War and Self-Deception

John Kilgore

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” — George Santayana

“Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories." — Tim O’Brien.


few years ago, called upon to design an English Senior Seminar in a bit of a hurry, I hit upon the topic of War Stories. The seminars are supposed to be interdisciplinary, eclectic, adventurous; my plan was to mix literary readings with light reconnaissance into military history and theory, letting the social sciences provide a reality check. And perhaps — why not? — the literary works would add something distinctive to the sober statistical studies. The approach proved intriguing, at least to the instructor, and before long the topic gained extra urgency from 9/11 and the tragedy-cum-farce of the War on Terror.

So I have ended up repeating the course a half-dozen times, in various guises and venues, never quite sure I knew what I was about. What I seem to have learned is mainly that the war story is the most self-deconstructing of genres. From Homer down to Tim O’Brien, it says with remarkable consistency: You won’t understand. Narrating and testifying with the urgency of an Ancient Mariner, it throws up its hands at last and says, “You had to be there,” insisting on its own futility. Other kinds of peril yield sunny adventure stories, prosaically rational in their focus on the known methods whereby the terrifying can be tamed: here is how you scale a mountain, fight a fire, kill a lion. Pain by itself yields harrowing but morally uncomplicated accounts of how the survivors walked out of Death Valley on bloody feet, or whatever. But war is different. There, the human element, the twin horror of homicide inflicted and suffered, raises the ante till the experience defies clear formulation and coherent response.

The message of war’s unknowability can take the form of a warning to the New Guy, who must learn in battle just how inadequate his expectations have been. “You’ll love the Nam,” a departing veteran jeers at a line of just-arrived FNG’s early in the movie Platoon, his voice ghoulishly devoid of sympathy. When the war story’s moment of truth arrives, the neophyte passes through the requisite nightmare of initiation and over to the ranks of tight-lipped veterans, exchanging ignorance for knowledge. But it is a glimmering, uncertain kind of knowledge. If the revelation is of war’s desperate futility, this has a way of turning round into its opposite, a reaffirmation of the heroic in spite or because of the very horror that seemed to overwhelm it, as happens in The Red Badge of Courage, say, or Spielberg's nearly incoherent Saving Private Ryan, or even the nightmarish Platoon on a close reading. But if it is his own capacity for courage that the hero has learned, if he has come of age and attained warrior status, this revelation can be even more bitterly chimerical, since no one is ever permanently brave in life, and the stature gained in battle transfers so uncertainly to the civilian world: thus the lesson learned by Odysseus, by his modern descendant Inman in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, by Krebs in Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” and in a different way perhaps by poor Francis Macomber.

More broadly, the spooked skepticism of the war story manifests as a pervasive irony, a manic bitterness at the edge of breakdown. O’Brien’s brilliant “How to Tell a True War Story” advises us that “as a first approximation . . . you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (76). But note that this is merely an approximation, while the final truth recedes. Half harangue and half narrative, O’Brien’s story insists throughout on the impossibility of capturing in words what really happened in Vietnam, and ends with the author stepping out from the wings to complain about the foolish responses he always gets from the audience — especially the women — whenever he reads this story in public. 

These are distinctive postmodern shenanigans, but the same essential sensibility — the cracked ambivalence, the adrenaline shakes, the epistemological despair, all simmering in bitter misogyny — is there eight centuries BCE in The Iliad. Homer is not six lines along before he (or, conceivably, she) lets slip the wisecrack about battle converting warriors into “the delicate feasting of dogs.” Western Literature’s most influential poem then proceeds to lay before us the most famous of all wars: a ten-year campaign waged with vast bloodshed for the high purpose of recapturing an aging floozie, which conflict is epitomized in a particular stretch of just a few weeks when the hero, Achilles, becomes a draft dodger, sitting out most of the epic in a deep funk, though he returns at last to fight with a ferocity that does to ideals of chivalry roughly what poison gas and artillery do in All Quiet on the Western Front.

Yet Achilles is the hero, and it is to his “Wrath,” menis, his killing energy, that Homer dedicates the poem. It is this rage, we are told, that causes the deaths of so many Greeks, Achilles’ own comrades, during his contract holdout; but later it is a slightly different version of the same thing, his rage over the death of Patroclus, that causes him to rejoin the fray, effecting an even greater spike in Trojan mortality. When he beholds the divinely forged, spanking-new armor in which he will rejoin the fight, at a moment of no special provocation, Achilles “feels rage sink deeper into his bones.” Menis, clearly, is no particular resentment of particular wrongs, but his whole mode of being, the narcissistic fierceness that accounts both for his desertion and for the sublime lethality that makes possession of his services equivalent to victory. Bleach it and perfume it, and you have “fighting spirit.” When Achilles at last runs down poor Hector, the humane and decent warrior who fights only because he must, the two are tersely pigeonholed: “a great man in front, a far greater one behind.” The Christian Middle Ages would reverse this verdict, counting Hector among the Worthies, leaving Achilles out. But Homer holds out for Achilles, leaving the modern reader to wonder why, exactly, sociopathy and testosterone poisoning deserve the tribute of an epic poem.

I take it that the reasons are historical. Pre-Homeric Greece was a world of settlements and nascent city states competing for their very existence, fighting constantly and with few compunctions. Eight centuries later, when things might have been expected to improve a bit, Thucydides has the Athenian ambassadors instructing the ruling council of little Melos, "it is a general and necessary law to rule wherever one can. This is not a law we made ourselves . . . We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist for ever among those who come after us. . . . You or anybody else with the same power as ours would be acting in precisely the same way" ( 404). This by way of persuading the islanders to join the Delian league and pay a heavy tribute. When the Melians failed to get the point, the ambassadors shrugged and left. Then the hoplites came, and in due course all the Melian men were executed, the women and children were sold into slavery, and the place was repopulated with five hundred Athenian colonists — no doubt optimistic young folk eager to find a little lebensraum, like everyone else.

In such a world Achilles’ fearless ferocity becomes the cardinal virtue that trumps all others, since nothing else matters much if you are dead or enslaved. So the bard's duty to sing the deeds and moods of a homicidal prima donna comes as a matter of course; the remarkable thing, really, is the way Homer keeps alive the memory or hope of gentler times, the terrible wistfulness with which he longs for a world he could never have seen. Those who notice things like his depiction of one soldier carrying the eye of a recent antagonist around on the tip of his sword, taunting the man's friends with it, or who ask what light Andromache’s laments are supposed to throw on all the battle reporting, understand that the poet’s celebration of war is fused with a passionate protest against it. No one is more eloquent on the subject of war’s bitterness than Achilles himself, the nonpareil practitioner, and we hear throughout that Greek and Trojan alike would gladly choose other fates.

We read the Iliad in the first place partly because of its long history as an inspirational text, but a modern reader has a very hard time seeing what there is to be inspired about: so much gore, and to what purpose? Part of the answer I think is that the bloody, barbaric world of Ancient Greece had emerged from a world that was more bloody and barbaric still, and the poem crystallizes some of the essential techne whereby that transition was accomplished. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, his fascinating “history of everything,” Jared Diamond argues that “Fanaticism in war . . . was probably unknown on Earth until chiefdoms and especially states emerged within the last 6,000 years” (282). Members of pre-state tribes and bands, he notes, steadfastly resist any call to patriotism, any temptation to exhibit courage for its own sake; the willingness to “fight suicidally” is “unthinkable in bands and tribes,” whose warriors never dream of anything as perversely dangerous as a phalanx charge, generally declining to fight at all except from ambush, and then with standoff weapons and numbers heavily on their side. The stereotype of the Peaceful Native is true only to the extent that no one wants to be a hero; life is quite dangerous enough already. “But that attitude severely limits the military options of tribes, compared with state societies,” according to Diamond (282). A principal reason that states have systematically gobbled up tribes is the great strategic advantages that an ethic of heroism — the power of commanding  men to die — confers on them. Fanaticism, or what less detached observers call honor, makes the whole difference between a disciplined and proficient military and a loose and relatively impotent mob.

But the paradox is that such thanatophilia, the headlong willingness to shed blood that characterizes warrior elites everywhere, ultimately builds up villages into cities and states, and in so doing makes life better, longer, and much safer for everyone. For tribes are not less warlike than states, but finally much more so, prosecuting feuds and defending boundaries almost without cease. Typically, at the hunter-gatherer stage, 25 to 30% of males could expect to die in war; compare that to the total mortality of the United States in World War II, just 0.2% of the population (Pinker 57). Empire, a dirty word these days, sounds better and better the more one meditates on such statistics; for political fragmentation seems to be the ultimate tyrrany, the deadliest and most certain causus belli, a lesson we are currently relearning in Iraq.

Thus prowess and valor — honorific names for traits that earn the gallows in non-military contexts —  remain the dark cornerstones of statehood until at least the twentieth century, right along with charity, monogamy, civic pride, and all the more presentable virtues. As Azar Gat says near the end of his recent War in Human Civilization, “the . . . decrease in intrasocial violent mortality” in modern states is “caused by the triumph of violence rather than any peaceful arrangement” (665). Such peace as history offers is attained only when the state establishes a monopoly on violence and terrorizes all other aggressors into tranquility. From this point of view, Achilles starts looking like a great historic invention, comparable to metallurgy or irrigation or the horse collar. It seems the spoiled bully boy is worth his salary, after all. Find his price, and your civilization will prosper.

Yet every war story sooner or later testifies to profound revulsion against what soldiers are called upon to do. If in fact Homo sapiens has been condemned to war from the depths of pre-history — and Gat makes an overwhelming case for this — why does it feel like a condemnation at all, and not just the right and natural way of things? Why does the Edenic, Rousseauvian dream of a peace not founded on “the triumph of violence” live on so stubbornly? Why must we struggle to inculcate martial virtues, rather than coming by them as naturally as scratching?

One place to look for answers is Dave Grossman’s remarkable book On Killing (1995), which seems to have won a devout following in the American military, and which was constantly invoked at a conference on War and Literature I attended in 2004. An Army psychologist who has spent his professional life studying the effects of combat stress, Grossman explains in wonderfully unpretentious and straightforward prose, often with the help of little diagrams that seem to come straight from the briefing tent, just why everything you thought you knew about war is wrong.

The book’s central proposition is that, notwithstanding the “myth of easy killing” that dominates both high and low cultures, killing one’s own kind is psychologically agonizing to the perpetrator as well as the victim. Thus stated, the idea seems merely truistic; but it acquires a radical edge when Grossman explores its neglected implications, showing how thoroughly it undermines the reigning heroic myths. Building on S.L.A. Marshall’s famous (though unscientific and much disputed) claim that only about 15 to 20% of infantry would fire their weapons in World War II, with Marshall's almost poetic conclusion that “the average and healthy individual . . . has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing his fellow man that . . . at the vital point he becomes a conscientious objector" (1), Grossman paints a fascinatingly counterintuitive portrait of war in which most men in most eras have simply not been able to kill, but have successfully kept that secret from their fellows, their officers, the folks at home, and in large measure themselves.

One compelling exemplum concerns well documented engagements in the American Civil War. In such battles as Cold Harbor, soldiers fired away at each other for hours on end, from positions clearly known, with weapons whose accuracy has been clearly established, expending quantities of ammunition that can be fairly estimated. But the disappointing casualty figures lead inescapably to the conclusion that nearly all of those brave boys were firing to miss, no doubt hardly realizing that they did so. In Grossman’s terms, the terror of battle caused them to “think with the midbrain,” i.e., subrationally, and to “revert to posturing mode.” In essence they did not use their weapons, but merely brandished them; and in so doing they followed the most ancient and abundant precedents. For the real contribution of most troops throughout history, according to Grossman, has been to provide a threatening presence, and secondarily to assist killing by indirect means (e.g., loading weapons). The actual killing is done by a tiny elite of “aggressive sociopaths” who take to it naturally, or are conditioned to it by a lifetime of training and fanatical class loyalties. (Did someone say “Achilles”?)

The mind-bending corollary is that the real determinants of military success have always been more psychological than material. Roughly speaking, an army prevails insofar as it succeeds in getting the average soldiers to behave like the natural killers, and the classic elements of armaments and strategy derive from this basic principle. The ancient chariot, an improbable contrivance in strictly physical terms (as Alexander’s troops proved at Gaugamela in 331 BC, making quick work of Darius’s gleaming war machines), ruled ancient battlefields for millennia because it was a “crew-served weapon,” with driver and archer encouraging and enabling one another to kill. The machine gun, likewise, proved cataclysmically lethal not just because of its rate of fire but because of better phenomenology: spraying bullets everywhere, it made killing feel less personal and horrific, while a gunner and a loader working closely together held each other to high standards of deadliness. Again, the close-order drill that ruled the eighteenth century actually rendered the troops far more vulnerable to gunfire than looser formations would have; but the tight rectangles prevailed because they were psychologically comforting and enabling on the one hand, intimidating on the other.

Meanwhile what Grossman calls “the wind of hate” the peculiar horror of having other people seek one’s death makes war categorically worse than mere danger. Populations will bear up astonishingly well under mere aerial bombardment, suffering catastrophic casualties without any corresponding rate of psychological impairment; but put boots on the ground, introduce the new spectre of close-up death at the hands of an antagonist you see and touch, and the same populations panic and surrender. Surrounded armies capitulate for much the same reason, even when still able to defend themselves. A human adversary’s intimate hatred stuns and paralyzes in a way even the fierceness of a wild animal does not, for we are social creatures, fatally prone to internalize blame and identify with the Other. In basic training, new recruits are subjected to torrents of abuse partly in order to “inoculate” them against the poison of hatred, lest they be shocked into submission or inaction when battle comes.

In Vietnam, says Grossman, the U.S. Army finally discovered (or rediscovered) the primacy of the psychological in combat, and responded by developing Skinnerian training regimens that turned the troops into highly efficient killers. Rates of fire increased from World War II’s 15 to 20% to a devastating 90 or 95%. (Which is where they remain today, the gritty reality beneath all the encomiums to "the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen" and so forth.) If there were a Fantasy Infantry League which matched Vietnam-era troops against their Good War equivalents, using the same weapons, they would spank the opposition every time. But the unforeseen result of the new training was post-traumatic stress syndrome on an epochal scale; for as Grossman explains at length in the oddly moving second half of the book, “normal” soldiers who kill carry a nearly intolerable burden of long-term guilt, irrespective of the circumstances and rationale. The pain can be palliated (never cured) by rituals of absolution and repeated gestures of thanks from a firmly supportive larger society. But when the nation instead offers contempt, indifference, or hostility, the soldier is left alone with his deeds and memories, a hellish and often intolerable burden.

The central feature of war, then, is the profound unnaturalness and difficulty of the act of killing. But how could a secret so consequential be hidden? How could we fail to know something so basic about our own natures? According to Grossman, the culture has engaged in “a conspiracy that obscures the very nature of war” (36), and he appropriately indicts the imagery of easy violence that dominates war propaganda and, more recently, popular entertainment. Still, that answer a form of “blaming it on society” seems inadequate to the scope of the cover-up. A more complete account of our systematic self-deception would I think find much more to say about the basic dynamics of threat behavior, the fact that aggressive display has an almost necessarily heedless, amnesiac, self-deluded quality.

A book that pursues this line of reasoning with enough historical detail and theoretical rigor to gladden the heart of the most demanding war geek is Robert O’Connell’s Of Arms and Men, a text I quote obsessively though I have quit assigning it to undergraduates. O’Connell offers a synoptic, perhaps slightly reductive, history of warfare that traces all of its phenomena to basic sociobiology. Like Grossman, he notes that Homo sapiens comes from the factory equipped for two very different kinds of violence: predation, with its earnest aim of taking life as efficiently as possible, often in cooperative fashion but without scruple; and intraspecific aggression, with the fundamental ambivalence that results in elaborate codes of threat and submission in place of real killing. Fighting for status and mates, conspecifics generally persist to the point of dominance rather than death, and often seem to have evolved specific behaviors designed to clarify the results of same-species combat while minimizing the damage done.

But in war, O’Connell proposes, we draw on both instincts, transferring some of the corporate methods and casual deadliness of predation to intraspecific conflict. Some, but not all: for he then advances a remarkable history of combat which shows it continually oscillating between the two poles — growing genocidal and ruthless in one set of historical circumstances, but in another reacquiring codes and scruples. What Shakespeare’s Fluellen calls “the rules of war” are always breaking down, it seems, but somehow always there to be debated and pondered. Thus the Mongol conquests approach pure predation in the unsentimental efficiency — the literalness, an English teacher wants to say — of tactics and the merciless slaughter of vanquished populations. At the other extreme, the setpiece battles of Europe in the late eighteenth century yearn back toward the model of intraspecific violence with their protracted maneuvers, ceremonial duel-like firing tactics, tolerance of honorable surrender, and humane treatment of captives. 

Weaponry, too, partakes of the dialectic. One of the many rewards of reading hundreds of pages of closely reasoned O’Connell is learning just how far the analogy of the ram’s horns or the elephant’s tusks can go in explaining human weapons and tactics. My favorite example is O’Connell’s account of the frenzy of battleship building that gripped Europe and America between the world wars, in what looks from one angle like a gigantic blundering boondoggle, but from another — that of the species itself rather than the taxpayer — like a successful sublimation of violence into the mode of posturing rather than attack. The dreadnoughts never proved truly effective in battle and played no major role in either world war, and yet, for what O’Connell persuasively argues were psychological reasons, they retained the passionate loyalty of citizens and politicians and sailors up to the mid-century and beyond. Huge, loud, lordly, and deliberate, they promised a mode of battle that would uphold our preference for the ritualization of same-species combat, with a slow approach over the waves that allowed for challenge and counter-challenge, then the symmetrical pairing of ship to ship, then the death-grapple of clearly identified antagonists the ships themselves, in this case, rather than individual warriors. Like that later unused and fabulously expensive weapon, the ICBM, they had a splendidly phallic profile that made them seem the very picture of self-confident power and dominance. The fact that they were fatally vulnerable to the much cheaper submarine was known to military planners, but could never quite overcome the gut feeling that the submarine was small and furtive, submissive by definition, so that you couldn’t really win that way, though you might inflict immense damage. I worry that this mindset is all too faithfully duplicated in our present attitudes toward the suicide bomb, which we view as a despairing gesture, a tactic doomed to ultimate failure by its very nature, rather than the strategic weapon it is proving to be.

For Diamond, O’Connell, and Grossman, then, war is so deeply unnatural that it can be accomplished only by persistent heavy socialization against the grain of inborn instinct. Gat’s long book registers an important partial dissent; still, the portrait that emerges is of the warrior, just beneath his armor, as a terrified, conflicted, displaced creature, one constrained by history and culture into a performance no more intuitive or graceful than that of a dancing grizzly. Speaking of dancing grizzlies, they make a handy classroom epitome for many of Grossman’s and O’Connell’s themes. What happens in the movies, I sometimes ask my students, when a grizzly bear is about to attack the hero?  It stands up on its hind legs, of course, and roars for a minute and a half, so that the hero can run for his rifle. Never mind that such an approach would be utterly silly from the grizzly’s point of view; the slow-motion spectacle is in every way more satisfying than the quick chomp-chomp of efficient hunting. The point is how tenaciously we cling to the protocols of same-species violence, how readily we substitute display for predation, pretend violence for the real thing, to the point of requiring a round of ritual boasting from the bear. Merely efficient violence tends to strike us as pointless, repulsive, or dull; the mind skids away from it. What really thrills the imagination, even where fighting is ostensibly ultra-lethal, as in the movies, is the slow, symmetrical, dance-like escalation of combat up to a climax that re-establishes the hero’s dominance in a “fair fight.”

The battleship chapter in the West seems to show just how deep such tendencies can run, how methodically we fool ourselves about the nature of war. That the best brains of several nations, many of them veterans, could busy themselves for decades building a demonstrably ineffective weapon — this argues a monumental capacity for self-deception at the level of national policy. How much greater, then, the willed blindness of the individual soldier facing combat. It seems that we nerve ourselves up to face the intolerable by representing it to ourselves as something else, or by not representing it at all, just responding to it with instincts appropriate to a different order of experience altogether. As famously happened in World War I, the soldier rides off to war filled with naïve enthusiasm, as if on a rugby tour or a safari, simply blanking out the reality of what lies ahead. It is not just “culture” that makes this happen, but ironically the very instincts of posture and submission whose original function is to curtail violence. As every good liar knows, the best way to fool others is to fool yourself, believing your own lie. And so with bluffing: the successful practitioners fool themselves up to the last moment, when if need be they can still resort to sudden surrender. The language of bluff is naturally hyperbolic, outrageous, and disingenuous, the mood heedless and unreflective. One promises to do the most ghastly things to the opponent: and why not, since none of it is meant literally?

But war is an arena where bluffs are called and threats taken at face value. History and culture conspire to give the soldier’s modest average-guy feistiness a meaning horribly in excess of what was really intended, misreading and betraying him precisely by taking him at his word. In combat he finally awakens, like Randall Jarrell’s ball turret gunner, “Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,” in the epiphany of revulsion that has become the signature of the modern war story. But the moment of horrified lucidity never seems to last. Instead there follows a renewal of the self-protective amnesia and denial that made it possible to fight in the first place. We fool ourselves repeatedly because we must, because it is the only way to make ourselves fight. But the same dynamic can make it nearly impossible to think clearly about whether fighting is really necessary: a lesson for the times, clearly, as we contemplate our recent actions in Iraq, wondering how on earth we got into such a mess. 

And what of literature? A seminar on War Stories is haunted by the doubt that the texts, like pornography, participate too concretely in their subject, that they are themselves part of the cultural machinery that makes the carnage possible. No doubt young men have gone blithely to their deaths with Homer or The Red Badge of Courage or even For Whom the Bell Tolls in their backpacks. But if they had not done so, who would have gone instead? And how many readers found a different meaning in the same books? Literature is not propaganda, and does not invent the world it describes. At its best it is as neutral as language itself: a tool ready to your hand, for making meanings that you alone will choose. In the end, even as it protests its own fecklessness, it may be the best tool we have for making human sense out of war’s insane excesses and chaotic contradictions.

Works Cited

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

Gat, Azar. War in Human Civilization. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.

Grossman, Dave. On Killing.  New York: Little, Brown, 1995.

Homer.  The Iliad, trans. Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company, 1994.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1990.

O’Connell, Robert L. Of Arms and Men. New York: Oxford, 1989.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate. New York, Viking, 2002.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War. Trans. Rex Warner. New York: Penguin, 1954.

[An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a paper at the Conference on War and Literature, SUNY - Binghamton, in March, 2004. — JDK]