‘Candide, who trembled like a philosopher, hid himself as well as he could during this heroic butchery.’
Voltaire, Candide, Ch. 3.
When you get into a War Studies MA at King’s, you might expect to focus a lot on killing. In reality, usually you don’t. Scientific empiricism, which underpins the department’s social science moniker, is, supposedly, dispassionate. This means in effect that a student rarely focuses on the dirty act which underpins most warfare, and that is deliberate killing of another human being. Instead, we use the term “Coercive Violence”, which suggests a range of potential actions including radio propaganda, playground bullying, and, arguably, armed deterrence.
Despite the pertinent identification of these multiple forms that coercion takes in wartime, the option of killing remains the most popular item on the menu among the actors we focus on in the department. Yet, the act is rarely addressed in itself, nor its implications beyond the raw statistics which are the bread-and-butter of military history. Numbers, which often hold to that same clinical dispassion of the sciences, are easier to grasp when approaching the miseries of warfare, where lives are counted for their ability to add or detract from outcomes. We speak of capabilities, manpower, human resources, and depriving the enemy of them; killing is often the unstated reality of it. And it must be taken as read or at least locked in the mind somewhere. The idealists are mostly in absentia; students of war rarely discuss human life as right or privilege. Perhaps to do so reflects unwelcome naivety, or perhaps it dampens the secret glorying the Department takes in a fetishistic love of military spit, polish, and ideals.
A simpler reason is that this mass multiplication and abstraction of the tragedy of Cain and Abel is too much to comprehend. “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic” is a phrase you hear thrown around quite a bit, but there rings a deliberate truth in it. Writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Primo Levi, and Voltaire have expressed it well. I usually recall from Candide:
‘The cannons first of all laid flat about six thousand men on each side; the muskets swept away from this best of worlds nine or ten thousand ruffians who infested its surface. The bayonet was also a sufficient reason for the death of several thousands. The whole might amount to thirty thousand souls.’
King’s War Studies Department is also in a school of Public Policy, and we tend to focus on the grand strategy, the ‘big picture’, the cost-benefit scenarios, and the institutions of violence that cement order and project power. The ability to inflict pain, to the point of taking life, is that coercive force. But the act itself is often rendered in grey.
In its most visible form, genocide and ethnic cleansing, the emphasis is slightly more pronounced, but it is still, on the whole, a question of numbers. How many people need to die before we call genocide and must act by UN regulation? Who must be killed, and in what quantity, to bring the question of improper martial conduct to bear?
I have recently finished Christopher Browning’s excellent Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, as well as Lt. David Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. I also just finished viewing Joshua Oppenheimer’s new film, The Act of Killing. I recommend them all very highly, because they discuss the killing aspect at the forefront, and its effect of its participants. Some turn professional killers who do it without remorse, or even grow to enjoy it, while others crack up under the pressure, and some smile for the camera, but can’t sleep at night. The narratives in Grossman’s On Killing and Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing are both vaguely positivist in nature: arguing that most human beings are deeply disturbed by the killing of their fellow humans in close proximity. Browning’s argues, slightly more disturbingly, that killing and acts of brutality can be normalized to a point where they are performed, if not eagerly, without much comment or difficulty.
Increasingly impersonal in the distances involved, and able to deliver more lethality with less effort, the well-equipped modern combatant can kill repeatedly far more often than he was able to when the inefficiencies of human muscles, and the tools they powered, meant that killing was often a physically exhausting task on the field of battle or in the mass execution of the helpless. Good organisation and what Yamamoto Tsunetomo called ‘extreme fanaticism’ of practice and spirit allowed for the truly great butcheries of the past. The relatively low-tech killing fields of Rwanda, or the methods of the Pancasila Youth of The Act of Killing, reflect the extent to which the organisation and tasking of violent killing can make it efficient without cluster bombs, or even small arms. If a will to kill exists, there always seems to be a way.
The constant comes down to one of mind and spirit. If indeed you are truly repulsed by the act of killing, you are in a welcome group of people for whom it is a rare and abstract idea, familiar most likely in Tarantino films. Loud condemnations of mass violence are as vocal now as they were when pamphleteers and chroniclers bewailed slaughters of non-combatants by armies in the past. But the normalization of the act, against civil or military targets (and especially now where the line blurs: even a child can shoot an AK-47) is attendant upon time and place, and mechanisms exist to which it can be understood and performed with relative proficiency.
The acts of brutality I rehashed time and time again as a Medieval and Early Modern historian brought home to me the lesser impact of killing when its presence in everyday life, in long and visible public executions and gory depictions of Passion and martyrdom, was ubiquitous. Familiarity breeds contempt, even if the familiarity is itself uncomfortable. Though people still struggle to understand the conditions for the extreme violence of the Interahamwe in Rwanda, the mechanisms, whatever they truly were, were sufficient to allow swift slaughter of perhaps its most hideous kind and in astonishing numbers.
I don’t aim to judge it effectively, because I’ve never been in a situation where I was compelled to do so, but I will say that my initial impression of the act of killing is that it is repulsive, but also banal. But then I tend to view it primarily as an evil rather than as a necessity, and evil is usually strangely banal, especially when construed as necessary. Yet, when I am down to the wire, I don’t see killing as strange or unusual. Order is built on the threat of it, and I am not one to suggest I don’t want my police force to be able to disable the criminally insane or my military to stop existential threats to my, and my fellow citizens’, security.
It will remain that part of my degree I don’t talk about at parties, but as Vonnegut would say, ‘So it goes’.