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War and the human psyche.

On Killing: the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society By Dave Grossman Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995. 366 pp. $14.95 [ISBN: 0-316-33011-6]

A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century by Ben Shephard Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. 487 pp. $27.95 [ISBN: 0-674-00592-9]

An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare by Joanna Bourke New York: Basic Books, 1999. 509 pp. $30.00 [ISBN: 0-465-00737-6]

War is a realm of exhaustion, horror, and at times madness. The three books reviewed here attempt to come to grips with what might be called the psychic dimension of combat: why men kill and what happens to their minds in the process.

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society begins with the well-established belief that "man is not by nature a killer." The author, Dave Grossman, quotes the claim by S.L.A. Marshall that fewer than 20 percent of the soldiers who fought in World War II shot at the enemy. Some fired consistently, but others failed to either aim their weapons or pull the trigger, demonstrating a human inhibition against killing.

These findings by Marshall, though subject to dispute, were taken to heart. Since the war, Western militaries have undertaken a training revolution consisting largely of techniques to enable greater numbers of soldiers to fight more effectively. When people become angry or frightened, they stop thinking with their forebrains--which distinguishes them from animals--and start to rely on their midbrains. "They are literally scared out of their wits." Using pop-up targets and other training devices, Western armies conditioned soldiers to shoot reflexively. By the Vietnam War, the percentage of combat troops who fired their weapons had risen to 95 percent. In this way, using modern psychology techniques, the reluctance to kill had been reduced.

Reducing nonshooters has not taken the terror and stress from the battlefield. In American wars of the 20th century, the chance of becoming a psychiatric casualty was greater than being killed by enemy fire. The sustained tempo of military operations gives the stressed soldier little respite. Grossman concludes that "our physical and logistical capability to sustain combat has completely outstripped our psychological capacity to endure it." The result is that combat can literally cause madness in the ranks. "Fear, combined with exhaustion, hate, horror, and the irreconcilable task of balancing these with the need to kill, eventually drives the soldier so deep into a mire of guilt and horror that he tips over the brink into that region that we call insanity."

Ben Shephard examines those who study and treat the mind in A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century. It is a history of the diagnosis and care of the traumas associated with battle. The author recounts the story of psychiatry as it became an accepted scientific discipline. He details the divisions between soldiers and psychiatrists over treating mental disorders brought about by combat.

The military was forced to deal with mental problems to stem the loss of fighting men while civilian authorities were concerned with reducing the cost of psychiatric disabilities, which indeed were immense. In the battle of the Somme in 1916, as many of 40 percent of the casualties were caused by shell shock. At the end of the war, 11,600 British servicemen were committed to mental asylums. Some 40,000 Britons were receiving pensions for war-related mental disorders as late as 1939. The United States spent almost a billion dollars on the psychiatric illness of veterans in the interwar years. The pressure to understand madness in war and develop treatments was enormous. Both psychologists and psychiatrists, with their military sponsors, gradually learnt more about the mind under the stress of battle. Eventually, instead of evacuating psychiatric cases to hospitals at home, methods of rapidly treating men and returning them to the front evolved, though not without controversy and experimentation. This has been effective. Today most soldiers are immediately treated in the combat zone and sent back to fight after a few days rest.

But the increased ability to kill comes with the cost of increased posttraumatic stress as combat veterans seek to deal with guilt. Researchers still know little about the long-term impact of killing and the reintegration of veterans into society. Moreover, the study of psychiatric casualties is bedeviled by inadequate and contradictory statistics. Estimates of the number of Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder range from half a million to three times that number--or between 18 and 54 percent of those who served.

An Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare by Joanna Bourke tackles many of the same issues, but in a different spirit and with a quite different approach. The author reacts to what she perceives as sanitizing and wants to "put killing back into military history," stating that "the characteristic act of men at war is not dying, it is killing." In this regard, Bourke is at one with both Grossman and Shephard. But although the latter authors regard the act of killing as traumatic, Bourke argues that men get pleasure from taking life in war. Drawing on a wealth of published sources to support this contention, she believes that many or most servicemen were "intoxicated by 'violence for its own sake': fighting was furl." The personalization of the enemy enabled them to kill. "It validated combatants as moral men."

Bourke argues that soldiers make moral sense out of butchery through stories, which place them at the center of the narrative as willful, moral agents. To do this, they must adopt a positive attitude toward killing. To overcome the horror of war and retain a sense of themselves as moral beings, they come to glory in war. Eventually, soldiers derive pleasure from it.

This assertion may not seem plausible to many readers. Nor is the evidence that Bourke presents convincing. Regrettably, she is vague on the hypothesis she seeks to prove: is it that all men enjoy killing, that most men enjoy killing, or simply that some men enjoy killing? If her point is that under certain circumstances some men derive pleasure from killing, then she is right. (As Grossman reminds us, about 2 percent of the male population, when pushed or given a legitimate reason, will kill without remorse.) But if Bourke is claiming something more, her technique of rehearsing quotations from fictional and biographical accounts--without any attempt to determine whether they are representative--is simply not compelling.

Ian Roxborough holds dual appointments in history and sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
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Author:Roxborough, Ian
Publication:Joint Force Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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