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The characteristic act of men at war is not dying, but killing. Politicians and military historians may gloss over human slaughter, emphasizing the defense of national honor, but for men in active service, warfare means being - or becoming - efficient killers. In An Intimate History of Killing, historian Joanna Bourke asks: What are the social and psychological dynamics of becoming the best ”citizen soldiers?” What kind of men become the best killers? How do they readjust to civilian life? These questions are ...
The characteristic act of men at war is not dying, but killing. Politicians and military historians may gloss over human slaughter, emphasizing the defense of national honor, but for men in active service, warfare means being - or becoming - efficient killers. In An Intimate History of Killing, historian Joanna Bourke asks: What are the social and psychological dynamics of becoming the best ”citizen soldiers?” What kind of men become the best killers? How do they readjust to civilian life? These questions are answered in this groundbreaking new work that won, while still in manuscript, the Fraenkel Prize for Contemporary History. Excerpting from letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports of British, American, and Australian veterans of three wars (World War I, World War II, and Vietnam), Bourke concludes that the structure of war encourages pleasure in killing and that perfectly ordinary, gentle human beings can, and often do, become enthusiastic killers without being brutalized.This graphic, unromanticized look at men at war is sure to revise many long-held beliefs about the nature of violence.
Some day when you are hunting in attic trunks
Or hear your friends boasting of their brave fathers,
I know that all excited you will ask me
To tell war stories. How shall I answer you?
R. L. Barth, `A Letter to My Infant Son', 1987
Stories of combat provide a way of coping with a fundamental tension of war: although the act of killing another person in battle may invoke a wave of nauseous distress, it may also incite intense feelings of pleasure. 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 admittingto being a bloodthirsty brute: to acknowledge that the decisive cease-fire caused as much anguish as losing a great lover could only inspire shame.
Yet, 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'.
Crucially, in the context of this chapter, Broyles noted that men's responses to combat contained an element of the carnivalesque. To illustrate this point, he described what his men had done to a North Vietnamese soldier whom they had recently killed. They had propped the corpse against some C-rations, placed sunglasses across his eyes and a cigarette in his mouth, and balanced a `large and perfectly formed' piece of shit on his head. Broyles described his reaction thus:
I pretended to be outraged, since desecrating bodies was frowned on as un-American and counterproductive. But it wasn't outrage I felt. I kept my officer's face on, but inside I was ... laughing. I laughed -- I believe now -- in part because of some subconscious appreciation of this obscene linkage of sex and excrement and death; and in part because of the exultant realization that he -- whoever he had been -- was dead and I -- special, unique me -- was alive.
This joyous celebration of the `material bodily principle', this carnivalesque inversion of what was sacred, was a most potent combination.
William Broyles was not unique in admitting to feelings of pleasure in combat. The enthusiastic glee expressed by many recruits at the idea of shedding human blood can, to some extent, be understood by looking at the complex ways in which martial combat has become an integral part of the modern imagination. Literature and films provide scripts more exotic and thrilling than everyday scenarios and, although such narratives do not directly stimulate imitation, the excitement they generate creates an imaginary arena packed with murderous potential and provides a linguistic structure within which aggressive behaviour might legitimately be fantasized. Furthermore, the archetypes of combat are seductive precisely because of their unreal quality.
Combat literature and films
Long before any prospect of real combat, boys and girls, men and women, created narratives of pleasure around acts of killing. Australian lads imaginatively cleared primitive Aborigines from artificial bushland; American kids fought off wild Indians in suburban backyards; English boys slaughtered beastly blacks on playing fields. Combat literature, martial films, and war games attracted men to the killing fields. Of course, there was no direct relationship between immersion in combat stories and the urge to kill. Young girls were obviously also entranced by such fictions, although their pleasure derived as much from the fate of the heroine-in-love as from the competence of the hero-in-battle. Any analysis of the diaries, letters, and autobiographies of combatants will reveal the extent to which literary and cinematic images were adopted (and transformed) by men and women prior to combat. War stories constitute our most democratic `basic training'.
In the three conflicts to be considered in this book -- the two world wars and the conflict in Vietnam -- literary and cinematic models for combat spanned a range of diverse styles, from popular comics and imperial adventure tales, to classics such as Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and the Victorian romances of Tennyson and William Morris, to the very graphic war films which dominated cinematic screens from 1939. This canon has been analysed by innumerable historians and literary scholars, but most skilfully in the context of both world wars by Paul Fussell in his classic books, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) and Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989) and by Jay Winter in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (1995). Throughout the twentieth century, combat literature remained one of the most buoyant genres. Movie houses also promoted battle enthusiastically. More than one-third of all Hollywood feature films produced between 1942 and 1945 were war movies, largely due to the help of the War Department, Navy Department and the Office of War Information. By the time of the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense had lost its monopoly on wartime images (although they remained successful in circulating propaganda films to independent and noncommercial stations throughout the country) and television had taken combat into everyone's living rooms.
It is not difficult to see the attraction of combat literature and films. Everything, and everyone, appeared as more noble and more exotic in such stories than in commonplace encounters. Despite the understandable emphasis that many historians have placed on the literature of disillusionment arising out of the ashes of war, patriotic and heroic depictions of combat never lost their attraction. Once our gaze is turned from a narrow canon represented by poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, `high diction' with its stock phrases (baptisms of fire, transfigured youth and gallant warriors) emerges as the dominant language of war. The same is true if we turn to films. Patriotic romances such as John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968) comforted viewers with a familiar sequence of mythical codes and archetypal characters who were all the more recognizable because they were overblown. In Francis Ford Coppola's film, Apocalypse Now (1979), with its exploration of the dark fantasies which enabled men to take pleasure in cruelty, audiences rejoiced in the invincible Colonel Kilgore filming his own private John Wayne movie in the midst of battle, Marines surfing under fire, cosy barbecues on hostile beaches, and Wagner booming from combat helicopters. So-called B-movies took such heroics to even greater lengths. In Cirio H. Santiago's Behind Enemy Lines (1987), audiences were supposed to be charmed by supermen mowing down hundreds of enemy soldiers with one machine-gun and infiltrating enemy camps in daylight. They performed extraordinary feats without pause and never wearied of killing, killing, killing.
Not all these narratives lauded armed prowess or exalted the pleasures of combat. During and after each war there were strong literary and cinematic movements against militarism. The horrors of combat were most dramatically represented in the literature of the 1914-18 conflict and in the cinematic and literary representations of the war in Vietnam. In these fictional accounts, there was often little to `justify' the slaughter and the theme was that of the disillusionment of individuals, puny in comparison to a technologically driven, military imperative. As Michael Cimino, the director of The Deer Hunter (1978), claimed, `any good picture about war' has to be `anti-war'. However, just like the anti-war protestors who ended up exhorting battle when they chanted `Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh,/ We shall fight and we shall win', anti-war films simply relocated the conflict and quickly re-entered the romanticized canon of war. Take Philip Caputo during the Vietnam War. While he was in training, he recalled finding classroom work mind-numbing: `I wanted the romance of war, bayonet charges, and desperate battles against impossible odds', he explained, `I wanted the sort of thing I had seen in Guadalcanal Diary and Retreat, Hell! and a score of other movies.' Despite the filthy, anti-heroic battle scenes in the films he mentioned, he was entranced by them. Realistic representations of combat are not necessarily pacifist or even pacificistic. It was precisely the horror which thrilled audiences and readers: gore and abjection was the pleasure, subverting any anti-war moral. As the narrator of Larry Heinemann's Paco's Story (1987) recognized: `Most folks will shell out hard-earned, greenback cash, every time, to see artfully performed, urgently fascinating, grisly and gruesome carnage.'
Anti-war representations contained an additional ambivalence: while the horror of bloody combat might be meticulously delineated, the enemy remained individual, deeply flawed yet capable of being understood, and thus accorded empathy. Debate was focused around good versus bad combatants, rather than about `combatants'. Thus, the atrocities in Roland Emmerich's Universal Soldier (1992) served merely to differentiate between Sergeant Scott (who collected ears) and Private Devreux (who refused to shoot civilians). Both were extremely effective soldiers. Equally, in John Irvin's Hamburger Hill (1987), the poignant opening scenes of the Vietnam Veterans' memorial in Washington were utilized simply to justify the actions of the good servicemen, the dropping of napalm was portrayed as though its function was purely aesthetic, and the real enemies were the effete men at home and anti-war protestors. The Vietnam veteran, author, and anti-war campaigner Tim O'Brien summed up the dangers of such representation of war by reminding his readers that, for him,
Vietnam wasn't an unreal experience; it wasn't absurd. It was a cold-blooded, calculated war. Most of the movies about it have been done with this kind of black humorish, Apocalypse Now absurdity: the world's crazy; madman Martin Sheen is out to kill madman Marlon Brando; Robert Duvall is a surfing nut. There's that sense of `well, we're all innocent by reason of insanity'; `the war was crazy, and therefore we're innocent'. That doesn't go down too well.
In merging `the horror, the horror' with a shadowy, oriental or fascist evil, viewers were faced with a familiar motif: the enemy as the ultimate `other'.
So how did the men who are quoted in this book imagine war prior to entering the armed forces? Combat stories were most powerful when recounted by fathers, older brothers, and other close male friends. And the attraction was not restricted to boys. Young girls also found the war adventures of their fathers enticing and a chief motivation for wanting to become combatants themselves. Vee Robinson, for instance, volunteered to work on an AA (antiaircraft) gun site, downing enemy aeroplanes during the Second World War. She recalled the battle stories told by fathers (in the interwar years) about their experiences between 1914 and 1918, remembering how her school friends would boast about the heroic deeds carried out by `our Dads'. At times, the desire to fire guns could be strangely disassociated from the act of destruction. This was the case with Jean Bethke Elshtain when she recalled her desire around the time of the Korean War to own a gun. She called this her `Joan of Arc period' and admitted that she had `got the taste for shooting' at a picnic when she turned out to be a better shot than some of the boys. In her words: `I didn't want to kill anything, save symbolically. But the idea of being a dead-eye shot and the image of going outside, rifle in hand: that intrigued.'
It is clear that fantasies of combat drawn from books and films also dominated many men's daytime and nighttime dreams, encouraging them to volunteer in anticipation of being given an opportunity to emulate heroes that they had read about since infancy. Lieutenant-Colonel H. F. N. Jourdain of the Connaught Rangers in the First World War was one such romantic. In his memoirs (published in 1934), he could still conjure up the thrill he felt while reading the war stories of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Lever. These tales prompted him to join the army, in order to `take part in such stirring times as were depicted'. He singled out Lever, in particular, for preparing him for the type of combat which involved charges, wild cheers which `rent the skies', and wholesale bayoneting until the enemy scattered and the Rangers `halted to recover breath and stayed the slaughter'.
Similar heroics were imagined by men who signed up in 1939. Eugene B. `Sledgehammer' Sledge had been a sickly child but had entertained himself by translating Caesar's writings on warfare and he revered Washington, Audubon, Daniel Boone, and Robert E. Lee (both of his grandfathers had been Confederate officers). Similarly, Audie Murphy had grown up in a poor white family of sharecroppers in Texas. As a twelve-year-old boy weeding and hoeing the infertile land, his mind was always on some imaginary battlefield where `bugles blew, banners streamed, and men charged gallantly across flaming hills'. This was a fantastic battleground where enemy bullets always missed while the bullets from his `trusty rifle forever hit home'. During each of these conflicts, boys and men devoured the romantic, military literature of the preceding war. Thus, during the First World War, literature about the imperial wars entranced thousands; at the time of the Second World War, boys spent hours reading The Times History of the Great War, in the Vietnam era popular books (such as Fighting the Red Devils) based on Second World War exploits were much in demand.
By the 1960s, new kinds of media offering narratives of killing had overtaken the more traditional literary ones. Television brought the joy of slaughter into the living room. Allen Hunt (for instance) saw himself as a typical son of rural America. From small-town Maryland, Hunt slipped naturally into the navy and then the army. He explained becoming a soldier in terms of an easeful transition:
I liked the Army, as I was trained to do things that I felt comfortable doing. All through my childhood I had roamed the woods, hunting, playing Army and `hide and seek'. From reading and watching Television, I had learnt basic theories of combat. Growing up at home, I had often dreamt about participating in combat; it was an experience that I wanted to acquire.
Ron Kovic's memoir, Born on the Fourth of July (1976), also described the excitement of combat films such as To Hell and Back, in which Audie Murphy jumped on top of a flaming tank in order to turn a machine gun on to the Germans: `He was so brave I had chills running up and down my back, wishing it was me up there,' he recalled. Not many years later, he was.
The poet William D. Ehrhart made a similar observation in an article entitled `Why I Did It' (1980) in which he attempted to explain his reasons for joining the Marines at the age of seventeen. He admitted that he had an unrealistic idea of what war actually entailed. His image was framed by real and imaginary men like John Wayne, Audie Murphy, William Holden, Nathan Hale, Alvin York, and Eddie Rickenbacker. His childhood was spent building plastic models of bombers and fighter planes, playing cowboys and Indians, and indulging in other war games, and his two most memorable childhood Christmas presents were a lifesize plastic .30 calibre machine gun and a .45 calibre automatic cap pistol in a leather holster with USMC embossed on the military-style cover flap. (`I was so proud of that pistol that I ran up the street first chance I got to show it off to Margie Strawser,' he recounted.) Newsreels of troops returning home in 1945 and his envy of friends whose fathers had `been heroes' in that war were as fresh in his memory in 1980 as they had been when he was a child.
As Ehrhart's memory attested, the industry devoted to the production of martial toys was immense. This can be illustrated by looking at one of the most aggressive military units, the Special Forces or, as they were popularly known, the Green Berets. By the late 1960s, parents could buy Green Beret dolls, records, comic strips, bubble gum, puzzles, and books for their children (or themselves). For ten dollars, the Sears catalogue offered a Special Forces outpost, complete with machine gun, rifle, hand grenades, rackets, field telephone, and plastic soldiers. For half this price, Montgomery Ward's Christmas catalogue promised to send a Green Beret uniform and, for an additional six pounds, they would throw in an AR-15 rifle, pistol, flip-top military holster, and a green beret. Adults were catered for not only by Green Beret books but also by a major film, The Green Berets (1968). Children like Kovic and Ehrhart played with Matty Mattel machine guns and grenades and cherished miniature soldiers holding guns, bazookas, and flamethrowers. Every Saturday afternoon, Kovic and his friends would take their plastic battery-generated machine guns, cap pistols, and sticks down to Sally's Wood where they would `set ambushes, then lead gallant attacks, storming over the top, bayoneting and shooting anyone who got in our way'. Afterwards, they would walk out of the woods `like the heroes we knew we would become when we were men'. By 1962, imitation guns were the largest category of toys for boys with American sales exceeding $100 million annually. Thus civilians were provided with their first clumsy introduction to a technology of combat which could be harnessed in the event of war.
When a man was inducted into one of the armed forces, these imaginary structures became more significant. Indeed, the military recognized that it was crucial to foment such fantasies if combat effectiveness was to remain high. They acknowledged that the best combatants were men who were able to visualize killing as pleasurable. Military authorities frequently financed and encouraged the artistic production of combat narratives. The First World War saw the creation of film as a new, `modern' weapon of war. The most important of these films were The Battle of the Somme (1916) and The Battle of the Ancre (1916), which claimed to show men dying and killing in defence of England's green fields, but were in fact created for propaganda purposes by writers and artists gathering secretly at Wellington House. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to see these films in their first week. The propaganda machine was even more central to military regimes during the Second World War. One American example was the popular Why We Fight (1942), a series of seven films ordered by the US Army Chief of Staff and directed by Frank Capra. This series combined footage from newsreels and films captured from the enemy, in combination with narration and animation. Like other films in this genre, it drew rigid distinctions between good and evil and was shown not only to troops but in cinemas throughout America. During the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense produced other troop indoctrination films, including Why Vietnam? (1965), which played on the need to rid Vietnam of the Communists. Again, it was shown not only to troops but also in high schools and colleges. From this point on, the Department of Defense's films substituted a more subtle ethnographic approach for the Second World War's more dramatic Hollywood-style films. Attention shifted to the Vietnamese reliance upon American aid, both medically, educationally, and technologically. In films like The Unique War (1966) and Vietnamese Village Reborn (1967), `ordinary' scenes from Vietnamese villages were presented to viewers. Films aimed at troops about to be posted to Vietnam were more hard-hitting. In Your Tour in Vietnam (1970), the narrator provided his listeners with tough advice and conjured up images of male comradeship, adventure, and the thrill of combat, including the dropping of bombs from `the big B-52s' (the bombs exploded in rhythm with jazz music).
These propaganda films were also part of training regimes. In much the same way as Second World War films such as Batton (1943) and Guadalcanal Diary (1943) are used by the military establishment today, in the period between 1914 and the end of the Vietnam War, combat films were used as much to excite men's imaginations as to reassure them. One recruit who watched The Battle of the Somme just before going into battle told his comrade that seeing the film had made him aware of what they were going to face. `If it were left to the imagination you might think all sorts of silly b-- things,' he admitted. During the Second World War, the film The Battle of Britain (1944) was also said to be effective in making the men who watched it `feel like killing a bunch of those sons-of-bitches'. Opinion polls conducted during the Second World War showed that troops who had watched Why We Fight and the bi-weekly newsreels issued by the War Department were more aggressively pro-war than those who had not seen these films.
Warfare was also reflected through the lens of earlier wars, particularly that of the American frontier. In Britain and Australia (as well as in America), the motif of men envisaging themselves as heroic warriors linked modern warfare with historical conflicts in which it was almost a duty to conquer another race, all for the sake of `civilization'. During the First World War, trench raiders were described as slipping over the parapet with the stealth of Red Indians: `No Sioux or Blackfoot Indian straight from the pages of Fenimore Cooper ever did it more skilfully,' Robert William MacKenna recounted. In the Second World War, the most virile fighters were frequently slotted into mythical stories of cowboys and Indians. Men like Captain Arthur Wermuth (known as the `one-man-army' after having singlehandedly killed more than one hundred Japanese soldiers) identified strongly with the cowhands on his father's range in South Dakota. He insisted on jumping into trenches `with a cowboy yell'. The souvenirs which were collected from enemy corpses were described as being so intimate that they would have `curled the scalplock of Pontiac'. One catalogue of over 600 Vietnam war films provides innumerable examples of the importance of `cowboys and Indians', ranging from Nam Angels (1988) in which the hero wore a cowboy hat and swung a lasso, Montagnards hooted like Indians and bikers charged as though they were on horses not motorbikes, to John Wayne's The Green Berets, released twenty years earlier. This was really a western in disguise, with the Vietcong playing the Indians and the quip `Due process is a bullet' being substituted for `the only good Vietcong is a dead one'. The film Little Big Man (1970) even explicitly linked the genocide of the Indians in the American West with the war in Vietnam.
In the `Indian country' of Vietnam, `The Duke', or John Wayne, was the hero most emulated. Indeed, in July 1971, the Marine Corps League named him the man `who best exemplifie[d] the word "American"'. He had become the most popular actor on television and men like the ace pilot Lieutenant Randy Cunningham (who confessed to enjoying downing North Vietnamese MIGs) was proud that his tactical sign was `Duke', after John Wayne, because (he said) `I respect his American Ideals'. Philip Caputo imagined himself charging up a beachhead, like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), and this led him to join the Marines to fight in Vietnam. More than any other branch of the armed services during the war in Vietnam, the Special Forces modelled themselves after the cinematic heroics of John Wayne, despite the fact that Second World War assault tactics were not appropriate in a guerrilla war. Even women were attracted by this myth: Carol McCutchean, for instance, joined the Women Marines because she was thrilled by John Wayne movies.
Not surprisingly, therefore, combatants interpreted their battleground experiences through the lens of an imaginary camera. Often the real thing did not live up to its representation in the cinema. The twenty-year-old Australian officer Gary McKay was slightly disappointed by the way his victims acted when hit by his bullets: it `wasn't like one normally expected after watching television and war movies. There was no great scream from the wounded but simply a grunt and then an uncontrolled collapse to the ground', he observed morosely. Or, as the fighter pilot Hugh Dundas admitted, his `nasty, sickening' introduction to combat was in stark contrast to the way he had imagined it would be. Others were happier with the match between fictional representation and their own experience: a submarine, for example, could sink just like it would in Hollywood pictures. The explosion of an aeroplane during the war in Korea could make a pilot `so damned excited' because it was `like something you see in the movies'. Nineteen-year-old Geoffry R. Jones experienced combat in Vietnam as an extension of the movies or playing cowboys and Indians as he had done only a few years before. The pilot of a spotter plane in Vietnam who accurately directed artillery fire `yipp[ed] like a cowboy' every time they hit the enemy.
Killing itself was likened to film-making. In one instance during the First World War, a Royal Fusilier ordered machine gunners entrenched in a farm house to `cinematograph the grey devils' and to pretend that it was Coronation Day by `tak[ing] as many pictures as possible'. He continued:
The picture witnessed from the farm on the `living screen' by the canal bridge was one that will not easily be forgotten. The `grey devils' dropped down in hundreds. Again and again they came on only to get more machine murder.
In 1918, one sergeant quoted in the magazine The Stars and Stripes said that battle was `like a movie' with the infantry making a `serene, unchecked advance ... their ranks unbroken, their jaunty trot unslackened'. `A movie man would have died of joy at the opportunity,' another sergeant exclaimed. An unnamed Canadian informant during the Second World War agreed. He described training his machine gun on thirty Germans aboard a submarine as `like one of those movies when you see troops coming at the camera and just before they meet it, hit it, you see them going off to the left and right, left and right'. In Nam. The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There (1982), an eighteen-year-old radioman confessed that he
loved to just sit in the ditch and watch people die. As bad as that 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.
Or, as Philip Caputo put it, killing Viet Cong was enjoyable because it was like watching a movie: `One part of me was doing something while the other part watched from a distance.' Instead of focusing on mangled corpses, soldiers who could imagine themselves as movie heroes felt themselves to be effective warriors. Such forms of disassociation were psychologically useful. By imagining themselves as participating in a fantasy, men could find a language which avoided facing the unspeakable horror not only of dying but of meting out death.
As already implied in many of the quotations, films created, as well as represented, combat performance. So powerful were cinematic images of battle that soldiers acted as though they were on the screen. During the Second World War, William Manchester was stunned by the way soldiers in the Pacific imitated Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Errol Flynn, Victor McLagle, John Wayne and Gary Cooper. During the Vietnam War, the journalist Michael Herr commented on the performance of `grunts' when they knew that there was a camera crew nearby: `they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and-glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the network ... doing numbers for the cameras'. Even in Grenada in 1983, American soldiers charged into battle playing Wagner, in imitation of Robert Duvall, the brigade commander in Apocalypse Now (1979).
Of course, such antics often had a short life. Josh Cruze, who joined the Marines at the age of seventeen and served in Vietnam, had this to say:
The John Wayne flicks. We were invincible. So when we were taken into ... war, everyone went in with the attitude, `Hey, we're going to wipe them out. Nothing's going to happen to us.' Until they saw the realities and they couldn't deal with it. `This isn't supposed to happen. It isn't in the script. What's going on? This guy's really bleeding all over me, and he's screaming his head off.'
Even worse, such fantasies could get a man killed. The combat engineer Harold `Light Bulb' Bryant remembered a man with the nickname of Okie who had the `John Wayne Syndrome'. He was itching to get into action. During his first battle, their unit was pinned down by machine guns and Okie `tried to do the John Wayne thing'. He attempted to charge the machine gun and was immediately mowed down. Films, then, provided both pleasurable, and deathly, scripts.
In training camps, miles from the frontlines, men wondered `how much resemblance there would be between the imagination and reality, between war as [we] rehearsed it day after day on the Sussex downs ... and the real war of the trenches'. Inexperienced infantrymen swapped thoughts about what it would feel like to `run a man through with a bayonet' and swore (as did one Texan during the First World War) that they were so keen for intimate struggle that they were willing to go over the top with a penknife. Like Alfred E. Bland on 30 January 1916, soldiers wrote long letters to their families describing this yearning for battle, enthusing about the `change about to come -- real business with real Germans in front of us. Oh! I do hope I shall visibly kill a few.' When asked why they joined the corps, they would simply write: `To Kill'. Airmen interviewed by Roy R. Grinker and John P. Spiegel in Men Under Stress (1945) also expressed `eager-beaver' reactions prior to going overseas. They were so wrought up that men who were prevented at the last moment from embarking burst into tears. Such keenness betrayed a blinkered view of reality. `The men seldom have any real, concrete notions of what combat is like,' Grinker and Spiegel continued,
[t]heir minds are full of romanticized, Hollywood versions of their future activity in combat, colored with vague ideas of being a hero and winning ribbons and decorations.
If they were told more realistic stories about what to expect `they would not believe them'. Emotions ran so high that even when not in battle, pilots acted as though they were constantly engaged in the clash of arms. Every time they `took the air', fighter pilots were `'symbolically going into action with the enemy'. Consequently, they flew wildly, executing tight turns as they approached the runway, and did aerobatics too close to the ground. This was (according to one observer) `seldom deliberate exhibitionism'. More to the point, they were simply demonstrating to themselves their `capacities as fighting men'. Actual aerial combat was often `a cruel awakening'.
Immediately prior to the first `kill', more poignant musings might be substituted for such fantastical skylarking. Richard Hillary, the famous Second World War pilot mentioned later, recalled the `empty feeling of suspense' in the pit of his stomach when he climbed into the cockpit of his plane for the first time in a `real' combat situation. `For one second', he recounted,
time seemed to stand still and I stared blankly in front of me. I knew that that morning I was to kill for the first time ... I wondered idly what he was like, this man I would kill. Was he young, was he fat, would he die with the Fuehrer's name on his lips, or would he die alone, in that last moment conscious of himself as a man?
Neither Hillary nor any other combatant would ever discover the answer to these questions: but combat itself would provide them with an opportunity for infusing such daydreams with a new, more frenzied passion.
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. Generals were praised if they managed to maintain a spirit of the `joy of slaughter' in their troops, even if it meant arming night patrollers with spiked clubs to intimidate and bash the Huns. In the words of 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 that he had yelled aloud `with delight' and `could have wept with joy'. `What' (he asked) were `the satisfactions of scientific research, of a successful public activity, of authority, of love, compared with this ecstatic minute?'
More than fifty years later, in the Vietnam conflict, combat soldiers confessed to similarly exhilarating emotions. Like William Broyles, Philip Caputo admitted that he never told the truth when people asked him how he felt going into combat because the truth would have labelled him a `war-lover'. For Caputo, going into battle made him feel `happier than [he] ever had'. Similarly, although the twenty-year-old Australian officer Gary McKay had killed lots of Vietnamese, he clearly recalled the sensation of actually seeing his bullets hit a man. For him, the `terrible power of effect of the weapon when it hit the target' overwhelmed him with `awe'. When another soldier in Vietnam went berserk and massacred many of the enemy, he remembered feeling suffused with joy: `I felt like a god, this power flowing through me ... I was untouchable.' James Hebron, a scout-sniper in the Marines, also described the incredible sense of power he felt in combat:
That sense of power, of looking down the barrel of a rifle at somebody and saying, `Wow, I can drill this guy.' Doing it is something else too. You don't necessarily feel bad; you feel proud, especially if it's one on one, he has a chance. It's the throw of the hat. It's the thrill of the hunt.
Killing was intrinsically `glamorous'. It was like `getting screwed the first time' and gave men `an ache as profound as the ache of orgasm'. In the words of a black Muslim Marine, `I enjoyed the shooting and the killing. I was literally turned on when I saw a gook get shot.'
Semi-autobiographical accounts tell a similar tale. For example, in one place in James Jones's The Thin Red Line (1962), Doll had just butchered his first Japanese. This `kill' pleased him, in part because he felt proud at accurately shooting `dirty little yellow Jap bastards'. It was, he believed, like `getting screwed the first time'. More interestingly, however, Doll's pleasure resided in his guilt. He had committed the most horrendous crime -- worse, he believed, than rape -- but that was where the heartfelt allure of killing resided. It made him feel immune from any outside power. Nobody was going to persecute him for this action. He had -- literally -- `gotten by with murder', and the thought filled him with an urge to giggle: he felt so `stupid and cruel and mean and vastly superior'. People could take an immense delight in breaking the highest moral law.
As we shall see in Chapter 2, airmen were particularly liable to be enraptured by homicidal violence. In Winged Warfare. Hunting Huns in the Air (1918), Major William Avery Bishop thought it `great fun' to train his machine gun on Germans because he `loved' to watch them running away `like so many rats'. Even a pilot's mechanic might take some of the reflected glory, bragging how `his' pilot had `got a Hun' while another mechanic's pilot had not. During the Second World War, `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. After a kill, pilots admitted that they `all felt much better' and there would be `a good deal of smacking on the back and screaming of delight'. Although the sight of mutilated and dead Germans staining the rear cockpit of their planes might be described as `sad and beastly', airmen admitted that they had felt `elated then'. The sense of power in the air could be exhilarating, attested a fighter pilot known as `Durex'. With great earnestness, he enthused:
I opened fire, the bullets roared out over the noise of the engine. They don't rattle like an ordinary Army Vickers gun. No, sir! When the 8 Brownings open fire -- what a thrill! The smoke whips back into the cockpit and sends a thrill running down your spine.
|List of Illustrations||vii|
|List of Abbreviations||xi|
|1 The Pleasures of War||1|
|2 The Warrior Myth||32|
|3 Training Men to Kill||57|
|4 Anatomy of a Hero||91|
|5 Love and Hate||127|
|6 War Crimes||159|
|7 The Burden of Guilt||203|
|8 Medics and the Military||230|
|9 Priests and Padres||256|
|10 Women Go to War||294|
|11 Return to Civilian Life||335|