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The Truth of War

Lethality in Combat, a study in the /Real Nature of Combat


Tom Lewis

Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2023

Paperback    368pp     RRP: $32.99


Reviewer: David Hardacre, May 2024


As Lewis concludes: ‘This study has cited many examples where the truth of battle contradicts the so-called rules of war.’ (p.285). Initially he recognizes that the real nature of battle commonly affects relatively small numbers mainly from the fighting arms. He identifies three features in the true nature of war, centring around enthusiastic warriors as the necessary face of war, prisoner-taking and the reality of combat, and targeting civilians - who is the enemy? He uses six major conflicts of the twentieth century as the basis for this study.

In the first part consideration centres around combat euphoria, the necessary enthusiasm for combat in leadership behaviour, revenge as a motivator, aggression in flying tactics, the prevalence of lethal behaviour and ultimate discipline in battle. He also considers whether desecrating the dead is military necessity or abhorrent behaviour. The analysis looks aspects frequently remaining unknown to outsiders, observing that ‘real combat behaviour is largely unknown to anyone who has not engaged in tactical fighting’ (p.9), and that with increasing experience comes acceptance of the fact that ‘it is him or me’ and the ‘true nature of their terrible but necessary occupation’ (p.28). Combat being very stressful, adjusting to dead bodies may dehumanise the enemy, while the pressure of not letting comrades down bonds groups.

Prisoner-taking and the realities of combat raise several sensitive issues. While taking prisoners is a militarily sensible goal, it also detracts from taking military objectives. Prisoners can be a genuine danger, and surrendering must be done properly. What do you do with prisoners once taken? Specialist members of military forces often get dealt with more harshly by the enemy, and surrendering to a hot-blooded enemy is very risky, as is treachery and cruelty. For some in hopeless situations, refusal to surrender raises other values issues and quandaries for their opposition. Is killing in revenge an understandable behaviour? Thirst for revenge is a powerful motivator, but what does one do in those situations? Rules of Engagement will be overlooked or ignored. Do we condemn troops for doing what anyone of us could have done? Likewise, killing in cold blood for military necessity raises questions, when countries have policies of never surrendering, as exemplified by the Japanese or Hitler’s philosophy of ‘Victory or Death’. Killing helpless soldiers will haunt those involved for years to come. Likewise, resources problems exist in handling prisoners as this reality weakens forward troops. These highlight shortcomings in the Rules of War: no objective values exist, and conventions may not cater for the realities of specific situations.

In ‘verification of the enemy - who is the civilian’, Lewis raises the issue of whether a civilian’s action in giving help to one side makes him/her become a combatant. Other issues considered include those taking up arms or being a partisan, combatants disguised as civilian, and the tactics of infiltrating soldiers disguised as civilians. Associated items relate to misidentified targets, and that not shooting first can become fatal (‘shoot first and survive’ may become the practice). Targeting civilians for military necessity, collateral damage or spillover effects, military units being placed among civilians are among other complexities. International conventions may mean nothing to one side, but this disadvantages the other side. Targeting civilians ranges across a spectrum of warfare, ranging from legitimate (because they are collaborators) to trusting no-one. Thus Lewis suggests that in Vietnam both sides had their ‘My Lai’s’ (massacres) but one side’s were highly publicised, the others were continuous throughout the war and after, largely dismissed, ignored, defended or rationalised by brave intellectuals.

Sometimes this has been described as ‘misconduct stress behaviour’, the consequences of placing constraints on soldiers – damned if they do fire and damned if they don’t fire – because the suspected enemy may indeed be a civilian (p.284). If soldiers are classically trained infantry, it is difficult for them to react other than in the way they have been trained.

This study raises various (unresolvable?) questions involving the Rules of War and the associated International Conventions: the significance lies in their recognition. Provided training can be inadequate or impossible for the actualities of combat situations. Thus the values in this study are that Lewis raises issues and alerts readers, and potential decision-makers to the impossible choices which may be faced in combat.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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