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Superficial at best
on 29 March 2003
Professor Joanna Bourke's lengthy tome is a mix of overt and covert manifestoes. She states her case quite openly on her first page: it is to put killing back at the centre of histories of warfare. She has a fair point. Histories of the two World Wars and Vietnam War have tended to be military histories, dealing with grand strategies, politics, generals, broad fronts. They have tended to obscure the fact that war is about men killing one another, 'face to face'. It is against this trend in historiography that Bourke, a historian of gender, reacts. It must be noted from the outset that Bourke works within a Freudian framework, clearly believing, as Hirschfield put it (pulling together Freud's 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' and 'The Ego and the Id'), that 'in the depths of the human soul, eroticism, cruelty and the mad desire to destroy, are all intimately connected'. It must also be noted that it is her adherence particular approach to psychology that she does not overtly state. Without that knowledge - and the alarm bells that should sound - a reader cannot approach this text with a critical enough mind.
Bourke's central thesis, then, is the terrible truth that men actually enjoyed killing. Through a close analysis of sources, some first-hand accounts, some literary, some secondary, she attempts to prove that 20th century warfare has involved some of the most gratuitous acts of sadistic violence in history, furnishing us with conflicts that, because total, have reverted masses of men to barbaric status. Far from 'man-hating' (as the Daily Mail might have it), Bourke's approach is actually sympathetic towards her male subjects throughout her work on masculinity. 'Intimate History' is a bold attempt to explore the damage that a century of Total War had on the male psyche in America, Britain and Australia.
Too bold, in fact. Her ambition in writing this work is immense. She is trying to write the definitive guide to man's relationship to warfare over 100 years, over three different countries. It is obvious why she has chosen the three countries - all Anglophone, all involved in the two world wars, but less obvious to see why a historian of some stature has ignored the subtleties and varieties of culture and isntitutions that she knows full well exist in the different nations, located on three distinct continents. Betraying her focussed and sophisticated work on Australia, Ireland and Britain in the past, she rides roughshod over reality to impose her grim model of men glorying in war. The fact is that close studies of a single culture will provide multiple models of masculinity (something she has herself pointed out in previous work, pointing out the difference between Irish and English gender constructions), rather than the mono-model she seeks to press onto the men of three countries.
Not only that, but she attempts to do this over the span of the entire twentieth century. Rather than adopt a chronological model to track the rise of a militarised/ aggressive/ blood-thirsty masculinity, or the development of psychological problems, she attempts to show that modern warfare has revealed the true nature of man's being - and it's horrible. Sadly for her, the evidence on hand does not support her contention. For instance, when discussing the gathering of trophies as an indication of how brutalised and wicked men can become in war, she can draw upon plentiful evidence of American soldiers actively collecting severed ears, fingers, breasts and penises during the Vietnam War. However, to suggest that this is equal to the collecting of bent bayonets, helmets, and buttons during the Great War is to completely ignore the failings in her evidential base. She plods onwards, regardless, sticking unfailingly to her model.
Her work is likely to be extremely offensive to veterans of the conflicts she studies. Although there is anecdotal evidence to support many of her claims, there is also plenty to refute it - soldiers who knew they were being accused of revelling in war during conflict, and detested their detractors for such crass abuse (see Susan Kent, 'Making Peace').
It should be pointed out that there is much that is useful and good in this text. Aside from anything else, this is a shocking anthology of source material stressing the barbarism of modern war, and, despite caes of mis-using of evidence, much is presented that is of value, and she does make some very valid arguments along the way. The central problem with the book is its superficiality. Rather than a careful case-study as she presented in her study of British masculinity in the great war, 'Dismembering the Male', she has used a very broad brush to sweep over the many incongruities in her study. I get the sense she is pandering to popular desire for 'big' history, and the detail and difference get lost along the way. This had the potential to be an excellent book - but rather than charting the growth of horrors and barbarism in war throughout the century she plumped for trying to display a Nietzschean-Freudian view of human nature which simply isn't sustained by the evidence. Disappointing.