If you want to swim in the deep end of the pool go ahead and commit to reading Eric Leed’s No Man’s Land: Combat & Identity in World War I (Cambridge University Press, 1979). Leed goes deep in the analysis of the social conditions of war, in particular the “Great War.” This is the story of one century ago.
The interpretive lens through he does his work is “liminality,” that inbetween state of transition. War is liminality in its quintessential form; nothing escorts individuals and societies into this “no man’s land” like it.
In particular Leed explores the lost identity of the soldier in the context of industrialization and trench warfare. The exiling of soldiers to a no man’s land of trenches – “going to work in the mines” – is another form of modern industrialization. Soldiers felt absolutely cut off from the rest of humanity as they went underground and could only defend a little bit of land in what became a technical war – of machine guns, gas and artillery. Gone was the heroism of the warrior engaging with a worthy adversary. It was rather the slow crushing of soldier bodies by an impersonal machine determined by forces far beyond the front lines.
Disillusionment was common. Shell Shock was endemic. And the industrial nature of the killing machine led to vast numbers of troops filled with the rage and helplessness of betrayal. This state of being, this trench reality, continued long after the war had ceased. The war never left those who were ground down by it. They had become the war.
There are parallels with other era wars; liminality, lost purpose for engagement, feeling betrayed by a war that makes no sense. But each war in each place in time carries its own particular reality. Leeds names it here without false glory. This is a hard read but a very good one.