An Intimate History of Killing
Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century
by Joanna Bourke
Granta Books, 1999, paper
The characteristic act of men at war is not dying, it is killing.
For politicians, military strategists and many historians, war
may be about the conquest of territory or the struggle to recover
a sense of national honour but for the man on active service warfare
is concerned with the lawful killing of other people. Its peculiar
importance derives from the fact that it not murder, but sanctioned
blood-letting, legislated for by the highest civil authorities
and obtaining the consent of the vast majority of the population.
a military padre in France during W.W.I
The soldier's business is to kill the
two senior American officers in 1955
" the killing of an individual enemy
with a rifle, grenade, bayonet - yes, even the bare hands - is
the mission of the Army ...
William Broyles, former Marine and editor of Texas Monthly and
Broyles recognized, there were dozens
of reasons why combat might be attractive, even pleasurable. Comradeship,
with its bittersweet absorption of the self within the group,
appealed to some fundamental human urge. And then - in contrast
- there was the awesome power conferred upon individuals by war.
For men, combat was the male equivalent of childbirth: it was
the 'initiation into the power of life and death'. Broyles had
little to say about the 'life' aspect, but argued that the thrill
of destruction was irresistible. A bazooka or an M-60 machine-gun
was a 'magic sword' or a 'grunt's Excalibur':
all you do is move that finger so imperceptibly,
just a wish flashing across your mind like a shadow, not even
a full brain synapse, and poof! in a blast of sound and energy
and light a truck or a house or even people disappear, everything
flying and settling back into dust.
In many ways, war did resemble sport -
the most exciting game in existence, Broyles believed - which,
by pushing men to their physical and emotional limits, could provide
deep satisfaction (for the survivors, that is). Broyles likened
the happiness generated by the sport of war to the innocent pleasures
of children playing cowboys and Indians, chanting the refrain,
'bang bang, you're dead!', or to the seductive suspense adults
experience while watching combat movies as geysers of fake blood
splatter the screen and actors fall, massacred.
There was more to the pleasures of combat
than this, said Broyles. 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. Aesthetic tastes were often highly personal:
some Marines favoured the silent omnipotence of napalm which made
houses vanish 'as if by spontaneous combustion' while others (such
as Broyles) preferred white phosphorous because it 'exploded with
a fulsome elegance, wreathing its target in intense and billowing
smoke, throwing out glowing red comets trailing brilliant white
plumes'. The experience seemed to resemble spiritual enlightenment
or sexual eroticism: indeed, slaughter could be likened to an
orgasmic, charismatic experience. However you looked at it, war
was a 'turn on'.
The psychology of military training
'Charms to ward off fear' were deliberately
manufactured within the armed forces by a new group of professionals.
As has already been hinted, the empty, dehumanized battlefield
created by the physical sciences (and rejected by the arts) had
provided a political and logistical space for a 'human science':
social psychology. Whereas physical scientists (in their terminology
and by distancing combatants from each other) attempted to deny
that warfare was concerned with killing human beings, men at the
front were all too conscious of this fact. For them, the great
instruments of destruction were not impersonal tools, but intimate
weapons. Thus, while the physical scientists pretended that emotion
was irrelevant, the social scientists took the experiences of
combatants seriously and placed excitement, fear and fantasy centre-stage.
They attempted to convince the military hierarchy that unless
officers were trained in psychology and were able to counter the
effects of mechanization and anonymity, all their expertise with
guns, ranges, and ballistics was useless.
The role of behavioural scientists in
enabling men to kill is only very rarely, and then extremely obliquely
(under the heading 'soldiers' morale'), mentioned by historians.
This is not really surprising: it does not mark a proud moment
in the history of the profession and it is not a particularly
marketable skill. The impression most modern commentators convey
is that intelligence testing, manpower allocation, and man-machine
efficiency regimes consumed the energies of psychologists in wartime.
However, if modern social scientists have
averted their eyes from theoretical and applied research on how
to encourage 'effective combat behaviour', social scientists in
the past have been far less bashful. As the psychologists, E.
F. M. Durbin and J. Bowlby explained in their book Personal Aggressiveness
and War (1939): 'just as it is the task of the physicist to study
the general laws governing the behaviour of forces, such as electricity
or gravitation', so too it was the task of social psychologists
'to describe and analyse the general psychological forces Iying
behind the timeless and ubiquitous urge to fight and kill'. While
it is true that squeamish psychologists, and those with pacifist
inclinations, could easily find themselves a bloodless niche within
which to employ their talents, those who wholeheartedly embraced
the militaristic enterprise were no small group of warmongers.
Indeed, during both of the world wars, it was the psychologists
and their professional representatives who pleaded with an initially
reluctant officer class that they be allowed to prove themselves
in inciting high combat motivation
The introduction of psychology into military training regimes
was a gradual process which began in the first decade of the twentieth
century and was strongly influenced by the writings of Fuller
who (as we have seen) read widely in crowd and instinct psychology.
Fuller made some headway in the interwar years with amendments
to the British Army Regulations which introduced training in psychology
for officers. In these years, military manuals slowly began to
introduce psychological factors, but psychology did not carve
out a secure niche within the armed forces until the Second World
War by which time military heavyweights such as Field Marshal
Earl Wavell (in Britain) and William C. Westmoreland (in the United
States) were arguing publicly for increased psychological training
and support for officers and men. During the Second World War,
a majority of professional psychologists were involved in war
work and social scientists replaced natural scientists on the
boards of important research organizations such as the National
Research Council and the Research Information Service. Military
psychology courses sprang up in colleges throughout Europe and
the United States; and the media popularized their research. Many
psychologists believed that warfare had been fundamental to the
growth and status of their profession by enabling them to 'connect
scientific psychology to life'. As Lewis M. Terman put it in his
presidential address to the American Psychological Association
in 1923, war had transformed their discipline from a 'science
of trivialities' into a 'science of human engineering'.
In the words of the philosopher William James in his renowned
'The Moral Equivalent of War' (1910): 'Our ancestors have bred
pugnacity into our bone and marrow, and thousands of years of
peace won't breed it out of us." Since pugnacity was one
of the primary instincts, combat training was aimed at stripping
the civilized veneer from the individual psyche. The 'beast within'
was encouraged to find expression in bayonet drill and dehumanizing
There was a problem, of course: the instinct
of self-preservation was as liable to lead to 'flight' as to 'fight'.
To overcome this, military psychologists coupled instinct theory
with the crowd psychology of men like Gustave Le Bon and his English
popularizer, Wilfred Trotter. Humans were herd animals, with strong
gregarious impulses. In a crowd - and the army was only a trained
crowd - the 'group mind' would take over, endowing the individual
with a sense of almost limitless power and immortality. Group
solidarity led to a return to primitive forms of behaviour, including
reliance on the leader as the father substitute. Crowd psychology
also promoted automatic movements: group drills, with emphasis
on monotony and everyone doing the same thing together, enabled
men to carry out the required movements almost without conscious
thought, all the time feeling 'supported by the formidableness
of the group'. This was the training regime that one Canadian
soldier of the First World War was praising when he wrote: 'Mechanically
we stabbed a dummy figure. Mechanically we would stab and stab
again a breathing human frame.'
Instinct theory remained powerful, but primarily as a justification
for the gruesome training enterprise, rather than as a practical
way to encourage men to kill. This was summed up nicely in an
article published in 1965 by Captain P. P. Manzie of the Royal
Australian Army Medical Corps. He noted that the resolve of the
army leader could be weakened by a feeling that his task was 'unnatural
and immoral; that he has to pervert a peaceful being into ways
of violence'. Not so! he reassured his readers, killing was part
of every man's natural inheritance. The job of the military instructor
was, in fact 'already half done - the polite bank-clerk strips
down, not to a peaceful individualist, but to a soldier born'.
Similarly, crowd theories had a long life. In the period leading
up to the First
World War, the ability of the crowd to
instigate actions that were antithetical to individuals was regarded
as a justification of the army's emphasis on leadership or the
'father figure' who could 'sway' the unit by his personality.
The character of the leader was the central feature: he had to
embody aggression, courage, strength of mind and physique, and
Use of psychoanalytic concepts in training was highly controversial.
Some military psychologists (particularly in the American forces)
embraced them. For example, in the 1940s, Major Jules V. Coleman
argued that psychoanalytic principles and frustration-aggression
theories were crucial in enabling men imbued with the commandment
'Thou Shalt Not Kill' to 'move in on the enemy and destroy him'.
Patriotism and idealism would never provide sufficient incentive.
Effective training required the mobilization of 'free-flowing
aggression' and the control of anxiety and guilt. These two principles
were related, since anxiety and guilt inhibited aggression, and
the harnessing of aggression helped to control inner tensions.
Important ways of maintaining morale involved the provision of
competent leadership, training for discipline and skill, instilling
pride in the unit, promoting an aggressive attitude, and taking
care of the troops. Killing the enemy would thus resemble a mythical
rite in which the death of the father (represented by the company
commander) could be celebrated in 'an orgy of displaced violence'
Coleman argued that this slaughter would satisfy
deep-seated, primitive unconscious strivings
derived from early childhood fantasy . . . The enemy is a sacrificial
object whose death provides deep group satisfaction in which guilt
is excluded by group sanction. Combat is a ritualistic event which
resolves the precarious tensions of hatred created by the long
drawn out frustrations of training. Without these frustrations,
a group would not be a military force.
In combat, the 'hatred which has been
carefully nurtured and encouraged through the irksome indignities
associated with long military training' would be displaced from
the men's leaders to the enemy. In other words, killing the enemy
became an act of vengeance and the enemy's dehumanization helped
allay feelings of guilt.
Lieutenant William L. 'Rusty' Calley. commanding officer, My Lai
massacre, March 1968
" ... what the hell is war than killing
The massacre had begun just after eight o'clock on the morning
of 16 March 1968, when 105 American soldiers of Charlie Company,
11th Brigade of the Americal Division, entered the small village
of Son My (known to the Americans as My Lai and thought to be
the base of the 48th Viet Cong Local Forces Battalion) in the
San Tinh District, Quang Ngai Province, on the north-eastern coast
of South Vietnam near the South China Sea.
By the time Calley and his men sat down
to lunch, they had rounded up and slaughtered around 500 unarmed
civilians. Within those few hours, members of Charlie Company
had 'fooled around' and laughed as they sodomized and raped women,
ripped vaginas open with knives, bayoneted civilians, scalped
corpses and carved 'C Company' or the ace of spades on to their
chests, slaughtered animals, and torched hooches. Other soldiers
had wept openly as they opened fire on crowds of unresisting old
men, women, children and babies. At no stage did these soldiers
receive any enemy fire or encounter any form of resistance save
fervent pleadings. Yet, they were 'only' obeying orders, doing
their duty, and - they reasoned - even little babies could be
Viet Cong ('I thought,' Paul Meadlo testified, 'they had some
sort of chain or a little string they had to give a little pull
and they blow us up'). After the massacre, the men of C Company
burned their way through a few other villages, eventually reaching
the seashore where they stripped and jumped into the surf A year
later, Private First Class Michael Bernhardt remembered that there
had been no sense of hangover in the company, no brooding over
rights and wrongs. If you had told them a year ago that they were
going to be on trial, maybe for their lives, they wouldn't have
believed you. It would have been so fantastic.
Of course, some men had been shocked by
what they had done or seen, but 'war was war' and there were other
battles to fight. However, Lieutenant Calley was very definite
about his duty to obey orders. A useful insight into Calley's
attitude can be taken from his autobiographical account of the
massacre, Body Count (1971). He recalled that at one stage during
that bloody morning, he came across Dennis Conti forcing a young
mother to give him oral sex. Calley ordered Conti to 'Get on your
goddam pants!', but admitted that he did not know 'why I was so
damn saintly about it. Rape: in Vietnam it's a very common thing.'
I guess lots of girls would rather be
raped than killed anytime. So why was I being saintly about it?
Because: if a GI is getting a blow job, he isn't doing his job.
He isn't destroying communism . . . Our mission in My Lai wasn't
perverted, though. It was simply 'Go and destroy it;. Remember
the Bible: the Amalekites? God said to Saul, 'Now go . . . and
utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay
both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and
ass. But the people took the spoil -' and God punished them. No
difference now: if a GI is getting gain, he isn't doing what we
are paying him for. He isn't combat-effective.
What Calley omitted to say in his memoir
was that he immediately murdered the mother and her child: he
was obeying orders. Calley was not alone in this belief: all the
participants in the My Lai massacre claimed that they were 'only'
doing what they had been told. In the briefing prior to entering
My Lai, Colonel Henderson had taunted the officers for their poor
performance in earlier attacks and their lack of aggression which
enabled 'men, women, or children, or other VC soldiers in the
area' to escape. Men left the briefing feeling resentful and furious.
William Calvin Lloyd recalled 'we knew we were supposed to kill
everyone in the village' and Robert Wayne Pendleton remembered
that as they cleaned their weapons the night before the attack
people were 'talking about killing everything that moved. Everyone
knew what we were going to do.'
... the Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907), the Nuremberg Principles
(1946), and the Geneva Convention (1949) are the most important.
According to the Hague Conventions, the life of an enemy combatant
who had 'laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defence'
was to be spared. Every prisoner of war 'must be humanly treated',
they decreed. The sixth Nuremberg Principle defined a war crime
as including murder and the ill-treatment of civilian populations
or prisoners of war. The Geneva Convention of 1949 also insisted
that 'persons taking no part in the hostilities, including members
of the armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed
hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause,
shall in all circumstances be treated humanly' and it specifically
forbade 'violence to life and person, in particular murder of
all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture'.
In addition to international law, the
armed forces had their own regulations. All armed forces during
the two world wars prohibited the gratuitous slaughter of civilians
and unarmed or wounded personnel. The situation in Vietnam was
more complex. Prior to 3 March 1966, the US Military Assistance
Command in Vietnam (MACV) which was responsible for the command,
control and support of US personnel in Vietnam, had only published
war crime directives designated to apply to violations of Geneva
Conventions inflicted by forces against the Americans. In 1966,
however, MACV Directive 20-4 was published to include war crimes
committed by American personnel. It unequivocally stated that
wilful killing, torture, or inhuman treatment
of, or wilful causing great suffering or serious injury to the
body or ( health of persons taking no active part in the hostilities,
including members of the armed forces who had laid down their
arms or who were not combatants because of sickness, wounds, or
any other cause, was a war crime.
In addition, the maltreatment of dead
bodies, firing on localities which were undefended and without
military significance, and plunder, were defined as war crimes
and it became incumbent upon all military personnel who had knowledge
that a crime had been committed to report it to his commanding
officer 'as soon as practicable'.
The most difficult issue to be resolved,
however, was not what constituted a major war crime but who was
responsible. The plea of respondeat superior ('just obeying orders')
was commonplace: but was it valid? In Britain, the military code
of 1749 had decided that troops were only compelled to obey lawful
orders. However, the first edition of Lassa Oppenheim's International
Law (1906) stated that 'in case members of forces commit violations
ordered by their commanders, the members cannot be punished, for
the commanders alone are responsible' and paragraph 433 of the
1914 edition of the Manual of Military Law required combatants
to give absolute obedience to all commands issued by superior
officers. This remained unchanged until 1944 when the idea of
lawful orders once again became mandatory, making individual combatants
liable for actions which violated 'unchallenged rules of warfare'
and outraged 'the general sentiment of humanity'. i° In America,
the military code did not refer to the issue of superior orders
until the 1914 edition of the Rules of Land Warfare which granted
immunity to individuals within the armed forces who broke the
laws of war under orders from their government or commanders.
Again, this decision was reversed in 1944 when a new Section 345.1
declared that individual combatants were liable, although the
fact that a particular action had been carried out under orders
could be 'taken into consideration in determining capability.'
The US Army Field Manual of 1956 agreed that the defence of superior
orders could never be valid unless the accused individual 'did
not know and could not reasonably have been expected to know that
the act was unlawful." The US Manual for Courts Martial (1969)
similarly commented that homicide 'committed in the proper performance
of a legal duty' was justifiable, but not when the acts were 'manifestly
beyond the scope of his authority, or the order is such that a
man of ordinary sense and understanding would know it to be illegal'.
On an international level, the Nuremberg Principles (1946) decreed
that 'any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime
under international law is responsible thereafter and liable to
punishment' and 'the fact that a person acted pursuant to order
of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility
under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible
Racism in all its forms (cultural ethnocentrism, scientific racism
and broadly-based ideas about 'national character') was a key
factor in the prevalence of atrocities in certain theatres of
war. The most vicious and widespread atrocities carried out by
British, American and Australian troops occurred in circumstances,
in all three conflicts, where the enemy was considered to be racially
very different (as in the war in the Pacific between 1939-45 and
in Vietnam). Prejudice lay at the very heart of the military establishment
(for instance, during the Second World War, drill instructors
told recruits: 'You're not going to Europe, you're going to the
Pacific. Don't hesitate to fight the Japs dirty' and, in the Vietnam
context, Calley was originally charged with the premeditated murder
of 'Oriental human beings' rather than 'human beings'), and undeniably,
men who carried out atrocities had highly prejudicial views about
their victims. Calley recalled that on arriving in Vietnam his
main thought was, 'I'm the big American from across the sea. I'll
sock it to these people here.' Even Michael Bernhardt (who refused
to take part in the massacre) said of his comrades at My Lai:
'A lot of those people wouldn't think of killing a man. I mean,
a white man - a human so to speak.' After an horrific recital
of rape and murder, Sergeant Scott Camil of 1st Marine Division
explained that 'it wasn't like they were humans. We were conditioned
to believe that this was for the good of the nation, the good
of our country, and anything we did was okay. And when you shot
someone you didn't think you were shooting at a human. They were
a gook or a Commie and it was okay.' By classifying the Japanese
or Vietnamese as inhuman, they all became fair game. Furthermore,
such racism contained an element of fear, as the historian John
W. Dower has pointed out in his exhaustive survey of racial attitudes
in the Pacific theatre of war: Japan was the first non-white country
to industrialize and become an imperial power, it was the first
to claim a place among the Great Powers (at the Paris Peace Conference),
the first to beat a western power at war (Russia in 1905), and
the first to raise the idea of Asia for the Asians. These people
needed to be put in their place.
Sociologists Diane Archer and Rosemary Gartner, 1980 study of
relationship between violence in war and crimes of violence in
War involves homicide legitimated by the
highest auspices of the state. During many wars, the killing of
enemy soldiers has been treated not merely as a regrettable and
expedient measure but as praiseworthy and heroic ...
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