Ambivalence of War


"It is well that war is so terrible," Gen. Robert E. Lee said, "or else we might grow too fond of it."

"War is hell," Gen. William T. Sherman said to a graduating class of a military school.

So statements by the last of the Christian knights and the first of the 20th-century warriors (Sherman was ahead of his time) illustrate the ambivalence that war causes. It is, especially seen from a distance or through the sanitized lenses of America’s lap-dog television networks, an exciting adventure. It is the ultimate sport — the animal kingdom’s most ferocious predators locked in a struggle to the death. Brave young men risking all to fight for their country — or so they’ve been told, though the real reasons are usually quite different. It is a natural impulse to cheer for our side.

But as much as I love Lee and despise Sherman, Sherman was right. The glory of war is all moonshine. It is pure hell. That’s why the American networks censor, without even being told, the ugly images of war. That was the case when they decided not to air the pictures of dead Americans that Iraqi television made available and that were broadcast globally by Al-Jazeera, the independent Arab television network.

That was the wrong decision. It is not the job of journalists to protect the sensitivities of people or to participate in American propaganda. Those ugly pictures of young Americans, their faces mutilated by bullets and shrapnel, are the true face of war. That’s what war is: death, mutilation and destruction. Why hide from Americans what they wanted? The polls say 70 percent or more support war. Well, you should be willing to look at what you support — all of it, not just a censored, prettified version of it.

Yes, indeed, it is horribly hard on families who lose loved ones or see them taken into captivity by an enemy that we know is both dangerous and often brutal. That’s why I actively discouraged all three of my children from joining the military, even though I served in the Army. Politicians start wars, and I no longer trust American politicians to do the right thing. In fact, I’m 95 percent certain that a majority of them will do the wrong thing. They waste precious American lives and think they can get away with it by uttering that awful clich "our heart goes out to …" What the hell does that mean? Whether your heart goes out or stays in isn’t going to the ease the pain of loss, restore life or heal the mutilated. After you’ve sent young people to war, it’s too late to be sorry when they get killed.

In these Orwellian times, governments and corporations go to extraordinary lengths to disguise reality. Our ancestors were much more in touch with reality. They believed in capital punishment, but they didn’t hide it away in a prison. They had public executions, and people came out to see them. We should do that, too. We should always be willing to face what we want. That’s the only way we can learn if we truly do want it and are not just enamored of an abstract idea.

On the receiving end of our bombs and missiles is torn, bloody and burned flesh. But our military bureaucrats routinely refer to "packages of targets" or "sorties," as if human beings weren’t involved at all. It’s true that this time we are trying to avoid civilian residences and civilian facilities, but it is not out of any concern for the Iraqi people. We are doing so because this time we plan to occupy the country, and the fewer facilities destroyed, the fewer we have to rebuild. In Gulf War I, where no occupation was contemplated, we mercilessly bombed civilian areas and facilities and then boasted with an unbecoming smirk that we had "bombed Iraq back to the preindustrial age."

The best way to support the troops is to put pressure on the politicians to end this war and bring them home alive.

Note: Charley Reese is on medical leave. Until he returns, we will be running "The Best of Charley Reese."

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

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