War Is A Force That Gives
by Chris Hedges
Anchor Books, 2003, paper
The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction
and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give
us purpose, meaning, a reason for living... And war is an enticing
elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.
And those who have the least meaning in their lives ... are all
susceptible to war's appeal.
President [George W.] Bush
"We go forward to defend freedom
and all that is good and just in the world."
On Friday, September 14, three days after the attacks, Congress
granted the President the right to "use all necessary and
appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons
he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist
attacks." The resolution was passed unanimously by the Senate.
There was in the House only one dissenting vote, from Barbara
J. Lee, a Democrat from California, who warned that military action
could not guarantee the safety of the country and that "as
we act, let us not become the evil we I deplore."
It is part of war's perversity that we lionize those who make
great warriors and excuse their excesses in the name of self-defense.
As the battle against terrorism continues, as terrorist attacks
intrude on our lives, as we feel less and less secure, the acceptance
of all methods to lash out at real and perceived enemies will
distort and deform our democracy. For even as war gives meaning
to sterile lives, it also promotes killers and racists.
Organized killing is done best by a disciplined,
professional army. But war also empowers those with a predilection
for murder. Petty gangsters, reviled in pre-war Sarajevo, were
transformed overnight at the start of the conflict into war heroes.
What they did was no different. They still pillaged, looted, tortured,
raped, and killed; only then they did it to Serbs, and with an
ideological veneer. Slobodan Milosevic went one further. He opened
up the country's prisons and armed his criminal class to fight
in Bosnia. Once we sign on for war's crusade, once we see ourselves
on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological
belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness
and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.
Patriotism, often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship,
celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the
perfidiousness of those who hate us.
Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into
a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary
for a higher good, for human beings seek not only happiness but
also meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful
way in human society to achieve meaning.
But war is a god, as the ancient Greeks
and Romans knew, and its worship demands human sacrifice. We urge
young men to war, making the slaughter they are asked to carry
out a rite of passage.
The tension between those who know combat, and thus know the public
lie, and those who propagate the myth, usually ends with the myth-makers
working to silence the witnesses of war.
Look just at the 1990s: 2 million dead in Afghanistan; 1.5 million
dead in the Sudan; some 800,000 butchered in ninety days in Rwanda;
a half-million dead in Angola; a quarter of a million dead in
Bosnia; 200,000 dead in Guatemala; 90,000 dead in Liberia; a quarter
of a million dead in Burundi; 75,000 dead in Algeria; and untold
tens of thousands lost in the border conflict between Ethiopia
and Eritrea, the fighting in Colombia, the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, southeastern Turkey, Sierra Leone,
Northern Ireland, Kosova, and the Persian Gulf War (where perhaps
as many as 35,000 Iraqi citizens were killed). In the wars of
the twentieth century not less than 62 million civilians have
perished, nearly 20 million more than the 43 million military
While we venerate and mourn our own dead we are curiously indifferent
about those we kill. Thus killing is done in our name, killing
that concerns us little, while those who kill our own are seen
as having crawled out of the deepest recesses of the earth, lacking
our own humanity and goodness. Our dead. Their dead. They are
not the same. Our dead matter, theirs do not.
Armed movements seek divine sanction and the messianic certitude
of absolute truth. They do not need to get this from religions,
as we usually think of religion, but a type of religion: Patriotism
provides the blessing. Soldiers want at least the consolation
of knowing that they risk being blown up by land mines for a greater
glory, for a New World. Dissension, questioning of purpose, the
exposure of war crimes carried out by those fighting on our behalf
are dangerous to such beliefs. Dissidents who challenge the goodness
of our cause, who question the gods of war, who pull back the
curtains to expose the lie are usually silenced or ignored.
Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism
The principle of the movement is whoever
is not included is excluded, whoever is not with me is against
me, so the world loses all the nuances and pluralistic aspects
that have become too confusing for the masses.
Before conflicts begin, the first people silenced-often with violence-are
not the nationalist leaders of the opposing ethnic or religious
group, who are useful in that they serve to dump gasoline on the
evolving conflict. Those voices within the ethnic group or the
nation that question the state's lust and need for war are targeted.
These dissidents are the most dangerous. They give us an alternative
language, one that refuses to define the other as "barbarian"
or "evil," one that recognizes the humanity of the enemy,
one that does not condone violence as a form of communication.
Such voices are rarely heeded. And until we learn once again to
speak in our own voice and reject that handed to us by the state
in times of war, we flirt with our own destruction.
The Myth of War
David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature,
When our own nation is at war with any
other, we detest them under the character of cruel, perfidious,
unjust and violent: But always esteem ourselves and allies equitable,
moderate, and merciful. If the general of our enemies be successful,
'tis with difficulty we allow him the figure and character of
a man. He is a sorcerer: He has a communication with daemons.
He is bloody-minded, and takes a pleasure in death and destruction.
But if the success be on our side, our commander has all the opposite
good qualities, and is a pattern of virtue, as well as of courage
and conduct. His treachery we call policy: His cruelty is an evil
inseparable from war. In short, every one of his faults we either
endeavour to extenuate, or dignify it with the name of that virtue,
which approaches it. It is evident the same method of thinking
runs through common life.
The ethnic conflicts and insurgencies of our time, whether between
Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsis, are not religious wars.
They are not clashes between cultures or civilizations, nor are
they the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. They are manufactured
wars, born out of the collapse of civil societies, perpetuated
by fear, greed, and paranoia, and they are run by gangsters, who
rise up from the bottom of their own societies and terrorize all,
including those they purport to protect.
The United States and the West based our responses in Bosnia,
or perhaps it is better to say our arguments not to respond, on
... myths ... These myths, swallowed whole, permitted us to stand
by as 250,000 human beings were killed and Sarajevo spent three
and a half years under siege. Although the United States finally
intervened, we did so because the United Nations mission collapsed
in the summer of 1995, not because of any foresight or courage
on the part of the administration of President Bill Clinton.
Look not to religion and mythology and warped versions of history
to find the roots of these conflicts, but to the warlords who
dominated the Balkans. It took Milosevic four years of hate propaganda
and lies, pumped forth daily over the airways from Belgrade, before
he got one Serb to cross the border into Bosnia and begin the
murderous rampage that triggered the war. And although the war
was painted from afar as a clash of rival civilizations, the primary
task of Milosevic in Serbia, Franjo Tudjman in Croatia, and the
other ethnic leaderships was to dismantle and silence their own
intellectuals and writers of stature and replace them with second-rate,
mediocre pawns willing to turn every intellectual and artistic
endeavor into a piece of ethnic triumphalism and myth.
Lawrence LeShan in The Psychology of War
differentiates between "mythic reality" and "sensory
reality" in wartime.' In sensory reality we see events for
what they are. Most of those who are thrust into combat soon find
it impossible to maintain the mythic perception of war. They would
not survive if they did. Wars that lose their mythic stature for
the public, such as Korea or Vietnam, are doomed to failure, for
war is exposed for what it is-organized murder.
But in mythic war we imbue events with
meanings they do not have. We see defeats as signposts on the
road to ultimate victory. We demonize the enemy so that our opponent
is no longer human. We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment
of absolute goodness.
"Force is as pitiless to the man
who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims;
the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates."
The chief institutions that disseminate the myth are the press
and the state. The press has been culpable since the telegraph
made possible the modern war correspondent. And starting with
the Crimean War, when the first dispatches were fed by newly minted
war correspondents in real time, nearly every reporter has seen
his or her mission as sustaining civilian and army morale. The
advent of photography and film did little to alter the incentive
to boost morale, for the lie in war is almost always the lie of
omission. The blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals,
the execution of prisoners and innocents, and the horror of wounds
are rarely disclosed, at least during a mythic war, to the public.
Only when the myth is punctured, as it eventually was in Vietnam,
does the press begin to report in a sensory rather than a mythic
manner. But even then it is it reacting to a public that has changed
its perception of war. The press usually does not lead.
Mythic war reporting sells papers and
boosts ratings. Real reporting, sensory reporting, does not, at
least not in comparison with the boosterism we witnessed during
the Persian Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan. The coverage
in the Persian Gulf War was typical. The international press willingly
administered a restrictive pool system on behalf of the military
under which carefully controlled groups of reporters were guided
around the front lines by officers. It could have never functioned
without the cooperation of the press. The press was as eager to
be of service to the state during the war as most everyone else.
Such docility on the part of the press
made it easier to do what governments do in wartime, indeed what
governments do much of the time, and that is lie.
The potency of myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem
and violent death. It gives a justification to what is often nothing
more than gross human cruelty and stupidity. It allows us to believe
we have achieved our place in human society because of a long
chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept the sad reality
that we stumble along a dimly lit corridor of disasters. It disguises
our powerlessness. It hides from view our own impotence and the
ordinariness of our own leaders. By turning history into myth
we transform random events into a chain of events directed by
a will greater than our own, one that is determined and preordained.
We are elevated above the multitude. We march toward nobility.
And no society is immune.
Most national myths, at their core, are
racist. They are fed by ignorance. Those individuals who understand
other cultures, speak other languages, and find richness in diversity
are shunted aside. Science, history, and psychology are often
twisted to serve myth. And many intellectuals are willing to champion
and defend absurd theories for nationalist ends.
We often become as deaf and dumb as those we condemn. We too have
our terrorists. The Contras in Nicaragua carried out, with funding
from Washington, some of the most egregious human rights violations
in Central America, yet were lauded as "freedom fighters."
Jonas Savimbi, the rebel leader the United States backed in Angola's
civil war, murdered and tortured with a barbarity that far outstripped
the Taliban. The rebellion Savimbi began in I975 resulted in more
than 500,000 dead. President Ronald Reagan called Savimbi the
Abraham Lincoln of Angola ...
Once war, and especially the total war that marked both the ancient
and the modern way of battle, erupts, all is sacrificed before
it. The myth of war is essential to justify the horrible sacrifices
required in war, the destruction and the death of innocents. It
can be formed only by denying the reality of war, by turning the
lies, the manipulation, the inhumanness of war into heroic ideal.
Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including ours,
is the passionate yearning for a nationalist cause that exalts
us, the kind that war alone is able to deliver. It reduces and
at times erases the anxiety of individual consciousness. We abandon
individual responsibility for a shared, unquestioned communal
enterprise, however morally dubious.
There is little that logic or fact or
truth can do to alter the experience. Moreover, once this crusade
is embraced by the nation, the myth predetermines how the world
is perceived. It is only after the myth implodes, often as suddenly
as it descended, that one can again question the motives and the
actions of the state. Once the lights are flicked on again there
is a Midsummer Night's Dream quality to the war experience, as
if no one can quite remember what happened.
"The nationalist is by definition
an ignoramus," wrote Danilo Kis, the Yugoslav writer. "Nationalism
is the line of least resistance, the easy way. The nationalist
is untroubled, he knows or thinks he knows what his values are,
his, that's to say national, that's to say the values of the nations
he belongs to, ethical and political; he is not interested in
others, they are of no concern of his, hell-it's other people
(other nations, another tribe). They don't even need investigating.
The nationalist sees other people in his ,, own image-as nationalists."
Every society, ethnic group or religion
nurtures certain myths, often centered around the creation of
the nation or the movement itself. These myths lie unseen beneath
the surface, waiting for the moment to rise ascendant, to define
and glorify followers or members in times of crisis. National
myths are largely benign in times of peace. They are stoked by
the entertainment industry, in school lessons, stories, and quasi-historical
ballads, preached in mosques, or championed in absurd historical
dramas that are always wildly popular during war. They do not
pose a major challenge to real historical study or a studied tolerance
of others in peacetime. But national myths ignite a collective
amnesia in war. They give past generations a nobility and greatness
they never possessed. Almost every group, and especially every
nation, has such myths. These myths are the kindling nationalists
use to light a conflict.
In the former Yugoslavia, it was the nationalist
propaganda pumped out over television, far more than ancient hatreds,
that did the most to provoke rivalry and finally war between ethnic
groups. The nationalist governments, rather than allow for the
discussion of competing ideas and viewpoints, used the absolute
power they wielded over the broadcast media to play and replay
images that provoked outrage and anger. They told stories, many
of them fabricated, about alleged atrocities committed by the
enemy. Impartial information disappeared. Television became the
emotional crutch used to justify violence and rally ethnic groups
around nationalist leaders. Those who advocated violence were
affirmed, night after night, in their righteous anger. The principal
religious institutions-the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic
Church in Croatia-were willing accomplices. They were national
churches and worked as propagandists for the state. The clerics,
on all three sides, were a disgrace. U.N. mediators in Sarajevo
wearily complained that it was easier to get Serb and Muslim commanders
to the table for talks than opposing clerics.
Archeology, folklore, and the search for
what is defined as authenticity are the tools used by nationalists
to assail others and promote themselves. They dress it up as history,
but it is myth. Real historical inquiry, in the process, is corrupted,
assaulted, and often destroyed. Facts become as interchangeable
as opinions. Those facts that are inconvenient are discarded or
denied. The obvious inconsistencies are ignored by those intoxicated
by a newly found sense of national pride and the exciting prospect
To speak of the Israeli war of independence
with many Israelis, in which stateless European Jews established
a country in a land that had been primarily Muslim since the seventh
century, is to shout into a vast black hole. There is an emotional
barrier, a desire not to tarnish the creation myth, which makes
it difficult for many Israeli Jews, including some of the most
liberal and progressive, to acknowledge the profound injustice
the creation of the state of Israel meant for Palestinians. As
Americans we struggle with these myths as well, only grudgingly
conceding that many of our founding fathers were slave owners
and much of our nation acquired after a genocidal campaign against
In peacetime this collective amnesia is
challenged by a few intrepid scholars. Indeed, some of the best
scholarly work on the I 948 war and what it meant for the Palestinians
has come from Israeli historians-but their voices are muted or
silenced in times of crisis. Our own nation is no different. We
embrace gross and overtly racist notions of Islam that paint all
Muslims as having a tendency to violence, anger, antimodernism,
and close-mindedness. Questioning of the nationalist line, or
an attempt to address historical injustices committed by us against
our foes, is branded unpatriotic, intellectual treason, just as
it was in Argentina in I982.
Intellectuals and social critics are as
susceptible to the plague of nationalism as the masses. They often
find in it an answer to their own feelings of ostracism. In the
nationalist cause they are given a chance to be exalted by a nation
that has ignored them. They too enjoy intoxication. There are
no shortages of intellectuals willing to line up behind leaders
they despise in times of national crisis, an act that negates
the moral posturing they often make from within the confines of
academia during peacetime. These enthusiastic intellectuals can
become dangerous in wartime. Many hold messianic and uncompromising
beliefs that they have never had to put into practice. All nationalist
movements have such pernicious mentors willing to justify the
use of force for a utopian and unworkable vision.
Those who do defy the nationalist agenda in war are usually reviled
during the conflict and shunned afterward. They are, at least
by the labels placed upon them by the world, often rather humble,
sometimes simple, and not always well educated. The acts defy
the collective psychosis.
... in wartime most people are unwilling to risk discomfort, censure,
or violence to help neighbors. There is a frightening indifference
and willful blindness, a desire to believe the nationalist myth
because it brands those outside a nation or ethnic group with
traits and vices that cannot be eradicated. Because they are the
other, because they are not us, they are guilty. Such indifference,
such acceptance of nationalist self-glorification, turns many
into silent accomplices.
To those who swallow the nationalist myth,
life is transformed. The collective glorification permits people
to abandon their usual preoccupation with the petty concerns of
daily life. They can abandon even self-preservation in the desire
to see themselves as players in a momentous historical drama.
This vision is accepted even at the expense of self-annihilation.
Life in wartime becomes theater. All are actors. Leaders, against
the backdrop of war, look heroic, noble. Pilots who bail out of
planes shot down by the enemy and who make their way back home
play cameo roles. The state, as we saw in the Persian Gulf War
or Afghanistan, transforms war into a nightly television show.
The generals, who are no more interested in candor than they were
in Vietnam, have at least perfected the appearance of candor.
And the press has usually been more than willing to play the dupe
as long as the ratings are good.
The daily wartime episodes are central
to the nationalist vision. The carefully choreographed performances
come to define and make up the body politic. The lines between
real entertainment and political entertainment blur and finally
vanish. The world, as we see it in wartime, becomes high drama.
It is romanticized. A moral purpose is infused into the trivial
and the commonplace. And we, who yesterday felt maligned, alienated,
and ignored, are part of a nation of self-appointed agents of
the divine will. We await our chance to walk on stage.
Nationalist triumphalism was shunned and discredited in America
after Vietnam. We were forced to see ourselves as others saw us,
and it was not always pleasant. We understood, at least for a
moment, the lie. But the plague of nationalism was resurrected
during the Reagan years. It became ascendant with the Persian
Gulf War, when we embraced the mythic and unachievable goal of
a "New World Order." The infection of nationalism now
lies unchecked and blindly accepted in the march we make as a
nation towards another war, one as ill conceived as the war we
lost in southeast Asia.
Senator Hiram Johnson, 1917
The first casualty when war comes is truth.
In wartime the state seeks to destroy its own culture. It is only
when this destruction has been completed that the state can begin
to exterminate the culture of its opponents. In times of conflict
authentic culture is subversive. As the cause championed by the
state comes to define national identity, as the myth of war entices
a nation to glory and sacrifice, those who question the value
of the cause and the veracity of the myths are branded internal
States at war silence their own authentic and humane culture.
When this destruction is well advanced they find the lack of critical
and moral restraint useful in the campaign to exterminate the
culture of their opponents. By destroying authentic culture-that
which allows us to question and examine ourselves and our society-the
state erodes the moral fabric. It is replaced with a warped version
of reality. The enemy is dehumanized; the universe starkly divided
between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. The cause
is celebrated, often in overt religious forms, as a manifestation
of divine or historical will. All is dedicated to promoting and
glorifying the myth, the nation, the cause.
National symbols-flags, patriotic songs, sentimental dedications-invade
and take over cultural space. Art becomes infected with the platitudes
of patriotism. More important, the use of a nation's cultural
resources to back up the war effort is essential to mask the contradictions
and lies that mount over time in the drive to sustain war. Cultural
or national symbols that do not support the crusade are often
The cultivation of victimhood is essential fodder for any conflict.
It is studiously crafted by the state. All cultural life is directed
to broadcast the injustices carried out against us. Cultural life
soon becomes little more than the drivel of agitprop. The message
that the nation is good, the cause just, and the war noble is
pounded into the heads of citizens in everything from late-night
talk shows to morning news programs to films and popular novels.
The nation is soon thrown into a trance from which it does not
awake until the conflict ends. In parts of the world where the
conflict remains unresolved, this trance can last for generations.
After the September attacks in the United States a document entitled
"Defending Civilization" was compiled by a conservative
organization called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
It set out to show that the American universities did not respond
to the September attacks with a proper degree of "anger,
patriotism, and support of military intervention." The report
offered a list of 115 subversive remarks taken from college newspapers
or made on college campuses.
What is at work in this report is the
reduction of language to code. [In wartime] clichés, coined
by the state, become the only acceptable vocabulary. Everyone
knows what to say and how to respond. It is scripted. Vocabulary
shrinks so that the tyranny of nationalist rhetoric leaves people
sputtering state-sanctioned slogans.
A soldier who is able to see the humanity of the enemy makes a
troubled and ineffective killer. To achieve corporate action,
self-awareness and especially self-criticism must be obliterated.
We must be transformed into agents of a divinely inspired will,
as defined by the state, just as those we fight must be transformed
into the personification of unmitigated evil. There is little
room for individuality in war.
The effectiveness of the myths peddled
in war is powerful. We often come to doubt our own perceptions.
We hide these doubts, like troubled believers, sure that no one
else feels them. We feel guilty. The myths have determined not
only how we should speak but how we should think. The doubts we
carry, the scenes we see that do not conform to the myth are hazy,
difficult to express, unsettling. And as the atrocities mount,
as civil liberties are stripped away (something, with the "War
on Terror," already happening to hundreds of thousands of
immigrants in the United States), we struggle uncomfortably with
the jargon and clichés. But we have trouble expressing
our discomfort because the collective shout has made it hard for
us to give words to our thoughts.
The destruction of culture sees the state or the group prosecuting
the war take control of the two most important mediums that transmit
information to the nation-the media and the schools. The alleged
"war crimes" of the enemy, real and imagined, are played
and replayed night after night, rousing a nation to fury. In the
Middle East and the Balkans, along with many other parts of the
world, children are taught to hate. In Egypt pupils are told Jews
are interlopers on Arab land. Israel does not appear on schoolroom
maps. In Jordan, children learn that Christians are "infidels"
who "must be forced into submission," that the Jewish
Torah is "perverted," and that Jews have only "their
own evil practices" to blame for the Holocaust. Syrian schoolbooks
exhort students to "holy war" and paint pictures of
Israelis "perpetrating beastly crimes and horrendous massacres,"
burying people alive in battle and dancing drunk in Islamic holy
places in Jerusalem. And Israel, despite efforts in secular state
schools to present a more balanced view of Arab history, allows
state-funded religious schools to preach that Jewish rule should
extend from the Nile in Egypt to the Euphrates in Iraq and that
the kingdom of Jordan is occupied Jewish land.
The reinterpretation of history and culture
is dizzying and dangerous. But it is the bedrock of the hatred
and intolerance that leads to war.
The prospect of war is exciting. Many young men, schooled in the
notion that war is the ultimate definition of manhood, that only
in war will they be tested and proven, that they can discover
their worth as human beings in battle, willingly join the great
enterprise. The admiration of the crowd, the high-blown rhetoric,
the chance to achieve the glory of the previous generation, the
ideal of nobility beckon us forward. And people, ironically, enjoy
righteous indignation and an object upon which to unleash their
anger. War usually starts with collective euphoria.
It is all the more startling that such
fantasy is believed, given the impersonal slaughter of modern
industrial warfare. I saw high explosives fired from huge distances
in the Gulf War reduce battalions of Iraqis to scattered corpses.
Iraqi soldiers were nothing more on the screens of sophisticated
artillery pieces than little dots scurrying around like ants-that
is, until they were blasted away. Bombers dumped tons of iron
fragmentation bombs on them. Our tanks, which could outdistance
their Soviet-built counterparts, blew Iraqi armored units to a
standstill. Helicopters hovered above units like angels of death
in the sky. Here there was no pillage, no warlords, no collapse
of unit discipline, but the cold and brutal efficiency of industrial
warfare waged by well-trained and highly organized professional
soldiers. It was a potent reminder why most European states and
America live in such opulence and determine the fate of so many
others. We equip and train the most efficient killers on the planet.
... peddling the myth of heroism is essential, maybe even more
so now, to entice soldiers into war. Men in modern warfare are
in service to technology. Many combat veterans never actually
see the people they are firing at nor those firing at them, and
this is true even in low-intensity insurgencies.
To be sure, soldiers who kill innocents
pay a tremendous personal emotional and spiritual price. But within
the universe of total war, equipped with weapons that can kill
hundreds or thousands of people in seconds, soldiers only have
time to reflect later. By then these soldiers often have been
discarded, left as broken men in a civilian society that does
not understand them and does not want to understand them. Once
violence on this scale is unleashed it usually continues to plague
societies. The civil war in El Salvador, as in many African states,
has left the country beset by violent crime and dominated by armed
militias and gangs. We are hostage to a vast and powerful military-industrial
complex that exports more weapons than all other nations combined.
There are always people willing to commit unspeakable human atrocity
in exchange for a little power and privilege.
The task of carrying out violence, of
killing, leads to perversion. The seductiveness of violence, the
fascination with the grotesque-the Bible calls it "the lust
of the eye"-the god-like empowerment over other human lives
and the drug of war combine, like the ecstasy of erotic love,
to let our senses command our bodies. Killing unleashes within
us dark undercurrents that see us desecrate and whip ourselves
into greater orgies of destruction. The dead, treated with respect
in peacetime, are abused in wartime. They become pieces of performance
art. Corpses were impaled in Bosnia on the sides of barn doors,
decapitated, or draped like discarded clothing over fences. They
were dumped into rivers, burned alive in homes, herded into warehouses
and shot and mutilated, or left on roadsides. Children could pass
them on the street, gape at them and walk on.
On a recent trip to the region, I visited the Khan Younis refugee
camp in the Gaza Strip. As the searing afternoon heat and swirling
eddies of dust enveloped the camp, I sought cover, slumping under
the shade of a palm-roofed hut on the edge of the dunes. I was
momentarily defeated by the grit that covered my face and hair,
the jostling crowds, the stench of the open sewers and rotting
Barefoot boys, clutching ragged soccer
balls and kites made out of scraps of paper, squatted a few feet
away under scrub trees. Men, in flowing white or gray galabias-homespun
robes-smoked cigarettes outside their doorways. They fingered
prayer beads and spoke in hushed tones as they boiled tea or coffee
on sooty coals in small iron braziers in the shade of the eaves.
Two emaciated donkeys, their ribs outlined on their flanks, were
tethered to wooden carts with rubber wheels.
It was still. The camp waited, as if holding
its breath. And 1 then, out of the dry furnace air a disembodied
voice crackled over a loudspeaker from the Israeli side of the
camp's perimeter fence.
"Come on, dogs," the voice boomed
in Arabic. "Where are all the dogs of Khan Younis? Come!
I stood up and walked outside the hut.
The invective spewed out in a bitter torrent. "Son of a bitch!"
"Son of a whore!" "Your mother's cunt!"
The boys darted in small packs up the
sloping dunes to the electric fence that separated the camp from
the Jewish settlement abutting it. They lobbed rocks towards a
jeep, mounted with a loudspeaker and protected by bulletproof
armor plates and metal grating, that sat parked on the top of
a hill known as Gani Tal. The soldier inside the jeep ridiculed
and derided them. Three ambulances-which had pulled up in anticipation
of what was to come-lined the road below the dunes.
There was the boom of a percussion grenade.
The boys, most no more than ten or eleven years old, scattered,
running clumsily through the heavy sand. They descended out of
sight behind the dune in front of me. There were no sounds of
gunfire. The soldiers shot with silencers. The bullets from M-16
rifles, unseen by me, tumbled end-over-end through their slight
bodies. I would see the destruction, the way their stomachs were
ripped out, the gaping holes in their limbs and torsos, later
in the hospital.
I had seen children shot in other conflicts
I have covered- death squads gunned them down in El Salvador and
Guatemala, mothers with infants were lined up and massacred in
Algeria, and Serb snipers put children in their sights and watched
them crumple onto the pavement in Sarajevo-but I had never watched
soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them
The violent breakup of Yugoslavia, which was preceded by economic
collapse, began in 1991. lt was the same year that the government
decided to permit hard-core sex films to be broadcast on public
stations and that the first locally made pornographic film was
produced. While the old Communist Yugoslavia did not censor love
scenes in its state-run film industry, it condemned pornography
as the exploitation of women and banned its production. The first
graphic pictures of mutilated and dead from the war, along with
the racial diatribes against Muslims and Croats, hit the airwaves
at the same time Yugoslavs were allowed to watch porno films.
The war was, like the sex films, about the lifting of taboos,
about new forms of entertainment to mask the economic and political
collapse of Yugoslavia. War and sex were the stimulants to divert
a society that was collapsing.
The world, as it is in war, had been turned
upside down. Those who had worked hard all their lives, put their
meager savings into banks, and struggled to live on pensions or
salaries, lost everything. The unscrupulous, who had massive debts,
never had to repay them, lived off the black market or crime,
used force to get what they wanted, and became fabulously rich
and powerful. The moral universe disintegrated. There was a new
The criminal class, many of whom made
their fortunes by plundering the possessions of ethnic Croats
and Muslims who were expelled from their homes or killed in Bosnia
during the war, had rented apartments where they sold stolen clothes
from Italy. Huge outdoor fairs were held where you could buy stolen
cars complete with fake registrations. Drugs, protection rackets,
prostitution, not to speak of duty-free cigarettes (smuggled into
Italy with speedboats from the Montenegrin coast), became the
country's major businesses as state-run factories folded. In Belgrade,
at the war's height, there were seventy escort services, three
adult cinemas, and twenty pornographic magazines. After midnight
the public television channels ran hard-core porno films.
Hedonism and perversion spiraled out of
control as inflation ate away at the local currency. Those who
had worked hard all their lives were now reviled as dupes and
fools. They haunted the soup kitchens. The loyalty they had expressed
to the state or to the institutions they worked for had left them
beggars. They held worthless war bonds. They collected pensions,
when they were paid, that amounted to a few dollars. They sold
rugs, tea sets, china, paintings, anything they could dig out
of their apartments at huge open-air flea markets. Their children,
no matter how well educated, worked in menial jobs abroad so they
could mail back enough for their parents to buy food. Distraught
teachers said they struggled to cope with children as young as
eleven who had been exposed to scenes of graphic sadomasochism
on television and copied the sexual acts they witnessed. Domestic
violence, often by men who were out of work or had not received
their small salaries for months, was widespread.
War breaks down long-established prohibitions against violence,
destruction, and murder. And with this often comes the crumbling
of sexual, social, and political norms as the domination and brutality
of the battlefield is carried into personal life. Rape, mutilation,
abuse, and theft are the natural outcome of a world in which force
rules, in which human beings are objects. The infection is pervasive.
Society in wartime becomes atomized. It rewards personal survival
skills and very often leaves those with decency and compassion
trampled under the rush. The pride one feels in a life devoted
to the nation or to an institution or a career or an ideal is
often replaced by shame and guilt. Those who have lived upright,
socially productive lives are punished for their gullibility in
the new social order.
Human beings become pawns, manipulated and moved around a board
like chess pieces. Those struggling to survive in a morally bankrupt
universe find that there are few restraints left. The perversion
seeps into the behavior of those who came with noble sentiments
to help. The U.N. peacekeeping troops in Bosnia, just as aid workers
in Africa did, used the money and power they wielded to frequent
or even run prostitution rings. The most notorious prostitution
ring in Sarajevo during the war, one that catered to the peacekeepers,
the foreign community, and the gangsters-all those with hard currency-was
run by Ukrainian troops. They had also cornered the market on
black market diesel, although they had the annoying habit of mixing
it with water.
The reporters, diplomats, aid workers,
and peacekeepers who travel into war zones, without the restraint
of law and amid a sea of powerless people, often view themselves
as entitled. They excuse immoral behavior because of the belief
that the work they carry out is for a greater good-the rescue
of those around them-which outweighs impropriety. They become
giddy with the admiration and social status that come with being
protected and privileged. Diplomats who entered Sarajevo restaurants
would be applauded. They had servants, new jeeps, nice houses,
and clout. And they had power unlike anything they experienced
The conflict created a new elite, foreign
class. It was a class that fed off of war's lawlessness and perversion.
Students who spoke English in Bosnia and later Kosova were soon
making in a week more money than their teachers made in a year.
Many lost all desire to study. It was not worth it. They paraded
the new clothes and sunglasses they could buy with their dollars.
Some began to look down on those around them with the same arrogance
of those they worked for.
To those who are hungry, who spend all
day in cold, gutted homes with no running water, who sleep on
the concrete floors of overcrowded schools set up as refugee centers,
who wake up and spend hours hunting for food or standing in long
lines outside aid distribution centers, a little more humiliation
is not much to endure. Many longed to enter the easy world of
the elite. They would pay any price.
Many of those who set out to write their
memoirs, or speak about the war, do so with shame. They know war's
perversion. It corrupts nearly everyone. To be greeted by an indifferent
public, by people who would rather not examine, in the end, their
own darkness, makes the effort Herculean. After each war some
struggle to tell us how the ego and vanity of commanders leads
to the waste of lives and needless death, how they too became
tainted, but the witnesses are soon ignored. It is not a pleasant
There is a spiritual collapse after war. Societies struggle with
the wanton destruction not only of property and cities but of
those they loved. The erosion of morality and social responsibility
becomes painfully evident in war's wake. Many feel used. By then
it is too late. Those who drained the society flee, are killed,
or live on in luxury from the profits of modern wars. Lethargy
and passivity plague the populace that no longer has the energy
or the moral fortitude to reconstitute society or fight back.
In the wake of war comes a normalization
that levels victims and perpetrators. Victims and survivors are
an awkward reminder of the collective complicity. Their presence
inspires discomfort. So too with perpetrators, whose crimes were
witnessed and even supported by many. But it is often the victims
who suffer the worst bouts of guilt and remorse. They feel in
debt to those who died. They know that it is not the best who
survive war but often the selfish, the brutal, and the violent.
Those who abandoned their humanity, betrayed their neighbors and
friends, turned their back on their family, stole, cheated, killed,
and stomped on the weak and infirm were often those who made it
out alive. Many victims grasp, in a way the perpetrators do not,
the inverted moral hierarchy. They see this inversion in their
own struggle to survive. They realize, in a way that the perpetrators
again do not, that the difference between the oppressed and the
oppressors is not absolute. And they often wonder if they could
have done more to save those who were lost around them.
Who still speaks of the extermination
of the Armenians?
When I stepped off an Army C-130 military transport in Dhahran,
Saudi Arabia, to cover the Persian Gulf War, I was escorted to
a room with several dozen other reporters and photographers. I
was told to sign a paper that said I would abide by the severe
restrictions placed on the press by the U.S. military. The restrictions
authorized "pool reporters" to be escorted by the military
on held trips. The rest of the press would sit in hotel rooms
and rewrite the bland copy filed by the pool or use the pool video
and photos. This was an agreement I violated the next morning,
when I went into the held without authorization. The rest of the
war, during which I spent more than half my time dodging military
police and trying to talk my way into units, was a forlorn and
lonely struggle against the heavy press control.
The Gulf War made war fashionable again.
It was a cause the nation willingly embraced. It gave us media-manufactured
heroes and a heady pride in our military superiority and technology.
It made war fun. And the blame, as in many conflicts, lay not
with the military but the press. Television reporters happily
disseminated the spoon-fed images that served the propaganda effort
of the military and the state. These images did little to convey
the reality of war. Pool reporters, those guided around in groups
by the military, wrote about "our boys" eating packaged
army food, practicing for chemical weapons attacks, and bathing
out of buckets in the desert. It was war as spectacle, war as
entertainment. The images and stories were designed to make us
feel good about our nation, about ourselves. The Iraqi families
and soldiers being blown to bits by huge iron fragmentation bombs
just over the border in Iraq were faceless and nameless phantoms.
The notion that the press was used in
the war is incorrect The press wanted to be used. It saw itself
as part of the war effort. Most reporters sent to cover a war
don't really want to go near the fighting. They do not tell this
to their editors and indeed will moan and complain about restrictions.
The handful who actually head out into the held have a bitter
enmity with the hotel-room warriors. But even those who do go
out are guilty of distortion. For we not only believe the myth
of war and feed recklessly off of the drug but also embrace the
cause. We may do it with more skepticism. We certainly expose
more lies and misconceptions. But we believe. We all believe When
you stop believing you stop going to war.
Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, it was widely disseminated
that Iraqi soldiers removed hundreds of Kuwaiti babies from incubators
and left them to die on hospital floors. The story, when we arrived
in Kuwait and were able to check with doctors at the hospitals,
turned out to be false. But by then the tale had served its purpose.
The story came from a fifteen-year-old Kuwaiti who identified
herself only as "Nayirah" when she tearfully testified
before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October I0, 1990.
She said she had watched fifteen infants being taken from incubators
in the Al-Adan Hospital in Kuwait City by Iraqi soldiers who "left
the babies on the cold floor to die." Nayirah turned out
later to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United
States, Saud Nasir al-Sabah. She did not grant interviews after
the war and it was never established whether she was actually
in the country when the invasion took place.
It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed
as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort.
The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting
the cause. And some of the most important cheerleaders of the
cause are the reporters. This is true in nearly every war. During
the Gulf War, as in the weeks after the September attacks, communities
gathered for vigils and worship services. The enterprise of the
state became imbued with a religious aura. We, even those in the
press, spoke in the collective. And because we in modern society
have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state
to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the
state in times of war. The state and the institutions of state
become, for many, the center of worship in wartime. To expose
the holes in the myth is to court excommunication.
The moral certitude of the state in wartime is a kind of fundamentalism.
And this dangerous messianic brand of religion, one where self-doubt
is minimal, has come increasingly to color the modern world of
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
History is awash with beleaguered revolutionaries and lunatic
extremists who were endowed with enough luck and enough ruthlessness
to fill power vacuums. The danger is not that fundamentalism will
grow so much as that modern, secular society will wither. Already
mainstream Christianity, Judaism, and Islam lie defeated and emasculated
by the very forces that ironically turned them into tolerant,
open institutions. In the event of massive and repeated terrorist
strikes or an environmental catastrophe, an authoritarian state
church could rise ascendant within American democracy. The current
battle between us and our Islamic radical foes can only increase
the reach of these groups.
We did not fight the Persian Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, but
to ensure that we would continue to have cheap oil. But oil is
hardly a cause that will bring crowds into the street.
As in most conflicts, the [Gulf ] war, as presented to the public,
The prosecution of war entails Iying, often on a massive scale-something
most governments engage in but especially when under the duress
War celebrates only power-and we come to believe in wartime that
it is the only real form of power. It preys on our most primal
and savage impulses. It allows us to do what peacetime society
forbids or restrains us from doing. It allows us to kill. However
much soldiers regret killing once it is finished, however much
they spend their lives trying to cope with the experience, the
act itself, fueled by fear, excitement, the pull of the crowd,
and the god-like exhilaration of destroying, is often thrilling.
I have watched fighters in El Salvador,
Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Sudan, the Punjab, Iraq, Bosnia, and
Kosova enter villages, tense, exhausted, wary of ambushes, with
the fear and tension that comes from combat, and begin to shoot
at random. Flames soon lick up from houses. Discipline, if there
was any, disintegrates. Items are looted, civilians are battered
with rifle butts, units fall apart, and the violence directed
toward unarmed men, women, and children grows as it feeds on itself.
The eyes of the soldiers who carry this orgy of death are crazed.
They speak only in guttural shouts. They are high on the power
to spare lives or take them, the divine power to destroy. And
they are indeed, for a moment, gods swatting down powerless human
beings like flies. The lust for violence, the freedom to eradicate
the world around them, even human lives, is seductive. And the
line that divides us, who would like to see ourselves as civilized
and compassionate, from such communal barbarity is razor-thin.
In wartime it often seems to matter little where one came from
or how well-schooled and moral one was before the war began. The
frenzy of the crowd is overpowering.
There is among many who fight in war a sense of shame, one that
is made worse by the patriotic drivel used to justify the act
of killing in war. Those who seek meaning in patriotism do not
want to hear the truth of war, wary of bursting the bubble. The
tensions between those who were there and those who were not,
those who refuse to let go of the myth and those that know it
to be a lie feed into the dislocation and malaise after war. In
the end, neither side cares to speak to the other. The shame and
alienation of combat soldiers, coupled with the indifference to
the truth of war by those who were not there, reduces many societies
to silence. It seems better to forget.