A page featuring excerpts and quotes from this military history book by Richard Holmes examining the behaviour of men in battle.
# 2003 INTRODUCTION
If we descend to war's most fundamental level, that of the individual combatant, it seems to me that preparedness to take risks, determination to succeed, and ultimately, ability to endure are qualities which are as fundamental to military success at the beginning of the 21st Century as they were as Hastings or Bannockburn.
If America and its allies are to win 'The War Against Terrorism' then they will need to recognise that human qualities are crucial in the struggle, and that winning tactical victories with superior technology or technique will not necessarily win the war. Indeed, recognition of the centrality of moral qualities ought to suggest that persuading potential opponents not to fight in the first place will be ever bit as important as engaging them when they do take the field. An although regard for technology and an understandable desire to minimise both friendly casualties and (dreadful phrase) collateral damage, will encourage some combatants to favour the use of smart long-range weapons, there will remain times when the ultimate symbol of a nation's commitment is to put its young men (and, these days, its young women too) in harm's way. An infantry section can say some things far more eloquently than the most agile of cruise missiles. I thought this 20 years ago, and having seen British soldiers in operations since than I am more impressed than I would once have thought possible by the worldly wisdom of young men and by their ability to enthuse about the tasks endemic in the hugely complex work of rebuilding collapsed states.
In the 1980s several
distinguished historians predicted the imminent end of war, an activity
which, they suggested, had outstripped men's ability to wage it. I would
rather have had them right and me wrong, but, writing as I do with another
Gulf War apparently imminent, it seems to me that, if we have got better
at heding war about with legal constraints we retain an extraordinary capacity
for inhumanity to our fellow man. While I was probably wrong to place battle
quite as much in the centre of war's stage, I have been struck, even over
the past few years, but the similarity between the battles described in
these pages and small-unit action in the Gulf, Sierra Leone or Afghanistan.
Things like Global Positioning Systems, body armour and personal radios
have naturally made a difference, but they have not yet transformed low-level
combat, if, indeed, they ever will.
If seems to me, therefore, that successful armed forces must continue to value the qualities which enabled their people to fight. even though the actual incidence of combat might remain relatively infrequent. These qualities may easily be eroded by a variety of factors, many of them wholly proper consequences of social and political development. Discipline must, in its way, reflect the mores of the times, but discipline there must be. Low-level leaders will need to take battlefield decisions in circumstances when a legally-imposed duty of care may urge reflection: but the successful commander on the 21st Century battlefield will be the one who grasps the 80% solution and does not await the absolute certainty which rarely comes.
Armed forces need to be more open with both their political masters and their national constituencies. While minimising casualties may be desirable it may not always be possible, and it is part of the paradoxical logic of war that he who strives to preserve his life may indeed lose it. Wounds and death remain the currency of war, and the fact that this cruellest of coinage must occasionally be paid does not mean that the transaction was necessarily an error. Good men die, in war as in medicine, even though nobody has blundered. Single men in barracks are no mor inclined to grow into plaster saints than they were in Kipling's day. Neither are many of their civilian contemporaries, and yet local newspapers till find 'Soldier resists arrest' an appealing headline where 'Baker resists arrest' might not be. Good armed forces recognise that they differ from civilian corporations for sound functional reasons: they do a different job in trying circumstances, and the way they behave must ultimately reflect this. This duty to be different — for such it is — might be better understood if it was more clearly articulated, and not regarded, as it sometimes is, as a matter of belief that eludes rationalisation.
Armed forces are value-based or they are nothing. This is not to suggest that servicemen are interest-free: erode their pay and allowances, house them badly, nelgect them in painful retirement, or shift them about as if they were warrior monks without family ties and they will show the strains. But ultimately what nerves them in the sorts of circumstances described in these pages are values. These will vary from time to time and place to place, with a variety of factors influencing the precise mix. These values, so many of them the old-fashioned virtues like courage, loyalty, and duty, work within the interlocking network of personal bonds that link soldier to soldier; the wider circles that join units within the services; and a broder national — or even supra-national — sense of purpose. For if battle, as this book suggests, is ultimately about people, so too are the organisations that fight it, and they forget this at their peril.
~ Ch1: Start Line
~ Ch2: Mysterious Fraternity
~ Ch3: The Painful Field
~ Ch4: Epitome of War
~ Ch5: Pale Battalions
~ Ch6: The Real Enemy
~ Ch7: The Valour Of Simple Men
~ Ch8: Precarious Valour
~ Ch9: I Am The Enemy
~ Conclusion: A Peaceful World
[#1 Start Line]
"The man is the first
weapon of battle. Let us study the soldier, for it is he who brings reality
- Ardant du Picq
The popularity of military
history is such that it has, in the words of Paddy Griffith "assumed the
proportions of a minor industry." There are a number of possible reasons
for this. The psychologist Norman Dixon, in his thought-provoking On The
Psychology Of Military Incompetence, suggests that:
"The popularity of books and films dealing with war and violence (particularly evident after a prolonged period of peace), like that for pornography following an age of sexual repression, attests to the pleasure provided by the vicarious satisfaction of hitherto frustrated drives."
There is undoubtedly
a measure of truth in Professor Dixon's assertion, although as the surge
of literary activity of the 1920s, and more recently, the flood of books
dealing with the Falklands conflict demonstrate, there is a very considerable
interest in military history even in the aftermath of a war. John Cornell
believed that there was a deep-seated human interest in war which its expression
in military history:
"War had had us in its thrall. It has horrified us and fascinated us... The stench of war has seeped into our souls. We have talked endlessly about peace; but in the recesses of our imagination we have brooed, often feverishly, on war, and we have written about it more copiously, I suppose, than any previous generation."
It is, of course, possible to argue that the prime function of military history is to provide vicarious experience of war, and to illustrate that, however superficially attractive it might seem to those who have never been caught up in it, war is, in General Sherman's much-quoted opinion, hell.
For all that it is concerned with one of the most passionate dramas in which the human spirit can be engaged, military history all too often reduces it, at the one extreme, to a knockabout affair dripping with cliches, and at the other, to a desensitized operational narrative in which the individual is lost in a welter of arrows on maps. As John Connell noted, too many observers have concentrated on the enormousness — and the enormity — of war: "The soul of man, in all its majesty and mystery, has been dwarfed by the war game"... Too little serious work is done on the individual soldier's experience of battle, on the sum of complex instincts and emotions that have led generations to soldiers.
I had never wanted to be much other than a military historian. Like many schoolboys, I was fascinated by 'drum and trumpet' military history, by richly-embroidered narratives of battle. I could recite by heart the stories of the repulse of the Imperial Guard at Waterloo, of Colonel Lacy Yeo and his fusiliers at the Alma... I recognised that it must have been decidedly unpleasant to have got in the way of a roundshot or to have found oneself in the cone of fire of a machine-gun, I was not unduly alarmed by the butcher's bill. By the time I was studying military history more seriously, I was conscious of charting the geography of a realm where death was king.
Alfred Adler argues that all human beings have a deep-seated desire for superiority, and crave to be respected, admired and loved... Frank Richardson asserts that the soldier's Goal of Superiority is bravey. This is something of a generalisation which may not apply in all cases, for example, to conscript armied engaged in unpopular wars. None the less, despite that it is clear that Adler's theories relate intimately to matters of individual heroism and group cohesion.
The fact that soldiers are organised in groups — sections, platoons, companies, battalions and so on — means that theories of psychologists and sociologists whose prime concern is with group behaviour are also of great importance. In 1885 Gustave Le Bon made the crucial statement that, even if we understand the individual, we are forced to acknowledge that he acts differently in a group. Le Bon argued that, whatever the occupations, character and intelligence of the individuals who make up a group, the fact that they have been transformed into a group gives them 'a sort of collective mind' which causes them to think and act in a manner quite different from that which might be expected of the isolated individual.
In the place of the 'herd', Freud created the 'horde': man was not a herd animal but a horde animal, "an individual creature in a horder led by a chief."
What follows is a study of the soldier's feelings and behaviour from his training to war, through his experience of battle, and on into its aftermath. It seeks neither to glamourise war on the one hand nor, on the other, to deny that it contains moments of satisfaction or even pleasure. War is a gripping crisi for all involved in it, and the cost of even a relatively petty skirmish is absolute enough for those who comprise the statistics.
[#2 Mysterious Fraternity]
"A mysterious fraternity
born out of smoke and danger of death."
- Stephen Crane
It is easy to regard the military oath as a meaningless charader which has little practical value. To do so is, however, to underestimate the importance of the first ritual in a ritualistic profession. The impact of the oath upon German officers and soldiers was recognised by Hitler, who, after the death of Hindenburg in 1934, had the impersonal oath of the Weimar Republic replaced by one in which the soldiers swore personal allegiance to the Fuhrer himself. Telford Taylor wrote that the oath "constantly emerged as a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to any decisive opposition to Hitler within the officers' corps."
The importance of the training instructor is underlined by the disproportionate impact of basic training upon soldiers. It is, after all, their first experience of army life, and its events and personalities and likely to remembered for the remainder of a man's military service, and often for long after it. An American study of basic training, published in 1976, concluded that 91% of trainees had a positive view of their drill sergeant, and no less than a quarter of them took him as their role model and strove to be like him. Indeed, so powerful was the impact of the drill-sergeant that the officers and NCOs encountered by the soldier when he reached his unit were often something of a let-down in comparison. David Parks described what was almost a love-hate relationship to many who have undergone basic training... The figure of the firm-but-fair instructor recurs constantly in memoirs and interviews.
The instructor's separateness tends to be emphasised not only by distinctive items of dress, such as the broad-brimmed hat worn by drill-sergeants in the American army, but also by the careful cultivation of an immaculate appearance: John Parish, conscrioted into the US Navy as a medical officer during the Vietnam War, noticed that, somehow or other, his instructor was the only man in the room not perspiring. Language is also important. The instructor is likely to have an inimitable line in profanity.
But there is another side to the picture. In all armies there is a toughness about basic training that can sometimes become brutality... Spartan accomodation, a long working day and collective punishments for individual transgressions help build a group identity in an atmosphere of shared privation. Indeed, many training systems are deliberately designed to break recruits down to a lowest common denominator before building them up again. There is a direct link between the harshness of basic training and the cohesiveness of the group which emerges from it.
"A kind of purgatory,
a definite demarcation from the candidate's enlisted incarnation... It
has some of the characteristics of a conversion experience, or the ordeal
of a medieval knight."
- Samuel Stouffer, on military academies
Much of the harshness in recruit training results, then, from the need to cement the group together under adversity... There are, though, other reasons for the application of what is often very severe stress to the recruit. A drill sergeant at Fort Pol justified his harshness as an essential preparation for the pressures of combat: "If you can't take the training, you damn sure can't take battle."
German SS units took part in particularly realistic training with live ammunition, in which 5% casualties were tolerated. The armies of Western democracies have tended to be more cautious, particularly in peacetime... Not so in the Soviet army, where combat simulation and battle inoculation are as realistic as possible, and include the use of chemical agents which other armies might regard as impossibly risky.
Konrad Lorenz suggested that sport originated from highly ritualised fighting, describing it as "a specifically human form of non-hostile combat, governed by the strictest of continually developing rules." Sport is more akin to serious fighting than animal play is, and contains aggressive motivation. It is therefore not surprising that sport and military training are often linked... Commanding a platoon in an officer-cadet battalion in Oxford in 1917, Robert Graves recalled that "Our final selection was made by watching the candidates play games, principally rugger and soccer. Those who played rough but not dirty, and had quick reactions, were the sort we needed..."
Fast-moving team games do indeed call for quick decisions under pressure, and often involve physical contact calling for physical courahe and determination. Moreover, as Lorenz indicates, such games educate man in the control of his own fighting behaviour... Stouffer and his colleagues detected a strong connection between sport and military behaviour: they discovered there was a marked correlation between interest in body-contact sports and adjustment to army life. Keen team sportsmen, in other words, make the keenest soldiers.
The soldier's preconception
of battle is shaped, not only by his upbringing, education and training,
but also by the influence of the art, literature and film to which he has
been exposure. The arts, in their broadest sense, play a more important
role in creating images of war than is generallt recognised... Christopher
Isherwood grew up during the First World War and acknowledged that:
"Like most of my generation, I was obsessed by a complex of terror and longings connected with the idea 'War'. War in this purely neurotic sense meant The Test. The test of your courage, of your maturity, of your sexual prowess: 'Are you really a man?' Subconsciously, I believe, I longed to be subjected to this test; but I also dreaded failure... I was so certain that I should fail that, consciously, I denied my longing to be tested altogether."
Ironically, portraying war in all its harsh realism has the effect of making it more rather than less attractive. In Violence In The Arts, John Fraser warned that it can be peculiarly pleasurable to give way to a desire for the uglier and seamier side of life, and quoted the philosopher William James who, as long ago as 1910, wrote that "showing war's irrationality and horror is of no effect upon modern man. The horror is the fascination. War is the stronge life; it is life in extremis."
Many young men wish to be assured of the horror of war, either as part of that craving after the ugly side of life which John Fraser describes, or because of a desire to gain a foretaste of what might come if humanity does slip over the rim of the crater into hell.
The values instilled during upbringing play their own important part in determining the soldier's attitude to military service in general and to battle in particular. "You could never expect another generation to do what we did," stressed a First World War infantry officers. "We had been bred to it in a funny sort of way: certainly the soldiers of the next war could never have put up with it."
Battle is a traumatic experience at the best of times. But if it produces not only all the stresses of noise and danger but also the disolocation of expectation, then the risks of failure and breakdown loom large. Marshall believed that the average soldier goes to battle, the "supremely testing experience of his lifetime almost as total stranger." Grinker and Spiegel too, argued that most men had an essentially unreal concept of battle. Certainly, most soldiers set off on the road to battle conscious of the fact that they are about to embark upon an experience which, for good or ill, is unique. As Lt. Alan Hanbury-Sparrow wrote as he went to war in August 1914: "What's all the knowledge of the world compared with what we are about to discover?"
[#3 The Painful Field]
It is deceptively easy to form the impression that battle is a frequent occurence in war. Like so many first impressions, this will not stand close scrutiny. Evern the period of European history which labours under the blankest description of 'Napoleonic Wars' contained perhaps 200 days of pitched battle in 20 years... Nor were the World Wars much different. Tony Ashworth maintains, not without reason, that for much of the First World War large sections of the Western Front lapsed into unofficial truce, while on all fronts during the Second World War there were lengthy periods in which sporadic shelling, mortaring and low-level patrol activity were the rule while battle was the exception.
However essential basic training may be, and however successful it may prove in inculcating military values into the majority of recruits, there will be some for whom it is little short of purgatory. The primitve and physical nature of recruit training is often difficult to cope with. "Somebody 6-foot-2, 275 pounds is your new squad leader and no matter how dumb he is, he's in charge," remarked one of Mark Baker's interviewees. In this world turned upside-down, intelligence and civilian status count for less than physical strength and manual dexterity... Fear of losing status in this way may be one of the reasons why, as researchers in the mid-1970s found, the more educated a young man was, the less he was likely to favour military service.
The Vietnam era witnessed desertion from the American army which assumed almost epidemic proportions. But, as had been the case in the past, the politically-motivated deserter was less common than the soldier who simply found army life intolerable. "The vast majority of deserters and those going AWOL during the Vietnam era, as in previous wars," noted Guenter Lewy, "absented themselves not for political reasons but because of personal or financials problems or inability to adjust to military life." Lowered induction standards combined with a growth in the number of inexperienced leaders to produce high rates of desertion towards the end of the war. The argument that desertion reflected opposition to the war is substansially undermined by that fact that, in the US Marine Corps, the desertion and AWOL rate was at its highest in 1975, after American withdrawl from Vietnam. In a professional army soldiers may actually be more inclined to desert in peacetime, when they can easily feel bored by a repetitive routine of training. One parachute battalion under orders to depart for the Falklands in the spring of 1982 discovered that a number of illegally absent soldiers reappeared in an effort not to miss the campaign.
Most modern amies recognise that both efficient postal services and the provision of leave make useful contributions to morale. Not only does an effective postal system cheer soldiers who get mail but, in a deeper sense, it helps raise morale by illustrating the efficiency of the organisation to which they belong. During the First World War it rarely took longer than 4 days for a letter to reach the Western Front from England, although the addressee's name and regiment were all that was permitted on the envelope. During the Second World War Bill Maudlin suggested that "a soldier's life revolves around his mail."
Some soldiers find that the arrival of news from home — even if the news is good — can lower their morale by reminding them that, as Francis Bacon put it, "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune." A parachute officer who served in the Falklands said that he dreaded the arrival of mail because it reminded him that there he had another persona: in addition to being merely a cog in a military machine and of little individual value, he was also a husband and a father whose death would have devastating consequences. Remembering his role as a family man made him feel uneasy when the situation demanded that his military role should be dominant.
The close affinity between love and war is an enduring feature of both history and mythology. At its most obvious and superficial level, this relationship is reflected by soldiers' almost universal preoccupation with sex. The very fact of becoming a soldier seems to have the effect of enhancing a man's sexuality. "When we were in uniform," admitted Glenn Gray, "almost any girl had a strong erotic appeal for us." He went on: "the very atmosphere of large cities in wartime breathes the enticements of physical love. Not only are the inhibitions on sexual expression lowered, but there exists a much more passionate interest of the sexes in each other than is the case is peacetime." Alan Hanbury-Sparrow had observed the same phenomenon during the First World War: "It wasn't that you were in love with anyone in particular, it was simply that you you a quite especial delight in female society, and without really planning to, you yet did all in your power to attract them."
The whirlwind wartime romance may be a cliche, but it is a cliche founded on fact. The massive uprooting caused by war, and the maldistribution of the sexes which results from it, produces an environment in which there is as much desperate longing on the part of women whose husbands and lovers have themselves gone to war as amongst the soldiers of allied, or even enemy armies, armies with whom the fortune of war bring them in contact.
Much of this yearning is for affecton, not merely for physical gratification: it is positive evidence that, despite the upheavals of military life, one still remains a valuable and valued person.
There is much more to love in wartime than the scramble for sex.
During the First World
War a British artillery officer wrote a series of letters to an American
nurse he had met on leave. He never posted them, but their deeply introspective
nature reveals quite clearly this aching need for affection:
"I should like to think that here are women in the world who will be very compassionate to us when the war is ended. The Frenchwomen are like that already. In their hospitals they call a wounded man 'mon petit', and take him in their arms and hold him against their breasts. That is what we need most when our strength is spent — women are so shameless in their pity that they will mother us. We daren't ask for it ourselves. If you don't guess, we shall never tell."
This need for female affection, as opposed to mere sexual gratification, is part of the reason why soldiers respond so well to female nurses.
Reluctance to expose female nurses to the perils of battle is only a small part of the wider argument concerning the usefulness of women on the battlefield. The debate is of deeper significance than might appear at first sight. Major RL Nabors goes to the heart of the matter by suggesting that much male opposition to the increase of women's military role stems from the fact that such an increase threatens the single-gender uniqueness from which men derive their self-identification and feelings of masculinity... After all, women are able to prove their feminity by bearing children, but for the man, "the most observable, unique and honoured role... had traditionally been that of warrior."
John Laffin's conclusions
in Women In Battle may be unacceptably sexist, but they seem to reflect
Western man's perception of the woman's role:
"A woman's place should be in the bed not the battlefield, in crinoline or Terylene rather than in battledress, wheeling a pram rather than driving a tank. Furthermore, it should be the natural function of women to stop men from fighting rather than aiding and abetting them in pursuing it."
Doctrinaire attempts to change this view, however well-intentioned they may be, are unlikely to have much success, at least in the short-term. The cultural identity of man the warrior is more firmly stamped upon us than we recognise.
There is, though, more to man the warrior than brute strength and physical courage. Those archetypal male virtues are often shot through with streaks of gentleness and sentimentality.
are sentimental men, for all the harsh realities of their calling. In their
wallets and in their memories they carry bits of philosophy, fragments
of poetry, quotations from scriptures, which, in times of stress and danger,
speak to them with quiet meaning."
- General Matthew Ridgeway
Military service in wartime takes the soldier from a familiar environment, deprives him of many of his accustomed social and sexual pleasures, projects him into a world where his civilian status counts for little, and finally, may force him to risk his life. But even before it does this last, it will have subjected him to the pressures which arise from group life in what is often an uncomfortable environment, the rigours of terrain and climate, and the sheer physical exhaustion which stems from living in what Shakespeare's Henry V called 'the painful field'.
War is quite literally a dirty business.
American troops in
Korea suffered especially from the problems caused by lack of privacy.
Morale is also threatened. Richard Simpkin argued that "no relationship,
even marriage, can be sustained without reticences", and was sure that
the question of privacy should be considered seriously by the designers
of armoured vehicles. Constipation is often caused as much by natural modesty
as it is by an unbalanced diet.
Not all cultures place the same emphasis upon modesty. One of the aspects of the everyday life of the Vietnamese which seemed to alien to Americans was the propensity for people of all ages to relieve themselves in public places. Arab males, on the other hand, kneel to urinate and require privacy for the act: this fact meant that, during the Dhofar war of the 1970s, several Arab soldiers stepped aside from the beaten track to urinate and either trod or knelt on a mine left by the 'adoo'. Like 'The Refined Man' of Kipling's poen, they paid their price to live with themselves on the terms that they willed.
With the dirt comes the added discomfort of lice... George Orwell was moved by his own experience of lice to suggest a general truth: "In war, all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae — every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles."
"Before a commander
can even start thinking of maneuvering or giving battle... he has — or
ought — to make sure of his ability to supply his soldiers with those 3000
calories a day without which they will very soon cease to be any use as
- Martin van Creveld, "Supplying War"
The weather is a consideration
of secondary interest to most Western men and women in the late 20th century.
Rain spoils a weekend or makes the walk to the station unusually unpleasant,
and snow and ice bring traffic grinding to a halt. But what is merely an
irritating backcloth to the average city-dweller is a matter of fundamental
importance to the soldier, who lives out under the sky, often enjoying
only such creature comforts as he has been able to carry on his back. The
miseries of campaigning in such areas as the Far East during the monsoon
or Russia in winter are so striking as to need little emphasis, although
Guy Sajer's account of the latter makes the point with sharp effectiveness:
"We urinated on our numbed hands to warm them, and, hopefully, to cauterize the gaping cuts in our fingers. Some men had patches of skin on the ends of their noses which had frozen had become infected. Similar infections were common in the folds of the eyelids, around the ears, and particularly in the hands. I myself was not seriously affected, but each movement of my fingers opened and closed deep crevices, which oozed blood."
It is the pressures
of living in the field even in a temperate climate that deserve dtressing.
Banal tasks such as eating, washing and weapon-cleaning take on a new character
when they are carried out in the biting cold of winter. George Orwell's
assessment of the priorities of life at the front are by no means untypical:
"In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles, and the enemy. In winter on the Zaragoza front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last."
"Dampness rusts men
like rifles, more slowly but more deeply."
- Henri Barbusse
Just as the acceleration of technology and industrialisation provide the soldier with improved defences against the weather, so urbanisation and the mechanisation of agriculture ensure that the essentially rural environment in which the soldier does much of his living and fighting is increasingly foreign to him. Even the Russian army, which for centuries owed its formidable fighting qualities in great measure to the hardy peasants who filled its ranks, no longer contains a majority of soldiers of rural stock. In 1940 only 33% of Russians lived in towns, but by 1970 this had increased to 56%... The tough countryman, for whom the rigours of campaigning differed little from the grinding hardship of everyday life, i a disappearing commodity in the northern hemisphere.
Not only has the proportion of soldiers from the cities increased over the past century, but the nature of their home background has changed... Many of the soldiers who fought in the armies of the First World War had simply exchanged one harsh and violent environment for another. An infantry platoon analysed by Denis Winter contained a shepherd, a wheelwright, a labourer, a blacksmith, and several ironworkers and coalminers. They were working-class men in the old sense of the term, used to long days of unremittingly hard, dirty and physical labour.
[#4 Epitome of War]
"The battlefield is
the epitome of war."
- SLA Marshall, "Men Against Fire"
"We had set out in
a rain of flowers to seek the death of heroes. The war was our dream of
greatness, power and glory. It was a man's work, a duel on the fields whose
flowers would be stained with blood. There is no lovelier death in the
world... Anything rather than stay at home, anything to make one with the
- Ernst Junger, writing at the outbreak of WW1
Battle, whatever its frequency — or lack of it — is the end towards which most military training is directed, and is an event which comes to loom large in the soldier's mind... The American psychiatrist Dr J. Dowling's expression 'apprehensivve enthusiasm' is a good summary of most men's emotions during the period leading up to their first experience of combat.
The desire to appear a man amongst men, and the fear that one might fail the acid test of battle was widespread amonst member of the two Parachute battalions in the Falklands... for many of them the greatest fear was not of being killed or wounded, but of 'bottling out', of showing cowardice. This supports John Ellis's comment on the Second World War that 'the fear of showing fear was often more powerful than the fear of death itself', and, in a deeper sense, echoes Montaigne's assertion that: 'The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear.'
An individual's rank has a abivalent effect upon his pre-battle apprehension. On the one hand, to all a leader's other concerns is added the worry that men's lives depend upon his action... On the other hand, an officer or NCO is often so busy with the chain of orders and preparation that leads up to battle that he will spend much of his time consdiering the practical problems of movement, supply, co-ordinating supporting fire, and so on, and will have little time available for general speculation.
On modern battlefields the din of shells and small-arms fire is punctuated by the distinctive sounds of mechanised warfare — the squeaky rattle of tank tracks above the rumble of engines, the metallic clang of APDS rounds hitting armour, the whup-whup-whup of helicopters and the reverberating boom of high-performance aircraft.
"The air was vicious
with bullets; a million invisible birds flapped their wings very close
to my face."
- Patrick McGill
The noise of shellfire and small-arms, the cries of the wounded and the bellowing of officers and NCOs, subject soldiers to ferocious stress. This is accentuated when the cause of the noise cannot be seen. The garrisons of the French forts at Verdun in 1916 were safer from shellfire than their comrades who endured the bombardment lying out in the shellholes above ground, but the sheer din of the shells smashing into the forts — it was, said one survivor, like being inside an immense drum — and the agony of waiting for the arrival of the next shell drove men stark mad. Several Falklands veterans remarked on the fact that the worst place to be during an air attack on the fleet was below decks. Not only was the noise amplified, but there was no way of knowing what threat it portended. It was infinitely preferable — albeit actually more dangerous — to be up on deck, watching the Skyhawks as they ran the gauntlet of gun and missile fire.
With the eardrum-smashing, face-punching din of battle comes a hail of projectiles of all sorts. The damage they inflict is as much psychological as it is physical, for it is a striking fact that relatively few of the rounds fired by small-arms or artillery actually cause casualties... General Crook's men fired 25,000 rounds at Rosebud Creek on 16 June 1876 and caused 99 casualties among the Indians, or 252 rounds per hit. The men of Lt. Gonville Bromhead's B Company, 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment, defending the mission station at Rorke's Drift against the Zulus on 22 January 1897, fired over 20000 rounds from their Martini-Henry rifles, many of them at very close range. About 370 bodies were picked up around the post, and the Zulus got at least another 100 away. But even if one triples this figure to allow for wounded, and assumes that all the Zulus fell to rifle fire, rather than to the Martini's wicked triangular socket-bayonet, Bromhead's men fired at the very least 13 rounds to hit a single Zulu.
[#5 Pale Battalions]
"When you see millions
of the mouthless dead across your dreams in pale battalions go..."
- Charles Sorley
The sight of men being killed and wounded changes the soldier's perception of fear. For soldiers in action for the first time the greatest fear is, as we have seen, that of being a coward. But for veterans the fear of being crippled and disfigured for life looms largest. Veterans also tend to be specific about the sort of wounds they most fear.
Serious wounds sometimes
do not hurt immediately after they have been inflicted. Commenting on farmworker
Roy Tapping, whose arm was torn off in a baler in 1983, Dr Cliffard Woolf
of University College London said:
"It would be no good collapsing in agony... it was inappropriate to his survival. The human nervous system contains various defence mechanisms. When his arm was torn off they went into action and switched off the pain. Mr Tapping had no choice in the matter. It was the only way he could survive. He may have felt no pain at all. Once help arrived, he probably felt the pain suddenly."
Endorphins are released by the adrenal gland in moments of stress, and act as natural pain-killers, and the massive stimulus to the nerves produced by such a wound caused the brain to suppress pain. This helpd to explain the fact that soldiers often behave normally despite massive wounds.
R. Melzack observed that there is no simple direct relationship between the wound itself and the pain experienced. "The pain is in very large part determined by other factors and of great importance here is the significance of the wound... In the wounded soldier [the response to injury] was relief, thankfulness at his escape from the battlefield, even euphoria; to the civilian, his major surgery was a depressing, calamitous event."
Most wounds become painful when the initial shock wears off, and some are agonising from the start. Men scream, either because of the pain itself, or in sheer panic and terror.
Pain can be insupportable.
Some wounded soldiers kill themselves... Lt. Guerin, second-in-command
of an Indo-Chinese company at Dien Bien Phu, committed altruistic suicide
in the proper sense of the term. Wounded in both legs, he shot himself
in the head rather than risk the lives of his men who had begun crawling
back to rescue him. Others are so badly wounded that they are quietly put
down. The French surgeon Ambrose Pare, one of the fathers of military medicine,
encountered three badly-burnt soldiers in Turin as the French army entered
the city in 1536.
"Beholding them with pity there came an old soldiers who asked me if there was any means of curing them. I told him no. At once he approached them and cut their throats gently and, seeing this great cruelty, I shouted at him that he was a villain. He answered me that he prayed to God that should he be in such a state he might find someone who would so the same for him, to the end that he might not languish miserably."
Until relatively recently more soldiers perished from disease than were killed in battle. Even today accidents of various sorts take their toll. John Parrish described how Americans in Vietnam fell victim not only to the Viet Cong but also to 'vehicles, snakes, plane crashes, overdoes of hard drugs, mud, water, bacteria, falls, bunker cave-ins, or even tigers'.
The peril of 'friendly fire' has grown with the advent of indirect fire weapons. General Percin, author of the aptly-named Massacre de Notre Infanterie, estimated that 75,000 French soldiers were killed by their own artillery during the First World War. Worn barrels, faulty fuses, miscalculations on the gun position, inaccurate grid references, and perhaps most seriously, the deliberate engagement of a friendly position which is not recognised as such, all play their part in making artillery something of a double-edged weapon. The record of air power is no better. Allied troops were severely bombed by their own aircraft in Italy and Normandy. On 24-5 July 1944, during the preparation for Operation Cobra, American bombers killed 111 soldiers — including Lt. General Lesly McNair, the highest-ranking American fatality of the war — and wounded another 490. These difficulties are, like accidental engagements between sentries or patrols, almost unavoidable. They do, however, cause feelings of resentment, irritation and guilt out of all proportion to the damage they inflict.
"The battlefield in
the old days was a comparitively safe locality except at close quarters;
but today death has a wider range and if the losees of a modern battle
are relatively less the strain on the nerves is more severe."
- Colonel GFR Henderson
Even if one is miles from the firing line, Mars still rolls his dice.
"The unstinting faithfulness
of the United States aid man to his duty is a phenomenon beyond explanation."
- SLA Marshall
Stretcher-bearers and medical assistants come to occupy an important place in men's affections. Norman Gladden wrote warmly of the fat, lazy and easy-going Private Bell, 'who became a fearless, self-sacrificing hero when there was any succouring to be done' ... It was no accident that the most-decorated British soldiers of the First World War — Private WH Coltman, VC, DCM and Bar, MM — was a stretcher-bearer.
It is by and large, young men who find themselves on the proverbial sharp end of war. An analysis of one million casualties of the First World War showed that 80% were under 30: Norman Gladden recalled that a man in his thirties 'seemed old to us'. George Orwell thought that the average age in the Republican militias was well under 30.
The manner in which death comes to the soldier, as well as the very fact of death itself, serves to alarm his friends. Many men are prepared to face a quick, clean death: indeed, they may even regard it as preferable to a crippling wound or to personal disgrace. But some of death's faces are particularly terrible. The prospect of being blown to pieces by a shell unmans many soldiers. It is, as Lord Moran put it: "Something more their death, all their plans for meeting it with decency and credit were suddenly battered down; it was not so mcuh that their lives were in danger as that their self-respect had gone out of their hands."
What happens to the body afyer death is a matter of greater concern than logic might suggest.
[#6 The Real Enemy]
"The real enemy was
Terror, and all this heel-clicking, saluting, bright brass and polish were
our charms and incantations for keeping him at bay."
- Alan Hanbury Sparrow, "The Land Locked Lake"
Major General Frank Richardson, a medical officer with extensive practical experience of both the consequences and the mitigation of stress in battle, argues that, as part of the measures employed to reduce psychiatric casualties, soldiers of all ranks should be told about such casualties and about fear and its symptoms. The phsyical symptoms of fear, writes Richardson, are 'simply due to rapid involuntary muscular action designed to warm up the body for the anticipated activity'. They do not mean that a man will crack, and imply no disgrace. Richardson drives his point home by citing the fact that the 9th Armoured Division, to which he had given comprehensive pre-battle talks, experienced no psychiatric casualties at El Alamein. He used the same technique with a brigade of 51st Highland Division in Normandy in 1944, and the only battalion which he was not permitted to address later broke in panic. Thus, while there are undoubtedly benefits in leaders ruthlessly suppressing their own symptoms of fear, they should take care not to create a climate in which fear cannot be discussed.
Ardant du Picq argued that no body of troops could stand still under stress for any length of time: it would move rapidly in one direction or the other. Although his theories were taken to unreasonable lengths by his successors, there is more than an element of truth in his concept of 'the flight to the front'.
Bombardment plays a key role in the creation of battlefield stress precisely because it renders either flight or aggression impossible and, by depriving men of the opportunity to cope with it by direct action, forces them to cope in other, potentially more damaging, ways. FC Bartlett believed that the hardest thing in war was 'to be afraid and sit still'.
It is a well-worn cliche
that there are no atheists in foxholes. The tendency for soldiers to pray
under fire is demonstrated by statistic and anecdote. Between 73% and 84%
of the infantrymen questioned by Stouffer in three American divisions answered
that prayer 'helped a lot'. Over three-quarters of his sample reported
that their wartime experience had increased their faith in God. Interestingly,
about as many became more religious as became less so, which seems to confirm
the view expressed in a post-First World War British report that war accentuates
men's religion but not necessarily their Christianity... Church attendance
in Britain rocketed in 1939, and declined thereafter. Chaplains on board
troopships on their way to the Falklands enjoyed larger congregations on
the journey down and rather smaller ones on the way back. For some soldiers
a spiritual framework is an essential pre-requisite of the probability
of their own death... There are numerous soldiers in wartime who have no
properly-defined or nicely-rounded concept of religion, but who have come
to believe in an afterlife which makes their own sacrifice seem tolerable.
'Religion is supposed to be intensified in war,' thought Raymond Cooper.
'Religion in any theological sense I doubt, but easier appreciation of
another world and of forces beyond man's control probably is'. Men who
have no use for religion as such gain solace from putting themselves in
a cosmic context.
But if war increase the spirituality of the majority, there is a minority of soldiers whose faith is shattered by their experience, and who emerge from the crucible cynical and atheistic. A survivor of the Somme told how 'a chaplain tore his dog collar off in front of me and, with curses, said, "It is a mockery to wear it".'
Frank Richardson observed that there was often a touch of cynicism to religious faith in war, with jokes about 'fire insurance'. Soldiers have a remarkable ability to jest about even the most serious of subjects, and their humour is yet another aspect of the coping process.
Bitter disappointment or personal tragedy can also be relieved by humour. As the authors of The Winter War observed, humour was, at one level, 'simply a case of laughing because otherwise you might cry; humour was the balm of tragedy'. In a ruined bunker under Chinese fire on Pork Chop Hill in Korea in April 1953 a soldier muttered: 'Jesus Christ, this is worse than Custer's Last Stand.' 'Were you there, too?' inquired an officer. 'No,' replied the private, 'but I've read about it.' When Raymond Cooper's company was strafed by Hurricanes, a soldier joked, 'I expect we've given them the RAF to make it fairer.'
Drink and drugs are time-honoured wasy of pallitating stress, and their use in infinitely more widespread than bland official histories might suggest. The very expression 'Dutch courage' has military origins, dating from the predisposition of English soldiers in the Low Countries to fortify themselves with a nip or two of 'genever'.
Some of the French knights at Agincourt had been drinking heavily on the eve of battle, Corporal Shaw of the Life Guards was fighting drunk when he hewed nine Frenchmen through steel and bone at Waterloo... During the Falklands War Lt. David tinker testified, half-seriously, to the therapeutic effects of alocohol: "The best thing to do is to have a few wets before an attack. I'd have a drink before the Exocet attack and the pulse rate stayed very normal."
There are four main aspects to the question of alcohol and drug use in armies. Firstly, both drinks and drugs have an entirely legitimate function in helping over-wrought men to sleep. Alcohol is more useful in this context than is often recognised: Rick Jolly made a plea for the 'traditional use of alcohol' to help men sleep... Alahn Hanbury-Sparrow, was utterly frank: "Certainly strong drink saved you. For the whole of your moral forces were exhausted. Sleep alone could restore them, and sleep, thanks to this blessed alcohol, you got."
Secondly, soldiers in garrison in both peace and war tend to overindulge in alcohol as a means of making an unbearable existence more tolerable.
Communal drinking also assists in the small-group bonding process. In the Anglo-Saxon hall thanes boasted over their drinking-horns the deeds would perform in battle.
It is with the fourth aspect of alcohol and drug use — as a means of mitigating the stresses of battle — that we are most concerned. To a degree, at least, this use has been officially approved... For many years British soldiers enjoyed a rum ration, and care was often taken to issue it shortly before battle. Officially-supplied drugs are not generally used for the same purpose: they are more often employed to help soldiers cope with lack of sleep. Benzedrine was widely used during and after the Second World War. At least 10% of the Second World War American troops took amphetamines at some time or other... American medics often issued dexedrine to soldiers before they went out on night patrol in Vietnam... The French army made widespread use of Maxiton: many of the garrison of Dien Bien Phu were able to stay on duty for days on end with its assistance. Although modern Western armies tend to shun the use of hallucinogenic drugs as an aid to withstanding battle, such palliatives have a long history. The Vikings used small quantities of driged fly agaric before battle. This mild hallucinogen often assisted in the process by which warriors went beserk in wild fighting frenzy.
Second World War American soldiers, in an army which was, in theory, 'dry', were less fortunate... In the Pacific, where drink was notoriously hard to obtain, men brewed up 'raisin jack' or 'swipe'. Aqua Velva aftershave, which could be mixed with grapefruit juice to make a passable Tom Collins, sold briskly.
Although drunk remained an important solace for American troops in Vietnam, it was overtaken by drugs. In 1971 51% of US army personnel in Vietnam has smoked marijuana, 28.5% had taken heroin or opium, and 31% had experimented with other psychedelic drugs.
Psychiatric casualties were undoubtedly relatively uncommon prior to the 20th century. As we have already observed, soldiers were generally not subjected to sustained combat, and artillery bombardment lacked the qualities which have made it such an effective destroyer of mental stability this century. What is also crucial is that it was not until after the First World War that military psychiatry came of age: the psychiatric casualties of previous wars often went undiagnosed and untreated... It is beyond debate that some of the British soldiers shot for cowardice during the war were, by today's standards, sick men... Advanced psychiatric united were in use by the middle of 1917, treating some patients and returning them to their units swiftly, and sending others back for treatment at base... By the end of the war there a widespread agreement amongst the Allied armies that casualties should be examined and sorted at fields ambulances, with exhaustion, concussion and war neurosis as recgonised categories of illness.
The high level of psychiatric breakdown in American formations was due in great measure to the American system of combat replacement. Divisions were kept in the line indefinitely, and replacements were posted in as the need arose. A replacement would therefore not only fight alongside men he had had little opportunity to get to know, but he would speedily realise that he was likely to fight until he dropped.
The shortcomings of this system persuaded the Americans to introduce a policy of rotation in Korea and Vietnam. In both conflicts units were topped up with replacements in the field, but an individual knew that he had only to serve in the theatre for a specified period of time. There were, of course, disadvantages inherent in this scheme. Individuals arrived in their new unit as strangers, often to be ostracised by thsoe already there... Men whose time was up suffered from "short-timer's fever". They were markedly reluctant to run risks, and in some units it was accepted that they should not be sent on operations... Yet, great though the disadvantages of the rotation system were, it was undoubtedly one of the main reasons for the low figure of American psychiatric casualties in Vietnam. There was always a horizon, never more than a year away, and getting closer day by day.
[#7 The Valour Of Simple Men]
"Many soldiers — tired
by the rigidities of normal life — look back at violent moments of their
war experiences despite the hunger and terror, as the monumental culminating
experiences of their lives. There, in the Bruderband of fighters, they
felt happy for the first and only time in their lives."
- Joost van Meerlo
"Basically, I enjoyed
Vietnam. It was the most vivid part of my life. I enjoyed the anarchy of
it. You know, self-law. No one ever bothered you... You're living every
minute. You're with guys who look after you. You can really trust them."
- An unnamed Vietnam veteran
It is no secret that
war is, as General Sherman told us, hell, and anyone who has read thus
far will need no reminding of this. The fact remains, however, that successive
generations, with abundant evidence before them, still persist in fighting.
The question as to why men fight does not merely exercise professional
soldiers and military theorists, who are concerned with the practicalities
of persuading men to perform effectively on the battlefield: it is a moral
issue of fundamental importance, all the more so in the era of Kriegsstimmung,
war-mood, in which we now live.
Before moving on to examine more complex explanations, it is worth considering an unfashionable and surprising fact: some men actually enjoy war, and there are few soldiers for whom military service does not have, at least in retrospect, some attractions... Even the majority, who find battle terrifying beyond even the merest hint of pleasure, none the less relish comradeship and a sense of importance as an individual within the group. Fred Majdalany esteemed the 'feeling of high comradeship' which binds men who have endured danger together. 'It is something that can only be known through the moral and emotional purge of battle,' he writes. 'It is the fighting man's reward.'
A third source of enjoyment in war is the strangely wonderful sights which counterpoint the horror. Some of these are manmade, and others are the work of a nature which is often new to soldiers unfamiliar with the countryside. Michael Herr was struck by the majesty of tracer rounds: "Even the incoming was beautiful at night, beautiful and deeply beautiful." Some of Robert Jay Lifton's subjects felt that they looked at the world with an enhanced sense of appreciation: "We would say, 'Wow, look at this, look at the sweep of that gun barrel going out there... against the sunset or against the stars'."
To the pleasures of comradeship and the glimpses of extraordinary beauty offered by war are added the not inconsiderable satisfaction of triumphing in a shared endeavour. As Robert E. Lee looked out across the Union dead who so thickly carpeted Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg, he reflected that it was as well that war was so terrible or we would become too fond of it.
These factors may motivate the few, and help moderate the strain of war for the many. But they do little to explain why the majority of men fight. What, then, about the simplest explanation: that soldiers fight for King and Country, and that they are impelled by patriotism? Patriotism undoubtedly does help persuade men to join up at the beginning of a war, and appeals to men's patriotism figure prominently in wartime recruiting posters. But the real motives behind enlistment are often anything but idealistic... In 1914 there was a surge of patriotic euphoria across the face of Europe. 'The spirit of patriotism of that age', wrote Richard Gale, 'had to be experienced to be believed. The whole nation rallied behind the colours.' But patriotism did not longer endure the trenches... Moreover, not all those who marched away were imbued with ut. For many younger men the war was a chance to travel, to break away from the shackles of a monotonous job, and to prove themselves in battle... Once the war was well under way, the heady patriotism of its early days was replaced by a generalised sense of duty and responsibility. Denis Winter believes that 'men stood by their country as they might have stood by a pal whose luck was out.' Most would have gone home if there had been any way to do so with dignity, but the sticking point was 'Would you like Germany win?' For soldiers on the front line, the focus soon tightened on to their own immediate group.
Stephen Westman discerned not patriotism in a conventional sense, but a general desire to protect a homeland under increasing threat.
"The soldier in battle
is not forever whispering, 'My cause, my cause'. He is too busy for that.
Ideology functions before battle, to get the men in; and after battle,
by blocking thoughts of escape."
- John Dollard
The strongest group code identified by Stouffer and his researchers, apart from the condemnation of flagrant disloyalty, was the taboo against talk of a flag-waving variety. Combat soldiers particularly resented the mention of patriotic motives by men who did not themselves run the risk of battle. But there was a broad belief in the rightness of the cause, what Stouffer termed 'a tacit and fairly deep conviction that we were on the right side and that the war, once we were in it, was necessary.' A survey of troops in the Pacific indicated that the higher a man's conviction about America's war aims, the more likely he was to be willing to fight on. Anthony Kellett is undoubtedly right to point to 'a relationship between favourable attitudes to the war and behaviour in combat' as far as the American army was concerned.
In the case of Britain, the prevailing mood on the outbreak of war in 1939 was in sharp contrast to that of 1914. There was more resignation than jingoism, in part because of the pervading memories of the Great War. Nevertheless, the fact that both the Germans and, later, the Japanese, could without too much difficulty be portrayed as evil and threatening figures, helped to foster an underlying belief in the validity of the struggle... General Montgomery, very much in concert with Stouffer's findings, maintained that the soldier of a democracy must be convinced of the rightness of his cause, even if only at a passive level. Such a belief would only give real moral support to comparitively few, but, conversely, no democratic society could hope to sustain a war if its citizens and soldiers were opposed to it.
The Soviet Union responded to the German invasion of 1941, and the fluctuations in Russian fighting spirit that marked the first few months of the struggle, by changing the thrust of its propaganda. The Comintern was dissolved, and the previous emphasis upon the Soviet Union as the standard bearer of world communism was replaced by that of Russia fighting for its life against the invader. The concept of 'Mother Russia' came to the fore, and posters carried pictures of the warriors of tsarist days as well as more recent heroes, deliberately recalling former wars against earlier invaders. German behaviour in occupied areas made this line of argument all the more credible, and helped persuade Russians, many of whom had no affection for Stalin and his regime, to fight resolutely in defiance of their homeland rather than of the regime which governed it... This fierce sense of defending a threatened homeland against a brutal enemy undoubtedly helped inspire Russian soldiers not only to expel the Germans from their soil, but to go on and take revenge in Germany itself.
Charles Moskos observed what he termed a 'latent ideology' amongst American troops in Vietnam. While they were not necessarily patriotic in the conventional sense, they had a deep-seated respect for the American way of life and the comforts it provided, and this conviction underlay their other, sometimes hostile, opinions of the war.
"There are serious
limits to the use of military force, except for small ventures, without
significant popular support."
- Kurt Lang
The fact that regular soldiers often feel very differently about a war than do their conscript or duration-only comrades is particularly important. Professional soldiers are encouraged to think of themselves as servants of the state, whose task is to defend their country against its internal and external enemies. They are unlikely to inquire too closely into the nature of those enemies: indeed, for them to do so might introduce a potentially dangerous element of uncertainty... Regular soldiers can only have their aversion for politics reinforced by the ebb and flow of foreign policy. britain and France had seemed perilously close to war over the Fashoda incident of 1898, and it was not until after the turn of the century that Britain saw Germany rather than France as her most likely potential enemy... The senior British officers who landed in France in 1914 had spent most of their military careers planning to fight against the French rather than for them... There was widespread admiration amonst British regular officers for the soldierly qualities of the Germans... In contrast, Robert Graves believed that 'troops serving in the Pas de Calais loathed the French.' Despite all this, however, the professionals in the British army got on with the job in hand... I would not deny that an apolitical view of war is an essential component of the regular soldier's make-up. But this is not to say that even the hardest profesional should not have a moral or ideological sticking-point. John Akehurst felt that he had to consider the moral issue before accepting a loan service command in Oman. "If one harboured any doubts," he wrote, "they were immediately dispelled by the bature of the opposition, who found it necessary to employ terrorism to pursue their aums and whose plans, no more democratic than the Sultan's, offered management of the country under close Russian control."
Regular soldiers also share an intense professional curiosity as to how well their weapons, tactics and training will work in a real war. War is — and I mean this in no derogatory sense — the opportunity for them to apply what they have studied. Laying out a defensive position on a peacetime exercise inevitably conjures up the desire to see just how the plan would work in practice. Will the approaching armour he be badly clawed by our tank and MILAN fire before it comes within range of our hand-held anti-armour weapons? ...On coming under fire for the first time, DJB Houchin was 'interested to see if my dispositions were correct.'
The French Foreign Legion is an extreme example of the ability of esprit de corps to override all other considerations.
The weapon group serving a machine-gun, mortar or artillery piece enjoys a particularly strong cohesion. This stems in part from their tendency to identify with the weapon and its powers... Weapons tend to be given collective names but the crew-served weapon usually gets a name of its own: The MOBATS of a British infantry battalion in the late 1970s bore the stencilled names Glamdring, Sting, Orcrist, Herugrim, Anglachel and Anduril — all swords in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
Morris Janowitz maintained that honour was the basis of the military system, at least as far as professionals were concerned, and pointed to a single over-riding directive: 'The professional soldier always fights.'
Norman Dixon observed that military codes of honour have as their primary object not so much the control of fear, but rather the control of the sort of behaviour to which fear might give rise. They are designed to make the social consequences of flight more unpleasant than the physical consequences of battle. The one, argues Dixon, might lead to pain, mutilation and death, but the other produces, with much greater certainty, personal guilt and public shame. The effectiveness of such codes relies in no small measure upon the paradox that most men have more physical courage than they do moral courage, and regard the possibility of death or injury with less terror than they do the probability of disgrace.
"We are moving up tonight
into the battle of the Somme. The bombardment, destruction and bloodshed
are beyond all imagination, nor did I ever think the valour of simple men
could be quite as beautiful as that of my Dublin Fusiliers."
- Captain Thomas Kettle (1916)
Field-Marshal Slim believed that courage was the supreme virtue: "I don't believe there is any man who, in his heart or hearts, wouldn't rather be calld brave than have any other virtue attributed to him." Donald Featherstone, towards the other end of the military hierarchy, was equally certain in his judgment of courage. "Even today," he mused, "I gloss over anything in a man decorated for gallantry — just as sins were forgiven in the Middle Ages by buying a pardon — to me Courage is a Man's Pardon."
[#8 Precarious Valour]
The creation of group spirit is no guarantee of military performance, for there is every chance that the group's norms will conflict with the aims of the organisation of which it forms a part... In its simplest form, this tendency is demonstrated by the way in which individuals and units sometimes strive to avoid combat, to the point of formally refusing to participate in it. Groups that do this do not feel that they are behaving unreasonably... In Vietnam, patrols often went a short distance from camp, waited till they were due back in, and returned to report that they had had no contact with the enemy.
Heavy bombardments and air attacks are convincing demonstrations of the enemy's power, and they sometimes persuade soldiers, not only that further resistance is hopless, but also that their own superiors have behaved unreasonably in exposing them to such a threat and no longer deserve their loyalty.
A sense of contract
is important when surrender is being contemplated. As Martin Middlebrook
astutely observed in The Kaiser's Battle: "The real limit of a Western
soldier's resistance is the point at which he feels his individual honour
has been satisfied." He will fight on until considers that the terms of
his contract have been fulfilled and he had "done his bit."
When men have reason to believe that captives will not be mistreated, then surrender is a far more easily-acceptable alternative than we might suppose. In March 1918 many of the British forward positions surrendered after only a token resistance... In some places British officers answered summonses to surrender with requests that the Germans bring up artillery, with undertakings to capitulate at specified time, or with demands for a written document testifying to the determination of their defence... On 27 June 1944, the boot was on the other foot. General Sattler, commander of the Arsenal at Cherbourg, told American emissaries that he would not surrender unless tanks were deployed against him. They duly appeared, and fired a few rounds: Sattler and his men marched out into captivity.
There is a paradox inherent in military discipline. However draconian it might be, external discipline is imposed by the few upon the many, and relies upon what John Ellis accurately termed 'tacit consensus'. "Orders are seldom obeyed to the letter and are often flagrantly disregarded," wrote GC Homans of groups in general. "Wise leaders know that nothing is do destructive of cooperation as the giving of orders that cannot or will not be obeyed." Officers sometimes shrink from issuing contentious orders, suspecting that they will provoke direct disobedience which will crack the fragule shell of discipline altogether." ... Colonial armies were often able to avoid the hard conclusion that their native troops refused to obey orders by the useful convention that an order which was disobeyed was one which had been misunderstood. This care to preserve the fabric of discipline at all costs is an understandable one, since one the Emperor's-new-clothes nature of discipline is apparent to all, worse may follow. As Richard Watt remarked of the French mutinies of 1917, a dangerous moment was reached once "the tissue of convention on which military discipline is ultimately based had become transparent to officers and enlisted men alike." Once the psychological barriers against mutiny are broken down, indiscipline within an army, or conflict between an army and the government of its own state, can take on a curiously imitative character. Once the generals have initiated a coup, the barrier against the colonels staging their own are destroyed and, as numerous post-colonial states have discovered, the sergeants will probably not be far behind. Just as government rests ultimately upon the consent of the governed, so discipline relies upon the compliance of the mass with the wishes of the few.
Examples from the horse and musket period show that death did not spare senior officers, and that officers, usually comprising about 5% of the forces actually engaged, became casualties in far greater proportion. At Waterloo 32 out of 63 British commanding officers were killed or wounded: the Royal Scots lost 31 out of 36 officers and the 73rd Highlanders 22 out of 26... Officers made up some 10% of total British losses... During the American Civil War, Confederate officers were profligate with their lives. No less than 55% of Confederate generals were killed or wounded in battle: 6 of them fell in a single charge at Franklin in 1864... Waterloo was a notably bloody action, and the officers of this era attracted fire by their conspicuous dress. Nevertheless, in the First World War, when officers in the line dressed increasingly like the men they commanded, they continued to suffer disproportionately heavily: 27% of the British officers who served on the Western Front were killed, compared with 12% of the men... The plight of Second World War British infantry officers was no better.
The Falklands' Battle of Goose Green was won by section commanders and private soldiers, but 2 Para's officers demonstrated that blood is the price of epaulettes: of the 18 dead, four were officers. It would be wrong to imply that self-sacrifice is the only attribute of leadership, or that it is only officers that lead: in the latter context, the fact that the Cameron Highlanders lost over half their 40 sergeants at Waterloo, and the price paid by NCOs in the Falklands shows that chevrons come no cheaper than epaulettes.
[#9 I Am The Enemy]
Any army at war is pursuing, as Clausewitz put it, state policy by other means. Its soldiers are fighting not so much individual Russians or Germans, Americans or British, but are struggling against the servants of a hostile state. Without the creation of abstract images of the enemy, and without the depersonalisation of the enemy during training, battle would become impossible to sustain. But if the abstract image is overdrawn or depersonalisation is stretched into hatred, the restraints on human behaviour in war are easily swept aside. If, on the other hand, men reflect too deeply upon their enemy's common humanity, then they risk being unable to proceed with a task whose aims may be eminently just and legitimate.
WW2 research showed that, in an average American combat performance group, 44% of those questioned "would really like to kill a Japanese soldier", while another 32% would "feel that it was just part of the job, without liking or disliking it." In the case of a German enemy, however, while 52% were prepared to kill as part of the job, only 6% expressed enthusiasm at the prospect.
During the First World War the way in which trench warfare forced the aversaries to live within literally a stone's throw of each other helped break down the barrier created by rumour and propaganda. How could one hate a man who shouted: "Good morning, Tommy, have you any biscuits?" Or another who shared a common passion: "It is I, Fritz the Bunmaker of London. What is the Football news?" Small wonder that Bill, the most aggressive man of his section — and a Chelsea supporter, thougyh doubtless those two facts are not related — was nonplussed to discover that his opposite number also supported Chelsea. "A blurry supporter of blurry Chelsea," he muttered. "E must be a damned good sort of sausage eater."
Soon, far from hating his enemy, the soldier may come to respect him for his fighting qualities. "Our was indeed a noble enemy," declared Edward Costello. Horace Churchill could not help admiring the big cuirassiers who came on, time and time again, into the musketry at Waterloo... James Jack could not disguise his professional respect for the conduct of German rearguards in the withdrawal to the Aisne in 1914.
I have encountered few British veterans of the Second World War who have much affection for the Japanese... The differences in race and culture, and the expression that these found in the Japanese treatment of Allied prisoners of war, remain on obstacle to understanding or forgiveness as far as many survivors are concerned. Although Japanese harshness had a long-established cultural basis, aggression was encouraged by hate propaganda... Denis Sheil-Small felt sorry for dead Japanese, until he remembered what the Japanese had done to their prisoners. Even so, he was impressed by the courage they showed in recovering their dead.
Rick Jolly and his comrades had mixed feelings as HMS Exeter's Sea Dart claimed a high-flying Argentinian aircraft: "The crew must have seen their deaths coming for 10 or 15 seconds. What a way to die! ...Once again we are up against the paradox of war. We can admire our enemies, even respect their courage and skill, but also cheer when they are removed violently from the battlefield."
This visionof the noble adversary is, alas, no more durable than that of the inhuman enemy. Some soldiers do feel hatred for their enemies, if only briefly and for a specific reason, others never rid themselves of the abstract image of histility; most apply the hard logic of the battlefield, which makes surrendering in combat a hazardous business; and still others display what RH Tawney called "joyful cunning in destruction."
Part of the purpose of military uniform is to define the wearer's warrior status and to impress opponents, and steel helmets, with its medieval ovetones, does do particularly well. Military equipment also signals that its wearer is a soldier... Small wonder that soldiers who surrender — and survive the experience — not only throw away their weapons, they also discard their packs and helmets. They may also, if they are wise, strive to appease their captors. 18th century officers used to hold out their purses and watches. 20th century soldiers, like those described by Junger, used a similar tactic: "Most of them showed by their confident smiles that they trusted in us as human beings. Others held out cigarettes and chocolates in order to concililate us."
battle is a difficult business. Charles Carrington suggested, "No soldier
can claim a right to 'quarter', if he fights to the extremity." TP Marks
saw 7 German machine-gunners shot. "They were defenceless," he wrote, "but
they have chosen to make themselves so. We did not ask them to abandon
their guns. They only did so when they saw that those of us who were not
mown down were getting closer to them and that the boot was not on the
Ersnt Junger agreed that the defender had no moral right to surrender in these circumstances: "The defending force, after driving their bullets into the attacking one at five paces' distance, must take the consqeunces. A man cannot change his feelings again during the last rush with a veil of blood before his eyes."
Private J. Parkinson
was changing belts on his machine-gun when a German officer put a pistol
in his back and said: "Come along, Tommy. You've done enough." Parkinson
rightly commented that the officer "must have been a real gentleman."
...No soldier who fights until his enemy is at close small-arms range, in any war, had more than perhaps a 50-50 chance of being granted quarter. If he stands up to surrender he risks being shot with the time-honoured comment, "Too late, chum."
...Ironically, once he has had his surrender accepted, the prisoner of war is likely to be well treated by his former adversaries, and to experience increasingly worse treatment as he goes back along the enemy's lines of communications.
For centuries it was customary to summon a fortress or town to surrender once a practicable breach had been made in its walls and assault was imminent. Lawyers quibbled as to the precise meaning of 'practicable breach'. Some said it was a breach up which a horseman could ride, while others maintained that men should be able to walk through it without using their hands. Should the governor refuse to surrender, he and his garrison could be killed out of hand when the place was stormed. Cromwell summoned Drogheda on 10 September 1649. His initial assault was repulsed, but the town was stormed two days later and the garrison was put to the sword: perhaps 4000 soldiers and civilians perished. This dreadful policy was designed to save life rather than to take it. The logic of it was that a garrison, by refusing to surrender once a breach had been made, was behaving unreasonably. The attackers would ultimately win, and a last-ditch defence would simply cause needless casualties. Wellington believed that if he had slaughtered the garrison at Ciudad Rodrigo, he would have saved 5000 Allied lives at Badajoz, which would have capitulated when summoned. As late as 1820 he maintained that "the practice which refuses quarter to a garrison that stands an assault it not a useless effusion of blood." But this sort of behaviour, whether it results from rational calculation, personal or collective fury, or even criminal malice, invites reprisal and risks initiating the ghastly round of atrocity and counter-atrocity, with rumour playing its own deadly part.
Fighting between the Australians and the Turks during the First World War, bitter though it was, had little of the 'needle match' about it. The Germans, however, were regarded in a different light, not only because they were blamed for starting the war but also because they were creditted with having committed atrocities. Many Australians felt genuine hatred for them, and acted accordingly.
The issue of atrocities
in Vietnam did open a debate which cannot be ignored in any work which
seeks to examine the soldier's behaviour on the battlefield. On the one
hand there are those like Ashley King, who wrote to the editor of the New
York Times on 22 March 1970 to argue: "The criminals are all of us. The
war itself is the great atrocity that spawns the lesser atrocities." On
the other, some would agree with Captain William H Miller's letter in the
Bridgeport Post on 17 February 1970: "Let the military fight the wars,
and let the politicians run the government, and ask not the butcher how
he kills the pig, for he too has an unpleasant task."
For Peter Bourne, there was a certain inevitability to the affair: "There can be little doubt that in the combat situation it becomes often meaningless to ask the soldier to make fine discriminations that distinguish a 'legitimate' act of war from a war crime."
This is a view with which I would warmly concur. But it has two essential corollaries. The first is that we should spare no effort to give the soldier every chance of making this judgement. The second is that societies which ask men to fight on their behalf should be aware of that the consequences of their action may so easily be."
[#10 A Peaceful World]
"There is in many today
as great a fear of a sterile and unexciting peace as of a great war. We
are often puzzled by our continual failure to enlist in the pursuit of
a peaceful world the united effort, cheerfulness in sacrifice, determination
and persistence that arise almost spontaneously in the pursuit of war."
- Glenn Gray, "The Warriors"
Although the journalist Robert Fox was not a combatant in the Falklands, he shared many of the fighting man's risks. "One feels mildly affronted for it to be suggested that such an extraordinary experience, which so nearly cost me my life, was worthless," he affirmed. "The days in that wild landscape, the companionship of many of the men in the fierld were enjoyable more often than not; fear and danger were exhilirating too... For me it was an existensial dream."
Readjustment to civilian life is at best uncomfortable and at worst impossible. A few men grow so used to the rough fabric of war that nothing else sits comfortably upon them. "I cannot go home and start the old life," lamented a German soldier of the First World War. "My Germany is where the Very lights illuminate the sky, where the time of day is estimated according to the strength of the artillery barrage." Others miss the sheer excitement, the feeling of being wanted, being relevant, being alive. "You know that I do not love war or want it to return," a Frenchmen assured Glenn Gray in 1955. "But at least it made me feel alive as I have not felt alive before or since." A Vietnam veteran took to armed robbery. "It wasn't the money with me," he told Mark Baker. "I was doing things for a handshake. I wanted the adrenalin pump."
Thinking, talking and writing letters about what he will do when he gets back home helps many a soldier through the long periods of boredom which he endures... A Vietnam veteran reflected upon the experienc that had been horrific, but which somehow, in retrospect, had a glimmer of attraction. "Thinking about Vietnam," he said, "once in a while, in a crazy kind of way, I wish that just for an hour I could be there. And then be transported back. Maybe just to be there there so I'd wish I was back here again."
If political, ideological and economic pressures cause wars, will men continue to fight them? John Keegan speculated, in The Face Of Battle, that battle may have abolished itself simply by becoming intolerable for its participants. The evidence of the last decade does not support such a sanguine view, and it would undoubtedly have made John Keegan less optimistic had he written in 1984 rather than a decade earlier. It may be the case that sleep deprivation and physical weariness will force the battles of the future to assume a more sporadic character than many current theorists suggest.
It is clear that all the ingredients of battle still exist. Military organisations continue to bond their soldiers together in the small groups which form the basis of battle morale: ideologies and religions form abstract images of a hateful enemy. The development of new weapons systems enables the soldier, even on the battlefield, to fire more lethal weapons more accurately to longer ranges: his enemy is, increasingly, an anonymous figure encircled by gunsight, glowing on a thermal imager, or shrouded in armour plate. We should not then, assume that battle will abolish itself because those who actually fight it are unable or unwilling to continue. At one level, we are the inhabitants of the taught world of the 1980s, increasingly able to control our environment, harnessing galloping technology, and probing far beyond the confines of our own planet. At another, we are the prisoners of our development and culture, and, with all the mixed feelings of our fathers or grandfathers, we stand on the start line, waiting only for the whistle.
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