An Intimate History Of Killing: Face To Face Killing In Twentieth Century Warfare

  • Publish Date: 2000-11-27
  • Binding: Paperback
  • Author: Joanna Bourke
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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 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.
"The characteristic act of men at war is not dying, it is killing".

With that unsettling--yet incontrovertible--assertion, Joanna Bourke opens her investigation of how servicemen deal with the most willfully ignored of wartime activities. Drawing on private letters and diaries of men (and a few women) from the First and Second World Wars and Vietnam, she shows not only how military men talk of their fears and anxieties--familiar enough territory--but also how they talk of joy and pleasure: the physical, sexual excitement of killing other men.

In its own right, the material--lucidly and wittily handled--is fascinating enough. But across Britain, the U.S., and Australia, across three distinct wars, the same stories come through loud and clear: the joy of a man-to-man combat, which, ironically, became less and less common through the century. As Bourke shows, these powerful stories were influenced by the combat tales in magazines, novels, and films that enthralled boys across generations. In the end, despite the best efforts of the military, the experience of war cannot be prepared for.

Some may have reservations about Bourke's conclusions, but the huge mass of detail she brings to light in An Intimate History of Killing forces us at the very least to reconsider those easy clichs about the brutalizing, traumatizing effects of war. --Alan Stewart,

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