Monday, May 21, 2007

Acts of War: the Behavior of Men in Battle

The photograph on the book’s cover captivated me -- a young man with bright and open eyes, looking up at the viewer (flirtatious?) from under his helmet, a Mona Lisa smile on his lips. I never tired of looking at him.

War is a curious thing. We take it for granted, assume it’s a good tool for use against people we don’t like, glorify it (with the occasional caveat), and don’t want to know the details. One could hardly be blamed for not wanting to know the details for the more of them you know the more horrific war becomes. War is Evil. Is war ever necessary? Even a “good war” is bad, there being nothing moral about war unless one’s morals are purely contingent, relative to the situation. Everyone’s morals are at least somewhat contingent, but war is built of brutality, cruelty, injustice, and destruction. That’s what war is. If you’re not engaging in brutality, cruelty, injustice, and destruction you’re not at war. This would be one of the reasons the U.S. no longer has a Department of War but rather a Defense Department. If we don’t call it “war” maybe it’s not. The Congress hasn’t declared a war since World War II. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, those weren’t/aren’t declared wars.

When I read Acts of War I was of eminently draftable age and I knew lots of the soldiers who died & killed in wars were my age (or younger). It’s easy enough to fantasize about offing one’s enemies, but actually shouldering a rifle and hunting humans is something else again.

In this book review the reviewer lays out the structure of author Richard Holmes’ text. Among other things, “He analyses the degree of stress imposed by the soldier's feeling of pre-contact battle apprehension and the stresses as a result of the empty battlefield, shell shock and the feeling of utter disorganisation when the battle begins. In addition, he explores in great detail the soldier's feelings towards injury and death, the experience of watching others die and suffer and examines the major causes of psychiatric breakdown.”

Another reviewer wonders, “Although Holmes discusses the relationship of sexual imagery and language to the language of battle and alludes to the ubiquity of prostitution in war, strangely he does not explore the phenomenon of rape.”

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