either in essentialist terms (that is, the idea that such differences are biologically determined) or constructivist terms (that is, the idea that the genders are moulded into these different positions by various social agents). Despite recent attempts to break down this dichotomy, discussions which strictly separate male and female “spheres” in wartime still prevail, and do so from diverse political perspectives.
Historically, the dominant rhetoric lauded women’s nurturing nature as either a “natural” consequence of women’s potential to create life or as something learned on their mothers’ laps. There have been powerful reasons why feminists (such as Virginia Woolf) joined with conservatives (often signing themselves with names such as “A Little Mother” or “His Proud Wife”) to embrace a rhetoric which stressed gender difference. For both groups, women’s social influence and political advancement were at stake. The power of middle-class women as domestic and moral arbiters depended upon their separation (at the level of rhetoric, more than practice) from the sordid world of money making and life taking. Additionally, the positive relationship between bearing arms and citizenship (particularly the right to vote) was a pre-eminent concern for early-twentieth century feminists.
However, all the evidence from past conflicts shows that women also turn out to be enthusiastic killers when the opportunity arises. In the British context, there are numerous examples of individual women combatants who took pride in the number of enemy troops they were able to slaughter. One of the most interesting of these women was Flora Sandes, the buxom daughter of a vicar from the peaceful village of Thornton Heath in Surrey who ended up serving as a combatant in the Serbian army during the First World War. In her autobiographies (published in 1916 and 1927) she freely admitted to feelings of joy when the savage explosion of her guns was followed by a “few groans and then silence” since a “tremendous hullabaloo” signalled “only a few scratches or the top of someone’s finger taken off”. She enjoyed combat and found reverting to civilian life afterwards immensely frustrating. Readjustment to civilian mores was, she wrote, “like losing everything at one fell swoop and trying to find bearings again in another life and an entirely different world”. Her martial valour was recognised in June 1919 when she became the first woman to be commissioned in the Serbian army.
Of course, for most women, the experience of mutilating and killing was less direct. In Britain, America and Australia, the military establishment was strongly opposed to arming women during the two world wars, so women set up their own organisations to train themselves in the use of deadly weapons. The Australian Local Volunteers, the Women’s Defence Relief Corps (Britain) and the Women’s Voluntary Reserve (America) were three organisations that provided such training. More importantly, however, women in these three countries were employed on anti-aircraft gun sites, shooting down enemy planes. In Britain, over sixty thousand women were assigned to these sites by 1943 (thus outnumbering men there). Although this form of combat required less explicit displays of bellicosity, female anti-aircraft gunners found it extremely fulfilling. The military command was initially sceptical about the ability of women to act effectively in this combat role, but rapidly discovered that they made ideal soldiers. Indeed, argued one senior officer in an article entitled “The Women Who Served the Guns” in On Target (1955), “the only tears shed” by these women during the Second World War “were those of frustration when they failed to get ‘On Target’ or were prevented for any reason from firing”.
A Literary Example
In addition to examples of female aggressiveness during wartime, popular literary representations of women combatants were staple fare in Allied countries at this time. In these novels, women who had been denied the experience of actively fighting could vicariously enjoy it through fantasy. Interestingly, a distinctive “style” of killing was bestowed on female combatants. One very popular novel which can be used to illustrate this point was Captain Frederick Sadleir Brereton’s With Rifle and Bayonet (first published in 1900 but reprinted throughout the first half of this century). On one occasion in this novel, the gallant male heroes and a modest young woman called Eileen are trapped inside a house under attack. Eileen is given a rifle and in no time a “pile” of dead and wounded Boers “blocked the entrance to the homely English flower-garden”. One of the heroes, Frank Russel, “hoarsely” justifies the slaughter by claiming that although it was “awful to have to kill so many of them”, it was “their lives or ours, and besides, we’ve a glorious cause to fight for”. After a long, bloody fight, however, Eileen suddenly gives way under the strain and faints, murmuring that she can no longer “bear to hear their groans!” In the few minutes before she regains consciousness, the author subjects his readers to a short homily on the relationship between femininity and martial combat, reminding them that it is “naturally” a “sore trial” for a “timid and gentle-mannered girl, to be called upon to use a rifle in earnest and deal mortal wounds”. Brereton points out that the
need for strength, and the stern struggle in which she had so bravely borne a part, had, however, braced her for the work. But now, when it was all over … and she saw the wounded and heard their groans, the terrible sight and the unusual sounds unnerved her, and she was prostrate for a moment.
The men in this novel show no such delicacy as they merrily massacre the enemy. Of course, feminine sensitivity does not mask cowardice. Later, encouraged by the “absolute pluck” of her father and the two young Englishmen, Eileen chooses to continue fighting, refusing the safe passage offered to her (she therefore “sent many a Boer to his last account”). In this way, Eileen epitomises English femininity: in mortal combat she is both manfully courageous and as sensitive as any “true” Englishwoman.
There was another side to such portrayals: while men were shown as fighting for ideological reasons (the “glorious cause” referred to by Frank Russel), female combatants were said to be compelled to bear arms because they could not contemplate being separated from their ideologically committed menfolk (Eileen would not leave her father’s side). It was precisely this belief that women would willingly engage in mortal combat for the sake of their lovers, husbands and children that rendered them the most terrifying of combatants. Consequently, the intense fears surrounding female combatants stemmed largely from anxiety over women’s sexual and reproductive powers. Although the killer instinct might lie at the heart of masculinity, violence was harboured in women’s wombs. Because women soldiers either lacked femininity or possessed too much of the maternal impulse they would be uncontrollable, more ferocious and more deceitful than their male counterparts. There were fewer restraints on their conduct. Maternal passions transformed women into formidable killers.
For combatants of both sexes, what was the nature of the pleasure they claimed to get from battle? There was a strong pride in being treated as “warriors”. The central components of the “warrior myth” were intimacy, chivalry and skill. This was particularly easy to emphasise in aerial warfare. The airman was equated with the cavalry of olden times: he was the “glorious Horseman of the clouds”, roaming through fields of space, according to W. N. Cobbold in his Poems on the War (1919).
Such sentiments could be applied to land war as well. Soldiers frequently described their bayonets as righteous swords. The face-to-face nature of combat with the bayonet was also regarded as rendering it a “fair and chivalrous” way to kill, unlike dispiriting, anonymous artillery bombardment. Even though most killing was done at a distance (three-quarters of fatalities during both world wars were caused by artillery), combatants went out of their way actually to see the destruction wrought by their right hand. The taking of souvenirs (ranging from bloodstained handkerchiefs from the pockets of their recently killed foe, to more gruesome trophies of ears or fingers) was part of this attempt to render the “kill” personal.
In addition, the pleasures of killing were said to reside in the aesthetic harmony and theatrical passion that combatants had a licence to create. Combatants appreciated the charm and poetic power of modern weaponry. Men cradled and caressed their weapons, describing them as “beautiful” or “sexy”. Even more commonly, the act of killing itself was experienced as life enhancing for the surviving party. The long, fearful building-up of tension, followed by the rush of battle, was frequently likened to those sensations typical of sex. It was a relief to be so powerfully reminded of the joys of being alive.
The ‘John Wayne Syndrome’
Cultural sources also provided pleasurable “scripts” for combatants. Time and time again, men in modern conflicts revelled in the ability to pretend that they were engaged in heroic warfare “as seen in the movies”. For instance, during the First World War the Rev. E. J. Hardy told in The British Soldier of one Royal Fusilier who ordered machine gunners entrenched in a farm house to “cinematograph the grey devils” and to pretend that it was Coronation Day by “taking as many pictures as possible”.
An unnamed Canadian informant in Barry Broadfoot’s Six War Years 1939–1945 (1974) also likened guns to cameras. He described training his machine gun on thirty Germans aboard a submarine as “like one of those movies when you see the troops coming at the camera and just before they meet it, hit it, you see them going off left and right, left and right.” Or in the words of an eighteen-year-old radio man quoted in the book of Vietnam War reminiscences Nam (1982): “I just loved to sit in the ditch and watch people die. As bad as it sounds, I just liked to watch no matter what happened, sitting back with my homemade cup of hot chocolate. It was like a big movie.” Indeed, this fantasy, known as the “John Wayne syndrome”, is still alive and well. Although such pretence was blatantly naïve and brutalising, the ability of service personnel to interpret their battleground experiences through the lens of an imaginary camera was an important component of “combat effectiveness”.
The Best Soldiers
It was clearly in the interest of the military to ensure that men enjoyed, rather than disliked, combat. Indeed, the military recognised that it was crucial to foment expectations of pleasure in war if morale and combat effectiveness were to remain high. They acknowledged that the best combatants were men who possessed an imaginary vision of killing which was pleasurable. In other words, men who admitted to liking the idea of slaughter performed better in the field than those who were emotionally neutral about killing, who in turn performed better than men who found warfare repulsive.
This knowledge is commonsensical, but by the Second World War its scientific status was bolstered with statistical confirmation. The social scientist Samuel A. Stouffer published his results in a remarkable work called The American Soldier: Combat and its Aftermath (volume 2, 1949). When Stouffer and his team of researchers asked American soldiers in training how they expected to feel about killing a German or Japanese soldier, he found that soldiers who said they would “like to kill” performed better in actual combat (judged a year later) than soldiers who felt killing was “part of the job but they would still feel bad” or who “would not like to kill”. Of those who performed above average during combat, half said that they would “really like” to kill Japanese soldiers. In contrast, only 38 per cent of those who performed poorly in combat expressed a similar desire.
When thinking about killing Germans, a more significant response was of men who said that they would either “really like” to kill German soldiers or “would feel that it was just part of the job, without either liking or disliking it”. Of those who performed above average in combat, 64 per cent expressed one of these attitudes, compared with 50 per cent of those who were classified as “below average” in combat. In all cases, men who admitted that they “did not feel like killing anyone” performed poorly in combat.
However, many acts of enjoyment in battle took a form that civilians did not understand. For instance, combatants often constructed killing as an act of carnival. Combat gear, painted faces and the endless refrain that men had to turn into “animals” were the martial equivalent of the carnival mask: it enabled men to invert the moral order while still remaining innocent and committed to that order. As mentioned earlier, there was also the more insidious taking of souvenirs from corpses. This is often regarded as a phenomenon of the Vietnam War, but it was also important for British and American troops during the First and Second World Wars. The extent of such gruesome trophy hunting varied according to the enemy’s ethnicity (Japanese and Vietnamese troops were more frequently targeted than Germans); according to opportunity (small patrols during the Second World War in the Pacific theatre more than in the mass entrenched armies of the First World War); and according to national narrative traditions (American troops placed more emphasis on “scalping” their enemies “like the Indians”).
But in all conflicts men would comb the hair of corpses, shake skeletons’ hands and offer cigarettes to severed heads. Traditions were passed down from one conflict to another, from father to son, uncle to nephew. For instance, John Henry Ewen, whose unpublished papers are held in the Australian War Memorial Archives, relates in an entry for 1944, when he was in Bougainville, that he recalled his uncle telling him about a skeleton in the First World War which had been propped up with a dog-biscuit in its mouth. Imitating his uncle, Ewen sat a Japanese skeleton under a signpost, fixed its arm so that it was pointing up the track, added a tuft of dry grass for hair and stuck a tin hat on its skull. He “looked pretty good,” Ewen commented, adding that he wished he had had a camera.
This desire to assert one’s essential “self” in the act of killing also flourished at a more personal, deeply private level. This may be seen in the removal of souvenirs from the bodies of the massacred enemy. Even the young poet Wilfred Owen sent his brother a blood-spattered handkerchief that he had taken from the pocket of a dead German pilot. Less innocuous was the taking of enemy teeth or ears. I have a host of examples from the diaries of combatants during the First World War. But from 1939, collecting bodily parts became more prominent in combat narratives, or at least a more acceptable practice to mention.
In these rituals, death could be constructed as a joke. The individual corpse came to represent a universal condition and the terror of death was diminished. At a political level, such rituals of collecting and celebrating performed a crucial function in enabling men to cope not so much with war, but with the disjunction between what they thought it would be like and what it was like—that is, the problem of being “handed the wrong script”. Carnivalesque rites of killing did not demand rejection of the law, but a reassertion of men’s commitment to rules against extreme violence. Transgression could be enjoyable because the law was well respected. This was why, in combat, the carnival constituted what Mikhail Bakhtin called “authorised transgression”: military authorities officially disapproved of humorous manipulation of enemy corpses but turned a blind eye to such antics, accepting them as necessary for effective combat performance. Despite threats that stern disciplinary action would be taken if a man was caught with a part of an enemy’s body, offenders were seldom even mildly rebuked. In fact, men were encouraged to take such mementos by their military instructors, who recited the refrain of one instructor in an article unsurprisingly called “The Spirit of the Bayonet” and published in The Blimp in 1917: “Forget buttons! Ears and other things are what yer want!” It was a sign of combat effectiveness.
Although men could enjoy committing acts of extraordinary aggression, this does not mean they had lost all sense of personal morality. Combatants developed their own “rules of thumb” to differentiate legitimate “killing” in wartime from guilt-ridden “murder”. These rules were not identical to legal military formulas; on the contrary, they were flexible, contradictory and consolatory. They were, however, widely applied. By examining men’s diaries and letters, it can be seen that combatants allayed the destructive consequences of guilt through recourse to five justifications. The first four were the weaker rationalisations: obedience, reciprocity/revenge, dehumanisation and sportiveness:
Personal feelings of guilt were often alleviated by reminders that combatants were “merely” obeying orders and that these orders had been handed down by a legitimate authority. The authority could be the local commander (whose “orders is orders” might legitimate slaughtering prisoners) or, less convincingly, the “nation”.
Even in the absence of direct orders, combatants were able to legitimise their aggressive behaviour by appealing to notions of reciprocity: “kill or be killed”. This rationale was applied with varying degrees of intensity depending on whether the threat was to the nation, to identified strangers (“women and the weak”), to comrades and, finally, to oneself. As the level of abstraction decreased, the legitimacy of killing increased. Thus, for soldiers on active service (as opposed to propagandists) the legitimacy of killing was least convincing when defence of the nation was cited as justification. At one level closer to the soldiers’ experiences, there were identifiable strangers whose deaths required avenging. The best example would be the way Spitfire pilots during the Second World War justified their feelings of exhilaration after “downing” an enemy bomber by pointing out that they were protecting civilians on the ground. Even more important, recourse to the language of friendship was essential to legitimise killing. Most men only became willing to take another human life after seeing their comrades slaughtered. In the words of one unnamed soldier quoted by Jonathan Shay in Achilles in Vietnam (1994), he “felt a drastic change” after seeing his friends killed: “After that … I really loved fucking killing, couldn’t get enough. For every one that I killed I felt better. Made some of the hurt went away.” This language of remorseless revenge was employed most vehemently when the soldier was forced to face his own mortality. Repeatedly, men reiterated that their choice was to slay or be slain.
If the notion of “me or him” could legitimise the most brutal acts of violence, enemy atrocities themselves could be used to justify particularly violent combat: they reassured combatants by indicating that the enemy was too evil to warrant survival. Thus, the extermination camps of the Second World War strongly motivated many combatants. Accusations of atrocities dehumanised the enemy. It was important to encourage the fiction that the people being killed were not “really” human. They were animals—baboons, rats, vermin, wild beasts. They were a vaguely designated “enemy” or “ideology”.
Finally, the extent to which any particular fight could be rationalised was frequently based on notions of “sportiveness”. This was meant in two ways. First, that killing was sport (a justification in itself); and second, that because it was sport, it allowed for the possibility of “fair play”.
These rationales did not eradicate guilt altogether. They could withstand neither the weight of violence in military conflicts nor the resilience of the modern conscience. Combat simply was not sporting, no matter how hard men tried to make it resemble civilian or chivalrous codes. If warfare was like game hunting (as thousands of men alleged), then it was the most brutal, unskilful and unsatisfying form of the sport.
The rationale that “it was him or me” was equally unconvincing: long-distance artillery, sniping, orders not to take prisoners, and unequal forces were the norm, not the exception. Even when combatants sincerely believed that it was “his life or mine”, they might be consumed with guilt.
Obedience to higher authorities was also fraught with difficulties: after all, what was the appropriate authority? Obeying orders allowed for a huge range of activities, from enthusiastic slaughter to reluctant minimalism, avoidance behaviour and even active resistance (again, whose orders?).
The importance of atrocity reporting is also greatly exaggerated. In another survey carried out by Samuel A. Stouffer in 1943 and 1944 only 13 per cent of American infantrymen in the Pacific and European theatres had seen Japanese or German soldiers fighting in ways they regarded as “dirty or inhuman”. Less than one-half had even heard of such stories. Dehumanisation worked quite well in basic training, not so well in battle.
But there was another means combatants used to justify the slaughter. The fifth way of coping with killing in war was regarded askance by the military establishment, but for many combatants it was the most important: responsibility. Insisting that they were sentient moral agents was an important myth for modern fighters. The seed of guilt that was thus sown actually enabled men to admit to their bloody task. Combatants resisted attempts by senior military officers to minimise (if not eradicate) remorse for killing because they regarded guilt as an endorsement of their essential goodness. In other words, paradoxically, combatants maintained their ability to kill by stressing that they retained a moral faculty. This insistence that men were causal agents was crucial. Combatants strongly believed that they should feel guilty for killing: it was precisely this emotion which made them “human” and enabled them to return to peaceful civilian society afterwards, unbrutalised. Men who did not feel guilt were somehow less than human or were insane. Guiltless killers were truly immoral.
The aspects of warfare examined in this article are far less palatable to us than the tales of unmitigated terror and horror which are staple fare in military histories. It is important, however, that the stories of combatants who coped with the demands placed upon them to kill for their country are heard. The fantastical stories that combatants told themselves in an attempt to render combat not only bearable but “fun” were crucial to their emotional survival. Myths of the warrior coincided with carnivalesque rituals and often contradictory legitimating principles to forge an imaginary arena full of murderous potential.
The Allied service personnel discussed in this article were not warmongers. Most were conscripts, and after the war they returned to peaceable civilian lives with sighs of relief. Yet, when their governments failed in the task of maintaining peace, they found that they could kill, often with ease. The brutalised “other” turns out to have a very familiar face.