war and the body

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war and the body There is horror inscribed on the body at war. Otto Dix's War Triptych (1932) and Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937) present us with the mutilated, agonized, and contorted flesh of combat. There is no glory here, no hypnotic beating of drums, no braying horses, no clash of sword against sword. Instead, combat has become mechanical slaughter, a silent scream. Even the body has lost its boundaries: guns are ‘arms’ and radar are ‘eyes’. If there is a heroic tale, it is located far behind battle-lines in hospitals where surgeons invest their technical skills and professional acumen in new disciplines in order to reassemble dismembered men. Or it is in research laboratories where scientists concoct gases and viruses to poison enemy bodies more effectively, or in military camps where psychiatrists minister to men's minds in order that their bodies can go forth to kill and be killed. For politicians, military strategists, and many historians, war may be about the conquest of territory or the struggle to recover a sense of national honour, but for servicemen, warfare is more brutal, more bloody, than this.

But these are not the only bodies of war. There is also the glorious flesh of the imagination: the chiselled features of airmen, the muscular bulk of sailors, and the fertile curves of mothers, creators of life in the midst of terrible carnage. These representations of the body at war inspire military fervour. Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, Robert Clive, Charles Gordon, David Livingston, and T. E. Lawrence are the romantic symbols which preoccupy boys' magazines. Flying aces, such as Germany's Erich Hartmann (who scored 352 hits during World War II), are goals that servicemen dream about. War's emblems include the female sex. Florence Nightingale's nursing zeal in the Crimea; Harriet Tubman's underground railroad during the American Civil War; and female partisans during the Spanish Civil War, and in Yugoslavia and Russia during World War II, encourage women to participate more fully in armed struggles.

Increasingly, female bodies have been drawn closer to the killing fields. Of course, they have always been central to the military enterprise by pushing their menfolk into the fray, nursing torn bodies on their return, and creating memorials to the dead. There have always been exceptional women who proved willing to ‘sacrifice’ their own lives in combat. However, twentieth-century armaments brought physical risk closer to the majority of women. In 1914, for the first time in modern warfare, civilians in countries which were not invaded had bombs rained down upon them. In occupied countries, new, long-distant technologies of war (such as machine guns, artillery, aerial bombers, and atom bombs) could not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. At Buchenwald, Hiroshima, and My Lai, the chief victims were civilians. ‘Body counts’ exemplify this sense that individuals are expendable, valueless. So-called ‘rules of civilized warfare’, embodying the famous principles of discrimination and proportionality, have become absurdly muddled and irrelevant. There is no limit to the damage that can be inflicted upon human bodies.

To focus on dismemberment, however, distorts our understanding of the way war is experienced and imagined within societies. For one thing, in many modern conflicts, and most scandalously during the Crimean War and the Spanish– American War, more men died from disease than from shot and shell. Furthermore, the body is not only decimated by war, it is also moulded by it. From the late nineteenth century, fears that wars were dysgenic because they destroyed the strongest men and left the responsibility for breeding a new generation to ‘half-men’, stimulated state and private intervention into improving the corporeal well-being of their citizens. From the turn of the twentieth century, the belief that combat effectiveness could be identified by physical examination resulted in mass campaigns in which men were weighed and measured, placed into their respective ‘grades’, then sent to the appropriate field of military usefulness. By the time of World War II, such essentialist typologies were being supplemented by psychological testing: as signifiers of military effectiveness, physical prowess and psychological ‘balance’ became inseparable. In this way, the male body at war is constrained, policed, and disciplined to an extent rarely regarded as acceptable within civilian contexts. Since the soldiers of the Roman army first donned identical military clothing, the experience of men in battle has been one of uniformity. Men are severely punished for infractions of the military code. Repetitive military and physical drill shape men's bodies into similar patterns. Military training unquestionably creates men who are ‘harder’, more muscular, and ‘fitter’ than their civilian counterparts.

After war, ex-servicemen's bodies become a site of controversy. Claims for pensions generate some of the most bitter political debates: able-bodied and disabled-bodied servicemen tussle over their respective entitlements, and working-class activists sneer at the so-called ‘sacrifices’ made by more privileged soldiers. Within a short time, people turn their gaze away from ‘suffering warriors’, preferring to forget the past and look ahead to the possibility of renewed conflict. Accusations of war's ‘brutalizing effect’ have been more insidious. Although such insults are expressed after every conflict, they reached a new intensity after the Vietnam War, when the veteran's body came to be portrayed either as ‘broken’ or as immensely dangerous: victim or executioner. Civilians displace responsibility for social dysfunction from the societies which sent men to war, to combat servicemen themselves.

In death, military bodies had to be reconstructed in the imagination of those left behind. Often, the physical body is absent, lost on some battlefield or buried at a distance from those who loved it in life. War memorials often scarcely dare to remember their dead in human form, preferring to represent the loss of their young by a simple stone into which the names of the dead are inscribed. Indeed, after World War II, fresh names were often merely added to the bottom of the 1914–18 memorials. The dead soldier disappears, but the nightmare of war continues to be chiselled onto the bodies of those who remain behind, as in Kathe Kollwitz's granite commemoration at the Roggevelde German war cemetery of her young son's death. In this memorial, it is the grieving parents kneeling before their son's grave, their bodies scarcely containing their anguish as they pray for forgiveness for failing to stand against war, who become the lasting representatives of the impact of war on the body.

Joanna Bourke


Bourke, J. (1996). Dismembering the male: men's bodies, Britain and the Great War. Reaktion, London and Chicago.

See also biological warfare; chemical warfare; killing; violence.