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killing & responsibility Arrow vol 2 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 2 number 3, 2003


Killing and Responsibility—a dialogue

Joanna Bourke & Anthony Burke
University of London :: University of Adelaide

Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the author of a number of books including An Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare (Granta, 1999), which was awarded the 1998 Fraenkel prize in contemporary history and the Wolfson History Prize for 1999. She spoke with borderlands publisher Anthony Burke in Adelaide in July 2003, where she was a guest of the 2003 Adelaide Festival of Ideas.

1. Anthony Burke: One of the first things that struck me about The Intimate History of Killing was how different a work of history it is, especially in the military field. Traditionally the approach is at a distance from the battlefield and from the soldier - it is focused on grand strategy, tactics and policy, and where soldiers are visible, they are presented as statistics, or seen in terms of the costs and gains of a particular campaign. But you’ve probed directly into their personal experience, and probably attracted a great deal of criticism for it. What inspired you to take the approach you did, and how have you reacted to the criticisms that have been made of your work?

2. Joanna Bourke: I became entranced with military history while writing a social history of the working-class in Britain. The only time working class people write letters or diaries is when they are at war. So that was when I started reading this material and I was fascinated. There is nothing more emotionally more powerful and intellectually more interesting than reading these intimate diaries and letters: they really give you a sense of who these people were in the past. I didn’t know at that stage (I was very naïve) that it was going to cause such controversy, particularly amongst conventional military historians. They didn’t like it and the military didn’t like it, so I got a lot of flak from them.

3. Military history is one of the few fields in respectable, academic history where there doesn’t seem to be any conflict between writing about a subject and being paid by the people you’re writing about. The army military sponsor a lot of military history, and in other fields of academic discourse that would be a problem or, at the very least, something that required elaborate discussion.

4. Anthony Burke: What do you think their problem is? Is it an ideological issue, is it about politics?

5. Joanna Bourke: Much of the problem came down to politics: a lot of them thought I must be a pacifist, a lot of them simply saw "women" (outspoken woman equals feminist historian equals pacifist historian), and they put those together immediately. One of the questions that came up time and again is: "You’re a woman, how can you understand anything about men?" My response was: "Well, that would stop many or nearly all historians from writing about nearly everything?" It was very frustrating because there’s really no response to that kind of argument. The central issue for all historians is the interpretation of historical texts. It’s not about truth in some kind of final, immutable, incontrovertible sense; it’s about analysing and interpreting the material.

6. Of course, it is important not to make sweeping criticisms of all military historians. I have to say that even though there were a number of military historians who hated my work, there were also many who were extremely supportive. For example Trevor Wilson is probably the world’s most eminent military historian and yet he has been a constant supporter and mentor for me. Robin Prior is another example. Everyone seems to mention one of my main critics, Anthony Beaver, who launched the first major attack (in fact the only real major attack) on my work. He ended his review with a wonderful phrase: "If this is the new military history, then God help us!" I tell you I framed it!

7. Anthony Burke: It does strike me as odd that you are not allowed to have a bias towards pacifism (I don’t know if you do or not) but it is acceptable for a military historian like John Keegan to think that force is a rational and legitimate course of action, and to give advice to government, write op-ed articles supporting war on Iraq, and so forth.

8. Joanna Bourke: I’m not going to criticise someone like John Keegan who wrote the great classic, The Face of Battle. Unfortunately, the work he’s done since doesn’t live up to the promise of that book In part, the difference is generational and institutional. In Britain, military history has an institutional history, based at King’s College in London and Oxbridge: any outsider to those schools come in for a very, very hard time.

9. Anthony Burke: Military history is also an area where there is an enormous level of social, political and cultural investment. It’s bound up with powerful discourses of nationhood and identity—even at a civilisational level. In that sense the kinds of narratives and experiences that are presented have much larger political meanings attached to them, as Fiona Nicoll explains in her book From Diggers to Drag Queens and I do also in parts of In Fear of Security. There is so much at stake. You write about the way soldiers are either seen in conventional historiography as heroes or victims, but your next move, to suggest that there is a third perspective – that they might enjoy elements of their experience, or enjoy them in order to cope with them - did seem shocking when juxtaposed with the traditional narratives with which we are presented.

10. Joanna Bourke: Again it surprised me that people were shocked at my discussions of the way combat can be experienced as exciting, even enjoyable: anyone who has read any number of war memoirs will have come across many examples of that. From my point of view, when I wrote An Intimate History of Killing, in my naivety, I simply accepted what men who had seen combat actually said about it. It was there in black and white. People latched on to this book, and ignored an earlier book I had written called Dismembering the Male. Men’s Bodies, Britain, and the Great War - a book that concerned itself with trauma in war: physical dismemberment, psychiatric breakdown, intense agony. In that sense, Dismembering the Male was a much more conventional book, but it was based on the same sources as An Intimate History of Killing.

11. It was near the end of writing Dismembering the Male that I realised that I was falling into the trap of only analysing half of what I was reading. I was also skipping over sections—in one diary I ‘d be reading, the diarist would be saying, "I went into battle, it was the most traumatic thing, I’m shaking, I’ve got diarrhoea, I’ve got to get out of it I’m just going mad" and so forth, and I analysed all those texts carefully. Then of course a few pages later the same man, in the same diary, is in another conflict, and he’s got this nice little comment about – "Hey this is fabulous, had a great time here", and then he would move on and a fortnight later something else would happen. The point is that combat engenders a diverse range of emotions, yet as an historian I was screening out the pleasure because I was thinking, "Well the trauma is natural but the pleasure is somehow not. He doesn’t really mean it, it’s just the spur of the moment adrenalin, he doesn’t know what he is actually saying!." So what I tried to do in the Intimate History of Killing is say, "Well actually he meant both, he did mean the trauma, and he also meant the pleasure", and I had then to ask, "What made him feel one thing at one time, and a completely different emotion another time?" In other words we need to take seriously what people are saying in the past, without patronising them and without resorting to notions of false consciousness.

12. Anthony Burke: Fiona Nicoll in From Diggers to Drag Queens writes extensively about the discourse of digger nationalism which structures institutions like the Australian War Memorial and the official histories of C. E. W. Bean. She questions the cultural (and gender) politics of their representations, the narratives, exhibits and dioramas, in which there is a refusal to represent trauma and dismemberment, the assault on the self and identity felt in war, whereas the narratives you analyse (and problematise) are often about strengthening national identities. There seems to be an interesting disjunction between yours and Fiona’s work on the one hand, and the neater stories of official memorial history on the other. Your work in a sense cuts across and beneath the nationalist discourse. Is this something of which you’ve been conscious?

13. Joanna Bourke: I think there are two responses to that. First is that in fact a lot of really good historians have written about war and national identity and ideology, while I didn’t actually think a lot of historians had focused on more emotional, experiential aspects of battle. Secondly, I do have a problem with there being sometimes (and I emphasise sometimes) excessive emphasis being placed upon ideological aspects of combat. I think those national identity type discourses—that we’re going out there to fight for Australia, Britain, for the free world— these beliefs work really well behind the lines, and the further behind the lines the better they work. But the closer you get to the front lines, the worse they work. For men in battle, what matters is the Digger or the Tommy next to them. That’s what’s driving them. And because my question was, "What can historians discover about combat from people who have experienced it in the past?". I wanted to get as close to those front lines as possible, and the discourse of nationalism is not there. They simply are not concerned with those aspects of what it means to be an Australian or British: day to day survival, and their immediate relationships with those around them take over. Now some of those relationships are ideological: mateship, for instance, is a very ideological construct, but it’s not necessarily tied to nationhood on those front lines. I just think that we’re asking different questions.

14. Anthony Burke: An Intimate History of Killing raised for me issues of rationality - particularly where you’re describing men taking pleasure in killing, feeling as if the traditional biblical-cum-societal sanction against killing has been lifted, where you describe them being enticed into war zones, into joining up and so forth, with promises that in this life they can kill. This for me raises an issue about the presence of irrationality in war, given that Clausewitzian strategy always thinks of war as a rational (if not completely frictionless) process. There is a debate in both traditional strategy and among more critical writers, such as Chris Hables Gray in his Postmodern War (1997), which turns on the question of whether war is rational or irrational. The military historian Michael Howard (1983) argues that there is a kind of ‘superabundance of rationality’ that drives war. Others (such as Gray) counter by saying that that is an ideological construction, that irrational impulses are really what drive war. Can you remark on this tension between the experience of men in battle and their role in the technological and policy systems of war, which do rely on industrial and political rationality?

15. Joanna Bourke: I’m an historian, so what I’m interested in is not the subconscious or even, whether cognitive psychological ideas are right or wrong. The framework of your question is actually a framework about psychological theory, about our model of what constitutes the self, and Michael Howard is taking a cognitive line where the self is a rational being. Many other historians are taking a more psychoanalytical line, in other words, that war is a result of innate aggression, or an expression of the death drive, and such like. Basically I think that’s where those arguments come down to: how we see the self. They are mutually incompatible views.

16. What the historian does is simply map out when those psychological ideas change—when the idea of innate aggression comes in—when commentators move from the instinct theories of people like McDougall to the psychoanalytical model of the self where war is simply an internal aggressive drive, to a more modern cognitive notion of the self where these things are all rational. I know that means that I don’t end up with an answer, I’m simply saying this is the way human thought has changed, this is the way the narrative has changed. But then I’m not interested in finding an answer. I’m just interested in telling stories about the past.

17. Anthony Burke: But you do draw conclusions, or try to.

18. Joanna Bourke: Of course I draw conclusions. All good, convincing, and satisfying cultural stories have a neat ending! I’m still drawing conclusions, based not on some grand theory of any of those notions of the self, but I’m drawing conclusions based on the theories that individuals have had over time and the way those have changed. So, in other words, I’m not particularly interested in asking the universal question of "what is war", but simply asking what is war for these people, and how does that change these different people over different times.

19. Anthony Burke: Personally I’m sceptical of the psychoanalytical explanations to an extent, and also of the Howard view, although I am attracted to the idea that at least strategy and operations are the products of deeply rooted systems of industrialised rationality and need to be criticised on that level. However, when you begin to look at the experience of individuals in combat, their feelings, their emotions, the rationalist explanation starts to break down a little, even though the psychological explanation also has its own biases. Your work, even without the presence of a grand theory, does raise this issue of the presence of the irrational, which contrasts with the rationalist thinking that (at least on the face of it) underpins so much grand strategy and policymaking.

20. Joanna Bourke: It is dangerous to conflate arguments about politics and arguments about individual psychology. Wars are not started by individuals; the men and women I write about are not the ones who start war. Wars are created by governments failing, by the failure of statecraft; it’s a failure of a vision, a failure of political will to work for any alternatives to conflict. This is not to argue that war is always wrong. Anyone who’s not anti-war is crazy, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a pacifist. I’m not a pacifist but I am pacifistic, in other words I think that every means should be taken to avoid war. I believe war is always bad, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes it is the only moral option. I think that those people who want to muddy the waters—to argue that war is somehow created by those who fight wars—simply don’t read history, and know nothing about the trauma of war for everybody (even for those people who sometimes manage to get some enjoyment from it ).

21. Anthony Burke: Your argument about war being a failure of politics is a rebuke to those after Clausewitz who believe that war is a continuation of politics, the noiseless process of achieving a political end using violent means, and it is also to an extent a critique of the just war tradition. However both seem to be still extraordinary powerful, especially in response to the events of September 11, 2001. How have you been thinking about the post- 9/11 crisis and the war on terror, given that you’ve spent so much time in the past, in the battlefield?

22. Joanna Bourke: The discussions around September 11 have often been especially irritating. September 11 was a great atrocity, but Americans and Britons have a history of imperialist interventions into other nations employing immense force. I really do think this is a wake up call. September 11 did fundamentally change the western world by forcing people in the affluent West to realise, or to confront the fact, that we have done things that are making people very unhappy and impoverishing people. However, I admit that I think that people in the west are less frightened, and more guilt-ridden, than they make out.

23. Anthony Burke: Many people, particularly in this country [Australia] but also in the US, have remarked on the way politicians and opinion leaders have talked up the sense of threat, driven it into the heart of our politics and our sense of self, over and above any objective level of danger that it may present. They’ve made it simultaneously virtual and material, but in ways that aren’t directly related to terrorist threats, and which may well threaten us in other ways—by undermining civil liberties, human security, tolerance, or by generating suspicion, racism and discord. These have been important themes in borderlands’ first issues, both in terms of tracking the immediate collateral impact on asylum seekers, Muslims or other minorities, and also in terms of understanding the deeper cultural politics underlying these darker processes - their roots in modern liberal images of sovereignty, security, freedom, human rights, in politics itself.

24. Joanna Bourke: Between 1979 and 1985, in the entire world, thirty-seven Americans were killed through terrorist activity. Thirty-seven!. But in the same period 1300 books were catalogued in the library of Congress under the categories of terrorism or terrorist. In an analysis of the New York Times, we see a similar thing. In the early 1980s, seventeen Americans were killed within America through terrorist activity, yet every single issue of the New York Times had at least four pieces – every issue – on terrorism or terrorists. Now clearly we’ve got a problem with terrorism and terrorists - nobody’s denying that - but it’s out of proportion. No wonder people are scared. We have this feeling that it’s really wide spread and that we’re really in danger here. And obviously on September 11 we really were in danger, but a lot less than people in Palestine and people in innumerable places all over the world.

25. Anthony Burke: Given that there was a genuine threat from Al Qaeda after September 11, and given that the most effective anti-terrorist approach has been police work, shutting down financial channels, picking up cells in various countries and so forth, what do you make of the US spending tens of billions of dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq now to deal with the threat posed by terrorism, or the potential that terrorists might have gained access to weapons of mass destruction? The FBI estimated that the war in Afghanistan had only reduced Al-Qaeda’s capacity to operate by thirty per cent. How do you see the choice of high intensity warfare as a response to this kind of terrorism, given its deep cultural and physical impact on civilians?

26. Joanna Bourke: In the modern period, civilians have become the victims of choice. That’s not going to be reversed, it’s here for good. All those optimistic people who think we’re moving towards a military situation of precision targeting, are going to be disappointed. I was opposed to the war in Afghanistan, I am opposed to the war in Iraq. But I can understand why people want to go for what they see as a "quick fix". Personally I think that the war will produce the opposite of a quick fix by targeting civilians, by targeting people who have actually nothing to do with Al-Qaeda or any terrorist organisation. It is simply going to create terrorists where there weren’t terrorists before, or it will create seriously disaffected people who weren’t necessarily there before.

27. We’ve already seen people rising up against the Americans in Iraq, quite legitimately furious at the way they’re going into their homes, destroying their food, taking their money. The banking system doesn’t work, so people are keeping all their money within their house and that money is now just being confiscated by American troops on the grounds that his is money for terrorism! It’s not – it’s their life savings. There have been atrocities that have taken place already in Iraq, after all you can’t expect to set all these eighteen and nineteen year old kids in a strange place where they can’t understand anything, and despise what they do understand, and expect there not to be "incidents" - as they are called.

28. The second point is that there is no evidence that these are real threats to us. That’s a huge issue. We know about weapons of mass destruction that don’t exist. Finally, declaring war wasn’t the last resort. Britain and America spent a lot of time and money supporting Hussein’s regime: they didn’t spend a lot of time and money seeking alternatives to the war. Their main response was to impose sanctions – something that obviously hurt the mass of poor people in Iraq. And then the politicians insist that they are going into the country for humanitarian reasons, because the people are starving! They are starving because we were not allowing food and medication to be sent in and distributed.

29. Anthony Burke: Alex Bellamy and Nicholas Wheeler presented papers about the Iraq war at a symposium at the University of Queensland in June 2003, in which they analysed the humanitarian arguments you refer to, particularly Tony Blair’s effort to use the Kosovo analogy to justify bypassing the United Nations Security Council (i.e. that the refusal by France and Russia to support a resolution authorising war against Iraq was analogous to Russia and China preventing the Security Council authorising NATO’s 1991 attempt to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo). They made the point that it is an outrageous piece of logic to say that you go in to save a situation you helped create.

30. Joanna Bourke: We supplied the poisonous gas, we supplied the finance to buy the gas to massacre the Kurds, and now we’re going in because this horrible man called Saddam Hussein gassed Kurds, how many years ago? But we, the West, Italy, the US and Britain, were the ones who gave him the money to do that, and we knew he was doing it at the time so it’s not as though we didn’t know what the funds were being devoted to.

31. Anthony Burke: You talked about the current claims about precision weapons; one conceivable objection to An Intimate History of Killing is that it stops at the end of the Vietnam war. The argument might run: now we’re living in an era of limited war, a world different from the previous era of ‘total war’ where the moral license to kill is unleashed and uncontrolled. We now have the Geneva Conventions, the internalisation of just war doctrine and international legal rules into operations, precision weapons. War is far less destructive to civilians and far more discriminate. These are the kinds of arguments I have read again and again, whether it be in US Air Force press material, recent just war scholarship such as that of Michael Walzer (2002) and Jean Elshtain (2002), and of course from policymakers. What is your view of such arguments? Has your work become an anachronism?

32. Joanna Bourke: Well, I’m an historian, and I am personally most interested in earlier periods of history. Just because the world changes doesn’t mean that history is not relevant. But the more serious thing is that, yes, the world has changed but I actually think less than we are led to believe. Troops go in with their bayonets, military training remains almost identical to what it was during the second world war. It changed very little for the Korean war in the British case and the Vietnam war for Australia. Also the way people experience the act of killing someone has not changed dramatically, because in the wars I’m [writing] about it’s still long distance, it’s still an enemy that you’re not seeing. This idea about the bayonet during the first world war that we all have in our heads because we’ve watched lots of movies about the guys going over the top with their bayonets and stabbing people; its just that it didn’t happen. 0.3% of people in the first world war were killed by the bayonet but if you watch any first world war movie, and if you read any memoir, they’re all bayoneting people. Combat then was anonymous, and it remains so now: it is still long distance. The real difference I see is the declining legitimacy of a large standing army and of conscription, I think it would be impossible for America to have conscription again, at least in the foreseeable future.

33. Anthony Burke: I would have to agree with you, having recently been researching the impact of US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq on civilians, and comparing that to just war arguments and the international law of war (Burke 2004). While there is some greater care for civilians, there seem to be too many instances of indiscriminate, or poorly discriminate, operations which kill hundreds and thousands of civilians. The death-per-bombing-sortie ratio in Afghanistan was much higher than it was in 1991 in Kosovo, for example, and of course we are have seen markets and homes bombed in Baghdad, and high casualty estimates in towns such as Nasiriyah, Basra and Najaf which saw heavy fighting. This is without considering the growing civilian toll of the occupation. Just war theorists excuse this by arguing the moral distinction between intentional and unintentional killing, while the Geneva Conventions mimic this distinction with the concept of ‘proportionality’, in which risk to civilians is balanced against judgements about the 'military advantage' that accrues from an operation. (Wheeler, 2002: 209)

34. Joanna Bourke: International law, I call it a joke.

35. Anthony Burke: Why, because its so rarely enforced?

36. Joanna Bourke: Also the complicity in that, what constitutes a war crime? In An Intimate History of Killing, I had a large section dealing with the very simple war crime of killing prisoners of war. Now that is something that is, in terms of international law, a crime, but also in terms of the military regulations it’s clearly stated to be a crime. But that part of the book was one of the things that the military just went livid about. When I showed instances in my book where the British, Australians, and Americans committed atrocities during the first and second world war (because we all know about Vietnam), the military establishment just went livid. They said "how dare you say that we committed atrocities…. killing prisoners of war is not an atrocity, at least not in the heat of battle because people are scared and people are doing this!" But this is not the case. Military regulation and international law says that it is a war crime. And, anyway, in many of my examples, the prisoners of war were in hospitals…wounded and disarmed! This is not occurring in the heat of battle.

37. Basically, for these military commentators, something is only defined as a war crime if it is done by the "other side". When Winston Churchill heard the news about the death sentences passed on the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg he was alleged to have turned to General Sir Hastings Ismay and commented: "Nuremberg shows that its supremely important to win. You and I would be in a pretty pickle if we had not".

38. Anthony Burke: It does seem that atrocities and civilian casualties are occurring in conflict now because of the problem you referred to earlier - a decline in the legitimacy of armies and force, a low public tolerance for the costly war. That all gets turned - in the operational sense - into risk aversion. This is something James Der Derian remarked upon in his recent book, Virtuous War, which he described as ‘the technical capability and ethical imperative to threaten, and if necessary, actualise violence from a distance - with no or minimal casualties.’ (Der Derian, 2001: xv)

39. So you have pilots in the Kosovo campaign being ordered to fly at a very high ceiling, and thus making mistakes which cost civilian lives. You have Americans in Afghanistan, at the village of Niazi Qala in December 2001, bombing an ammunition dump moved there by the Taliban because they didn’t want to risk the lives of ground forces to try and capture it. The toll of civilian casualties in Iraq has dwarfed that in Afghanistan, over 7500 dead and 19,000 wounded, much of it from bombing and missile strikes on Baghdad or the use of artillery and rockets in cities like Basra, Hilla and Nasiriyah. I recently read an interview with a US army private outside Kerbala during the high intensity phase of the war, where he talked about shooting children sent out by Iraqi irregulars to collect unexploded weapons from the battlefield. The soldier was quoted as saying: ‘I think they thought we wouldn’t shoot kids. But we showed them that we don’t care. We are going to do what we have to do to stay alive and keep ourselves safe’. (Reuters, 2003) Is this something new in your experience?

40. Joanna Bourke: That’s the toughest question you have asked because it’s actually very easy for me, white middle class, to sit here and say we ought to fight war a bit more fairly. I remember talking in a pub once to a working class woman from one of the poorest parts of the East End of London. I was just talking generally about my work, not really thinking about what I was saying, when she turned to me, and said: ‘You do understand that my son is in the army and my neighbour’s daughter is driving a truck in army. Everyone in my area has someone in the military – its poor families like us who give the army its recruits! Are you trying to tell me that you are willing to put my son at risk just to be fair?’

41. If I am to make the arguments I’m making, I have to actually confront that woman. I can’t just say ‘well, just because people of my class are less liable to need a job in the military (except perhaps as well paid and cushy officers) that I don’t have to worry about that issue’. I do have to worry about that issue but I also have to worry about the children in Afghanistan and Iraq who are under those bombs, and I also have a duty to them, as much as I have a duty to my friend in the pub. If we don’t, we are falling into the same trap that the militarist types are falling into. In other words, thinking that one life is worth more than another, that somehow we are worth more simply because we have better technology.

42. Anthony Burke: There is also the argument, perhaps it’s a cheap one for critics to make, that if you sign up, you sign up with the potential to die and the certainty of placing yourself in mortal danger. Sometimes I wonder if western militaries, particularly the US, refuse to accept this level of risk, even as they are seeking the capability to destroy enemy forces at ever greater speeds and distances.

43. Joanna Bourke: Those poor kids in Iraq didn’t sign up. But my basic point is that for poor Britons and Americans and Australians, the military can be a very good career option. Leave school at fifteen, and if there’s no war on, you actually get a much better life in the military that you would in any other job. There’s no question about that—if there’s no war on—so it’s a very good career option. I hate to say something nice about the military but you have a better chance there of being promoted through merit than you are in civilian society. So class comes into that in a very, very big way.

44. Anthony Burke: One of the interesting things also about An Intimate History of Killing is the non-judgemental tone. In a lot of it you’re describing people’s feelings about their commission of atrocities and so forth, but you don’t intrude to a great extent. This made me think about the question of responsibility. You talk at length about how civilians deal with and understand the actions of men such as Lieutenant Calley, who was charged and later paroled for his actions at My Lai, and how many Americans either responded to the news of that massacre with disbelief or moral neutrality, a sense of resignation. (AIH, pp 171-196) Perhaps in these more recent conflicts you do see atrocities being committed by lower ranked troops, vans full of families being shot at checkpoints in Iraq, for example, because soldiers are jumpy, the training isn’t there to enable them to deal with these novel situations. So the question of responsibility comes up because the soldier has to grapple emotionally with what they have done, to find some explanation that works. Whereas the policy maker who is making the decision go to war, or the senior military officers that are setting up the training environment and making decisions about tactics and operations and rules of engagement, are creating a context in which soldiers act and experience these things. Yet decision makers so often neither have to cope with the experience, nor be accountable for what they have set in train.

45. Joanna Bourke: When I started An Intimate History of Killing, I started it with completely the wrong image in my head about what this book was going to be about. I started the book thinking that somehow the people who did the worse kinds of killing must be somehow different from us, and I wanted to find out what was different about them. It was inconceivable to me to think that someone would just go out there and shoot kids or shoot a prisoner of war.

46. But then you see I started reading their letters and diaries, this notion of a "killer personality" just crumbles. It is a history book about real people, men who write love letters that say things like "Dear Mary-Lou how much I miss you, there is a moon here and I remember when I proposed to you and it’s the same moon that I’m looking at now and I’m really cold and I just wish that you were here beside me." The next letter they would say " I went to battle, I had to feed the prisoners of war and one of them was really uppity so I just gave him one. Shot him stone cold for his troubles!", followed by "PS kiss to Lou – Lou."

47. You realise that these people are not so different from us: they are not psychopaths. These are ordinary people, even the people who commit gross atrocities. Psychopaths are just not in the military - they are useless to the forces so are gotten rid of quickly. No military officers wants a psychopath anywhere near the front lines because they can’t obey orders. So in a sense I became sympathetic to some degree with the soldiers I wrote about. That is not to say I approved of some of the things they did, because obviously I didn’t. But I wanted to know how they conceived of themselves as full human beings, not as horrible people. What is most interesting is how they fashioned themselves as father, son, and occasional war criminal - and how those bits got together.

48. I don’t think the book is non-judgemental though because, as I think I say at one point, historians can judge people to the degree that they judge themselves. So what I do try to look at in the book is how these servicemen themselves judge themselves, and they do it constantly. I think one of the striking things for me was this idea of guilt, that the sense of guilt enabled them to kill because it actually reassured them that weren’t psychopaths, they weren’t crazy, they still retained a sense of morality. That actually enabled them not to be brutalised, to come back and actually be really good dads, and husbands or whatever, friends to other people.

49. Anthony Burke: Your work in that sense could be seen as a contribution to understanding, by humanising soldiers without either mythologising, glossing over or sensationalising what they do - it contributes to understanding without necessarily imposing a strong interpretive framework.

50. Joanna Bourke: Other people have done that for me, imposed a strong interpretive framework.

51. Anthony Burke: There is another layer I want to raise - that of the policy maker’s guilt or responsibility. You talk about the distance - or levels of distance - between the actor in war and the impact of their actions: the army grunt who’s closer to the enemy has a different set of feelings about what they do than the pilot. And then above that you have the command layer and the political layer - the defence minister or the commander who has both enormous responsibility and enormous distance from the battlefield and its array of killing and suffering humans. There’s a fascinating book by Paul Hendrickson, The Living and the Dead (1996) about the former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. It was very different from the traditional history because it looked at the experiences of a number of soldiers and civilians on both sides of the war in Vietnam who were all connected with McNamara in some way. The book then conducted a slightly psychologising critical biography of McNamara himself, his moral journey and ambivalence, which develops to the point where we know that in 1995 he published his mea culpa, In Retrospect which contained an admission that the war was wrong both morally and strategically.

Now, we’re witness to a latter day heir, Donald Rumsfeld, responding to accusations that his department was avoiding the issue of civilian casualties in Afghanistan by saying: ‘With the disorder that reigns in Afghanistan, it is next to impossible to get factual information about civilian casualties...We did not start this war. So understand, responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether they're innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of the al-Qaeda and the Taliban.’ (Pentagon News Briefing, December 4, 2001). Its as if the US is absolved of responsibility. In short, we don’t often talk about, or bring to account, the people who are most distant but perhaps most responsible.

52. Joanna Bourke: Yes I think we ought to be talking about them a lot more than we do. That’s not something I do because I’m interested in the men at the front. I would love a research student to do this with me because I’m not going to. Precisely that question of how far up the chain of command you go in terms of punishing someone. We’ve got all the debates around My Lai where Calley was prosecuted, the only one, but that’s as high up as they went, and of course in the end they let him off. I do think that Kissinger has a lot to answer for, I do think he is a war criminal and I think the current Bush administration are in grave risk of becoming - if they are not already - war criminals.

53. General George S. Patton ordered his troops to kill eighty Italian prisoners of war, who were in a camp, in an enclosed little thing they couldn’t get out, they were completely disarmed, he was the one who ordered the shootings, but of course was not held "responsible" for the atrocity that took place. (AIH, p 183) You get innumerable cases – Vietnam, for example, where people are ordered to fire on undefended villages, and everyone knows they are undefended, and very occasionally the pilots get disciplined for it, but they don’t get punished seriously. As a first step, it is imperative that the International Criminal Court is set up.

54. Anthony Burke: Which the United States has rapidly tried to undermine by pressing their allies to sign bilateral agreements not to extradite any US citizens to an international tribunal.

55. Joanna Bourke: Yes, exactly. The reason is that they don’t want to be accountable, and they know they could be made accountable, which is a good sign because it shows they feel some guilt. At least it shows that they understand that other people may think that they are responsible and they feel sufficiently insecure about it, they are scared.

56. Anthony Burke: You made a comment this morning about how war is a situation "where men and women act beastly, with the connivance of all that civilisation offers them." This to me relates to a debate, not a terribly visible one but one about the moral nature of western culture and civilization. Is war a central, integral part of western culture or is it an anomaly? Is it anathema to enlightenment?

57. Joanna Bourke: No, it was all part of the Enlightenment project, this violence and modern warfare. This is the epitome of what western culture is all about, the technological imperative. I do think that war contains everything that we are as a civilized people, and the idea that this is something aberrant, simply doesn’t work: war is central to nation states.

58. Anthony Burke: Which is troubling…

59. Joanna Bourke: It’s very troubling. This is why I’m accused of telling a Hobbesian story!

60. Anthony Burke: But what if we take a different view: if we consider the historian's task in this case to be a potentially positive one. You put a human face on war, raw and unadorned, at a time when war is caught up in all kinds of media discourses - distanced and mediated through rhetorics of nationalism, freedom and patriotism, of good intentions and collateral damage etc - all of which tends to sweep the horrific reality of war aside.

61. Joanna Bourke: But this is why we are historians, this is why we write about these things; because to say that I don’t foresee a nice future is not to say that there is no point, that people can’t have an influence at all because clearly we can, particularly through politics. War is actually about politicians, it’s about failed politicians and that’s who we need to target. Also, in the past we have seen that political scientists, historians, novelists, even some film makers have brought attention to different aspects of war and have caused people to talk about what we want. For all of the huge faults and complete irrelevance in practical terms of things like the Geneva Convention, the invention of genocide—all those regulations— even though we know they haven’t had any impact, they still have created debate about it and made people actually think: ‘this is a genocide that we are carrying out here, or this could potentially be seen as genocidal, or even though we may do this it is still a war crime’.

62. I think that is a big step forward, and clearly I think it is also important that after the sixties, so many more people were disillusioned and disaffected by the military and military career. I write about these things because I believe very passionately that firstly they are important and secondly that horrible things did happen and I’m rather tired of people saying that "it was only those other guys who did it". Well, we were there too: the characteristic act of men at war is not dying for their country, but killing for it.

Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the author of a number of books including An Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare (Granta, 1999), Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War, and Working Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. An Intimate History of Killing was awarded the 1998 Fraenkel prize in contemporary history and the Wolfson History Prize for 1999. Her book, Fear: A Cultural History of the Twentieth Century will be published by Virago in 2004. She is currently writing a history of rapists in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, America, and Australia. Email:

Anthony Burke is the publisher of the borderlands e-journal and a lecturer in the School of History and Politics at the University of Adelaide. He is the author of In Fear of Security (Pluto Australia, 2001) and has written about security, war and conflict for Alternatives, Borderlands and Postmodern Culture. His article, "Just War or Ethical Peace?" appears in International Affairs in March 2004. He is currently working on a book about war and reason.


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© borderlands ejournal 2003



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