Sunday, 26 February 2012

In The Presence Of Mine Enemies: Face-To-Face Killing In Twentieth Century Warfare

Joanna Bourke - Birkbeck College, UK

7 July 1916. On this day, Arthur 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 battlefields and deposited in 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 my first job was when I had finished cutting some of their wire away, to empty my magazine on 3 Germans that 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, they had no feeling whatever for us poor chaps.... it makes my head jump to think about it.
In this halting, graphic account, there was little to differentiate Arthur Hubbard's letters to his family from those written by hundreds of other privates around the time of the Battle of the Somme. His active military career had lasted just three months, between May and July 1916. In his early letters, he was cheery and reassuring: "I am with the best of fellows", he chirped, and "we shall all return back safely together and before this year is through". However, as he moved closer to the front, and to battle, the tone of his letters began changing. Rain, mud, lice, rats, and "very tedious work" frustrated him. A friend he had been with since the beginning of the war (Isaacs) started to look like "an old man.... it is a pity he gets so nervous." Arthur began speaking of life at the front as "a proper hell... one cannot imagine unless one was here to witness things" and a new and bitter edge crept into his letters as he imagined his family
"sitting around the table about 8.30 enjoying a good breakfast and me miles away in this miserable place which is being and has been blown to hell by the Huns."
He was not the only man trembling under the strain: a few days before the Battle, he described going to the aid of a man who had shot himself in the foot in order to avoid the anticipated slaughter. He admitted to feeling "miserable" but confessed to his sisters that
"I don't feel inclined to tell you a pack of lies, if the truth was told a bit more often, I don't suppose the war would be on now, when you land over here, they have got you tight and treat you as they think."
Two days later, Hubbard went over the top. While he managed to fight as far as the fourth line of trenches, by 3.30 that afternoon practically his whole battalion had been wiped out by German artillery. He was buried, dug himself out, and during the subsequent retreat was almost killed by machine gun fire. Within this landscape of horror, he started screaming and was taken away.
Read the complete paper here
Or here

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Purple Hearts - Back from Iraq

A photograph of Sgt. Joseph Mosner. Nina Berman, Jen Bekman Gallery.

Words Unspoken Are Rendered on War’s Faces

NY Times | Art Review | Nina Berman | By Holland Cotter

One of the more shocking photographs to emerge from the current Iraq war was taken last year in a rural farm town in the American Midwest. It’s a studio portrait by the New York photographer Nina Berman of a young Illinois couple on their wedding day.

The bride, Renee Kline, 21, is dressed in a traditional white gown and holds a bouquet of scarlet flowers. The groom, Ty Ziegel, 24, a former Marine sergeant, wears his dress uniform, decorated with combat medals, including a Purple Heart. Her expression is unsmiling, maybe grave. His, as he looks toward her, is hard to read: his dead-white face is all but featureless, with no nose and no chin, as blank as a pullover mask.

Two years earlier, while in Iraq as a Marine Corps reservist, Mr. Ziegel had been trapped in a burning truck after a suicide bomber’s attack. The heat melted the flesh from his face. At Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas he underwent 19 rounds of surgery. His shattered skull was replaced by a plastic dome, and a face was constructed more or less from scratch with salvaged tissue, holes left where his ears and nose had been.

Ms. Berman took this picture, which is in the solo show at Jen Bekman Gallery, on assignment for People magazine. It was meant to accompany an article that documented Mr. Ziegel’s recovery, culminating in his marriage to his childhood sweetheart. But the published portrait was a convivial shot of the whole wedding party. Maybe the image of the couple alone was judged to be too stark, the emotional interchange too ambiguous. Maybe they looked, separately and together, too alone.

“Marine Wedding,” the portrait’s title, was not Ms. Berman’s first encounter with wounded Iraq war veterans. She photographed several others beginning in 2003, and 20 of her portraits were published as a book, “Purple Hearts: Back From Iraq” (Trolley Books, 2004), with an introduction by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of the editorial board of The New York Times. These pictures, accompanied by printed interviews with the sitters, have been traveling the country, and 10 are now at Bekman.

None are as startling as “Marine Wedding,” even when the disability recorded is more extensive. Former Spc. Luis Calderon, 22, of Puerto Rico, had his spinal cord severed when a concrete wall he was ordered to pull down — it was painted with a mural of Saddam Hussein — fell on him. He is now a quadriplegic, though this is not immediately evident from his portrait. Nor can we see from the photograph of Spc. Sam Ross, 20, of Pennsylvania, that he lost a leg in a bomb blast, which also caused permanent brain damage.

Almost all the veterans in Ms. Berman’s pictures look isolated, even if someone else is present. And a sense of loneliness comes through in their brief interviews. Mr. Ross, separated from his family, lives by himself in a trailer. Mr. Calderon, who waited months for veterans’ benefits, says he feels abandoned by the military; because he was not wounded in combat, he has not been awarded a Purple Heart.

Spc. Robert Acosta, 20, a Californian who lost a hand in a grenade attack, says he is psychologically unable to resume his former social life: “I don’t like dealing with the questions. Like, ‘Was it hot?’ ‘Did you shoot anybody?’ They want me to glorify the war and say it was so cool.”

Mr. Acosta’s interview has the only overt anti-war sentiment in the Bekman show, and there are few words of bitterness or recrimination. Mr. Ross calls combat in Iraq the best time of his life. Randall Clunen of Ohio remembers the excitement of search missions in Iraqi homes as a peak experience. Sgt. Joseph Mosner, at 35 the oldest in this group, was 19 when he enlisted. “There was no good jobs,” he said, “so I figured this would have been a good thing.” He still thinks so, despite his severe facial scarring from a bomb explosion.

Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch, left brain-damaged and blind by an artillery attack, once had plans for medical school. but says: “I don’t have any regrets. I had some fun over there. I don’t want to talk about the military anymore.” He claims, as do others, that he has no political opinions.

Ms. Berman adds no direct editorial comment to the presentation. She has said in interviews that she started photographing disabled veterans soon after the war began mainly because she didn’t see anyone else doing so. In what may be the most intensively photographed war in history, the visual documentation has been selective. The fate of the injured veterans was not a public issue until news reports about substandard treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

This background provides the context for Ms. Berman’s photographs, which are themselves tip-of-the-iceberg images. No matter what the viewer’s political position, the images add up to a complex and desolating anti-war statement. Mr. Acosta makes that statement outright: “Yeah, I got a Purple Heart. I don’t care. I don’t need anything to prove I was there. I know I was there. I got a constant reminder. I mean like all the reasons we went to war, it just seems like they’re not legit enough for people to lose their lives for and for me to lose my hand and use of my legs and for my buddies to lose their limbs.”

And “Marine Wedding” speaks, as powerfully as a picture can, for itself.

Purple Hearts from Nina Berman on Vimeo.

Community College bans veteran for essay on killing

An Army veteran, Charles Whittington got an A for an essay on the thrill of fighting and killing in Iraq. Then he was suspended by Community College of Baltimore County, reports the Baltimore Sun. College officials fear Whittington is a threat to his classmates.
Combat is addictive, Whittington wrote. Killing “is something that I do not just want but something I really need so I can feel like myself.” His instructor urged him to publish the paper; it appeared in the campus newspaper. Two weeks later, he was barred from campus until cleared by a psychologist.
“We all believe in freedom of speech, but we have to really be cautious in this post- Virginia Tech world,” says college spokesman Hope Davis, referring to the 2007 massacre of 32 people by a student gunman.
But Whittington, 24, says that he has his violent impulses under control with the help of counseling and medication and that the college is unfairly keeping him from moving forward with his life.
Whittington was unconscious for five days after a roadside explosion. In addition to back, neck and arm injuries, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic- stress disorder and medically discharged in 2008.
He started classes at the community college this spring, earning a perfect 4.0 average in his first semester.
Whittington seems baffled at the reaction to his work and the comparisons to Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. “That guy wasn’t a veteran or a soldier, and he was mad at the school,” he says. “What I’m writing about has nothing to do with the school. Really, it’s through writing that I’ve been able to deal with things.”
Not all veterans on campus support Whittington. Mike Brittingham, a former Marine who is studying air traffic service, contacted campus safety officers and the president’s office after reading the essay. “Being in the military is certainly not about going out and being addicted to killing people,” he told the Sun.
Whittington, a full-time student who is considering a teaching career, has scheduled an evaluation with his Veterans Affairs psychologist, who he believes will confirm that he’s not a threat.

Community College Spotlight | CC bans veteran for essay on killing

A Soldier Speaks: Unravelling Wartime Myths

Author Edward W. Wood Jr. gives a WWII veteran's take on the dangers of glorifying war.

August 20, 2007 | Sean Gonsalves |

Some readers just don't want to hear it from me -- writing about the myths of World War II.

Maybe they'll feel better if it's coming from Edward W. Wood Jr., a guy who was awarded the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the Purple Heart, and the Bronze Star. A retired city planner and author of "Worshipping the Myths of World War II," Wood is quick to point out: "I was wounded in France, 60 miles east of Verdun ... after only a day and a half in combat. I'm no expert on long-term combat experience." But it's way more combat experience than any of the leading architects of the war in Iraq.

"I got hit in the head, the small of my back, and pelvis with shrapnel from artillery fire," he told me last week. "The wound shattered my life. In those days, you couldn't talk about the emotional impact."

He's 82 now and has spent a lifetime trying to understand war and its impact on those involved. "Worshipping the Myths of World War II" is a product of his very personal, honest and courageous exploration.

Sean Gonsalves: Some people consider talk about the myths of World War II disparaging to veterans. Why do some equate demythologizing with anti-Americanism?

Edward W. Wood Jr.: There's two kinds of soldiers: those who have been in combat and the guys who haven't. I think those two groups have vastly different attitudes about war. Another reason people react that way is because people in the United States have absolutely no idea what war entails. I think a lot of very good people believe that these myths really describe what war is. Therefore, to demythologize means, for them, putting down people who have been involved.

But I don't think we want to look at what our tax dollars are doing. We just don't want to look at the reality that's there. None of this is a disparagement to those who've really seen combat. I am really anti-war now and yet, in terms of my own personal life, I have no regrets about having been in World War II. I believe in nonviolence. But, I'm in favor of a draft because I think we all would think a lot more carefully about war.

Why do you think these myths are so persistent?

These myths are really rooted in our past and go beyond World War II -- going back to the King Phillips War. There were Manifest Destiny wars with Mexico, Phillipines and the rest. Teddy Roosevelt believed you weren't really a man unless you served in war. I don't think we really want to look at that and it's not taught very much in school. It's a very subtle message. I think that's why it persists. The myths exist because we don't look carefully at our history and because it gives people a great glow to wrap themselves in it. But I think it would be healthy to just be open about.

What criteria do you use to judge artistic interpretations of World War II?

There are essentially two really important criteria, I use:

1) Does the author or filmmaker say something about himself that he didn't want to tell the world? Does it really delve into what combat does in the deepest kind of way? Does it wrestle with the moral dilemma of killing -- seeing and watching people get killed -- and how is the act of killing treated?

2) Does it reflect the extraordinary complexity of human reaction to death? And modern war is not just about soldiers in combat but also the impact on civilians. If you don't have that part of the equation, you're missing at least 50 percent of the story.

How do you see these myths impacting the way people view the war in Iraq?

If you look at how we got into the Iraq war, you see the president and his administration using (World War II) as an example for Iraq; comparing Saddam to Hitler and comparing themselves to Churchill and Roosevelt. I don't think that's quite appropriate.

We appeal to the idea of the 'Good War' and a war against evil where the enemy is dehumanized into this monstrous evil ... But, actually, World War I and World War II were really one war. If you look at it that way, what happens in the 1930s was a function of the Versailles Treaty and the terrible reparations imposed on Germany ... So we built up a situation that was going to inevitably lead to another war.

Iraq itself was made out of whole cloth in the early 1920s almost by fiat, putting the Kurds, the Shias and Sunnis in one country. So, even now, we are dealing with the consequences of World War I.

Do combat veterans who've served in the infantry have a different perception of what war means, compared to soldiers in the Navy or Air Force?

The guys who flew in World War II I respect beyond measure -- the 8th Air Force, for example. But I do think it's a different experience for soldiers in the Air Force and Navy, compared to soldiers involved in ground combat. It gives you a very different attitude about what war is.

In the final chapter of your book, you write: "the issue today is not just the simple one -- how can we leave Iraq? -- but, rather one far more difficult: How can we turn from war as the solution to our international problems?" What do you see as the answer to the important question you raise?

I don't have the answer. But we need to get away from the myths and try to understand what war is really like. In this war, the only ones who pay the price are the soldiers and Iraqi civilians. That's so terribly unfair. It infuriates me. If we are in a war, the whole country should pay a price for it.

I've turned against war but if we're at war, we can't have a war and all these people making money off it and living normal lives. It hurts me to see people who go about their lives while terrible death and suffering are occurring in Iraq.

America is not very good at recognizing who its real enemies are. We get it all confused with this problem of evil. We see it in others but never in us.

That's hard for people to even hear, never mind think about.

I'm running against the grain and it gets lonely sometimes.

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Promise and Peril of the Indirect Approach

By Brian M. Burton


The future direction of U.S. strategy against violent transnational terrorist groups abroad is increasingly founded on the "indirect approach," a strategy that emphasizes building partnerships to improve the security and governance capacity of at-risk partner states and reduce the incidence of safe havens for militants in ungoverned spaces. The indirect approach has achieved only relatively modest outcomes. While terrorist groups have been degraded and the tactical capabilities of host-nation militaries have been improved, the lasting defeat of militant organizations has remained elusive. Since the use of the indirect approach is likely to continue, policymakers should have a clear understanding of its limitations. Political strategies to leverage security force assistance are insufficiently emphasized by U.S. policymakers, and this failure undermines the legitimacy of U.S. security assistance. Rigorous assessment of outcomes from efforts to build partner capacity should be more extensively completed and disseminated among military and civilian partners. Finally, policymakers should always be cautious about expansions of American involvement that are linked to open-ended objectives and poorly defined outcomes, lest the small-scale indirect approach spiral into the very type of large-scale direct action that it is intended to avoid.

PRISM 3, no. 1: The Promise and Peril of the Indirect Approach

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Crisis of Humanitarian Intervention | Inquirer Opinion

By: Walden Bello 10:22 pm | Thursday, September 8th, 2011


Events in Libya and Syria have again brought to the forefront the question of armed humanitarian intervention or the “responsibility to protect.”

Our hearts all go out to the unarmed demonstrators seeking to bring down corrupt dictatorships that are a plague on their people. In Tunisia and Egypt, the people rose and deposed dictators on their own. Armed supporters of the Mubarak regime did attack and even fire on people in Tahrir Square, but a massive crackdown was avoided when the military decided not to take the side of the dictator.

Things have not been so simple since then. Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi came down hard on civilian protesters, providing the opportunity for the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to intervene militarily by waging an air war and arming the rebels. Today, the Assad dictatorship’s massive repression in cities and towns in Syria that have risen in revolt has also sparked agitation for intervention in the West.

Is it ever legitimate to supersede the principle of national sovereignty with a military intervention aimed at protecting citizens from their government? And if the answer is yes, what circumstances would justify this course of action and how should it be carried out?

Circumscribing National Sovereignty

Ever since the Peace of Westphalia ended Europe’s wars of religion in 1648, the principle of the inviolability of the sovereignty of the nation-state has evolved to become the bedrock principle of international relations. Under the so-called Westphalian system, the nation-state emerged as the basic unit of international relations, sovereign unto itself and expected to respect the sovereignty of other states, be they ruled by people or princes. The supremacy of national sovereignty as a principle, however, clashed with the reality of conflicts among states. Thus systems of collective security like the United Nations emerged both to protect and to circumscribe the exercise of the principle of national sovereignty.

In recent years, the principle of national sovereignty has been limited from another quarter, from the expansion of the doctrineof human rights. Ever since the tragic events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, there have been efforts to further circumscribe the principle of sovereignty to justify foreign state intervention when genocidal events or massive violations of human rights take place within a country. This enterprise has produced the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” or “humanitarian intervention.”

While the countries of the North have acclaimed the new doctrine, it has provoked controversy in the South, where states have only relatively recently acquired independence from colonial occupation by waving the banner of national sovereignty.

Indeed, some nations, like the Palestinians, are still in the process of throwing off the yoke of foreign occupiers.

Recent interventions, such as in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya illustrate, in the view of many in the South, the perils of a course of action that may begin with good intentions on the part of those calling for it, but end up with detrimental consequences for the sovereignty of nations, the integrity of national territory, and the maintenance of regional and global peace and security.

Contrary to a common perception in the North, few in the South would argue that respect for a country’s national sovereignty is absolute. Intervention, however, in the view of many, including this author, can only be sanctioned if there is substantial proof of genocide and if measures are taken to ensure that great-power logic does not displace the original humanitarian intent.
The Crisis of Humanitarian Intervention | Inquirer Opinion

Friday, 3 February 2012

A Veterans Review: Chris Hedges 'War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning'

The Insanity of War, July 31 2004

By S. Freeman, Texas

Chris Hedges has written a deeply thoughtful and thought provoking book on the insanity of war. Myths are identified and exploded. Realities are presented, at times, in graphic detail.

Yet the book is an odd duck in some ways. Despite references to and quotations from the classics of literature, it is not an academic work; but neither is it a journalistic work. It is largely introspective; and in this sense, reminds me of the work of Joan Didion.

The title offends me as it asserts a truth I wish to deny. Yet, as combat veteran, having looked closely at the dead--of my brothers and of those we killed--having stared into vacant eyes looking off to some unseen horizon, I cannot deny the truth he asserts: War is a Force that gives us meaning. Fortunately, it is not the ONLY force, and needs not be THE force, as he makes clear toward the end. Indeed, a subtitle could be "Love is THE force which gives us true meaning.

I find the reviews of some of Hedges' critics rather amusing, and strongly suspect they have never worn the uniform, much less served in combat. If they did, they would realize some of their criticisms are, well, stupid.

This book, for example, is not anti-patriotic, though neither is it "patriotic", at least not in any usual sense of the word. Hedges' argument is our loyalties should not lie, at least not exclusively, not decisively, with any nation or government. Our patriotism should not be blind, nor should it be a means of manipulation. Rather, it should be grounded in love and understanding. Though Hedges does not say this specifically, I think he would agree that true patriotism entails both love of country AND love of humanity. To view our "enemies" as the epitome of evil, to present them as fanatics with no respect for human life, is to lower ourselves to the level we ascribe to them. Such false beliefs are inherently self defeating.

Cucolo does not seem to understand, as some great Americans have, that war is a narcotic, that patriotism often is used and abused by those who, themselves, have an inadequate understanding of humanity, and, therefore, inadequate respect for human life, who will sacrifice a nation's best for empire or to salve their own demented egos.

Having stood much closer to war than Cucolo probably sits to the screen showing John Wayne movies, Hemingway understood this: "There is noting sweet and fitting in dying for your country. You will die like a dog for no good reason."

John Quincy Adams also understood what Cucolo apparently does not: "And say not thou, `My country right or wrong'; nor shed thy blood for an unhallowed cause."

Real patriotism, true patriotism is far more than flying a flag outside one's home.

As Hedges argues, we are conditioned to believe war is some great cause, possessing some noble meaning that transcends us, that gives us some noble purpose in life which is far greater than anything we are likely to accomplish on our own, living our lives of anonymous insignificance, of "quiet desperation". War gives us the opportunity for heroics, to have our names, or at least the cause in which we served, inscribed in the annals (or should I say anals?) of history.

War summons up the courage ordinary men fear they lack. That "red badge of courage" shouts we ARE courageous, if not heroes. What else can we say of men willing to leave hearth and home, to kiss their loved ones good-bye, "leaving on a jet plane", not knowing if they will return again, even if in a box? What greater love is there, can there be than to lay down one's life for one's country? Certainly I understand this. Why else would I have marched off--as a volunteer--to fight in a war I actively opposed, and believed (then and now) to be an illegal, immoral, "unhallowed cause"?

In his last chapter, Hedges talks of how war is a false god. Life seems more "real" in combat. Things do get distilled down to very simple terms--life and death. Soldiers, especially those standing victorious on that day's battlefield, are as gods. As one of my brothers, imprisoned after the war because he had become too addicted to the violence of war, bringing that violence home where what he did in the Nam to great praise from his commanders was unacceptable, said: "We strode the earth as gods, dispensing life and death at will."

Hedges identifies three things which stand in contrast to the false meaning of life provided by war--meaning (purposefulness) of life, happiness and love.

To those whose souls are possessed by Thanatos--as Cucolo's may be--to talk of love is to talk of weakness: Love is the sentiment of weak women; war is what MEN do. They could not be more wrong as anyone who has served in combat knows. We LOVE our brothers, even if, as Hedges argues, it is not a complete love, for it is a love forged by a false god.

Major Michael O'Donnell, himself one of those "gentle heroes (we) left behind", clearly understood this as he wrote in his poem, "Vietnam":

"Be not ashamed to say

you loved them

though you may

or may not have always.

But anyone who has lain on a battlefield with bullets, mortars, rockets crashing around surely knows, we have never felt our love for our parents, our siblings, our girlfriends or wives--not before, nor since--so completely, so intensely as those moments when we faced death in battle.

Hedges has written a profound book, full of meaning and purpose, for anyone willing to open their minds to the possibility war is an inherently insane, inherently immoral narcotic. There are no winners in war, none, only savagery and inhumanity and destruction of the soul; and we need to know this without having to learn it first hand.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

War: Realities and Myths - by Chris Hedges

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 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 Guantánamo 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," Simone 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 Bible 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.

In 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 a nation in moments of extremity. To make a moral choice, to defy war's enticement, to find moral courage, can be self-destructive.

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 antiwar 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.

War: Realities and Myths - by Chris Hedges

Original source: The New York Review of Books. Titled 'On War' by Chris Hedges.