Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Killing can be Fun

There is an extremely interesting article on the pleasure of warfare
in an old edition of the Guardian.

Wednesday May 26, 1999
The Guardian

How many did you enjoy killing in the war, grandad?

The day I killed an enemy soldier, by Falklands veteran Ken Lukowiak :
'Gorgeously satisfying', 'the happiest moment of my life', 'like the
best sex ever'. A controversial new book claims that, far from hating
war, soldiers thrive on the thrill of dispatching the enemy. Peter
Kingston reports

Since the end of conscription, the British army has tried a variety of
tricks to lure young men and women to take the queen's fivepence. See
the world, get yourself a trade, drive vehicles with big wheels, do
exciting outdoor stuff with ropes . . . Lately, army advertising
campaigns have developed along more humanitarian lines. On guard duty
in a convoy, the truck full of refugees in front of you hits a
landmine. How will you get over to them to help? Or your squad is
stuck in a snowstorm for the night, and you only have one blanket. Who
will you give it to?

What the recruitment ads don't emphasise is that, however much the
role of the military may have changed, armies go to war and soldiers
kill people. And whereas a fast-jet pilot or sailor can have
long-range contact with the enemy, the soldier must be ready to fight
hand to hand, eyeball to eyeball.

Combat is terrible work, certainly. Horrific, dehumanising, one would
think, and that is perhaps why the recruitment ads avoid it. But an
extraordinary new book, collating the correspondence of hundreds of
ordinary soldiers from the 20th-century's greatest wars, purports to
have proved the opposite. An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face
Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare rips the subject open. The
unspoken truth about this legalised, state-sanctioned taking of lives,
the book says, is that many soldiers have found it thrilling and
highly pleasurable.

As its author, Dr Joanna Bourke, expected, the book has already
attracted fierce criticism from some reviewers, notably Anthony
Beevor, author of Stalingrad. And although she is getting support from
individual old soldiers, veterans' associations have reacted with

Bourke is an apparently unlikely stirrer of the stuffy world of
military history. In her cramped office at Birkbeck College, she wears
a chic trouser suit and platform heels. Despite the lever arch box
file next to her foot labelled "bayonets, snipers, atrocities", she is
not a military historian, she says, but a cultural historian of the
military: one of her earlier books was an economic history of
housework in Ireland.

She began digging into military matters with her last book,
Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain and the Great War, which
examines the different compensation rates paid to men who lost bodily
bits in world war one: so much for an arm, so much for a leg, so much
for the genitalia. While searching the voluminous collections of
letters and diaries held by the Imperial War Museum, she was surprised
to read recurrent accounts by soldiers of their intense enjoyment of

Time and again, in the hundreds of letters written to loved ones back
home by frontline troops in both world wars and in Vietnam, Bourke
read an unequivocal message. For sheer excitement, the writers
confessed, there is little to beat ramming your bayonet into another
man's body.

"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," wrote an officer commanding a trench
mortar in world war one. "I had to confess to myself that it was one
of the happiest moments of my life."

Another soldier admitted that the first time he stuck a German with a
bayonet was "gorgeously satisfying". From Vietnam, a soldier wrote of
the "sense of power, of looking down the barrel of a rifle at somebody
and saying, 'Wow, I can drill this guy'."

The willingness to confess to this ecstasy of killing in letters to
mothers, wives and girlfriends invariably vanished by the time
soldiers returned home, says Bourke. "How many did you kill in the
war, dad?" rarely got a ready answer, the earlier confessional
eagerness having been replaced in some cases by shame.

Many of the histories of modern warfare have focused on the terror,
squalor, deprivation and hardship, despite overwhelming evidence
(Bourke says it is "as good as it gets" in her subject) that men
derived pleasure from it.

Few sources are richer for historians than military archives. Bourke
has picked diaries and letters by 300 men from each war, a "fabulous
sample", she enthuses. "It's really difficult to get letters and
diaries from the past from outside the upper middle classes. The only
time working class people wrote letters was in war."

If the thrill factor is so obvious, why hasn't it been publicised
before, let alone been written about by academics? There are many
reasons, she says. "Clearly we don't want to encourage war. It's
actually disturbing for us to acknowledge that ordinary people have
this ability to get pleasure from acts of extreme violence against
fellow human beings.

"There's also this notion that somehow it does discredit to the
combatants that they get pleasure. It puts a question mark over our
motives for war and killing."

Bourke knows she is raking a hornets' nest. Members of veterans'
associations have stood up to denounce her thesis at pre-publication
lectures and talks. She spent Easter at the Australian Defence Force
Academy in Canberra, talking about her work. "I got the clear message
that they'd rather I wasn't saying these things." But from the handful
of letters she has so far received from individual ex-servicemen who
have got to hear about her work comes confirmation and support for
what she is saying. One of her postcards, from a former army captain
who fought in the Korean war, said her research had got it just right:
he recalled how "super" it was to wipe out the enemy, and added: "Big
masturbations afterwards!"

An Intimate History of Killing has already won one award - the
Fraenkel Prize in contemporary history - but the verdicts of several
military historians have been less glowing. Anthony Beevor suggests
Bourke's thesis was shaped to fit "a pretty extreme feminist agenda".
Her analysis is ultimately inadequate, he argues, because it fails to
take into account the effect of the most powerful of wartime
instincts - fear. "Most wars have shown that it is self-preservation
and the suppression of fear that create the biggest explosions of
violence. [Bourke's] book is a polemic, not an objective work of

So why stir up such dark forces? What benefits can come from sending
up flares to light up issues that people have instinctively avoided
during peace time normality?

"It is a taboo," says Bourke. "It's not pleasant to think about and it
was surprising for me when I came across it.

"But I do think there is a value in bringing it out into the open.
Firstly, being a historian, I think there's a value in trying to
understand what happened in the past and how people responded to major

She also wanted to redress some of the attitudes fostered in conflict.
"I find it frankly disturbing that we do talk about how they killed
us, the nasty Huns, and this notion that we were there to be killed,
not to kill."

She believes that civilians on the home front often showed more
bloodthirsty feelings about the enemy than did the men in the
frontline, who tended to be quite sympathetic to soldiers in a similar
predicament to themselves. Her chapter on women at war shows they
could be equally eager to kill the enemy, particularly in
anti-aircraft gunnery.

Even darker is the evidence of British and American atrocities. "We
committed lots and lots of atrocities in both world wars," says
Bourke, "particularly in the killing of prisoners." And rape, too,
though this is harder to document. In letters and diaries from both
world wars men talk of comrades committing rape, always in terms of
disapproval. In Vietnam, some GIs admitted committing rape themselves.
Everyone else was doing it and they risked being ostracised if they
didn't follow.

The Vietnam accounts were again invariably disapproving of rape. Some
men blamed the enemy for brutalising them. They described the act in
violent terms, never orgasmic, unlike killing.

In trying to describe the intense thrill of killing, men in world war
two and Vietnam often resorted to sexual metaphor. "It was like the
best sex ever", or "I had a hard on" were common variations on a

Bourke is wary of reading too much into the comparisons between sex
and killing. "So many men say it that it must be the case that they
got a sexual thrill, but we must be cautious," she says. "These are
people trying to convey a very powerful experience and there are
inadequate terms for doing it. One way of describing it to a wife or a
girlfriend is to sexualise it."

"I went into this much more judgemental than I've come out," says
Bourke. "I went in thinking I was dealing with an aberrant group of
people somehow different from me and my friends and that's patently
not the case.

"To see war and see ourselves in war as we really are - pretty nasty
creatures - is a good thing."

The day I killed an enemy soldier,
by Falklands veteran Ken Lukowiak

Naive, I know, but when I joined the army in 1979, I didn't believe
for one minute that I'd actually end up in a war, never mind find
myself in a situation where I had to kill someone.

It was June 14 1982, a gloriously crisp blue-skied morning, and we
were on Wireless Ridge. For the first time we held high ground above
Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, and in the distance we could
see Argentines retreating. Over the radio a ceasefire came through and
the order was given to make safe our weapons and only to use them
again in self-defence. It was over.

Shortly after this good news a comrade and I walked through a
now-defeated Argentine defensive position. Despite the various twisted
and mutilated corpses that littered the ground we were happy. It was
over and we were still walking and talking.

We came upon a trench which was covered at the bottom with a dirty
green blanket. It moved and we both jumped back and re-cocked our
weapons. From under the blanket appeared an Argentine sergeant, who,
judging by his yawn and the fact he hadn't noticed us yet, had just
woken. When he did see us he put his hands up and we gestured for him
to climb from the trench. Once out, he was searched and then led away
to a prisoner holding area by my friend. Having nothing better to do,
I carried on searching the rest of the position. I approached another
trench from the side. Crouched in it was a figure dressed in
grey, shouldering a rifle. I saw him. He saw me. And without a thought
I moved the first finger on my right hand. Bullets left the end of my
machine gun. They impacted into his chest and threw him back against
the side of his trench. He slid to the ground. His soul left him.

Before I could even begin to think about what had just occurred, I
sensed movement to my right. Across the plateau, scurrying between the
rocks and heading my way were three fellow paras. In a fraction of a
second I became concerned for my own safety and quickly shouted: "It's
all right, it's all right. I'm 2 Para, one of them was still alive, he
had a gun."

When I came down off the plateau and rejoined the rest of my comrades
I, and I don't know why, told no one of the life I had just taken on
Wireless Ridge. Eight years passed before I talked about it.

Since those days I have dreamed of the war many times and even been
pulled from my sleep sweating and breathless and in a panic. Yet I
have never once given myself a bad time over the man I killed on
Wireless Ridge. If I had not killed him he may have killed me.

© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999

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