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It is almost universally accepted among writers on warfare that battle is a terrible experience, and that men who fight do so out of necessity and at the very least sobered, and often deeply traumatized, by the horrors of combat. Bourke uses the letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports of veterans from three conflicts – the First and Second World Wars and the Vietnam War – to establish a radically different picture of the man-at-arms.


She suggests that the structure of war encourages pleasure in killing, and the perfectly ordinary, gentle human beings in civilian life can become enthusiastic killers without becoming “brutalized”, as one pervasive cliché would have us believe. People find ways of creating meaning out of the chaos of war, and one way is to find great satisfaction in it, especially in the act of slaughtering an enemy that you can see and touch. Violent and sadistic men are not the best killers; men motivated by emotions like love and empathy rather than those of hatred and bloodlust become the most lethal individuals on the battlefield. And some never again feel so intensely alive as when they are killing other men.

Bourke forces us to face some disconcerting truths about a society that can so easily organize itself for war, and about the “narratives of pleasure” in film and literature that prepare men imaginatively for the experience. She shows how the feeling of guilt itself may enable what soldiers believe to be legitimate killing, and presents disturbing evidence of the ease with which combat could become atrocity in twentieth-century warfare.

It has been translated into Chinese, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Greek, and Turkish.

Table of contents


  1. The pleasures of war
  2. The warrior myth
  3. Training men to kill
  4. Anatomy of a hero
  5. Love and hate
  6. War crimes
  7. The burden of guilt
  8. Medics and the military
  9. Priests and padres
  10. Women go to war
  11. Return to civilian life