Saturday, July 01, 2006

Men and their guns

Today is the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. On the morning of July 1, 1916, thousands of British, French and Belgian troops went over the top of their own trenches and assaulted the German lines. As instructed by their officers, they walked steadily across no-man's-land as German machine guns mowed them down like wheat. On that first day alone, the British suffered more than 50,000 casualties. Before the battle dragged to its sorry conclusion in November, more than 1 million men on both sides were killed or wounded, all for a few kilometers of churnned-up mud.

Why does the Somme haunt us so? Next to other horrendous events of the 20th century -- Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dresden, the Holocaust, the purges of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot -- the Somme seems relatively benign. Just ordinary Joes like you and me on both sides, with no particular quarrel against those they kill with machine guns and bayonets, causing the earth to run red with blood to no one's advantage. Perhaps it is the very ordinariness of the butchery at the Somme, the fact that we can imagine ourselves pressed into action on either side -- carpenters, shoemakers, farm workers, accountants, teachers, sons, brothers, husbands -- that frightens us so. We look at the Somme and we feel -- rightly or wrongly -- our implication in all of the other violence that defined that ghastly century.

The Great War inspired Freud to add a second basic instinct to his view of human nature. To Eros, the sexual impulse, he added Thanatos, a death wish. And indeed it seems likely that a propensity for violence is part of our genetic inheritance, a biological residue from a time when killing was an essential part of survival. If there is a biological basis for violence toward "the other," one need only read history or watch the news to surmise that the trait is particularly expressed in the male of the species.