I heard a lecture by an Army psychologist who contended that after 90 days of combat, the casualty rate was 98 percent. Those not wounded physically were wounded psychologically. The other 2 percent were psychopaths.
His passing remark about the psychopaths was interesting. A psychopath is a defective human being, almost a bionic robot. Psychopaths can be intelligent and manipulative, but they lack totally the capability of feeling any emotion for or attachment to other human beings. They are without conscience, without remorse, without regret, without compassion. They can feel rage when frustrated. They commit a lot of the crime and in prisons usually run the inmates.
A close friend who led a Ranger platoon in heavy fighting during World War II said the only member of his outfit who didn’t get a scratch was a psychopath, a convicted murderer paroled into the Army. This man loved to kill and often exposed himself to enemy fire just to hurl insults at the Germans. He and a Choctaw Indian would have long arguments over whether the knife or the hatchet was the best tool for killing a sentry. The psychopath favored the hatchet, using it to deliver a blow to the back of neck and sever the spinal cord.
War is both brutal and brutalizing, and so it is good to see that more and more Americans are beginning to realize the war in Iraq was a mistake. Wars are nearly always a mistake, because even if you win them, you lose so much. A man who ought to know, William Sherman, told some cadets that war is hell. Another combat veteran described it as being eye-deep in hell.
What we need to come to grips with is that war, as old as the human race, has become too dangerous to practice. Today we have people — not very different from people 5,000 years ago — who command weapons that can literally destroy life on Earth. History tells us that war corrupts even good people. It didn’t take long in World War II before the strategic-bombing advocates were saying cities needed to be carpet-bombed without regard for civilian casualties. That culminated in dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Those bombs were spitballs compared with the thermonuclear weapons in the arsenals today of the United States, Russia and China, as well as Great Britain, France, Israel and presumably Pakistan and India. In one real sense, these weapons prevented war, as neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union could figure out how to have a nuclear war and survive. Even so, there were some close calls.
Yet, so decisive is the weapon that those countries that have them are reluctant to give them up, and other countries that don’t have them want them. I’m not concerned about small countries, even such as North Korea. A few bombs will not threaten mankind. It is the large arsenals that can bring about extinction.
Wars, of course, are effects, not causes. Usually they are the effects of conflicts over land and resources and sometimes ideology or religion. Surely the destructiveness of war, in terms of both economic resources and human lives, should tell people that there must be a better way to settle conflicts. I fear, though, that it is like asking a cave man to negotiate with his neighbor rather than brain him with his stone ax. Technology has advanced tremendously; the human race is stuck with the same old human nature it has always had.
One can be cynical and say that since all humans must die, there is no point in worrying about the manner or timing of their deaths. I might agree if the human race consisted entirely of adults, but children deserve a chance to sample the joys of living, and modern warfare kills children as if they were nothing more than ants. We said, for public-relations purposes, that Hiroshima was a military target, but in fact there were only 43,000 soldiers there. The 300,000 civilians were nearly all women, children and old men.
I applauded the dropping of the bombs at the time, and if I had been Harry Truman, I probably would have made the same decision. That’s what I mean by war corrupting even good people. It forces them to make decisions they wouldn’t make in peacetime.
The real crime against humanity is war itself. Rather than charge soldiers with war crimes, the political leaders who start the wars should be put in the dock. Their decisions to go to war are the mother of all the crimes and cruelty that follow.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.