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An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-face Killing in Twentieth-century Warfare [Paperback]

Joanna Bourke
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

28 April 1999
In this study, the author uses the letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports of veterans from three conflicts - the First and Second World Wars and the Vietnam War - to establish a picture of the man-at-arms. She suggests that the structure of war encourages pleasure in killing, and that ordinary, gentle human beings in civilian life can become enthusiastic killers without becoming "brutalized" by the horrors of combat. She also contends that people find ways of creating meaning out of war, and that one way to do this is to find satisfaction in it, especially in the "primal" act of slaughtering an enemy that you can see and touch. She believes that violent and sadistic men are not the best killers, and that it is the men motivated by emotions like love and empathy that become the most lethal individuals on the battlefield. Bourke goes on to suggest that it is the feeling of guilt itself that may enable what soldiers believe to be legitimate killing, and presents evidence of the way in which combat could become atrocity in 20th century warfare.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 564 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books (28 April 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1862072140
  • ISBN-13: 978-1862072145
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15.8 x 5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 153,871 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Amazon Review

"The characteristic act of men at war is not dying, it is killing". With that unsettling--yet incontrovertible--assertion, Joanna Bourke opens her investigation of how servicemen deal with the most wilfully ignored of wartime activities. Drawing on private letters and diaries of men (and a few women) from the First and Second World Wars and Vietnam, she shows not only how military men talk of their fears and anxieties--familiar enough territory--but also how they talk of joy and pleasure: the physical, sexual excitement of killing another man.

In its own right, the material--lucidly and wittily handled--is fascinating enough. But across Britain, the US and Australia, across three distinct wars, the same stories come through loud and clear--the joy of a man-to-man combat which, ironically, became less and less common through the century. As Bourke shows, these powerful stories were influenced by combat tales in magazines, novels and films that enthralled boys across generations--despite the best efforts of the military, the experience of war in the end cannot be prepared for.

Some may have reservations about Bourke's conclusions, but the huge mass of detail she brings to light in An Intimate History of Killing forces us at the very least to reconsider those easy clichés about the brutalising, traumatising effects of war. --Alan Stewart

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Customer Reviews

3.0 out of 5 stars
3.0 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Joanna Bourke's attempt to suggest that all men are warmongers and killers who suppress their guilt through fantasies of knight-errantry shows evidence of a good deal of hard work, but of little sympathy for or understanding of her subject. Even a cursory inspection shows that much potential source material has been ignored (accounts of the British in the Second World War and Falklands conflicts, for example)and one can only speculate that this is because it tends to undermine her central themes.
For all the effort that has gone in to producing this book, readers would be better off reading John Keegan's 'Face of Battle', Richard Holmes' 'Firing Line'and John Ellis's 'The Sharp End'.
Don't waste your money on this.
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5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A bad book full of errors 4 Dec 2000
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This bad book is poorly written and even more poorly researched. It is full of anachronisms and misunderstandings of the context in which quoted events occurred.The only way it can have been considered for a prize -- let alone win it -- is on the basis of peer support rather than any objective review of its accuracy or worth to furthering popular knowledge.
Save your money and buy John Terraine's book, as one of the other reviewers has suggested.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The previous reviewer is unfair! 23 Nov 1999
By A Customer
While I agree with a few of the criticisms of the previous reviewer, my overall impression of the Joanna Bourke's weighty tome was that it is a far better work than he indicates. He criticises her for not studying the Falklands - well, as she makes clear in the introduction she purposely limited herself to three conflicts, the world wars and Vietnam. I think the book attempts to do different things from the books he listed as alternatives, although I have only read Keegans, which was far more limited in scope and modern 'cultural' style analysis which is the real strength of Bourke's work. For this it rates very highly with me and rather unique, as it title indicates. The number of sources is generally superb.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars brilliant 5 Nov 2009
By Mr. Pj Williams VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
a brilliant book weaving together history and psychology. trying to analyse why we are willing to kill each other. it also delves into shell shock. worth reading in conjunction with the book " on killing". its wonderfully written and set out, its grim and dark but that's the subject matter.
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0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Whilst it starts slowly (academics always feel the need to place their work amongst other literature before getting on with things), this is a fascinating study of the how, what and why men kill each other.
Whilst it is very well researched and written, I feel that the self-imposed restriction to three wars has limited the discussion on the impact of cultural influences and differences in war-making. Specifically, we hear little about non-white cultures or 'civil wars'. Perhaps the next volume?
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