7 July 1916. On this day, Arthur Hubbard painfully
set pen to paper in an attempt to explain to his mother why he was
no longer in France. He had been taken from the battlefields and
deposited in the East Suffolk and Ipswich Hospital suffering from
"shell shock". In his words, his breakdown was related
to witnessing "a terrible sight that I shall never forget as
long as I live". He told his mother that
"we had strict orders not to take prisoners,
no matter if wounded my first job was when I had finished cutting
some of their wire away, to empty my magazine on 3 Germans that
came out of one of their deep dugouts. bleeding badly, and put
them out of misery. They cried for mercy, but I had my orders,
they had no feeling whatever for us poor chaps.... it makes
my head jump to think about it."
In this halting, graphic account, there was little
to differentiate Arthur Hubbard's letters to his family from those
written by hundreds of other privates around the time of the Battle
of the Somme. His active military career had lasted just three months,
between May and July 1916. In his early letters, he was cheery and
reassuring: "I am with the best of fellows", he chirped,
and "we shall all return back safely together and before this
year is through". However, as he moved closer to the front,
and to battle, the tone of his letters began changing. Rain, mud,
lice, rats, and "very tedious work" frustrated him. A
friend he had been with since the beginning of the war (Isaacs)
started to look like "an old man.... it is a pity he gets so
nervous." Arthur began speaking of life at the front as "a
proper hell... one cannot imagine unless one was here to witness
things" and a new and bitter edge crept into his letters as
he imagined his family
"sitting around the table about 8.30
enjoying a good breakfast and me miles away in this miserable
place which is being and has been blown to hell by the Huns."
He was not the only man trembling under the strain:
a few days before the Battle, he described going to the aid of a
man who had shot himself in the foot in order to avoid the anticipated
slaughter. He admitted to feeling "miserable" but confessed
to his sisters that
"I don't feel inclined to tell you a
pack of lies, if the truth was told a bit more often, I don't
suppose the war would be on now, when you land over here, they
have got you tight and treat you as they think."
Two days later, Hubbard went over the top. While
he managed to fight as far as the fourth line of trenches, by 3.30
that afternoon practically his whole battalion had been wiped out
by German artillery. He was buried, dug himself out, and during
the subsequent retreat was almost killed by machine gun fire. Within
this landscape of horror, he started screaming and was taken away.
The first letter I quoted is the only explanation
Hubbard gave for why he suffered. Clearly, being buried alive and
witnessing the mass slaughter of his friends (including Isaacs)
contributed to his breakdown, but his own guilt-ridden aggressiveness
in slaughter was given its due weight in his account. For his anxious
family, the sudden shift in the way he described the enemy must
also have been poignant. Whereas in his previous correspondence,
he spoke only of "Huns", when describing face-to-face
killing, the three prisoners pleading for their lives became (for
the first and only time) "Germans".
We know nothing about what happened to Arthur
Hubbard, but most likely he was given the "good news"
that he would not be returning to the front. The last letter on
record announced his itinerary for returning home: he planned to
arrive at Vauxhill at four o'clock, catch the tram outside, and
change at Streatham Library. Destination: 159 Links Road, Mitcham
Lane, Streatham Vale, London.
* * *
For historians, as for men like Private Arthur
Hubbard, the urgency of military combat calls forth some of our
most frightening narratives: their letters home, their diaries,
and our history books are saturated with bloody images of torn,
putrid flesh. Within this gory articulation of the experience of
war, there are two stories -- both fundamental to battle and both
passionately narrated by combat soldiers -- which historians in
particular shield away from. The first is this: we know so much
about how men died for their country, and barely anything
about how they killed for it. One of the aims of my current
research (of which this paper is a small part) is to put killing
back into modern military history. The second feature which we scarcely
dare to mention involves acknowledging that although the act of
killing another person in warfare may invoke a wave of nauseous
distress, it only rarely resulted in emotional or nervous collapse
or long-term "brutalisation". How can this be? How did
men -- particularly conscripted men -- cope with the demands made
upon them to kill another man in battle? More specifically, how
did they experience killing another human being when that person
had a distinctive face and physique?
Of course, it has to be noted from the start that
face-to-face killing was extremely rare in the three conflicts examined
in this paper (that is, the two "world" wars and the Vietnam
War; for men in the forces in Britain, America, and Australia).
It is impossible to deny that most of these soldiers did not see
the men they were annihilating. By the end of the Second World War,
the ratio of soldiers to space was 1 man per 28,000 square metres
(compared with 1:260 meters in the American Civil War).
The indirect character of weapons such as shrapnel, bombs, and gas
meant that while dying was regularly viewed, killing was not. Despite
out media-driven image, during the First World War, less than one-half
of one per cent of wounds were inflicted by the bayonet.
What is striking, therefore, in reading the diaries and letters
of combatants is their insistence upon visualising their enemy;
of personifying their foe. It is this process of linking the destructive
acts of ones' right hand with individual dead men which is
the focus of this paper.
How did men respond to killing? Where is
individual guilt in modern military history? At the end of
the slaughter, public pleas for national atonement were commonplace
while the search for personal forgiveness had to be carried out
in dank chapels and darkened bedrooms. Military spokesmen have been
outspoken in denying the issue of responsibility and guilt. Except
in the case of "atrocities", Tommy Atkins (they pledged)
shared no responsibility for killing if he was obeying a legitimate
order. When guilt was acknowledged,
little weight was given to killing as the precipitating
factor. Indeed, it is true that most soldiers who collapsed never
killed anyone. During the First World War, less than one-fifth of
neurotic British soldiers had ever been anywhere near the
front lines. In the Second
World War, eighty-nine per cent of American soldiers discharged
from the services on the grounds that they were psychologically
"ineffective" had not seen combat.
Furthermore, amongst those psychiatric casualties who had
seen battle, it was fear of dying rather than guilt over
(or fear of) killing which led to the crisis.
Indeed, psychiatrists recognised that more men broke down in war
because they were not allowed to kill as collapsed under
the strain of killing. As the English psychologist, John T. MacCurdy
put it at the end of the First World War, modern warfare offered
many men "little personal satisfaction": in past conflicts",
he explained, "men exposed themselves to the risk of death,
but they were
"compensated [for it] by the excitement
of more active operations, the more frequent possibility of
giving some satisfaction in active hand to hand fighting, where
they might feel the joy of personal prowess".
The modern soldier (in contrast) was pitted against
anonymous agents and his aggression was also incognito: human emotions
could not cope with that. "Survivor's guilt" (or
guilt for having lived when one's comrades were killed) was frequently
discussed: "killer's guilt" (or remorse for having killed)
Historians have shared with military officers
a reluctance to mention issues of individual responsibility in combat.
Some even argued that it would be "very dubious" to "question
the morality of the individuals" who carried out actions of
mass destruction in war.
Such scruples would be entirely correct, were it not for the fact
(as we shall see in this paper) that combatants themselves constantly
raised issues of personal responsibility. Indeed, they insisted
Admittedly, guilt was generally not felt in the
heat of battle. Many soldiers experienced a kind of separation from
the self -- including the moral self -- during battle. Ivone Kirkpatrick,
for instance, recalled how, in battle, his
"body and soul seemed to be entirely
divorced, even to the extent that I felt that I no longer inhabited
my body... I seemed to hover at some height above my own body."
Furthermore, certain forms of killing were less
liable to instil guilt. In aerial warfare, for example, there was
a strong correlation between altitude and guilt, with B-52 pilots
and crews bombing at high altitudes being less liable to experience
remorse than men on fighter-bomber missions who, in turn, were less
guilt-ridden than men flying helicopter gunships where the victims
were clearly visible.
But, feelings of guilt inspired by breaking the
Sixth Commandment could not be dismissed so dogmatically. Even long-distant
killing could inspire guilt -- if only in the form of feeling guilty
for not feeling guilty. This was the sense in which the bomber
pilot, Frank Elkins, experienced his sense of sinfulness. He knew
that his bombs were killing hundreds of civilians each raid. His
anguish can be heard in his diary:
"The deep shame that I feel is my own
lack of emotional reaction. I keep reacting as though I were
simply watching a movie of the whole thing. I still don't feel
that I have personally killed anyone.... Have I become so insensitive
that I have to see torn limbs, the bloody ground, the
stinking holes and guts in the mud, before I feel ashamed that
I have destroyed numbers of my own kind?"
Elkins was not alone: for most men, military training
followed by combat dulled, but did not eradicate, remorse over shedding
blood. The moral reaction
might be delayed, as in the case of R. H. Stewart after he bayoneted
a German during the Battle of the Somme. "It was", he
"the first time I had to kill a man at
close range and I did it with a fixed bayonet. It was not very
light and he was a shadow but as I twisted the bayonet clear
he squealed like a stuck pig. It was not till I was on my way
back that I started to shake and I shook like a leaf on a tree
for the rest of the night".
Sometimes, consciences guiltily circled around
and around fears of retribution: "no fox hole was deep enough
to protect him from an avenging fate."
In the words of two black Marines, Reginald "Malik" Edwards
and Arthur E. "Gene" Woodley both of whom recalled overwhelming
feelings of guilt after emptying their M-16s into enemy soldiers:
"I just started feeling really badly" and "I cried",
The military consequences of such fits of conscience
could be serious. While (as we have just seen) many military commentators
denied the importance of guilt over killing, some were forced to
admit that guilt inhibited aggression.
Personal consciences could seriously threaten the entire military
enterprise by weakening automatic obedience to orders, promoting
pity for the "would-be-enemy prisoner with whom the army dare
not encumber itself", and taunting men during long, sleepless
nights with the chant "Thou shalt not kill".
At the very least, remorse was damaging to morale.
During particular periods of wars, guilt even resulted in waves
of self-mutilation, as in the American army in Italy immediately
after the end of the Second World War.
Understandably, the military establishment attempted to alleviate
such risks. The two main groups within the military whose job it
was to eradicate the "nuisance" of guilt were padres and
After burying the dead, the most important duty
for military chaplains involved counselling soldiers who confessed
to disquiet about killing.
Padres had to "put stiffness into the muscles of the military
mind" and "summon up his own, and the blood of all whom
he comes into contact... for a blast of righteous hate", decreed
the First World War padre, Rev. J. Smith.
Linked to their task as legitimators of killing, military chaplains
also had a responsibility to educate their men about the rules of
warfare. Pulpits (therefore) did resound with exhortations to "play
the game" -- but this was as deep as the theological advice
went. Although theological concepts of a "just war" were
delineated (Had the war been properly declared? Was it being fought
for a just cause? Was it a last resort?), many chaplains expressed
extremely cynical views about whether the adherence to "rules"
was ever an expedient policy in combat. After all, as one
chaplain put it:
"It is hit anywhere you can and as hard
as you can.... Really there can be no rules for the conduct
of war.... Manifestly an Outlaw scheme of things."
The extent to which chaplains failed to provide
moral guidance can be gauged by examining their advice concerning
the killing of prisoners and civilians. Clergymen were well aware
that the gratuitous killing of non-combatants was proscribed by
both legal precept and religious law, yet clergymen during all three
conflicts were remarkably lax in their condemnation of such practices.
In the words of Rev. E. W. Brereton during the Second World War:
"we are fighting for dear life against
enemies who are not Christians, not human beings, but reptiles.
We claim the right to fight these fiends not with kid gloves.
I scorn the humanitarians who object to reprisals."
Religious leaders advised combatants that even
children could be killed because it was impossible to separate them
from their guilty parents.
In 1917, the theologian and editor of the Modern Churchman,
Rev. H. D. A. Major, was even more forthright, asserting that
"[i]f the only way to protect adequately
an English babe is to kill a German babe, then it is the duty
of the authorities, however repugnant, to do it. More particularly
is this so when we reflect that the innocent German babe will
in all probability grow up to be the killer of babes himself."
There were two surveys of military chaplains which
examined the extent to which padres were willing to condone the
killing of non-combatants. In two separate surveys, Waldo W. Burchard
and Gordon C. Zahn interviewed military chaplains, and both revealed
extremely high levels of complicity in the killing of captured prisoners.
In Zahn's interviews, ninety per cent expressed no problems about
orders to refuse to accept surrenders and over half were incapable
of even conceiving of a situation in which it would be their
duty as chaplains to advise soldiers against obeying an order on
the grounds of Christian ethics.
Such attitudes had tragic consequences -- most infamously during
the Vietnam War and (in particular) during the My Lai atrocity.
Of course, the combatant had to safeguard the
purity of his own soul or personality, ensuring that it was not
corrupted by bitter feelings toward the enemy. In this way, the
manner in which a man took another man's life was important.
Crucially, Christians revealed their righteousness in battle by
killing without hatred. Thus, Father Grayson during the Vietnam
War advised soldiers that it was legitimate to kill "but not
with hatred in your heart".
The same instruction had been offered during the First World War
when Edward Increase Bosworth in The Christian Witness in War
(1918) reminded his readers that the "Christian soldier in
friendship wounds the enemy. In friendship he kills the enemy....
His heart never consigns the enemy to hell. He never hates."
As they plunged their bayonets into human flesh, clergymen encouraged
soldiers to murmur, "[t]his is my body broken for you",
or to whisper prayers of love.
In this way, it was possible to kill without sin. Clergymen went
further, however, arguing that Christ himself endorsed killing --
although (rather inappropriately given twentieth-century armaments)
the chosen instrument was the bayonet. When pacifists asked their
audiences whether they could imagine Christ sticking his bayonet
into another man, many parsons answered with a resounding "yes".
Killing was not merely sanctioned, it was sanctified.
Even more important than Theology was Psychology.
From the middle of the First World War, the military recognised
the value of psychologists if (in the words of the English psychologist,
Dr Charles Stanley Myers) the "air pilot's objection to bombing
women and children" was to be countered and if pensions were
to be refused to men suffering psychological disturbances as a result
of combat (on the grounds that pensions rewarded them for their
A lecture entitled "Reactions to Killing" which was circulated
by military psychologists during the Second World War provides a
good example of their ethical function. In the lecture, the killing
of prisoners is merely taken for granted. Military psychologists
and other officers were simply told that if men expressed difficulty
killing prisoners, they were to be advised to alleviate their guilty
consciences by transferring moral responsibility to a higher authority:
"obeying orders", in other words. Guilt-ridden men were
to be reminded that the act of slaughtering prisoners was "shared
by the group" and was necessary to safeguard not only the self
and one's comrades, but also "civilized ideals". Above
all, any hint that killing prisoners was an "expression of
blood-lust" had to removed.
In other words, for military psychologists, the killing of non-combatants
was merely a fact of modern warfare, rather than a problem.
Whatever the practice of religious advisers in the armed
services, they were well tutored in the theological rules of combat.
The social sciences possessed no similarly authoritative moral law.
Indeed, in the case of major branches of these sciences -- instinct
theories and psychoanalysis, for instance -- killing was regarded
as an essential, inescapable part of the human psyche. Other branches
-- behaviourism, for instance -- embodied a pragmatism which was
greatly favoured by the armed forces.
If guilt had a place, it was a lowly one in which combatants were
urged (in the popular book Psychology for the Fighting Man,
1944) to "face... squarely.... because killing is the main
job of a combat soldier".
Furthermore, psychiatrists and other medical officers
became increasingly hostile to men who broke down under the
strain of killing. During the First World War, there tended to be
a slightly more understanding attitude amongst doctors. The
authors of one of the standard First World War books on shell shock,
went so far as to point out that a combatant who suffered a neurosis
because of killing had not lost his reason but was labouring under
the weight of too much reason: his senses were "functioning
with painful efficiency".
By the Second World War, however, the inability to act aggressively
was itself regarded as a psychiatric disorder. It was believed that
men who were unable to kill were "dull and backward".
They were men who lacked the ability to understand "complex
ideas" (such as "patriotism, appreciation of the alternative
to winning the war, tradition") and, having been brought up
with the "christian attitude" did not possess "the
capacity to adjust to what [was]... the antithesis of this attitude".
Men who experienced emotional conflicts in killing were "psychologically
inadequate individuals" or were "ineffectives" who
If they broke under the strain, they were "childish",
"narcissistic", and "feminine".
Pacifism was a "morbid phenomenon.... the rationalization of
self-destructive wishes", according to Franz Alexander. He
continued (in an article in The American Journal of Sociology
in 1941), arguing that
"[a]nyone who is blind to the ubiquitous
manifestation of human aggressiveness in the past and present
can be rightly considered a man who does not face reality. If
he is not of subnormal intelligence -- unable to grasp events
around him -- his inability to face facts must be of emotional
origin, and he must be considered a neurotic."
Such individuals needed to be "cured"
of this infliction and forced to react to killing in "a human,
rather than an animal, way".
Justifying this attitude was not difficult. It
was obvious that, in wartime, the nation had a right to demand that
servicemen gave their "nerves" for their country, as much
as their limbs, eyes, or lives. In addition, forcing a combat-exhausted
man back into the front lines was in his own interests since, if
he was evacuated, "he would be tempted to maintain his sickness
as part of a masochistic penance for having failed to return to
his unit and his duty."
The group rather than the individual was paramount.
"The first duty of a battalion medical officer in War is to
discourage the evasion of duty", Captain J. C. Dunn lectured,
and this duty had to be done "not seldom against one's better
feelings, sometimes to the temporary hurt of the individual, but
justice to all other men as well as discipline demands it."
A decade later, a similar comment was made by Lieutenant Colonel
Philip S. Wagner, professor of psychiatry at the University of Madison
Medical School and consultant at the Veterans Hospital at Perry
Point. He reminded his readers that military psychiatrists had only
one aim and that was to determine whether "additional combat
usefulness" remained in an individual. The psychiatrist was
not to concern himself with
"'cure', nor with solicitude for the
psychic pain he would have to endure to serve a few more combat
days, nor even with speculations on the eventual consequence
to his personality".
It was this attitude which increasingly led the
military to substitute psychologists for padres -- indeed, the two
increasingly became less distinguishable as padres embraced psychological
languages (jettisoning the traditional grammar of repentance and
forgiveness) and as military training came to portray itself as
"treatment for an unadjusted conscience" according to
a textbook entitled Psychology for the Armed Forces and published
by the National Research Council in 1945.
In the words of one man: "We aren't just counselors; we're
almost priests. They come to us for absolution as well as help."
Emotionally "stitching up" men so that
they could return to the front lines as soon as possible was not
alien to civilian psychology, particularly as it was practised within
industry. Scientists held multiple subject positions: they spoke
of peace while providing statistics for war; healed men in order
to send them to be killed; were ambivalent about their role within
the military while exploiting its unprecedented research possibilities.
Military psychiatrists and psychologists were "captive professionals".
The medical corps was a fully integrated part of the military establishment
and one which accepted that the "customer" was the commanding
officer, not the patient. In time of war, clinical psychology and
psychiatry took on a distinctive kind of practice: channelling the
urge to kill rather than dampening violent urges.
But, as I suggested at the beginning, amoral "acceptance
of killing" was not always straightforward. Although men strove
to be causal agents, decisions made by moral actors in the heat
of battle were inevitably confused. Simple adherence to the legal
laws of warfare was insufficient. Indeed, as I discuss in another
paper, these rules were so contradictory, nebulous, and subtle that
they were often of little help to servicemen in the heat of combat.
Combatants responded by developing their own "rules of thumb"
to differentiate legitimate "killing" in wartime from
guilt-ridden "murder". These rules were not identical
to legal militarist formulas: in contrast, they were flexible, contradictory,
and consolatory. They were, however, widely applied. So what I have
done is, in my reading of over 200 series of letters and diaries,
I have focused on the way combatants themselves described killing
and the ways they came to terms with it. In doing this, it can be
seen that combatants allayed feelings of guilt through recourse
to five justifications. The first four were the weaker rationalisations:
obedience, reciprocity and revenge, depersonalisation, and sportiveness.
We will all be familiar with these so I shall devote no more than
a couple of sentences to each:
Personal feelings of guilt were often alleviated
by reminders that combatants were "merely" obeying orders,
and that these orders had been handed down by a legitimate authority.
Of course, the efficacy of "obeying orders" as a way of
minimising emotional conflict and enabling men to act aggressively
was widely recognised by military instructors who laboriously insisted
upon instantaneous obedience to orders so that each man might be
able to "sleep like a child and awaken refreshed -- to kill
and fear not."
Even in the absence of direct orders, combatants
were able to legitimise their aggressive behaviour by appealing
to notions of reciprocity: "kill or be killed". This rationale
was applied at varying degrees of intensity spanning from the nation,
to identified strangers ("women and the weak") to comrades
and, finally, to oneself. As the level of abstraction decreased,
the legitimacy of killing increased. Thus, for soldiers on active
service (as opposed to propagandists) the legitimacy of killing
was least convincing when applied to the nation and most effective
after witnessing the deaths of comrades and facing one's own imminent
mortality. Indeed, most men only became willing to take another
human life after seeing their wartime companions slaughtered. In
the words of one soldier:
"I felt a drastic change after that....
I really loved bloody killing, couldn't get enough. For every
one that I killed I felt better. Made some of the hurt went
Or, in the words of a Vietnam soldier, every time
a friend was killed, he would personally take revenge, all the time
talking to the ghosts of his comrades: "here's one for you,
baby. I'll take this motherfucker out and I'm going to cut his fucking
heart out for you."
In this way, grief was converted into rage.
If the notion "him or me" could legitimise
the most brutal acts of violence, atrocities themselves could be
used to justify particularly violent combat: they reassured combatants
by alleging that the enemy was too evil to warrant survival. There
are thousands of examples. For instance, extermination camps of
the Second World War strongly motivated many combatants. Captain
John Long of an American tank division recalled "liberating"
one of these camps:
"From this incidence on Jerry was no
longer an impersonal foe. The Germans were monsters!.... We
had just mopped them up before but we stomped the shit out of
them after the camps."
Even when the story was a complete fiction (as
in the case of the crucifixion of Canadians during the First World
War), atrocities could feed atrocities.
Processes of dehumanisation were related to accusations
of atrocities. The enemy were animals -- baboons, rats, vermin,
wild beasts. They were a vaguely designated "enemy" or
Finally, the extent to which any particular fight
could be rationalised was frequently based on notions of "sportiveness".
This was meant in two ways. Firstly, that killing was sport
-- a justification in itself -- and, secondly, that because it was
a sport, it allowed for the possibility of "fair play"
and the punishment of those who did not "play fair". Conceptualising
combat as a game and sport (particularly hunting) was extremely
common, and since everyone in this room will be familiar with such
metaphors, I won't discuss them here.
These rationales did not eradicate guilt altogether:
they could neither withstand the weight of violence in military
conflicts nor the resilience of the modern conscience. Actual combat
simply was not sporting, no matter how hard men tried to
make it resemble civilian or chivalrous codes. If warfare was like
game hunting (as thousands of men alleged), then it was the most
brutal, unsatisfying form of this sport.
The rationale that "it was him or me"
was equally unconvincing: long-distance artillery, sniping, orders
not to take prisoners, and unequal opponents were the norm, not
exceptions. Even when a combatant sincerely believed that it was
"his life or mine", they might be consumed with guilt
-- men like Private Daniel Sweeney who stumblingly explained to
his fiancÚ at the beginning of November 1916, that:
"The German that I shot who died afterwards
was a fine looking man I was there when he died poor chap. I
did feel sorry but it was my life or his, he was speaking but
none of us could understand a word he said, to tell you the
truth I had a tear myself, I thought to myself perhaps he has
a Mother or Dad also a sweetheart and a lot of things like that,
I was really sorry I did it..."
Guilt was not eliminated by recourse to a vocabulary
of "kill or be killed". It was merely blunted.
Obedience to higher authorities was also fraught
with difficulties: after all, what was the "appropriate
authority"? As I discuss in a paper on atrocities, obeying
orders allowed for a huge range of activities -- from enthusiastic
slaughter to reluctant minimalism to avoidance behaviour and, even,
to active resistance (again, whose orders?).
The importance of atrocity reporting should also
not be exaggerated, especially in the front-lines. In one survey
carried out in 1943 and 1944 only thirteen per cent of American
infantrymen in the Pacific and Europe theatres had seen Japanese
or German soldiers fighting in ways they regarded as "dirty
or inhuman", and less than one-half had even heard of
such stories. Dehumanisation
worked quite well in basic training: not so well in battle. In combat
situations, where human slaughter was ubiquitous, atrocities were
difficult to define and were often simply ignored.
It was impossible to maintain the fiction that the enemy was any
different from oneself for very long.
Furthermore, throughout accounts of combat, we hear men humanising
the enemy, only in order to kill. For instance, a young soldier
in Vietnam came across a small child with one arm already shot off,
and he immediately recognised that this child was the same age as
his own sister. He wondered:
"What if a foreign army was in my country
and a soldier was looking at my sister just as I'm looking at
this little boy. Would that foreign soldier have the guts to
kill my sister?"
The answer was clear: "If he'd have the guts,
then I'd have the guts", and he pulled the trigger.
In many instances, atrocity-reporting could be
counter-productive. People were sceptical about the vivid tales
being spread of the foe's bestiality and often responded by resenting
the messenger. As William Hocking noted in 1918:
"it is never wise to make him out less
than human. For anger... runs in the opposite direction; it
personifies and attributes conscience to even inanimate things.
If we de-humanize the foe we remove him from the reach of instinctive
In other words, portraying the enemy as a different
species diminished any sense that the enemy should be held accountable
for his actions, yet it was precisely this accountability that sustained
condemnation. Dehumanisation could strip the killing enterprise
of its moral value. As J. Glenn Gray noted in The Warriors
(1970), viewing the enemy as a beast "lessen[ed] even the satisfaction
in destruction, for there [was] not proper regard for the worth
of the objects destroyed."
During the Second World War (and particularly in the war against
the Japanese) the use of atrocity stories ended up being questioned
by military command on the grounds that they were making combatants
frightened of battle or of having to bale out of their aeroplanes.
Dehumanizing the enemy could increase levels of fear by transforming
the enemy into "mysterious wraiths": men yearned for the
reassurance that their enemy was "flesh and blood" even
if this induced feelings of remorse.
It was the ultimate failure of these processes
in eradicating guilt and providing pleasure in killing that led
to the next, opposite principle: that of personal responsibility.
Indeed, part of the function of the rationales just described was
that -- by blunting the devastating impact of guilt -- they
allowed feelings of remorse to be retained, and the killing to continue.
Attempts by senior military officers to minimised
(if not eradicated) remorse for killing was not shared by most combat
soldiers who tended to regard guilt as an endorsement of their essential
goodness and who, in many circumstances, refused to countenance
attempts to alleviate the emotional pain attendant upon sincere
remorse. Paradoxically, combatants maintained their ability to kill
by stressing that they retained a moral faculty. This insistence
that men were causal agents was crucial. Combatants strongly believed
that they should feel guilty for killing: it was precisely
this emotion which made them "human", and enabled them
to return to peaceful civilian society afterwards, unbrutalised.
Men who did not feel guilt were somehow less than human, or were
insane. This as why the
face-to-face bayonet fight was so romanticised, despite its extreme
rarity: as Ben Compton observed: "a war where you don't look
the man in the eye when you kill him is not war. It's just a kind
of butchery.... If you have to kill him, you should honor him".
Face-to-face fighting was thus considered to be "less brutal"
than other means of causing human destruction because (in the words
of Stephen Graham in 1919) it was "more personal, and human
responsibility is clear".
Indeed, the ability to acknowledge one's agency
was crucial in preventing psychological collapse. Numerous
studies show that the chief factor distinguishing combatants who
participated in extreme acts of violence and suffered psychiatric
collapse or attempted suicide from combatants who also participated
in extreme acts of violence yet "coped" with it was that
the former group had felt "out of control as a result of excessive
fear or rage" while the later group felt that they knew what
they were doing and although came to question the legitimacy of
their action (particularly in the case of atrocities) in later times
they still accepted responsibility for what they had done.
Embracing responsibility and the admittance of guilt warded off
In the final analysis (after notions of obedience,
reciprocity, depersonalisation, and sportiveness had been noted
and accepted), combatants often insisted on taking responsibility
for their actions. As one veteran put it: "[i]f you accept
that you did it... then you've got to accept some guilt too."
Guilt, and the associated personal and erratic rites of repentance,
brought ritual back to slaughter: expressions of remorse enabled
killing to continue, and to be accepted. Embracing responsibility
enabled men to retain feelings of guilt minus its most maddening
Fighting men were not merely the avenging arm
of the state, nor were they simply pawns in an omnipresent moral
universe against which it was impossible to struggle. They created
their own moral universe which enabled them to impose an ordered,
"sensible" narrative (rationalisation) on what was inherently
chaotic violence while retaining the remorse-laden integrity of
their moral selves (responsibility). In these ways, combatants were
sheltered from the madness attendant upon knowledge of unpardonable
trespass. Furthermore, to extent that they did this, they bear that
measure of responsibility for the killing they participated in.
This was in contrast to the military establishment which regarded
guilt as an irritating (and dangerous) inconvenience which had to
be minimised, if not eradicated altogether. Padres and military
psychiatrists encouraged combatants to repudiate feelings of guilt
and insisted that veterans' difficulties were merely "problems
in adjustment". After the Vietnam War, American jargon labelled
this process "deresponsibilizing" -- that is, persuading
veterans that their actions were the result of external causes and
that any bad feelings they might have about them were the result
of "survivors' guilt".
Admittedly, although combatants applied moral
criteria, they did not do so consistently and, in combat, a terrified
soldier might fail to act upon his belief of what constituted legitimate
killing. Furthermore, the rules applied by servicemen were not necessarily
shared by civilians, politicians, and non-combatants, but they were
crucial if actions which, in other contexts, would have been regarded
with horror and repugnance, were to be perpetuated and, eventually,
accepted. It was the differentiation made between legitimate killing
and "murder" which maintained men's sanity through the
war and helped insulate them against agonising and numbing brutality.
discussion, see my Dismembering the Male: Mens Bodies,
Britain and the Great war (London, 1996) and An Intimate
History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth Century
Warfare (London: Granta, October 1998).
H. Hubbard, "Letters Written May -- November 1916",
IWM Con Shelf: letter to "Mother and All", 7 July
1916; 20 May 1916; to "Mother and All", 17 June
1916; to his brother Fred, 13 June 1916; to "Mother and
All", 17 June 1916; to his sisters Nellie and Ivy, 29
June 1916; to Nellie and Ivy, 29 June 1916.
and William Woodhouse (eds.), The Penguin Encyclopedia
of Modern Warfare (London, 1991), 111.
of bayonet wounds was found in Butler, vol. 2, 495. The statistic
refers to admissions to field ambulances from the Australian
Infantry Force in France between April 1916 and March 1919.
Over half of injuries were caused by shell fragments and shrapnel
pellets, and one-third were caused by rifle and machine-gun
R. D. Gillespie,
Psychological Effects of War on Citizen and Soldier
(New York, 1942), 180 CHECK; Edward A. Strecher and Kenneth
E. Appel, Psychiatry in Modern Warfare (New York, 1945),
24-5; Edwin Weinstein, "The Fifth U. S. Army Neuropsychiatric
Centre -- '601st'", in Lieutenant General Hal B. Jennings
(ed.), Neuropsychiatry in World War II. Volume II. Overseas
Theatres (Washington, 1973), 134.
O. P. Napier
Pearn, "Psychoses in the Expeditionary Forces",
The Journal of Mental Science, lxv (April 1919), 101.
Patterns of Performance (New York, 1959), 52-4.
R. D. Gillespie,
Psychological Effects of War on Citizen and Soldier
(New York, 1942), 180.
Insights and Personality Adjustment. A Study of the Psychological
Effects of War (New York, 1946), 56; Irving N. Berlin,
"Guilt as an Etiologic Factor in War Neuroses",
Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 111 January
-- June 1950), 239-45; Major Jules V. Coleman, "The Group
Factor in Military Psychiatry", American Journal of
Orthopsychiatry, xvi (1946), 224.
George M. Kren,
"The Holocaust: Moral Theory and Immoral Acts",
in Alan Rosenberg and Gerald E. Myers (eds.), Echoes from
the Holocaust (Philadelphia, 1988), 255.
Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick,
"Memoirs", 29, IWM 79/50/1. Also see Philip Caputo,
A Rumor of War (London, 1977), 305-6.
"The Era of the Blue Machine: Laos: 1969-", Washington
Monthly, July 1971, cited in Robert Jay Lifton, Home
from the War. Vietnam Veterans: Neither Victims Nor Executioners
(New York, 1974), 349.
diary for 1 July 1966, in Indochina Curriculum Group, Front
Lines. Soldiers' Writings from Vietnam (Cambridge, MA,
A Rumor of War (London, 1977), 124.
R. H. Stewart,
quoted by Philip Orr, The Road to the Somme. Men of the
Ulster Division Tell Their Story (Belfast, 1987), 155.
A. Weinstein and Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin S. Drayer, "A
Dynamic Approach to the Problem of Combat-Induced Anxiety",
The Bulletin of the U. S. Army Medical Department,
ix, supplemental number (November 1949), 16.
Class Reginald "Malik" Edwards and Specialist 4
Arthur E. "Gene" Woodley, interviewed in Terry,
1984, 12 and 243-44.
V. Coleman, "The Group Factor of Military Psychiatry",
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, xvi (1946), 222.
A Private in the Guards (London, 1919), 3.
Irvin L. Child,
"Morale: A Bibliographical Review", Psychological
Bulletin, 38 (1941), 411.
J. Glass and Lieutenant Colonel Calvin S. Drayer, "Italian
Campaign (1 March 1944 -- 2 May 1945), Psychiatry Established
at Division Level", in Lieutenant General Hal B. Jennings
(ed.), Neuropsychiatry in World War II. Vol. II. Overseas
Theatres (Washington, 1973), 105. These cases were not
due to the desire to avoid battle (since the battle was over)
and the men did not seem to be depressed, suicidal, or fearful
of returning home. Instead, Glass and Drayer were forced to
speculate that the wounds must express some underlying guilt
relating to combat experiences.
Wright, The Padre Presents. Discussions About Life in the
Forces (Edinburgh, 1944), 33, radio broadcast. I have
only found one example where it was declared that soldiers
never asked padres about the legitimacy of killing: Robert
William McKenna, Through a Tent Door, first published
1919 (London, 1930), 103.
Rev. J. Smith,
"The Black Dragoon", nd, np, AWM 1DRL/649.
Archibald Moore, "Experiences of a Chaplain in the A.I.F.",
10, AWM 1DRL/0640.
Sermon by Rev.
E. W. Brereton, in John Bull, 10 July 1915.
A Conditional Justification of War (London, 1940),
Rev. H. D.
A. Major, "Sentimentalists and Casuists", Modern
Churchman, August 1917, 212-13.
Waldo W. Burchard,
"Role Conflicts of Military Chaplains", American
Sociological Review, 19.5 (October 1954), 531 and Gordon
C. Zahn, Chaplains in the R.A.F. A Study in Role Tension
(Manchester, 1969), 139, 144-5, and 199-200.
Burke Marshall, and Jack Schwartz (eds.), The Peers Commission
Report (New York, 1976), 266-68.
quoted in Jon Oplinger, Quang Tri Cadence. Memoir of a
Rifle Platoon Leader in the Mountains of Vietnam (Jefferson,
North Carolina, 1993), 91.
Bosworth, The Christian Witness in War (New York, 1918),
8-10. Also see Marshall Broomhall, "Mine Own Vineyard".
Personal Religion and the War (London, 1916), 45-6; Charles
Plater, A Primer of Peace and War. The Principles of International
Morality, edited for the Catholic Social Guild (London,
1915), 87; Henry Wace (Dean of Canterbury), The Christian
Sanction of War. An Address at the Service of Intercession
for the King's Naval and Military Forces, Held in Canterbury
Cathedral: August 9th 1914 (London, 1914), 8-9; Clement
Webb, In Time of War. Addresses Upon Several Occasions
(Oxford, 1918), 21; Right Rev. Gilbert White, "The Doctrine
of Non-Resistance", The Commonwealth Military Journal,
4 (October 1913), 722.
"influential clergyman", quoted by Robert Coope,
Shall I Fight? An Essay on War, Peace, and the Individual
(London, 1935), 16 and Marshall Broomhall, "Mine Own
Vineyard". Personal Religion and War (London, 1916),
45-6. For protests against sermons exhorting soldiers to love
the German soldier while "thrust[ing] his bayonet into
his abdomen", see G. Stanley Hall, "Morale in War
and After", The Psychological Bulletin, 15 (1918),
384 and Morris N. Kertzer, With an H on my Dog Tag
(New York, 1947), 44.
Fenner Brockway, Bermondsey Story. The Life of Alfred Salter
(London, 1949), 59 quoting the socialist pacifist M.P., Alfred
Salter; Henry William Pinkham, Was Christ a Pacifist?
(Melrose Mass., 1917), 14. This question was not only asked
by pacifists: see Philip Gibbs, Realities of War (London,
Report on the
speech by Dr. C. S. Myers at the annual medical conference
of the Ex-Services Welfare Society, "War Neuroses",
Lancet, 15 July 1939, 153. The argument that pensions
should not be given to men with psychological problems as
a result of their war service was widespread: see R. S. Ellery,
"A Psychiatric Programme for Peace", Medical
Journal of Australia, 1.14 (6 April 1946), 459; C. M.
McCarthy, "The Rehabilitation of War Neurotics",
Medical Journal of Australia, 1.26 (29 June 1946),
911; H. Hastings Willis, "The Rehabilitation of War Neurotics",
Medical Journal of Australia, 1.26 (29 June 1946),
915. "Summary of Lectures on Psychological Aspects of
War", lecture entitled "The Reaction to Killing",
5, PRO CAB 21/914 (Annex).
For a discussion,
see the chapter in my book, An Intimate History of Killing:
Face-to-Face Killing in C20 Warfare (London: Granta, October
for the Fighting Man. Prepared for the Fighting Man Himself
by a Committee of the National Research Council with the Collaboration
of Science Service as a Contribution to the War Effort,
second edition (Washington, 1944), 287-88.
Smith and T. H. Pear, Shell Shock and Its Lessons (Manchester,
1919), 2. "Report of a Conference on Psychiatry in Forward
Areas", 8-10 August 1944, 13, PRO WO32/11550.
Major J. O.
Langley, "Tactical Implications of the Human Factors
in Warfare", Australian Army Journal, 107 (April
1958), 14; Major H. A. Palmer, "The Problem of the P
& N Casualty -- A Study of 12,000 Cases", 1944, 3,
in CMAC RAMC 466/49
MacPhail, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the
Great War 1914-19. The Medical Services (Ottowa, 1925),
278; Philip S. Wagner, "Psychiatric Activities During
the Normandy Offensive, June 20 -- August 20, 1944",
Psychiatry, 9.4 (November 1946), 356.
"The Psychiatric Aspects of War and Peace", The
American Journal of Sociology, xlvi4 (January 1941), 505.
J. T. MacCurdy,
The Structure of Morale (Cambridge, 1943), 44-5.
Philip S. Wagner,
"Psychiatric Activities During the Normandy Offensive,
June 20 -- August 20, 1944", Psychiatry, 9.4 (November
General Sir Neil Cantlie, "Papers", 1, his reply
to a War Office questionnaire, 1946, CMAC RAMC 465/10; Marc
G. Cloutier, "Medical Care Behind Enemy Lines: A Historical
Examination of Clandestine Hospitals", Military Medicine,
158.12 (December 1993), 817; George S. Goldman, "The
Psychiatrist's Job in War and Peace", Psychiatry,
9.3 (August 1946), 265; John Rawlings Rees, The Shaping
of Psychiatry by War (London, 1945), 19.
C. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew 1914-1919, first
published 1938 (London, 1987), 585.
Colonel Philip S. Wagner, "Psychiatric Activities During
the Normandy Offensive, June 20 -- August 20, 1944",
Psychiatry, 9.4 (November 1946), 348.
Council, Psychology for the Armed Forces, 1945, edited
by E. G. Boring.
Quoted in Peter
Marin, "Living with Moral Pain", Psychology Today,
15.11 (November 1981), 68.
see Norman I. Barr and Leonard M. Zunin, "Clarification
of the Psychiatrist's Dilemma While in Military Service",
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 41.4 (July 1971),
672-74; A. Daniels, "The Captive Professionals: Bureaucratic
Limitations in the Practice of Military Psychiatry",
Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 10 (1969), 255-65;
L. Kirshner, "Counter-Transference Issues in the Treatment
of the Military Dissenter", American Journal of Orthopsychiatry,
43 (1973), 654-59; Pilisuk, 1975, 6-7. For a history of the
anti-psychiatry movement, see Norman Dain, "Critics and
Dissenters: Reflections on 'Anti-Psychiatry' in the United
States", Journal of the History of the Behavioral
Sciences, 25 (January 1989), 3-25.
A Private in the Guards (London, 1919), 3.
veteran quoted by Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam. Combat
Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York, 1994),
78-9. Also see Philip Capulo, A Rumor of War (Lodnon,
1977), xvii and 231 and Private First Class Chuck Fink interviewed
in Otto J. Lehrack, No Shining Armour. The Marines at War
in Vietnam. An Oral History (Lawrence, 1992), 44.
veteran quoted by Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam. Combat
Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York, 1994),
89. Also see 96. Similar words were recited by the First World
War American, Albert N. Depew, Gunner Depew (London,
1918), 145; John Lohman, interviewed in Shirley Dicks, From
Vietnam to Hell. Interviews with Victims of Post-Traumatic
Stress Disorder (Jefferson, North Carolina, 1990), 34.
black soldier, Captain John Long of the 761st (Tank Division),
in Mary Penick Motley (ed.), The Invisible Soldier. The
Experience of the Black Soldier, World War II (Detroit,
Read, Atrocity Propaganda 1914-1919 (New Haven, 1941),
141-42 and Harold R. Peat, The Inexcusable Lie (New
York, 1917), 154-55.
Private Daniel John Sweeney to his fiance, Ivy Williams, beginning
of November 1916, quoted in Michael Moyniham (ed.), Greater
Love. Letters Home 1914-1918 (London, 1980), 84-5. Punctuation
as in the original.
Samuel A. Stouffer
et. al., The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath.
Volume II (Princeton, 1949), 162, a survey of 4,495 American
infantrymen in 1943-44.
Fairfield Johnston, "The British Army Officer and the
Great War", 11, IWM 82/38/1.
in J. T. Hanson, A. Susan Owen, and Michael P. Madden, Parallels.
The Soldiers Knowledge and the Oral History of Contemporary
Warfare (New York, 1992), 123.
Lifton, Home from the War. Vietnam Veterans: Neither Victims
Nor Executioners (London, 1974), 52-3.
Hocking, Morale and Its Enemies (New Haven, 1918),
56-8. Also see Professor H. J. Laski, The Germans -- Are
They Human? A Reply to Sir Robert Vansittart (London,
Glenn Gray, The Warriors. Reflections on Men in Battle
(New York, 1970), 152-53.
(Far Eastern) Inter-Services Committee. Interim Report: Second
Draft", 1944, p. 4, in PRO WO32/11195. Also see "Morale
(Far Eastern) Inter-Services Committee. Minutes of the Eighth
Meeting Held in Room 433, Hobart House, on Wednesday, 16th
August, 1944", 4 and 7, PRO WO32/11195.
1977), 124. Also see 109.A Rumor of War (London,
interviewed in Hanson, Owen and Madden, 125-26.
A Station in the Delta (New York, 1979), 321.
A Private in the Guards (London, 1919), 78.
and Ann Polliger Haas, "Suicide and Guilt as Manifestations
of PTSD in Vietnam Combat Veterans", American Journal
of Psychiatry, 148.5 (May 1991), 586-91.
quoted by Arthur Egendorf, "Vietnam Veteran Rap Groups
and Themes of Postwar Life", Journal of Social Issues,
31.4 (1975), 121.
"Living with Moral Pain", Psychology Today,
15.11 (November 1981), 71.
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