Monday, September 12, 2011

The banality of war

Australian Memorial, Pozières, Somme region, commemorating the heavy
battle fought by the Australian soldiers when conquering the hill here.

I just finished reading Somme Mud by E.P.F. Lynch. It is an autobiographic novel about the author’s experiences as a soldier on the Western Front of the First World War (so in France and Belgium), although Lynch denied that the novel was about himself. Lynch, an Australian, served voluntarily as a member of Anzac, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. His penetrating descriptions of the fights and the battle fields can be compared with those by Ernst Jünger in his Storm of Steel. You feel yourself in the skin of Lynch, to the extent that such a thing is possible, of course, for you miss the stench and the noise, for instance.
We follow Lynch from his departure from Australia to his first battle on the Somme and then to the other battles he participated in – including the heaviest ones like the battles on the Messines Ridge and near Passendale – till the end of the war, when the front begun to move, the armistice and Lynch’s return to Australia. Lynch became five times wounded but surprisingly, in view of the many very dangerous situations he got through, he survived it, as did his little inner group of comrades, with the exception of one.
I can write a lot about the book, and I can compare it also with other novels of the First World war and with other soldier’s autobiographies, but here I want to bring forward one thing that is related to what I wrote already about in these blogs. The more I came to the end of the book, the more it made me think of what Arendt wrote on the banality of evil and of what Zimbardo wrote on the being situated of what we do: that it is the situation that makes you a devil or a hero. You can see this also in this book, although the situated behaviour did not develop as quickly as it did in Zimbardo’s prison experiment (Zimbardo had to break off his experiment already after six days; see my blog dated March 14, 2011). Here it was a matter of months and years. I read the book in a Dutch translation, so I cannot give verbal quotations, but somewhere at the end, Lynch makes a comparison between civil life and army life: A man does not enter a pub, so he says, in order to become drunk, but once he is there, he does the same as the others do and in the end he becomes smashed. In the army it is not different. A man does not come into action with the intention to kill his fellow man, but with a grenade or a bayonet in his hands he will do exactly the same as his comrades do and he will use them fully. Isn’t there a better description of the fact that the situation makes us do what we do? Of Zimbardo’s conclusion that it are not psychological dispositions that make people behave in an evil (or heroic) way but that it is the situation that brings people that far? Of the banality of evil in Arendt’s sense? (Arendt stressed the wrong side of what we do, but as Zimbardo made clear and as can be seen in Lynch’s book, too, the same is true for heroism).
To take another example, in the beginning of the book, Snow, one of Lynch’s comrades of the inner group, sees a German soldier walking to his line with a pack on his back. It is the first enemy they see. Snow shoots him down but gets pangs of conscience. Later in the book, and especially at the end, all feelings of remorse for killing have gone. Every German who has not surrendered is killed, if possible, including Germans who have left their positions and flee; who want to surrender but haven’t done it quickly enough, and so on. It is no problem to shoot them down. Seeing the killings and the heavy mutilated bodies on the battlefield, one of Lynch’s comrades says: “Is that civilization?”
Yet, most soldiers were conscripts or volunteers – some very young, some older, some already relatively old. They were ordinary civilians, before they went to this war; people who before the war probably never would have  thought that they would be able to participate in such mass killings, or, on the other hand, to run forward into the bullets of the machine guns of the enemy, just because they “had to”. Apparently the situation is stronger than your will, at least often, and Lynche’s book is a good illustration of it.

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