“War kills. That is all it does.” The words come from Michael Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars, and Carolin Emcke has used them as the epigraph for her first chapter. Maybe she took them out of some context that would modify their meaning. I hope so, because they are not true.
War certainly kills, often lavishly. It would be easier to loathe unconditionally if that were all it does. But having lived through one enormous one, fought in one small one, and attended several others as a spectator, I can’t deny that wars can make the world go round as well as spattering it with blood and loss. Wars destroy nations and create others; they release torrents of technological change and innovation that would normally take many decades to evolve. They bereave women and also liberate them; they shatter the isolation of communities and leave them with alien diseases and mountains of military surplus. They empower and enrich thousands of unworthy people, but they also give angry self-confidence to millions of good people who had been taught to regard themselves as worthless. Wars turn cities into archaeology and green meadows into deadly minefields, but they can also generate historic upwellings of hope and solidarity. When they end, most men and women feel released from a nightmare and swear: “Never again!” But others, while sharing that relief, confess that they found something in war that they loved, and that they will always miss.
On my mantelpiece is a wooden folk carving of a pre–World War II Polish cavalryman, a scowling Uhlan with drawn saber. Around its base are engraved the first words of a song, Wojenko, wojenko…, a ballad adored by the bone-headed colonels who were ruling Poland in 1939. “Little war-girl, little war-girl, what sort of woman are you/That they run after you,/That they die for you/All the beautiful boys?” And some still do, and today not all of them are boys. Stalingrad and Omaha Beach and Khe San and Srebrenica and Falluja have come and gone, but there are always more human beings who get hooked on the taste of war and come back again and again for more. Some are soldiers, professional or mercenary. But some are spectators. And journalists, however committed or embedded or in the way of harm, remain spectators.
This is painful to acknowledge. But Carolin Emcke, who writes on wars for Der Spiegel, and Anthony Loyd, who has worked mainly for the London Times, don’t seriously deny it. Both their books are in part reportage on what has been seen and experienced, but more importantly they are attempts to examine—without excuses—the authors’ own motives. Both writers are courageous, and both try hard to be honest about their own feelings, and those feelings include guilt. A war reporter does not have to be under fire, but the combatants who are creating the story do. A war reporter, especially in the poor countries where conflict now …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.