The most arresting detail in Antony Beevor’s anecdotal history of the great Soviet victory at Stalingrad is a propaganda photograph taken in 1942 of a dozen or so German soldiers marching three abreast, heading east, squinting into the July sun. On this fine morning the young warriors are on their way to Stalingrad, where they will destroy its factories and homes and murder its inhabitants, people who have done them no harm and whose names they don’t know and never will. If it worries them that many more than a million German troops have become casualties since Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union thirteen months previously or if they care or even know that in October their comrades murdered 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar near Kiev and are at this very moment murdering millions more in Poland, their boyish faces don’t show it.

They have been told that they are members of a master race who are rescuing the world from a plague called Judeo-Bolshevism. It is unlikely that they know what this term means or why they have gone to war. Yet their eager expressions suggest that they look forward to killing with impunity and a clear conscience, perhaps even with pleasure. One trooper wears stylish sunglasses. From the belt of another hangs his coal scuttle helmet, the sole clue that these troops in their early twenties or perhaps younger are actually German. They are blond and bareheaded, their faces unlined, their expressions confident. Hitler called these soldiers his young lions, but the photographer has not emphasized their ferocity. He wants his subjects to seem carefree and friendly, and perhaps they are. They could be one’s own sons or brothers. Only the helmet and the rifle barrels visible above their right shoulders show that they are soldiers at all and not birdwatchers up at dawn with their web belts and accordion pockets stuffed with cakes and sandwiches.

Within six months they and their comrades will have leveled most of Stalingrad and killed or dispersed nearly all its inhabitants, but they too will be dead or wish they were. The lucky ones will have been pulverized in the icy ruins of the ravaged but fiercely defended city. By late November hundreds of thousands of others will be hollow-eyed, covered with lice and starving, trapped by the Soviet counteroffensive, awaiting death or capture. Their orders had been to shoot their Soviet prisoners or let them starve in icy stockades. They will be treated with even greater cruelty by Stalingrad’s defenders. Most of them will never see Germany again.

The photograph raises existential questions: What turns smiling young men like these into murderers who journey far from home and family to burn and ravage places they know nothing about and kill people who have done them no harm? Like countless warlords before him, Hitler had told his troopers that the people they were going to kill were subhuman, but the soldiers’ own eyes must have told a different story, that the people of Stalingrad were fellow creatures just like themselves. Why did they deny what they saw, and believe instead Hitler’s lie? Why have aggressive armies always done the same?

The motives of individual murderers are no mystery: jealousy, fear, rage, envy, revenge, greed, hatred, the wish to dominate, often to the point of madness, the sheer joy of killing. But why did these presumably law-abiding young Germans ignore every decent instinct and waste their lives in an act of gratuitous aggression? Had any of them come as individuals to Stalingrad to burn and kill they would have been tried as criminals or declared insane. But the fear and shame that would otherwise inhibit them from killing have been inverted by their warrior cult. What had once been punished is now obligatory. What had once been shameful is now celebrated. This peculiar behavior of human beings in their groups, gangs, armies, nations—so remarkable in itself—is too familiar to be much noted, but this inattention is an even greater human peculiarity.1

Yet to declare the actions of the Wehrmacht as a whole criminal or insane raises a difficult question, for how then are other invading armies and the societies that sponsor them to be described: Agamemnon’s Achaeans or Alexander’s Greeks, for example, or Caesar’s or Napoleon’s legions or those Americans who rampaged through Vietnam killing civilians who had done no more to provoke such violence than the citizens of Stalingrad had done twenty-six years previously? Is it possible to segregate such behavior as abnormal despite its constant presence within our species? Or are organized mass murder and the rationalizations employed to justify it simply another human activity as normal as raising families, building cities, and telling stories? And if such behavior is normal, what can its adaptive function be? How does killing one’s fellow creatures contribute to the evolutionary success of the human species? Or, is it the inexplicable fate of humanity to annihilate itself by violent means for no apparent reason?


Since childhood the troopers in the photograph had been warped by Nazi ideology to regard decency as a weakness and ruthlessness a virtue in pursuit of Germany’s territorial needs and its great and noble defense of Western culture, whose centerpiece would be the extermination of Jews and other inferior races to the east and the theft of their property. It would be comforting to think that such malignity is unusual or even unique, but history, especially that of the present century, is a nearly unbroken chronicle of armed violence on the part of nation-states and their tribal predecessors whose ideologies fade and vanish in time, leaving only the dead as their memorial.

As models for their own violence the Nazi leaders, bending their racial doctrine, had studied the legendary cruelties of the Mongol invaders as well as the crimes of the Bolsheviks. Like Lenin, the deformed child of the Enlightenment, Hitler wanted to cleanse the world of its impurities and create a “new Eden.” As Nazis became right-wing Leninists, Leninists became left-wing Nazis, twin monsters marching toward paradise through rivers of blood. The ideologies of left and right were a façade, seriously debated at the time but absurd in retrospect. Whatever else they may seem to have been it has long been obvious that Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and their followers were mass murderers, who implicated as accomplices in their crimes nearly their entire populations and criminalized those few who dissented.

Five years before Stalingrad, the Japanese, in the name of their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, had inflicted enormous, ingenious, and unprovoked cruelties upon Chinese civilians as well as soldiers, behavior as destructive of Japan’s declared, if disingenuous, interest in shared prosperity as Hitler’s violent campaign in the Ukraine was of his own plan to create a pacified German province in the east. A generation later, Mao, to preserve his disastrous regime, declared war upon his own people. Millions of innocent Chinese died in the name of his Cultural Revolution. The recent mass murders in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo have been compared to those of the Nazis for their terrible cruelty and for the élan with which they were carried out. Did the killers of East Timor go mad only when they began their rampage or had they always been mad? Or are they no more mad than other rampaging armies, and therefore normal?

Cold war scientists in the United States and the Soviet Union, inspired by Japan’s wartime experiments in China, developed tons of pathogens for use as weapons of mass destruction until the United States saw that these technologies could be used by poor countries to disable rich ones. For this reason among others the United States closed its laboratories. The Soviets, citing their inferior resources and the memory of the Nazi invasion, expanded theirs. Christopher Browning concludes Ordinary Men, his study of a German military police battalion made up of “ordinary” Germans too old for the regular army, most of whom were also too old to have been exposed as schoolchildren to Nazi doctrine, but nearly all of whom willingly shot to death thousands of helpless Jews, by asking, “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers… what group of men cannot?” Indeed, what group of men have not?

The photograph of the young Germans in Beevor’s book raises a broader question than the evil acts of Hitler’s soldiers: Why have human beings, alone among animal species, repeatedly formed aggressive bands to ravage their own kind in defiance of all civilized constraints, as if the force of the Sixth Commandment measures the intensity of the will to violate it? The question is naive, perhaps absurdly so in its breadth, in the tantalizing simplicity of the obvious, if unthinkable, reply—that we kill our kind because we are killers—and in the reminder of the extent to which we don’t know what we are, much less what we mean by “normal.” Yet the image of Hitler’s invaders on the road to Stalingrad, an image expressed throughout history and in all parts of the world—on Egyptian temples, on Greek pottery, in Roman histories, in Renaissance paintings and Shakespeare’s plays, in Chinese tombs, on Civil War monuments, in Star Wars films and children’s computer games—raises a question that requires an answer whether one can be found or not.


Beevor is a popularizer of military history, not a moral philosopher or an anthropologist interested in the peculiarities of human behavior, much less an evolutionary biologist. Existential questions about human aggressiveness are not his subject. His modest ambition is to entertain readers with a story of tribal violence, the most ancient of literary genres, of which our weak and fearful species never tires. His retelling of the Battle of Stalingrad was a best seller in Great Britain, where it was originally published, and winner of the first annual Samuel Johnson award for the year’s best work of nonfiction. It has now appeared here in paperback. Yet there is little to recommend Beevor’s book beyond its provocative photograph of the soldiers on the road to Stalingrad. Beevor makes careless errors (“On December 9…the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor,”2 ) commits barbarisms (“one German pilot… managed to bale out…,” “Goncharov …accompanied by his old father whom he assumed was coming to see him off…”3 ) and redundancies (“Speer accompanied his wife to a performance of The Magic Flute at the opera…”), and omits important details. He neglects, for instance, to identify Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky as leader of the counteroffensive in which the Soviets encircled and destroyed the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad but gives credit instead to his front commander, A.I. Eremenko.


A more serious error is Beevor’s reliance upon the disingenuous claim made in his memoirs by Georgi Zhukov, Marshal of the Soviet Union and the architect of Hitler’s defeat, that his bloody month-long campaign beginning in late November 1942 to destroy German Army Group Center, which threatened Moscow from its forward position in the Rzhev and Vyazma regions 160 miles west of the capital, was a mere feint meant to deter the Germans from reinforcing their vast army trapped at Stalingrad.

As David Glantz shows in Zhukov’s Greatest Defeat, his important new study of the Soviet counteroffensive, Zhukov’s attack on this German salient was a gigantic, costly, and unsuccessful attempt to complete his unfinished victory of the previous winter when he drove Hitler’s armies from the gates of Moscow, a success that marked the turning point of the war in the east. Zhukov’s larger strategy was to proceed on a westward axis to Berlin, but his failure to reduce the German salient frustrated this plan.

In the fall of 1942 Zhukov and Vasilevsky urged upon Stalin a two-part strategy. Vasilevsky would command the counteroffensive at Stalingrad and Zhukov would assemble a vast force, at least as great as Vasilevsky’s, to liquidate German Army Group Center, with which he was obsessed. Stalin hesitated but finally agreed. Beevor, presumably unaware of Glantz’s recently available Soviet sources, does not mention this double strategy, which supplies the larger context of which the Stalingrad victory was part.

Zhukov’s attack followed Vasilevsky’s success at Stalingrad by a week and failed. With mounting fury the frustrated Zhukov flung battalion after battalion against the stubborn German lines, often to the dismay of his field commanders. His disastrous offensive cost 335,000 Soviet casualties, of whom 100,000 were killed or missing. Some 1,600 tanks were lost, more than Vasilevsky’s entire force. But the German defenders also suffered terrible losses and were forced to abandon their salient as Vasilevsky’s victorious armies pushed westward, leaving the southern flank of Army Group Center hanging in air.

Vasilevsky’s success had rendered Zhukov’s furious and costly offensive unnecessary. Had Zhukov been less eager to commence his march on Berlin, less bent on vengeance and perhaps on matching Vasilevsky’s historic success, he might have ended his offensive sooner, spared many lives, and avoided an embarrassing failure. But on this occasion Zhukov’s vanity overcame his common sense, as it also overcame his candor when he described these events in his memoirs.

David Glantz’s gripping new scholarly work—a work of permanent value—reveals the full extent of Zhukov’s failure and by implication of the disaster that would have followed if Vasilevsky had also failed.

Unlike Beevor, the English historian Joanna Bourke, in An Intimate History of Killing, confronts directly the murderous nature of human beings in wartime. Though her book is an indictment compiled from the recollections of Allied veterans of the two World Wars and Vietnam, she does not suggest that the warriors she cites were uniquely bloodthirsty. She would probably agree that in World War II the German invaders and the Soviet defenders were far more so. Her reliance on Allied sources may reflect only her lack of other languages. Bourke means to implicate all warriors (including women) in the “joy” of killing and curtly dismisses as merely therapeutic the retrospective guilt recorded by some of her contributors. “Soldiers maintained their ability to kill,” she writes, “by stressing…that they should feel guilty for killing…. This emotion… made them ‘human,’ and enabled them to return to civilian society…. Guiltless killers were immoral….” “Guilt, and rites of repentance, brought ritual back to slaughter: it enabled killing by embracing guilt minus its most maddening sting.” Bourke is an unforgiving prosecutor who yields nothing to the defense. Her ardor ruins her case, but her evidence, though carelessly organized and of varying credibility, is nonetheless arresting if read with care.

Bourke’s aim is “to put killing back into military history,” to show “that the association of pleasure with killing and cruelty” is the essence of warfare; that warmaking is mere sadism, a psychiatric event punishable or curable according to one’s outlook. This improbable hypothesis is contradicted by many witnesses, including William Tecumseh Sherman, Ernest Hemingway, Guy Sajer, Michael Herr, and the North Vietnamese novelist Bao Ninh, to name only a few. No reader will accuse Bourke of excess subtlety in argument or style as she furiously piles example upon example to support her indictment. For instance: “Just after eight o’clock on the morning of 16 March 1968,” she writes,

105 American soldiers of Charlie Company…entered the small village of Son My (known to the Americans as My Lai and thought to be the base of the 48th Viet Cong Local Forces Battalion)…. By the time [Lieutenant William] Calley and his men sat down to lunch, they had rounded up and slaughtered around 500 unarmed civilians. Within those few hours, members of Charley Company had “fooled around” and laughed as they sodomized and raped women, ripped vaginas open with knives, bayoneted civilians, scalped corpses, and carved “C Company” or the ace of spades on to their chests…. Other soldiers had wept openly as they opened fire on crowds of unresisting old men, women, children, and babies. At no stage did these soldiers receive any enemy fire or encounter any form of resistance save fervent pleadings…. After the massacre, the men of C Company burned their way through a few other villages, eventually reaching the seashore where they stripped and jumped into the surf….

“War crimes in Vietnam did not start (or finish) with Charlie Company,” Bourke writes. Studies confirmed

that all men who had engaged in “heavy combat,” around a third of those who had been involved in “moderate combat,” and 8 per cent of those who had seen “light combat” had witnessed atrocities or had helped murder non-combatants….4

Excluding the My Lai trials, there were only thirty-six court martials for war crimes committed by American troops between January 1965 and August 1973.

In The Sorrow of War, the novelist Bao Ninh, who served as an officer with the Glorious Youth Brigade of the North Vietnamese army and was one of ten survivors of the five hundred who comprised the original complement, shows that coldbloodedness was not an American specialty. “Scores of bodies lay in all imaginable twisted positions; there was nothing to scream or take fright about…. It seemed perfectly normal.” As for the retrospective feelings of guilt claimed by front-line soldiers, he is wiser than Joanna Bourke.

The sorrow of war inside a soldier’s heart was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love. It was a kind of nostalgia, like the immense sadness of a world at dusk. It was a sadness, a missing, a pain which could send one soaring back into the past. The sorrow of the battlefield could not normally be pinpointed to one particular event, or even one person. If you focused on any one event it would soon become a tearing pain.

It was especially important, therefore, to avoid if possible focusing on the dead.

In Ordinary Men, published in 1992, Christopher Browning reconstructs from the records of a West German court of inquiry the activities of the five hundred or so “ordinary men” of Reserve Police Battalion 101 who, within a period of seventeen months, from July 1942 to November 1943, shot and killed 38,000 Jews and jammed another 45,000 into freight cars to be shipped to the extermination camps. These were not bureaucratic killers, issuing orders from behind their desks far from the killing fields, nor with a very few exceptions were they fanatical Hitlerites. They were working men in their thirties and forties, many of them police officers in civilian life, sent to Poland to do a job whose details were not disclosed to them in advance. When they were eventually told that their task was to murder Jews, nearly the entire battalion proceeded methodically and without apparent feeling. They killed “their” Jews one by one, usually with a bullet to the base of the neck as their victims, including old men and women as well as children, lay face down on the killing fields. To save time infants were not taken to the killing fields but murdered where they were found.

When members of the battalion were interviewed by a German court in the 1960s nearly all of them claimed to have been “horrified and disgusted,” at first, by what they were doing, as Joanna Bourke might have predicted, yet nearly all overcame their repugnance and joined the killing, though their rueful commanding officer offered to exempt without penalty those who chose not to take part. A handful accepted his offer but eventually rejoined their comrades rather than seem judgmental. The rest pitched in at once. Some murdered eagerly. A few found the work sexually exciting. For most the assignment quickly became uneventful. The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 might have been painting a house for all the emotion they displayed. Some joked about the work. One officer suffered psychosomatic symptoms but for the sake of his career soldiered on as long as he could. Another officer spent his honeymoon at the killing fields, dressing his bride in an officer’s uniform and inviting her to observe the Jews rounded up, awaiting death. There is little evidence that they enjoyed this work, but they killed nevertheless day by day, month after month, as if it were the most natural behavior in the world. After the war the survivors of Battalion 101 (some were killed by the advancing Russians) returned to their normal lives.

Browning does not interview the townspeople in whose midst these thousands of murders were committed, nor does he reflect upon the silent acquiescence of the larger world in whose midst millions more were murdered. But Bourke provides evidence that such indifference to the suffering of others is common in wartime. It “is like working in a slaughterhouse,” according to a much-decorated American combat officer who fought in Korea and Vietnam. “At first the blood, the gore get to you. But after a while you don’t see it, you don’t smell it, you don’t feel it.” An American sergeant who fought with the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam said, “It wasn’t like they were humans. We were conditioned to believe that this was for the good of the nation…and anything we did was okay…. You didn’t think you were shooting at a human. They were a gook or a Commie and it was okay.”

Browning thinks that what motivated the ordinary killers of Battalion 101 was not the particulars of Nazi ideology but group conformity and the momentum of the war itself in which Germans saw themselves beset by racially inferior but powerful enemies, including Jews. But “many societies,” Browning writes, are

afflicted by…racism and caught in the siege mentality of war or threat of war. Everywhere society conditions people to respect and defer to authority…. Everywhere people seek career advancement. …Within virtually every social collective the peer group exerts tremendous pressure and sets moral norms.

Browning wants to show that these universal traits have often led men at war to discard their civilized inhibitions, as Joanna Bourke’s citations also show. History abounds in examples of this transformation, but its ubiquity does not explain its appeal. Why have human beings repeatedly formed armies to destroy members of their own species, having first decided that the enemy is not of their own kind at all? Freud believed that the constraints of civilized life are more than most people can long endure and that a preference for chaos—which he called the death instinct, or thanatos—often prevails over the instincts that sustain our common humanity: war is a holiday from everyday life. In this famous statement, however, Freud merely restates in poetic language what is already well known and what Browning and Bourke document in powerful detail. But why do human beings celebrate their holidays from civilization by committing mass murder? What is the source of this profound craving?


At first the Germans, as war-weary as the rest of Europe, had been skeptical of Hitler’s appeal to violence. By a large majority, according to Ian Kershaw, Hitler’s most recent and thorough biographer, they showed no inclination to follow him to war or exterminate Jews. His promise of national renewal, his disingenuous appeal to Christianity “as the basis of our entire morality” and to “the family as the germ of our body of nation and state,” and his pledge to attack (as usual) without mercy “spiritual, political, and cultural nihilism” won him the minority “conservative” following that typically responds to such appeals in all cultures. Among his early supporters were Lord Rothermere, the English newspaper owner, and William Randolph Hearst, prior journalistic incarnations of Rupert Murdoch. In 1933, in the last free election before Hitler was made chancellor by the foolish conservative politician Franz von Papen, who boasted that he had “hired” Hitler to suppress the left, the Nazis won barely a third of the vote. But in a plebiscite held after Hitler’s bold remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936—undertaken, according to Kershaw, to distract the Nazis’ faltering constituency from the deepening depression—the Nazis won 98.9 percent of the vote. Even allowing for fraud and coercion, this was a powerful endorsement of Hitler’s promise of further violence.

With the fall of France in 1940 the enthusiasm for Hitler and his politics of destruction became worshipful. American isolationists, including Joseph P. Kennedy, shared with von Papen the hope that Hitler could dispose of the Stalin regime. So did rightists in England and France. Though Hitler’s easy victories evidently explain the improvement in his standing, Omer Bartov, in Hitler’s Army, a study of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front, nevertheless argues that Nazi ideology was the main reason for his popularity as well as for the willingness of Germans to commit or condone murder. But warlords have always appealed as Hitler had done to self-pity and envy, to hatred, fear, and greed, and defined the enemy as subhuman, depraved, a threat to civilization, subject to plunder, etc. Can a particular set of ideas, even one as violent as Hitler’s, explain the transformation of armies of young men into criminal psychopaths? Or is ideology simply the pretext by which human beings have always rationalized a more general wish to dominate and destroy? Were Hitler’s young lions marching so confidently, perhaps even joyously, toward Stalingrad for the noble purpose of eradicating Judeo-Bolshevism or because, as members of a powerful nation with a civilizing mission and a profound grievance, they looked forward to victory in a blood sport sanctioned by much of the German population?

Western literature begins with Greeks, much like these young German warriors, traveling far from home to kill Trojans and face death themselves over nothing much: a silly Greek queen kidnapped by her worthless Trojan lover. Even as metaphor the pretext for the Greek campaign hardly justifies the prolonged struggle under the walls of Troy. Yet “…on they fought like a swirl of living fire—/You could not say if the sun and moon still stood secure/So dense the battle haze that engulfed [them].” So Homer describes (in Robert Fagles’s wonderful translation of The Iliad) the struggle to claim the body of Patroclus more than three millennia ago, in lines that also describe the bloody fighting only yesterday over bits of ground within the smoking ruins of Stalingrad or Hue.

Homer blames the unappeasable vanity of the quarreling gods for the senseless killing: Greeks and Trojans lived or died by Olympian whim. When after nine years of war Agamemnon tells his armies that it’s time to “cut and run,” and the men “jostled back and forth, shouting orders” to launch the ships for the journey home, Hera sends Athena to “range the ranks of Achaeans armed in bronze…hold each man back you find. Don’t let them haul their rolling ships to sea.” Athena inspires Odysseus to rally the Greeks. He succeeds and the war continues. For Zeus, who followed the action from atop Mount Olympus, the war was a game. He and his wife quarreled over tactics and relished the action on the field. They didn’t want it to end.

But the gods represent human traits in superhuman form. To blame them for the war merely rephrases the question which Homer chose not to ask, unless the triviality of the cause is itself his answer to why human beings kill their own kind. Marauding armies don’t need compelling reasons. The wish to plunder and kill is compelling enough. But the Greeks were Homer’s heroes and Achilles was his protagonist. To declare Agamemnon, Menelaus, and their armies thieves and murderers would have created an impossible literary problem for the author of a tribal epic. Yet once the killing starts the Achaeans barely think of Helen. As the years pass even Priam’s treasure can’t compensate them for their prolonged siege. Their savage hero Achilles kills to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus, not the kidnapping of Helen, for whom the Greeks feel only contempt. The war has become its own cause. Homer was not a philosopher. If he had been he might have agreed with the Cretan citedby Plato in his Laws, who declared, “Peace is just a name. The truth is that every city-state is by natural law, engaged in a perpetual undeclared war with every other city-state.” But why?

In his new book The First World War, whose opening pages are an invaluable summary of how (but not why) the destruction of Europe began, John Keegan echoes the Cretan. In the years preceding World War I,

It was inevitable that [relations] between all [countries] should be infused with suspicion and rivalry…. Policy was…guided not by the search for a secure means of averting conflict but by the age-old quest for security in military superiority.

As in the case of the Greek city-states, the strategies of defense were inseparable from the preparations for war.

Yet Keegan finds no insuperable diplomatic or political obstacles to peace in 1914. The explosive element was the military preparations themselves, undertaken routinely and in secret by the general staffs, often without consulting the diplomats or politicians. The nations of Europe went to war mindlessly as each general staff raised its degree of mobilization in response to the others until finally the kettle boiled over.

By the time war broke out the immediate cause—Austria’s demand that it be permitted to investigate the murder by a state-sponsored Serbian terrorist of the Austrian archduke on a visit to Sarajevo—was largely forgotten. Austria did not get around to attacking Serbia for another two years. The governments of the original belligerents—Germany, Russia, France, Austria—claimed not without justification to be defending themselves preemptively against the others. Perhaps by directing the growing discontents of their populations outward they were also defending themselves against their own people, who were restive after a generation of peace and beginning to wave the red flag.

Keegan shows that even Germany can be said to have acted defensively. Its invasion of France by way of Belgium was meant to protect its rear while it prepared to confront Russia, Serbia’s ally, which had threatened Germany’s ally, Austria. Moltke and his staff may also have felt that if they didn’t go to war in 1914 they would soon be outgunned. Their parsimonious government would not compete in a limitless arms race. No wonder Moltke entered the war with gloomy misgivings.

So did his Kaiser, who until almost the last minute hoped to avoid the looming disaster. “On the afternoon of July 29,” Keegan writes, “he telegraphed his cousin the Tsar, in English, urging him ‘to smooth over difficulties that may still arise.”‘ In reply the Tsar “pathetically suggested” a conference at The Hague. Having done what he could to avert war, the Kaiser then took his scheduled vacation aboard the yacht Hohenzollern, where he and his guests did calisthenics on deck. His absence didn’t matter. By now the crowds had been aroused by the talk of war and were roaring in the streets. The momentum which had been building through years of peace was irresistible. The politicians could not stop it nor did they try. The war ignited itself. It was not the continuation of politics by other means. It was the abandonment of politics to the military and to the streets. The mere existence of nation-states and their general staffs, not their irreconcilable differences, had given rise to the war as if war-making had been the underlying function of these militarized tribes all along. Artists, if not politicians and historians, noted the absurdity. Two decades later the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup turned this great tragedy into high comic art.

Keegan suggests that the unintended war might have been avoided if not for poor communications. At the end of July Poincaré was aboard ship, returning with his foreign minister from a state visit to St. Petersburg. Metaphorically, the Tsar too was at sea. His generals were too busy preparing for war to talk to him. They boasted that they had taken the phone off the hook. Yet the delirious crowds rushing to the mobilization centers and filling the squares of the capitals in August 1914 suggest that poor communications were only part of the problem.

“Hurrah! Hurrah! We’re going to go to war!” sing the parliament and assembled peasantry in Duck Soup as Groucho and his manic brothers gaily beat out the rhythm with drumsticks on the helmets of the military honor guard. In the streets of Berlin, St. Petersburg, Vienna, and Paris men and women, accompanied by martial music, were calling for the blood of people just like themselves of whom they had hardly been aware a month ago and whom they had no reason to hate now. In St. Petersburg women tore their dresses off and gave them to the troops. Parisian women showered the soldiers with kisses.

By late July events were beyond the control of politicians and would remain so for four bloody years. In his Advent sermon for 1915, the Bishop of London urged Englishmen to

kill Germans…to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young men as well the old,…to kill them lest the civilization of the world should itself be killed. As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity…for the principles of Christianity I look upon everyone who dies in it as a martyr.

A German religious journal printed a version of the Lord’s Prayer that began “Give us each day the enemy dead….” Before the rules of civilization could be restored, nine million people would be killed in battle and the aftershocks would reverberate into the following century.

But Great Britain and Germany had no compelling reason to fight despite Germany’s naval ambitions. In The Pity of War the British historian Niall Ferguson writes that Lloyd George told the Daily News in January 1914 that “relations with Germany are infinitely more friendly now…. If Germany ever had any idea of challenging our supremacy at sea, [it is] completely out of her head.” The fear among British Germanophobes of Germany’s growing economic power mirrored the annoyance of German expansionists that the nation’s imperial standing was not in keeping with its formidable economy, but these were hardly grounds for war.

Ferguson contends that Great Britain’s involvement was “the greatest error of modern history.” Had the British stayed out and the Germans won, “Hitler could have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter” in a Europe dominated by a benign Germany balanced by an unscathed England. There would have been no Bolshevik Revolution or its metastases. The nineteenth century might have lasted a while longer. So might the British Empire. But Ferguson’s counterfactual hypothesis is merely argumentative. If pigs had wings they would be birds.

Ferguson’s complacency notwithstanding, there is no telling how a victorious Germany would have disposed itself or how Great Britain would have responded. History is a sequence of “errors.” England’s entry was certainly a mistake, but it was an irresistible mistake, like the war itself, supported by enthusiastic majorities in each country convinced that they were defending themselves and their values against predatory neighbors. After Napoleon Britain vowed that no single power would ever again dominate the continent. A century later Lord Grey was not willing to challenge this policy. Once war broke out the English felt they had to fight. But why the war happened at all cannot be explained in political terms and has yet to be explained in any other terms.

In 1914 Europe had not learned the price of industrialized war fought by huge conscript armies. The bishop’s war cry, which could have landed him in an asylum had he delivered it a year earlier, did not cost him his pulpit. Ferguson, who likes to take contrary positions, many of them silly, writes of “the myth of war enthusiasm.” Bloomsbury and some unions opposed the war but the troops went to slaughter with the bishop’s best wishes and with wide public support. In July 1914 millions of Europeans—including an exuberant Hitler, who can he seen in a famous photograph amid a throng of excited Bavarians in Munich’s Odeonsplatz—were demanding war despite the widespread misgivings that Ferguson cites. Keegan shows that they had no compelling reason to fight and Ferguson, for once, agrees. Yet they fought without stopping for four horrible years until the Germans ran out of manpower and quit. To this day no one can say with confidence why they fought any more than one knows why the Greeks fought beneath the walls of Troy unless it is the nature of human beings to fight until they can fight no longer.

Aggressive war is a human trait that makes no adaptive sense except as a means of achieving genetic and cultural exchange, though at a prohibitive cost. For the aggressor, the fruits of victory are often ephemeral and unintended. The Muslim conquest benefited the cities of Spain aesthetically but was ruinous to the Arab aggressors, who have yet to recover their self-confidence. The French would have been better off without Napoleon, whose bloody conquests came to nothing. Had the United States found ways to share the continent with the native tribes instead of killing them like buffaloes, its people would be no less rich today. History teaches that prosperity rewards peace far more than it does war, but why since long before Homer have war and the preparation for war been the practice and peace only an illusion?

We know why we play games, educate our young, and defend our cities. But “why,” in Keegan’s words, “did the states of Europe proceed as if in a dead march and a dialogue of the deaf, to the destruction of their continent and its civilization?” Why does it seem natural to us that Homer’s hero (and ours) is Achilles, the sociopath who threatened to “eat” the dying Hector “raw,” and not the truly heroic Hector, who loved his wife and son and died defending his city? To say that soldiers who don’t obey are shot, that human beings are territorial or endowed with feral genes, or wish to dominate for fear of being dominated themselves, that hormonal young men are reckless of death and naturally violent, that war binds us together in competing tribes like sports fans, and so on merely restates the question. Human beings are not ants or geese responding to iron instinct. They can think and choose and reflect upon history. Aggressive war is said to be inhuman. Yet war is as uniquely human as the gift of speech and the obligation to make moral choices. For Plato or even Freud the problem of war was merely philosophical. For us war could mean the end of everything.


On a snowy day in February 1993 Ramzi Yusuf, a Western-educated veteran of the Afghan war, stood on Canal Street in lower Manhattan awaiting the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center a mile to the south. He and an accomplice had built a powerful bomb made of agricultural nitrates—widely available as common fertilizer—and placed it against a supporting beam in the parking garage of one of the towers, lit the seven-minute fuse, and driven away. Yusuf’s idea was that when the bomb exploded the building would fall against its twin and topple it. Had his plan succeeded many thousands of workers toward whom Yusuf had no conceivable grievance would have been killed. Instead the explosion blew a hole the size of a football field in the lower floors of a single tower, killing six workers and injuring many others.

That evening, as black smoke poured from the damaged building, the disappointed killer boarded a flight for Karachi. He would eventually make his way to Manila, where the police stumbled upon him as he was perfecting a scheme to bomb a dozen American passenger planes over the Pacific within a forty-eight-hour period. He escaped and made his way to Pakistan, where he was betrayed by a confederate, arrested, and turned over to the the FBI. On the flight to the United States he explained to an agent that he was not an Islamic militant but wanted to avenge the Palestinians by giving the United States a taste of war. He also planned to kill the Pope.

From this muddled agenda the agents concluded that he was drawn to terrorism “for the thrill of it.” He had become adept at explosives during the Afghan war, was proud of his skills, and wanted to apply them elsewhere. He was pleased by his notoriety and hoped to write a book. Like Timothy McVeigh, who also cobbled together a makeshift ideology to justify mass murder when his military ambitions were frustrated after his rejection by the United States Special Forces, Yusuf was a warrior stranded in mid-career, a stateless Hitler with dreams of vast destruction who struck out on his own.

The history of the cold war can be told in two ways: as a half-century struggle between liberal democracy and statist tyranny in which the weaker system eventually collapsed under its own ineptitude and corruption, and as the recognition by both sides be-fore hostilities began that survival, much less victory, is impossible in wars between nation-states armed with weapons of mass destruction. The cold war was a fifty-year truce negotiated by belligerents facing mutual annihilation and forced not by moral conviction but by fear to put down the pistols they had been holding at each other’s head. That this truce was repeatedly tested by tightly contained proxy wars in remote theaters from which ultimate weapons were excluded only confirms the reluctance of the main antagonists to annihilate themselves. During the last two years India and Pakistan echoed this process when they exploded nuclear devices and then declared a truce in their chronic and largely symbolic struggle over Kashmir. The historic novelty in these confrontations is that truce talks were concluded successfully before deadly hostilities began.

To future historians, the latter half of the twentieth century may be recalled less for the collapse of Marxism and its tyrannical corruption of Enlightenment ideals than for the abandonment by well-armed nation-states of their sovereign right to kill their neighbors, a démarche which in the case of Western Europe has been accompanied by the abandonment of other vestiges of national sovereignty as well.

It is premature, nevertheless, to assume that the human impulse to dominate and destroy has been checked once and for all by the fear of annihilation. The negotiated truce between the cold war belligerents and their clients hardly includes all potential belligerents—for example, China—nor are Ramzi Yusuf and Timothy McVeigh the last of their kind. In addition to the thousands of warheads precariously guarded by an enfeebled Russian government, the military debris of the cold war includes other Yusufs and McVeighs armed with combat skills and familiar with the inexpensive pathogens and chemicals of cold war laboratories, frustrated warriors whose fantasies of violence, clothed in the discarded ideological rags of one conflict or another, remain undischarged. Meanwhile the rogue despotisms with their deadly arsenals glowering along the world’s fringes have yet to learn the lesson taught by the cruise missile that destroyed Milosevic’s bedroom.

The constraints of civilization may or may not be unbearable as Freud believed, but at the end of the twentieth century the greater part of humanity has come face to face with the moral and physical price of its violent nature. As the history of the cold war has shown, human beings submit to reason only after they have submitted to fear. Only when all of us learn to fear our violent nature will we be safe from one another.

This Issue

November 4, 1999