How many people do you know who have either (a) killed or (b) murdered people? I am not conscious of having met a murderer, although John Mortimer revealed recently that one of his best friends became one. As a schoolboy, however, I used to play a board game called L’Attaque with an ex-officer who told me, between moves, of his experiences in Normandy. He recalled without pleasure or dismay how he had used his dirk to kill a German who ambushed him in a dark cellar.
My generation was spared the duty of taking aim and firing, except at targets or with blanks. Somewhat like Chancellor Kohl, we have had the good fortune not to have had to choose between squeamishness and virility. One recalls the story of a Galician Jew conscripted into the Austrian army at the outbreak of the Great War who endured his sergeants’ brutalising rages with resigned equanimity. He assumed that it was part of a Jew’s lot to be stunned by thunder flashes and given bad food, a straw mattress and nails in his boots. Sent at last to the front, the Jew was ordered to take part in an attack. He was horrified to find that those on the other side were firing real bullets and shrapnel at his comrades. His last words-shouted to the enemy-were, “Are you mad? There are human beings here.”
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death-dealing has been both a duty and a pleasure to the human race. Beasts kill and eat each other when hungry or threatened; civilised man is piously interdicted from eating other men the better to moralise their massacre or dignify their execution. If western man had enforced cannibalism, might casualties have been limited by satiety rather than rendered countless by principle? Well, the Aztecs combined bloodthirstiness with eclectic cannibalism without losing their appetite for battle. Homo necans is, as Walter Burkert declared, the due name for our species.
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the decline of war as a routine element of diplomacy has done more to unravel traditional values than it is politic to acknowledge. In hegemonic days, Britain was always in a state of surreptitious military organisation. Since every gentleman could expect to be an officer, civilised conformity was exacted less by Christian morality than by regimental habit. “Good morning, good morning,” said Siegfried Sassoon’s general to two of his tommies as they marched up to…