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An Intimate History of Killing


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About the Author

Joanna Bourke is a professor of history at Birbeck College in London. Her previous books include Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain, and the Great War.


This extraordinary book deals with war not as seen on some green-tinted TV screen but as experienced by men (and some women) at the front. Focusing mostly on World Wars I and II and Vietnam, these firsthand accounts from British, American, and Australian combatants are riveting. While dealing primarily with war as experienced on the ground, this book also looks at war as seen by combat air crews. The chapters describe the men's emotions (including awkwardness) as they engage in combat, the attempts (more or less successful) of various nations to train men as killers, atrocities (with special attention being paid to the massacre at My Lai), the effects of combat on medics and chaplains, and women's experiences in combat. This fine work has extensive notes and a large bibliography. Bourke (history, Birbeck Coll., London) is the author of such works as Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain, and the Great War. For public libraries and military history collections. (Illustrations not seen.)ÄJoseph Toschik, Half Moon Bay P.L., CA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

A historian at London's Birbeck College, Bourke (Dismembering the Male) writes that she "aims to put killing back into military history." To do so, she focuses on the two world wars and Vietnam, examining American, British and Australian combatants' writings. Soldiers' letters and diaries, she writes, "weave together domestic trivia with a narrative of murder," combining surprising pleasure with persistent guilt. Bourke finds that men at war often harbored contradictory notions of their behavior, claiming that they were "following orders" while still trying to accept personal responsibility for their actions. Bourke also examines theories of combat and killing held by psychologists, sociologists and literary writers. Some of the surprises she offers refute conventional belief. In a large-scale firefight, only 25% of men ordered to shoot will shoot; the other three-quarters are "essential for morale." Later chapters concern "fraternizing" and battlefield homoerotics, war crimes and massacres, doctors, chaplains, and women in combat. Admirers of Paul Fussell's books about both world wars will appreciate Bourke's methods. Against Fussell's stress on war's disagreeable burdens, she emphasizes its mixed motives and even pleasures: many soldiers liked their bayonet training, and many fighter pilots loved their work. A persuasive final chapter attacks the "brutalization thesis," the claim (advanced frequently after Vietnam) that combat obliterates a soldier's conscience. Bourke makes the disturbing and convincing argument that soldiers can kill, and even enjoy it, while retaining their senses of self and society, right and wrong. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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