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 words 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.
We see the war in Iraq only through the distorted lens 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 occupied,
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.
There is no more candor in Iraq or Afghanistan than there was in
Vietnam, but in the age of live satellite feeds the military has
perfected the appearance of candor. What we are fed is the myth of war.
For the myth of war, the myth of glory and honor sells newspapers and
boosts ratings, real war reporting does not. Ask the grieving parents
of Pat Tillman. Nearly every embedded war correspondent sees his or her
mission as sustaining civilian and army morale. This is what passes for
coverage on FOX, MSNBC or CNN. In wartime, as Senator Hiram Johnson
reminded us in 1917, "truth is the first casualty."
All our knowledge of the war in Iraq has to be viewed 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.
I have spent most of my adult life in war. I began two decades ago
covering wars in Central America, where I spent five years, then the
Middle East, where I spent seven, and the Balkans where I covered the
wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. My life has been marred, let me say
deformed, by the organized industrial violence that year after year was
an intimate part of my existence. I have watched young men bleed to
death on lonely Central American dirt roads and cobblestone squares in
Sarajevo. I have looked into the eyes of mothers, kneeing over the
lifeless and mutilated bodies of their children. I have stood in
warehouses with rows of corpses, including children, and breathed death
into my lungs. I carry within me the ghosts of those I worked with, my
comrades, now gone.
I have felt the attraction of violence. I know its seductiveness,
excitement and the powerful addictive narcotic it can become. 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.
They catapult from being minimum wage employees at places like Burger
King, facing a life of dead-end jobs with little hope of health
insurance and adequate benefits, 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 and intoxicating. This intoxication is only heightened in
wartime when all taboos are broken. Murder goes unpunished and often
rewarded. The thrill of destruction fills their days with wild
adrenaline highs, strange grotesque landscapes that are hallucinogenic,
all accompanied by a sense of purpose and comradeship, overpowers the
alienation many left behind. They become accustomed to killing,
carrying out acts of slaughter with no more forethought than they take
to relieve themselves. And the abuses committed against the helpless
prisoners in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo are not aberrations but the real
face of war. In wartime all human beings become objects, objects either
to gratify or destroy or both. And almost no one is immune. The
contagion of the crowd sees to that.
"Force," Simon Weil wrote, "is as pitiless to the man who possess it, or
thinks he does, as it is to his victim. The second it crushes; the
first it intoxicates."
This myth, the lie, about war, about
ourselves, is imploding our democracy. We shun introspection and
self-criticism. We ignore truth, to embrace the strange, disquieting
certitude and hubris offered by the
radical Christian Right. These radical Christians draw almost
exclusively from the book of Revelations, the only time in the Gospels
where Jesus sanctions violence, peddling a vision of Christ as the head
of a great and murderous army of heavenly avengers. They rarely speak
about Christ's message of love, forgiveness and compassion. They relish
the cataclysmic destruction that will befall unbelievers, including
those such as myself, who they dismiss as "nominal Christians." They
divide the world between good and evil, between those anointed to act as
agents of God and those who act as agents of Satan. The cult of
masculinity and esthetic of violence pervades their ideology. Feminism
and homosexuality are forces, believers are told, that have rendered the
American male physically and spiritually impotent. Jesus, for the
Christian Right, is a man of action, casting out demons, battling the
Anti-Christ, attacking hypocrites and castigating the corrupt. The
language is one not only of exclusion, hatred and fear, but a call for
apocalyptic violence, in short the language of war.
As the war grinds forward, as we sink into a morass of our own creation,
as our press and political opposition, and yes even our great research
universities, remain complacent and passive, as we refuse to confront
the forces that have crippled us outside our gates and are working to
cripple us within, the ideology of the Christian Right, so intertwined
with intolerance and force, will become the way we speak not only to
others but among ourselves.
n war, we always deform ourselves, our
essence. We give up individual conscience -- maybe even consciousness
-- for contagion of the crowd, the rush of patriotism, the belief that
we must stand together as nation in moments of extremity. To make a
moral choice, to defy war's enticement, to find moral courage, can be
The attacks on the World Trade Center illustrate that those who oppose
us, rather than coming from another moral universe, have been schooled
well in modern warfare. The dramatic explosions, the fireballs, the
victims plummeting to their deaths, the collapse of the towers in
Manhattan, were straight out of Hollywood. Where else, but from the
industrialized world, did the suicide bombers learn that huge explosions
and death above a city skyline are a peculiar and effective form of
communication? They have mastered the language we have taught them.
They understand that the use of indiscriminate violence against
innocents is a way to make a statement. We leave the same calling
cards. We delivered such incendiary messages in Vietnam, Serbia,
Afghanistan and Iraq. It was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who
in the summer of 1965 defined the bombing raids that would kill hundreds
of thousands of civilians north of Saigon as a means of communication to
the Communist regime in Hanoi.
The most powerful anti-war testaments, of
war and what war does to us, are those that eschew images of combat. It
is the suffering of the veteran whose body and mind are changed forever
because he or she served a nation that sacrificed them, the suffering of
families and children caught up in the unforgiving maw of war, which
begin to tell the story of war. But we are not allowed to see dead
bodies, at least of our own soldiers, nor do we see the wounds that
forever mark a life, the wounds that leave faces and bodies horribly
disfigured by burns or shrapnel. We never watch the agony of the
dying. War is made palatable. It is sanitized. We are allowed to
taste war's perverse thrill, but spared from seeing war's consequences.
The wounded and the dead are swiftly carted offstage. And for this I
blame the press, which willingly hides from us the effects of bullets,
roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, which sat at the feet of
those who lied to make this war possible and dutifully reported these
lies and called it journalism.
War is always about this betrayal. It is about the betrayal of the young
by the old, idealists by cynics and finally soldiers by politicians.
Those who pay the price, those who are maimed forever by war, however,
are crumpled up and thrown away. We do not see them. We do not hear
them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the
edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they
bring is too painful for us to hear. We prefer the myth of war, the
myth of glory, honor, patriotism and heroism, words that in the terror
and brutality of combat are empty, meaningless and obscene.
We are losing the war in Iraq. We are an isolated and reviled nation.
We are pitiless to others weaker than ourselves. We have lost sight of
our democratic ideals. Thucydides wrote of Athens expanding empire and
how this empire led it to become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at
home. The tyranny Athens imposed on others it finally imposed on
itself. If we do not confront the lies and hubris told to justify the
killing and mask the destruction carried out in our name in Iraq, if we
do not grasp the moral corrosiveness of empire and occupation, if we
continue to allow force and violence to be our primary form of
communication, if we do not remove from power our flag waving, cross
bearing versions of the Taliban, we will not so much defeat dictators
such as Saddam Hussein as become them.
has been a war reporter for 15 years most recently for the New
York Times. He is author of
What Every person Should Know About War, a book that offers a
critical lesson in the dangerous realities of war, and the critically
War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.