20 June 2005

Bloodlust, says historian Joanna Bourke, is a civilized affair.

By Jeff Sharlet

(Originally published as “Revealing the Intimacy of the Most Gruesome Part of War” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 22, 1999).

To start with, Joanna Bourke has never killed anyone. She has never even fired a gun, much less thrust a bayonet through muscle and bone. So if, in seeking to understand what she has done and why she has done it, you ask, “How can she know what it feels like to kill?” — and everybody asks — think of your own most violent fantasies, of the similarities between you and a terrified soldier on the frontline. But soldiers are no more bloodthirsty brutes than you are, insists Ms. Bourke. In fact, they are not brutes at all, she says; bloodlust is a civilized affair.

What Ms. Bourke, a historian at Birkbeck College here, has done is write a book called An Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in 20th Century Warfare (Basic Books). “You can tell a true war story by its uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil,” wrote the Vietnam War novelist Tim O’Brien. Ms. Bourke’s book is filled with the former, and if it is not loyal to the latter, it at least pays evil its due in a chapter of moral grappling with the massacre at My Lai.

“Had I been there,” says Ms. Bourke, “the best I could hope for is that I would have merely fired into the ground. Knowing what I know now about people in combat, I think it’s too optimistic to believe that I would have resisted.”

What the book, released in Britain six months ago, has done is make Ms. Bourke momentarily famous, the subject of more than 150 interviews around the world, and the host of two eec radio series herself. Her agent has just sold television rights to the book, and Ms. Bourke has redecorated her Bloomsbury flat with the advance for the American edition. Her three previous books, none of which earned more than a few thousand dollars, sit quietly on their shelves, but An Intimate History of Killing has legs. “It’s running away from me, in fact,” says Ms. Bourke, and it is making friends-and enemies-for her in circles she scarcely dreamed of when she wrote it. “It was just supposed to be for a few historians.”

Most military historians, whom she charges with ignoring the central act of war — killing — revile her. “If this is the new history, God help us,” declared Antony Beevor, Britain’s most popular scholar of war, in the London Daily Telegraph.

And while many individual veterans have thanked Ms. Bourke by letter and over the air for arguing that soldiers are not only pawns of war but also protagonists, moral agents themselves, British veterans’ associations have denounced her for her other contentions: that many soldiers experience pleasure, as much as trauma, from killing; that soldiers go to great ends to “see” their enemies even when killing at long range; that atrocities are not the acts of monsters but of ordinary men; that guilt does not so much wash a killer clean as enable him to kill again.

“How,” they ask again and again, “can she know what it feels like to kill?”

Ms. Bourke has based her book not on any experience of her own, but on the stories of British, American, and Australian soldiers in World Wars I and II and Vietnam. An Intimate History draws on their letters to sweethearts and the diaries they wrote for themselves. It is the story not of what they did, but of the stories they told when they did it.

“The book is not about the truth,” says Ms. Bourke, who believes that the only “incontrovertible ‘truth’ “of war is “that of the man in his final death agony.” Instead, her book takes as its concern “the way people use language, use stories, to make life bearable. Those who can’t are those who break down. It’s only by telling stories that we can have wars.”

It is unclear at first whether Ms. Bourke is a convert to warmongering or a strange sort of peace activist; whether she is defending the bloodiness of war or indicting the killer inside us all. “I began to research to find out what makes men at war different from me, my friends, my loved ones,” she says. “Halfway through, I had to think again. When I’d seen these killers as aberrant, I was absolutely wrong.”

The source of her confusion was not a pacifist grammar of love and sunshine, but rather the hoary stories told by old soldiers and their admirers. That is to say, military history. “Accounts of the ‘experience’ of war,” she writes, “prefer to stress the satisfaction of male bonding, the discomforts of the frontlines, and the unspeakable terror of dying. Readers of military history books might be excused for believing that combatants found in war zones were really there to be killed, rather than to kill,”

That’s a mistake Ms. Bourke admits making herself. Her new book has its origins in her previous one, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain, and the Great War (University of Chicago Press, 1996). It was about, among other things, how soldiers die — “which is only half the story,” she says now. To write that book, she scoured archives for soldiers’ letters and diaries, searching for evidence about the way men thought of their physical selves, either intact or maimed by war. “I skipped over the combat bits,” she says, but sometimes soldiers’ tales from the front could not be avoided, or easily stomached. What she encountered was not the stuff of military history, but accounts of killing accompanied by claims of pleasure derived from the act.

Sometimes sexual, as for a soldier who compared killing to “getting screwed the first time.” Sometimes religious, as for a soldier who called it “joy unspeakable.” Sometimes even romantic, as for a soldier who wrote a sweetheart, “every one I gets under the ribs I thinks of you mi dear.”

As she realized that such sentiments were the rule rather than the exception, her brief against the worst of killers was transformed: It became a study of how society makes killing commendable. And Ms. Bourke, the one-time pacifist, became an expert in the art of war.

Although she likes to joke about a theory regarding the savagery of redheads that was once popular among military men, Ms. Bourke’s wispy crimson hair makes her look anything but hotheaded. She is a small woman, given to grinning, whose pink lipstick matches her pink blouse; both are a rebellion against her mother’s strict rules on blending pink and orange, for her arms and hands are covered with freckles. It is her hands, Ms. Bourke tells me, that have kept her off television. She simply cannot keep them still, and she is loath to look like a madwoman.

At 35, Ms. Bourke is the youngest full professor in Britain, and one of only three women to hold such a position in the field of history. Her background is unbellicose: born in New Zealand, whisked away to a lepers’ colony in Zambia, and raised in Haiti, she is the child of Christian medical missionaries, who left it to her and her siblings to educate themselves. More Swiss Family Robinson than Lord of the Flies, her childhood included hardly a rumor of war. No war movies, no war novels-an unblemished record that she maintained right up to the beginning of her research for Dismembering the Male.

Even now, she considers viewing films like Saving Private Ryan an unpleasant professional obligation, and she has no interest in being known as a military historian. “What an awful thing to be,” she says, shuddering, when we meet for lunch near her home.

The first and last military-history seminar she attended was led by a man who interrupted ‘a paper discussing Dismembering the Male with the declaration that “This is a gender-free zone!” The all-male audiences responded “Hear, hear!” and, according to Ms. Bourke, devoted a fair share of the Q-and-A session to “jokes about women’s knickers.”

Ms. Bourke has found allies elsewhere. An Intimate History‘s jacket is studded with rapturous words from across the disciplines –“masterpiece,” “tour de force,” “terrifying” — and her personal list of mentors and influences would read like a heavyweight who’s who of history. Even Lieut. Col. Dave Grossman, a self-described “killologist” and author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Little, Brown, 1995), a book that has been adopted in military academies across the United States, credits Ms. Bourke with bravely taking up a “taboo subject” — though her conclusions are nearly the opposite of his, which include the belief that the best way to kill is without emotion.

“It’s a nice little piece of work,” he says from his home in Jonesboro, Ark., where he is director of a consulting firm called the Killology Research Group. But he wonders if Ms. Bourke hasn’t been too judgmental in her approach. “There’s not a whole lot written on this subject, so I’m concerned that she didn’t cite Richard Holmes [author of Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle (Free Press, 1985)], John Keegan [The Face of Battle (Viking, 1976)], or, not to be immodest, me. If she’d consulted us, she could have stood on the shoulders of, if not giants, at least solid research. Instead, Joanna has essentially gone off half-cocked.”

Other critics have been less kind. While vacationing in Florence last summer, Ms. Bourke struck up a conversation with the couple beside her in a restaurant. When the man learned about her book, he turned purple “as an eggplant,” she recalls. He was in ‘Nam, he wanted her to know, and ” `How dare a bloody woman write about what killing felt like?’ ” By the time he stood up and began pounding the table, she wished she hadn’t.

But Ms. Bourke’s book is hardly an attack on fighting men. The pleasure that so many soldiers express when writing about killing seems less barbaric, she argues, when considered as part of a dialectic with fear.

“The two in many instances rely on each other,” she says. “When fear becomes so strong, and you finally get to see the enemy, the man firing a rifle is at last in an exalted state-precisely because of his fear.” Should he describe that exaltation as ” `an ache as profound as orgasm,’ ” she adds, he is likely as not simply using the most intense words he has.

As common in soldiers’ accounts as sex talk — and often intertwined — are boasts about bayonets. In practice, bayonet wounds account for less than one per cent of wartime casualties in this century. But the bayonet balances on its edge all the emotions of war.

“Such a dominant narrative,” even for men far from the front, says Ms. Bourke. “The only way, say, an artillery officer could describe killing someone was by making it into a bayonet killing.” Otherwise, she argues, the anonymity of long-distance killing would provide nothing to say. The bayonet offers not only a means to explain the enormity of killing, but also, in the words of one Vietnam soldier, a charm “to ward off fear.” Military psychology, contends Ms. Bourke, has sought to displace the need for such magic with training regimes that make killing an automatic action, freed of love or hate. But judging from accounts of men in war, she says, soldiers almost always resort to the metaphorical intimacy of the blade.

“What it comes down to is that people in the field are enabled to kill by this notion that what they’re doing is honorable, and that whom they’re killing is honorable, is human, has a wife, has children. It is precisely those emotions of love, of empathy, which differentiate combatants from noncombatants.” As one World War I soldier observed, “one loves one’s fellow man so much more when he is bent on killing him.”

Or writing about him. “I actually grew to like these people as I wrote this book,” says Ms. Bourke. “You can’t read someone’s love letter, which has a couple of paragraphs on the joy of killing, then signs off saying, `Please kiss Sissy for me, I miss you so much, I’m looking at the stars, I always imagine what you’re doing’ — very sweet things — you can’t read that and not like these people. Or the last letter home. They’re going over the top in an hour’s time, and they scrawl a love letter to their wife. Many times the next letter in their file is the letter informing their wife or the mother of their death. I bawled my eyes out in many archives. I don’t know until I get to the end every time whether I’m reading the letters of a man who’s lived or died. You — I — begin to develop with them. You start off at home, and you’re bellicose, you want to get out there and jab the Hun. Then military training, and you get even more aggressive. And then all of a sudden, you get these soldiers changing, developing, beginning to love the enemy as well as hate the enemy, and you get trauma as well as pleasure.”

Cutting out tongues, making necklaces of ears, digging in a corpse’s mouth for teeth or leaving your insignia on his lips, says Ms. Bourke, the most gruesome of acts are as much about preventing brutalization as they are instances of it. “Longd-distance warfare –the war we fight in the modern era — is anonymous. But that doesn’t mean you don’t necessarily ‘see’ your enemy. You go out of your way to view the body, or to take a souvenir from the body, to pretend that every time you kill someone it’s with a bayonet.

“You do these things,” she says, “to justify what you’ve done.”

The question of justification concerns Ms. Bourke on more than a scholarly level. On the second day of our interview, sitting in a tea shop which for some reason is playing martial marches, I ask if she thinks that military academies will adopt her book, as they have Colonel Grossman’sOn Killing.

“As what?” she asks, taken aback.

“As a sort of training manual,” I say. “How to make soldiers kill.”

Her eyes go wide. Until now, we have been talking in the language of academe, polite and restrained. Apparently we have just leaped off the ivory tower. “The possibility must have occurred to you,” I say.

Eyebrows raised and hands at last flat on the table, Ms. Bourke says: “I would be appalled.”

“Of course,” I say quickly. “But as scholarship, the book details which training regimes work and which don’t, where military psychology has gone wrong and where it’s proven effective, how guilt helps men kill rather than stops them, that men who commit war crimes are no different from others, and even that women and priests are just as bloodthirsty as anyone else. Wouldn’t any good officer want to read it? Wouldn’t hawks like to give it to their antiwar friends?”

“I do try to give it a happy ending,” Ms. Bourke says.

It’s my turn to raise eyebrows. I pick up the book, which is sitting between us, and flip to the end. Before I can read the last lines aloud — “warfare was as much about the business of sacrificing others as it was about being sacrificed. For many men and women, this was what made it ‘a lovely war'” — Ms. Bourke amends her statement.

“At least, I’d like to believe that I’ve offered some hope,” she says.

“For what?” I ask. “If the book is about the purposes war stories serve, what does this war story do?”

“What does it do?” she says. “It’s a depressing story. Here are people whom I liked in the end — if I exclude Lieutenant Calley and his mates at My Lai — and grew to respect, to admire their resilience. And that’s as far as I can go. It is a dismal picture of humankind. But even in the most dismal parts, there are good sides to these men. There is even hope. Hope in that they act, they make choices, they feel guilt, they wish they had done something else. There’s hope in that they try to defend their actions. In that process of making sense, making stories of the unbelievably horrific, I do find just a little grain of hone.”

“Hope in the fact that killing can be made into a story?”

“Yes,” Ms. Bourke pauses. “Because these stories don’t end. They are constantly retold, the pattern is handed on. A lot of the stories soldiers tell are ones they want to lead to less killing. Look. This isn’t moral history, it’s morally engaged history.” She leans forward. “The text is uncertain,” she says. “The author is uncertain.” Ms. Bourke has a habit of sometimes looking surprised, even at odds, with her own words. This is one of those times. “Oh,” she groans, “my reputation is going to go down the tubes! Joanna Bourke, missionary of killing.”

The next day, we meet at a bar. Ms. Bourke is jittery; she has just come from a BBC studio, where she stepped on a live wire and got a powerful jolt. She drinks two glasses of wine and declares, “I don’t actually like this stuff.” War, that is, not wine. “I didn’t seek this out. It found me.”

Ms. Bourke is as fond of Tim O’Brien as she is of any war novelist, which is to say that she can hardly bear him. But his writing rings true to her. “In his books,” she says, “I can hear my men.”

In a story called “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien writes, “in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war.” The tale he has just told, about a man blown up in Vietnam, he explains, was in fact a love story.

Here is Ms. Bourke’s story: “One of the main problems in bayoneting a human being,” she says, pushing her drink aside, “is you can’t get the bayonet out.” She mimes stabbing a foe; then she releases her imaginary rifle and wraps her hand around the embedded blade. “As soon as you stick the person, the bones and muscle clamp around the bayonet. The only way to get it out is to fire, which means you wreck the bayonet, so you don’t want to do that. It’s important then, when you’re bayoneting” — her hands return to the handle — “to twist.” She wrenches the blade free, her eyes triumphant. “Which,” she says, “is a rather intimate thing to do.”