Over the top: men at war

WAR is hell – except for the pleasures of slaughter, almost sexual in their cycles of tension and release. This, says the historian Dr Joanna Bourke, is the untold story of the battlefield; that ordinary decent men, who loved their families and lived unremarkable civilian lives, routinely experienced an almost ecstatic exhilaration when they killed in wartime.

Take Henry de Man, writing of his experiences in World War I: “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.” He yelled aloud “with delight” and “could have wept with joy”. “I had to confess to myself that it was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

Looking back, he mused, “What were the satisfactions of scientific research, of a successful public activity, of authority, of love, compared to this ecstatic moment?”

Other soldiers reported killing to be like “getting screwed for the first time”; it gave men “an ache as profound as the ache of orgasm”. Reported one US marine, a Vietnam veteran: “I was literally turned on when I saw a gook get shot.”

In World War I, men caressed their bayonets lovingly and thought of their women as they thrust the blades into the enemy.

Bourke’s new book, An Intimate History of Killing, certainly lives up to its name.

Her interest was sparked when writing a previous book that required her to delve into the Great War. Reading soldiers’ letters, she found the elements traditionally reported in military histories: “Trauma, horror, mud, lice, fear, shellshock and breakdown.” But she was startled to also find persistent accounts of bloodlust, and some men’s diaries revealed that they never felt so intensely alive as when they were killing other men.

She believes guilt over this murderous pleasure, so illicit in peacetime, is the reason many veterans refuse to discuss their war experiences with civilians, whom they feel would never understand.

Not surprisingly, the book has angered Britain’s military establishment and veterans’ organisations.

“It’s something that people have difficulty talking about, how `We enjoyed mass slaughter, we got off on it, we weren’t just doing it to save the world from Nazis or communism or whatever, and that we committed atrocities too’,” says Bourke. “Some people will read this and say, `Joanna is critiquing us; is she saying that we’re just as bad as the Nazis?’ No, I’m not saying that.”

In fact, she was forced to abandon some half-baked pacifist assumptions about men and war. “I believed all the cliches. I think I always looked very warily at the military as somehow different to the rest of us. And, being a feminist, I regarded (war and killing) as the dark side of manliness.

“But I sat there in an archive reading the letters of people who are just like my friends, like me. I would read letters from a man to his wife. He would say, `I felt really horrible yesterday. It was the worst day of my life; my neighbor has gone crazy with fear. However, I had my first battle. I have never felt so good. It was so exhilarating every time I bayoneted someone. I thought of you, my love. It is a beautiful sunset tonight. Goodbye, give my little daughter a kiss…’

“It was so distressing, because you’d be thinking, `What a lovely guy’, and then you’d come across one of these descriptions. These men were very human and much more complex than the traditional feminist/pacifist line gives them credit for.”

Bourke came to some uncomfortable conclusions about human nature, which she believes apply equally to women. “We like to believe that it’s difficult to kill; that the army is somehow different from us, that (soldiers) have had lots of training, or are people with an authoritarian personality anyway. But it’s not like that. Ordinary people – most of these men were conscripts – who are put into battle enjoy killing. Given the right conditions, anyone could.”

Except for soldiers who committed atrocities, the highest rates of psychiatric breakdown were in soldiers who never fought.

Bourke’s findings seem to support Freudian theories of two basic human drives, sex and aggression. But she does not subscribe to instinct theory. She explains the intensely sexual nature of men’s descriptions of killing as partly due to the adrenalin rush of the fight-or-flight response: “Tension builds up and there’s a sudden catharsis that feels subjectively like orgasm. Men after battle often say they just want to go to sleep.

“The more important explanation is that most of these men had probably never written a letter before. They are trying to explain to the people back home something that is outside all of their experience, and the sexual metaphor is the closest one they can find to convey (the drama of it). And killing is a rite-of-passage experience, just like your first sexual encounter is.”

Bourke’s previous books include works on Irish history and the working class. Her father was a doctor and her mother a nurse; they travelled the world as missionaries before settling in very unsettled Haiti when she was five. She loved Haitian life but its violence and bloodshed was also part of the backdrop of her childhood. Later she studied in England before completing her PhD in Australia. She returns here every year or two to write.

Her book examines how soldiers deal with the battlefield’s moral questions and how they resist becoming brutalised, despite the potentially seductive primal power of the experience. She analyses how military systems train and exploit men’s emotional responses and the factors that contribute to atrocities.

Her analysis of war crimes makes disturbing reading, not only because of the gruesomeness – the lighting of flares in Vietnamese women’s vaginas, the slicing off of Japanese women’s breasts – but because the perpetrators are “the good guys”: British, Americans and Australians. She reports that so many Japanese PoWs were being killed in the Pacific towards the end of World War II that an alarmed military bribed troops with offers of icecream and leave to keep prisoners alive.

The book’s worst atrocities involve American troops in Vietnam, the most lawless of the three wars she analyses. Some marines were encouraged to enlist by promises that they would be able to rape local women, and platoons on long stints of active service routinely kidnapped and slaughtered female villagers. Those who raped as well as killed were known as “double veterans”.

And then there is My Lai. In 1968, 105 American soldiers from Charlie Company entered the village and raped and sodomised women, ripped vaginas open with knives, bayoneted and scalped civilians and fired on unresisting crowds of old men, women, children and babies. They killed 500.

The lieutenant who led the attack, William Calley, was later sentenced to hard labor for life but, after a massive public outcry of support, was released, after less than three years of house arrest. Bourke contrasts this with the case of Dr Howard Levy, who served two years’ jail for refusing to teach medical techniques to Green Berets because he believed they would be used to harm rather than help people.

Australians were involved in atrocities too, she reports, citing rifleman Barry Kavanagh, from Avondale Heights, who told of a platoon in Vietnam opening fire on scuffling in the bushes. In the morning, “We discover it’s a party of schoolgirls who had been missing from a nearby village. The big Aussies shot the ones who were still alive so no one would start a nasty scandal.”

An Australian warrant officer, who used to protest every time an officer killed a Vietnamese prisoner, recalled learning to turn a blind eye: “Now, the officer just looks at the prisoner, and looks at me with one of those long, knowing looks. I go for a walk for a few minutes and when I come back they tell me the man was shot trying to escape.”

Again, Bourke points out that the men who did these things were ordinary people. A survey taken after My Lai found that more than half of civilian Americans believed they would shoot if they were a soldier ordered to destroy a village; so did one-third of Australians.

There were combatants who refused to cross the line into atrocity. An enraged US helicopter pilot who saw what was happening at My Lai landed and had his gunners hold Charlie Company troops at bay while he coaxed terrified villagers out of a bunker and took them to safety. In other incidents, soldiers warned villages of an impending attack.

Some resisted even legitimate killing, not firing their guns or firing over the enemy’s heads.

Bourke argues that most soldiers who killed did so not out of hatred for the enemy, but out of love of the comrades they saw killed and the commanding officers who were their father figures.

They resisted the numbing of their consciences: “Guilt is actually necessary in order (for most men) to be able to kill. Men who got pleasure from killing at the same time felt they should feel guilty for it. They say that their comrades who do not feel guilty for it are inhuman, and they avoid these people.

“To them, their guilt means that they are still human. They haven’t become animals. They still have a moral conscience. It allows them to go home unbrutalised (and is good for them) as long as the guilt isn’t crippling, which can lead to breakdown. It’s all about balance.”

Bourke does not expect her book to dent the warrior hero myth. “People need these myths in order to be combat effective. I don’t think they are ever going to die. We have to have them, otherwise war is just an overwhelmingly horrible experience.”

An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in 20th-century Warfare, by Joanna Bourke, Allen & Unwin, $49.95.

First published in The Age.