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On War


The vanquished know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief. They know the lies the victors often do not acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war narratives, filled with stories of courage and comradeship. They know the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral statesmen who make wars but do not know war. The vanquished know the essence of war—death. They grasp that war is necrophilia. They see that war is a state of almost pure sin with its goals of hatred and destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to nihilism, and is a turning away from the sanctity and preservation of life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure and seductiveness of violence, as well as the attraction of the godlike power that comes with the license to kill with impunity.

But the words of the vanquished come later, sometimes long after the war, when grown men and women unpack the suffering they endured as children, what it was like to see their mother or father killed or taken away, or what it was like to lose their homes, their community, their security, and be discarded as human refuse. But by then few listen. The truth about war comes out, but usually too late. We are assured by the war-makers that these stories have no bearing on the glorious violent enterprise the nation is about to inaugurate. And, lapping up the myth of war and its sense of empowerment, we prefer not to look.

The current books about the war in Iraq do not uncover the pathology of war. We see the war from the perspective of the troops who fight the war or the equally skewed perspective of the foreign reporters, holed up in hotels, hemmed in by drivers and translators and official minders. There are moments when war’s face appears to these voyeurs and killers, perhaps from the back seat of a car where a small child, her brains oozing out of her head, lies dying, but mostly it remains hidden. And the books on the war in Iraq have to be viewed, through no fault of the reporters, as lacking the sweep and depth that will come one day, perhaps years from now, when a small Iraqi boy or girl reaches adulthood and unfolds for us the sad and tragic story of the invasion and bloody occupation of their nation.

War is presented primarily through the distorted prism of the occupiers. The embedded reporters, dependent on the military for food and transportation as well as security, have a natural and understandable tendency, one I have myself felt, to protect those who are protecting them. They are not allowed to report outside of the unit and are, in effect, captives. They have no relationships with the victims, essential to all balanced reporting of conflicts, but only with the Marines and soldiers who drive through desolate mud-walled towns and pump grenades and machine-gun bullets into houses, leaving scores of nameless dead and wounded in their wake. The reporters admire and laud these fighters for their physical courage. They feel protected as well by the jet fighters and heavy artillery and throaty rattle of machine guns. And the reporting, even among those who struggle to keep some distance, usually descends into a shameful cheerleading.

Those who cover war dine out on the myth about war and the myth about themselves as war correspondents. Yes, they say, it is horrible, and dirty and ugly; for many of them it is also glamorous and exciting and empowering. They look out from the windows of Humvees for a few seconds at Iraqi families, cowering in fear, and only rarely see the effects of the firepower. When they are forced to examine what bullets, grenades, and shells do to human bodies they turn away in disgust or resort to black humor to dehumanize the corpses. They cannot stay long, in any event, since they must leave the depressing scene behind for the next mission. The tragedy is replaced, as it is for us at home who watch it on television screens, by a light moment or another story. It becomes easier to forget that another human life has been ruined beyond repair, that what is unfolding is not only tragic for tens of thousands of Iraqis but for the United States.

The other distorted prism into this war came to us, until the occupation, courtesy of the oily functionaries at the Iraqi Ministry of Information. The regime of Saddam Hussein controlled journalists as tightly as the US military does. The reporting from the bowels of the regime was often characterized by innuendo and inference. This reporting of the war, because reporters were so heavily circumscribed, turned their attention onto their own minor privations and the lives of their drivers, translators, and the narrow circles within the ruling elite that were permitted to speak with them.

There is uniformity about journalistic war memoirs reaching all the way back to Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, although I confess I enjoy reading them. But they violate every rule of serious reporting. It is an unwritten rule, for example, among foreign correspondents that no matter how good the quote, you do not interview taxi drivers, translators, or bartenders. You leave these interviews to the hacks who parachute into a war zone, ride nervously to the hotel, sit at the bar, go to the embassy or UN background briefing, and fly swiftly home. But in a world where it is impossible to do much more than get on the official bus for the official tour and go to the official briefing, taxi drivers and bartenders offer in places like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq refreshing and candid perspectives when set against the absurdity of official prop- aganda. At a certain point, as Waugh realized, these experiences can only be written as farce.

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War by Evan Wright is an account of the invasion by a reporter embedded with the Marines. It is a much better book than the title would indicate—not to mention the cover art of a grim solder in desert camouflage with an assault rifle, and the ridiculous excerpt on the back, a near parody of me-as-hero war reporting: Wright gave up his satellite phone, unlike his colleagues in the electronic media, who replaced reporting with a breathless play-by-play description of what their cameras were showing viewers from the battlefield. He followed a Marine battalion for six weeks from Kuwait to Baghdad. As he admits himself, his book suffers from his rarely having been around long enough to find out what the tremendous and by his own observation often indiscriminate firepower did to the hapless Iraqi families within the range of the guns, artillery, and fighter jets. But the anecdotal evidence, including the obliteration of villages where there was no serious resistance, along with isolated incidents where the unit had to stop and tend the children and civilians they wounded or killed, mounts by the end of the book to present a withering indictment of the needless brutality of the invasion.

He writes toward the conclusion of his narrative:

In the past six weeks, I have been on hand while this comparatively small unit of Marines has killed quite a few people. I personally saw three civilians shot, one of them fatally with a bullet in the eye. These were just the tip of the iceberg. The Marines killed dozens, if not hundreds, in combat through direct fire and through repeated, at times almost indiscriminate, artillery strikes. And no one will probably ever know how many died from the approximately 30,000 pounds of bombs First Recon ordered dropped from aircraft.

The reason wars should always be covered from the perspective of the common soldier or Marine, as Wright does, is that these foot soldiers are largely pawns. Their lives, despite the protestations of the generals and politicians, mean little to the war planners. Officers who put the safety of their men before the efficiency of the war machine are usually viewed as compromised. Wright, by writing about one conscientious officer, Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick, who at times defies orders that he believes will get his men killed needlessly, shows us the raw meat grinder at the core of the military, how it pushes aside all those who do not offer up the soldiers under their command to the god of war.

Physical courage is common on a battlefield. Moral courage is not. Those who defy the machine usually become its victim. And Lieutenant Fick, who we find in the epilogue has left the Marines to go back to school, wonders if he was a good officer or if his concern for his men colored his judgment. Those who make war betray those who fight it. This is something most enlisted combat veterans soon understand. They have little love for officers, tolerating the good ones and hoping the bad ones are replaced or injured before they get them killed. Those on the bottom rung of the military pay the price for their commanders’ vanity, ego, and thirst for recognition. These motives are hardly exclusive to the neocons and the ambitious generals in the Bush administration. They are a staple of war. Homer wrote about all of them in The Iliad as did Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead. Stupidity and callousness cause senseless death and wanton destruction. That being a good human being—that possessing not only physical courage but moral courage—is detrimental in a commander says much about the industrial slaughter that is war.

Combat has an undeniable attraction. It is seductive and exciting, and it is ultimately addictive. The young soldiers, trained well enough to be disciplined but encouraged to maintain their naive adolescent belief in invulnerability, have in wartime more power at their fingertips than they will ever have again. From being minimum-wage employees at places like Burger King, looking forward to a life of dead-end jobs, they catapult to being part of, in the words of the Marines, “the greatest fighting force on the face of the earth.” The disparity between what they were and what they have become is breathtaking, intoxicating. Their intoxication is only heightened in wartime when all taboos are broken. Murder goes unpunished and is often rewarded. The thrill of destruction fills their days with wild adrenaline highs, strange grotesque landscapes that are almost hallucinogenic, and a sense of purpose and belonging that overpowers the feeling of alienation many left behind. They become accustomed to killing, carrying out acts of slaughter with no more forethought than they take to relieve themselves. Wright describes the end of a day of battle:

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