When killing had to stop

For centuries Europe was a prickly landscape of heavily armed nation states. Now the continent has l

For all its inhumanity, war is a profoundly human institution. Its ugliness can hardly be exaggerated. Men and women caught in the midst of the carnage have struggled to make sense of it. Young soldiers such as Arthur Hubbard, who served with the 1st London Scottish Regiment during the First World War, fractured psychologically under the strain of combat. On 7 July 1916, Hubbard painfully set pen to paper in an attempt to explain to his mother why he was no longer in France. He had been taken from the battlefield and deposited at the East Suffolk and Ipswich Hospital suffering from "shell shock". In his words, his breakdown was related to witnessing "a terrible sight that I shall never forget as long as I live".

He told his mother that "we had strict orders not to take prisoners, no matter if wounded". He recalled that his first "job" had been to "empty my magazine on three Germans who came out of one of their deep dugouts, bleeding badly, and put them out of misery. They cried for mercy, but I had my orders". It "makes my head jump to think about it", he stammered. As British servicemen repeated time and again during both the First and Second World Wars, "This was not our idea of fighting . . . it was simply bloody murder."

In the 19th century, the British lived in one of the most bellicose European states. The British empire was built, and then dismantled, by force of arms. These arms were wielded by volunteers. Elsewhere in Europe, every nation except Switzerland had built up huge reserve armies. By 1914, one in ten Frenchmen and one in 13 German men had experienced some form of military training. Despite the existence of peace movements, martial values were widely celebrated. Most Europeans regarded war as necessary, not only to defend their nation state, but also to ensure the survival of civilisation itself. As the American philosopher William James put it in a lecture at Stanford University in 1906, war was "the gory nurse that trained societies to cohesiveness". He was opposed to interstate violence, but held that manly displays of heroism and vigour revitalised politics and society. The spirit of militarism burned hot in the hearts of young men tired of a "world grown old and cold and weary", as the poet Rupert Brooke put it when war was declared in 1914.

"Never such innocence again," wrote the poet Philip Larkin in his poem "MCMXIV". During the First World War, 9.5 million men of all nations were killed. During the Second World War, the number of deaths soared to more than 60 million. Furthermore, by the 1939-45 war, the chief victims were civilians. In the 1914-18 war, only 5 per cent of deaths were civilian; in the 1939-45 war, this rose to 66 per cent. Prior to D-Day (June 1944), more British civilians had been killed in Britain than British servicemen. Considerably more civilians than military personnel were killed during the Second World War in Belgium, China, France, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. It has become impossible to understand modern culture without considering this abyss of mass murder.

However, the undeniable horror of mass slaughter in the first half of the 20th century has masked an important fact. Given Europe's long and bloody history of warmongering, the continent has been remarkably peaceful since 1950. This is what James J Sheehan's The Mono poly of Violence: Why Europeans Hate Going to War focuses on. As the author of major books on German history and as a former president of the American Historical Association, Sheehan is an astute commentator. Yes, he admits, Europe has a violent history. But, for him, the important fact is that European states since 1950 have "retained the capacity to make war but lost all interest in doing so". War did not disappear. European states may have shunned military conflict successfully, but they "outsourced" war-making to increasingly belligerent nations, mainly the United States of America.

Sheehan makes a strong case for the "rise of the civilian state" in Europe. He carefully establishes the important role played by supranational institutions such as the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community in dramatically reducing the economic incentives for war.

His most interesting observations, however, invoke more prosaic motivations for interstate co-operation. European citizens learned the important lesson that war no longer threatened the lives and limbs of servicemen and servicewomen alone. War destroyed their own civilian lives. Postwar affluence stood in such stark contrast to what went before, that citizens lost any urge to surrender their material gains willingly in an orgy of heroism and blood sacrifice. In Britain, real wages doubled between 1953 and 1973; in some other European countries, they almost tripled. This prosperity relied upon harmonious trading links between Western European states. In the 20 years after 1970, exports within the European Community increased from $100bn to more than $700bn.

Every European state began taking greater responsibility for a range of welfare measures, further benefiting ordinary citizens. At the end of the 19th century, the British government was spending only about 10 per cent of its budget on education, art and science; by 1998, 60 per cent of the budget went to social security, health and education. Even in those European states that maintained high levels of military spending, the armed services lost their former glory and glamour. Uniformed men were more likely to be regarded as tourist attractions than honourable warriors. Indeed, as the eminent military historian Michael Howard expressed it, "death was no longer seen as being part of the social contract". Militarism became distasteful. While Americans eagerly supported the wars in Af ghanistan and Iraq, their European counterparts looked on only queasily.

The author willingly admits to exceptions to his story, such as military upheavals in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Portugal, Spain and the Balkans. Yet what he finds remarkable is not that these moments of bloodshed occurred, but that they did not spread. Local wars were no longer "a conduit through which violence could move from the periphery to the centre of the European society of states". Europeans remained reluctant to intervene in these internal disputes, preferring to let Americans get their hands dirty. When absolutely necessary (as in the conflict in the Balkans), they did as little as possible militarily.

The fundamental difference in attitudes to war between Europe and the US can best be illustrated by looking at reactions to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. While Americans tended to interpret terrorism as a "global war", requiring an immediate and awesome military response, Europeans were more likely to view it as a challenge to law and order. For Europeans, the solution was not Tomahawk missiles, but improved surveillance.

Should we be convinced by this rather rosy and monolithic image of postwar Europe? By focusing on Europe, Sheehan, a sophisticated observer of European and American cultures, leaves unexplained why US governments have become increasingly belligerent. He tends to understate the large and growing opposition to war among ordinary American citizens, while overstating pacifist tendencies in Europe. Anti-war protesters were quickly dispersed and peace-loving sentiments have failed to translate into politics and have not had tangible effects. The UK has been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for many years now.

Fantasies associated with war remain deeply embedded within our society, as any perusal of the themes of electronic games and popular films shows. Ironically, the less exposure young European men have to real military conflict, the more glamorous war seems. Many young men fail to recognise what servicemen in earlier periods learned the hard way: combat often seemed to be nothing more than state-legitimised "bloody murder".

When Sheehan writes ominously of Europe's "long and ill-defined frontier . . . where affluence and poverty, law and violence, peace and war, continually meet and uneasily coexist", his optimism falters. It would be equally correct to ponder the consequences for global peace of letting the US engage in pre-emptive attacks. Unless more is done to counter those tensions directly, the future of Europe's "civilian states" is a precarious one indeed.

Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck college, University of London. Her most recent book is "Rape: a History from 1860 to the Present" (Virago)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty