Acts of war. – book reviews

Brett Harvey

Acts of War

Descriptions of war tend to be eithercliche-ridden paeans to the heroic glories of the battlefield or bloodless narratives in which the individual soldier is reduced to a dot on a map. British military historian Richard Holmes takes a different approach in Acts of War (Free Press, $19.95), exploring the behavior and psychology of individual soldiers on the battlefield.

Holmes draws on a wide range ofsources, from General Karl von Clausewitz to Robert Jay Lifton, but his richest material comes from interviews with recent veterans of Vietnam, the Falklands and the Arab-Israeli conflicts. Through soldiers’ eyes, the author scrutinizes the experience of war from the initial oath and basic training through the terror, isolation and confusion of the battlefield. Holmes examines such phenomena as prebattle stess–the fear of being a coward and apprehension about what is to come–and reveals that many soldiers, especially neophytes, experience this dread more intensely than fear during battle.

The author reminds us that militarypsychiatry didn’t come of age until World War I, when, for the first time, exhaustion, concussion and war neurosis were recognized as legitimate casualties. Some of his assumptions are open to question–for example, that a solider’s breakdown under battle stress is necessarily a sign of preexisting disorder. And although Holmes discusses the relationship of sexual imagery and language to the language of battle and alludes to the ubiquity of prostitution in war, strangely he does not explore the phenomenon of rape. Nor does he shed much light on how the increasing impersonality of modern weaponry has affected the face of battle.

Still, this book provides fascinatingand moving insights into the ways soldiers cope with the terror and stress of battle, from drugs and alcohol to the use of ritual, denial and bonding with their fellow soldiers.

COPYRIGHT 1986 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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