What makes modern wars so barbaric, asks Military Times Editor Neil Faulkner.
Captured Indian mutineers being strapped to cannon.
All forms of warfare can produce atrocities. The survival instinct and a need for split-second judgement about perceived threat can cause soldiers to shoot rather than seek to capture an opponent. Fear can turn into anger in the heat of combat, and battle frenzy cause killing to continue long after it is necessary. The death or wounding of mates often gives rise to a need for vengeance and retributive justice.
But some wars are far more brutal than others. European warfare in the 18th and 19th centuries was generally subject to widely accepted norms designed to limit unnecessary suffering. Marlborough’s men usually took prisoners and showed consideration for enemy wounded. The Duke himself was a model of courtesy and compassion. After the Battle of Blenheim, the defeated French marshal Tallard was carried into captivity in the comfort of Marlborough’s own coach.
Much the same was true of the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Atrocities were few. Perhaps the main exceptions were the occasional massacres carried out by Confederate forces – sometimes of black Union soldiers, sometimes of civilian populations by guerrillas in the Mid- West.
Colonial campaigns were a different matter. US operations against Native Americans were often genocidal in character. European campaigns in Africa, Asia, and Australia were sometimes conducted with little restraint. The British tied captured Indian mutineers to cannon and blasted them into fragments. The Belgians chopped off the hands of thousands of Congolese. The Germans set out to exterminate the Herrero and Nama people of Namibia.
What caused the methods of colonial warfare to enter European warfare in the 20th century? Why, in particular, was the Second World War so consistently and monstrously barbaric?
The Second World War was the greatest military catastrophe in world history. It is not just that it cost 60 million lives; it is also the circumstances of death for so many of this 60 million, and the gratuitous suffering visited upon hundreds of millions of others. A war of unprecedented scale proved also to be a war of unprecedented barbarism.
Most of the 27 million Russians and 15 million Chinese estimated to have died were murdered. All of the 12 million who died in the concentration camps were murdered. A large majority of the war’s dead were, by any definition, not strictly casualties of war at all, but victims of genocide, ethnic-cleansing, and state terror.
Why was this? It was not a result of innate cruelty. There is no such thing. The behaviour of the Japanese towards captured British soldiers and civilians during the Second World War has been a preoccupation for 70 years. Some have concluded that the Japanese are ‘a cruel race’. But it is not so.
The Japanese record in relation to captured Russians during the Russo- Japanese War of 1904-1905 is an honourable one. And both the Germans under Hitler and the Russians under Stalin were no less bestial than the Japanese during the Second World War. Both the former had, by and large, conformed to the dominant norms of European warfare during the 18th and 19th centuries. The politics of racism – not race itself – is the root of barbarism.
Colonial warfare was legitimised by racism: the self-proclaimed superiority of the invaders, whether racial or cultural, was their justification for taking over other people’s territory and exploiting their labour and resources. The enemy was demonised and dehumanised by racial stereotyping, creating a moral framework for the conduct of war which made atrocities far more likely. Often enough, indeed, the orders came from above. Even when they did not, subordinates who committed ‘excesses’ were unlikely ever to be sanctioned.
The Second World War was ‘racialised’ and brutalised by the dictatorships constructed in the 1920s and 1930s – Fascist Italy, Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, and Militarist Japan. It was the deployment of the technology of modern industrialised warfare in the service of the race-myths of the Dark Ages that produced the world’s descent into barbarism between 1939 and 1945. And, in the context of the modern ‘war on terror’, have we yet emerged? Just how civilised is our modern world of the Twin Towers, Al-Quaida, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Islamophobia?
Neil Faulkner is an archaeologist, historian, lecturer, and the editor of Military Times