Friday, 10 August 2012

LETHALITY IN COMBAT: A Study of the True Nature of Battle by TOM LEWIS

LETHALITY IN COMBAT: A Study of the True Nature of Battle
Big Sky Publishing, 2012, 359 pages, $34.99 (hb)

Review by Phil Shannon

The truth of war, says Dr. Tom Lewis in Lethality in Combat, is that it is violent and lethal.  Well, no surprises there but coming from a former Navy officer within the institutional and ideological framework of the Australian military, it is a deviation of sorts from official military history which is most comfortable with the ‘honour and glory’ take on war rather than the killing and bloodshed bit.

Unlike those who are repulsed by war’s human carnage, however, Lewis thinks we should be realists and celebrate the lethal reality of war in order to train for a military better at it.  Lewis’ book is a long polemic against the “fashionable arguments” of anti-militarist critics, who, he agrees, correctly “put killing back into military history” but who, falsely he laments, deplore the military’s “celebration of violence”.

Anti-militarism is so much moral squeamishness and humanitarian foolishness, argues Lewis, which would only assist in “the soldiers of your country’s enemies marching through your capital city in triumph”.  Killing, brutality, viciousness are, on the contrary, to be “applauded” if “we” want to win.  If so, one’s hands would be clapped out at the sheer extent of the ugly business end of combat documented by Lewis.

Killing rather than taking prisoners, Lewis shows, rightly “happens frequently” and the killing of the wounded is also “excusable”.  Others who no longer pose a threat are also for killing (fighter pilots cutting in half by propeller bailed out parachutists, or strafing of sailors in lifeboats).  Mutilation and other mistreatment of dead enemy’s bodies is valuable because it “dehumanises the enemy and makes them psychologically easier to kill”.  So, too, do derogatory nicknames (‘raghead’, ‘gook’, ‘Kraut’). 

Revenge killings are “probably unlawful” but need “understanding”.  Shooting your own kind (for cowardice, desertion, mutiny, for attempting surrender) is top discipline, essential for making soldiers obey orders and stay in the killing game.

Killing civilians may be ”unfortunate but inevitable”, Lewis concedes, but it is certainly not the military’s fault.  There was hardly a civilian death in Vietnam, he argues, that was not warranted – all 12 year old Vietnam girls were potential ‘terrorists’ whilst his silence on the record tonnage of American bombs dropped on Vietnam, with their notorious inability to distinguish enemy from civilian, glosses over the rather clear guilt of the US military.

Lewis has a convenient excuse for all this combat lethality – “military necessity”.  Aggression, blood lust, avoidance of remorse are essential to winning, and military training must inculcate these values to “overcome the aversion to killing”.  “It is unfair”, Lewis says, “to judge [our warriors] by standards set by others who do not understand the true nature of combat”.  ‘So toughen up’ is Lewis’ message to the bureaucrats with their pettifogging ‘rules of engagement’ and Geneva Convention codes and to anti-war critics who base their horror of war on such irrelevant standards as moral right and wrong and international class solidarity against the planners of wars for resources, profits and geo-political power.

Because “warfare is part of the human condition”, Lewis pessimistically concludes, we must learn to embrace the smell of blood and cordite in the morning if we want to stop the Hun/Vietcong/Argies from waltzing into our shopping malls.  Whilst Lewis departs from the reverential worship of the myths of war’s ‘nobility’ and ‘sacrifice’, his catalogue of combat lethality serves the same flag-waving, imperialist purpose of militarist history – his realist military history would have us building a more effective and ethically-immune military machine promising bigger and better war crimes, atrocities and brutalities.

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