Speech Transcript

War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

Chris Hedges
Reporter, The New York Times

Thank you very much. It is really a pleasure to be here. There are several people here who were formidable in my own development. I’m a little intimidated to speak in front of a classicist like Zeph Stewart. He and Diane are here. Frank and Margo Lindsay. I told my son Thomas, who’s in the back, about who would be here. Frank’s life story, of course, was the most thrilling. Frank parachuted into Yugoslavia behind German lines in World War II and wrote a great book called Beacons in the Night, which is just a wonderful and very thoughtful read.

And then, of course, Krister and Britta. Krister was my adviser and dean emeritus of Harvard Divinity School. I took every course Krister taught, including “The Art of Preaching.” Despite my oratory award at Colgate, after my first class I got my notes back from Krister. At the bottom it said: “You have a very fine preaching voice — and you’re very proud of it.” So I will mumble at appropriate points so that nobody thinks that I have not been purged of the pride of my preaching voice.

As I speak to you today, our nation prepares for war. Within a short time, young Americans and Iraqis will begin to die. There appears to be nothing any of us who oppose this war can do. The French and the Germans — remember these nations are our allies — warn us to halt this accelerating slide towards war. They warn us that there is no link between Iraq and those who carried out the crimes against humanity that took place on 9/11. They warn us that, unless we have credible evidence that Iraq intends to use weapons of mass destruction against us, intends to threaten our citizens and our nation, we have no right to wage war.

They warn us that we have squandered the good will, the empathy the world felt for us after 9/11, folding in on ourselves, building not a broad coalition but a kind of troika against terror with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, two leaders who do not shrink in Palestine or Chechnya from carrying out acts of gratuitous and senseless violence.

Censure and Rage

They warn us that we will suffer the censure and perhaps the rage of much of the world — certainly one-fifth of the world’s population, which is Muslim, most of whom I will remind you are not Arab — if we do not build rather than shatter alliances. They warn us that real injustices — the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the brutal and corrupt dictatorships we fund and arm in Egypt and Saudi Arabia — mean we will not get rid of the extremists who hate us with bombs. Indeed, we will swell their ranks.

They warn us, and we do not listen. We listen now only to ourselves, staring into the pond to see our own reflection and in that effort blinding ourselves. They warn us that war would be wrong just when the U.N. inspection teams are producing results. The French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin reminds us that Washington has now moved from talk of inspections to talk of war, to talk of remodeling the entire Middle East. That Washington no longer cares to discuss peace and France will veto a resolution in the United Nations that allows us to resort to force.

France said today that the new ideas in the proposed second resolution offered up by the United States did not address the key issue of seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis and that the French government rejected the logic of ultimatums. So the dogs of war — without the backing of the United Nations and without the support of our allies and most of the world community — will be unleashed. I come to you tonight to warn you that once the dogs of war are unleashed, we will not control them. War has a force and power of its own. It is a Pandora’s box. Once this box is opened, we become pawns. Events we do not expect or anticipate spiral out of control.

The blunt and horrible instrument of war is not like surgery, although with the talk of removing Saddam Hussein, it is often portrayed as a simple surgical procedure. The massive industrial slaughter of modern war pushes us closer towards our own destruction. And sadly, when our friends warn us about our folly, we ridicule them. We make jokes on late-night shows about French culture. The things said to insult the French are nothing short of racist. But racism is always the flip side of nationalism. It is why nationalism and the blind patriotism that comes with it, in my mind, are a disease. So listen to those jokes about the French and tremble for our own myopia and desire for self-destruction.

The Poison of War

War is a poison. It is poison that, at times, we must ingest just as a cancer patient must ingest a poison to survive. But if we do not understand the poison of war, if we do not know how deadly that poison is, it can kill us just as surely as the disease.

Tonight I want to speak of our security, not in ways you hear from the Bush White House — led by men who, with the exception of Colin Powell, have not been to war — but from the perspective of someone who has too intimate a knowledge of war.

I should have been immune to the siren call of war. When my family visited museums, my father, a World War II veteran who became a Presbyterian minister following the war, always steered us away from the ordered displays of weapons. The VFW hall in Schoharie, the small town in upstate New York where I grew up, was a spot where men gathered to drink. For us who lived in a manse where there was no alcohol, it might as well as have been an opium den.

When these paunchy veterans sauntered with their caps in the July 4 parade, my father watched them with disdain. He turned to me when I was about 10 during one of the parades and said: “Always remember most of those guys were fixing trucks in the rear.” During Vietnam when I was Thomas’ age, he told me that if the war was still being fought when I was 18 and I was drafted, he would go to prison with me. To this day, I have an image of sitting in a jail cell with my dad.

But war is where I ended up. I began covering the insurgencies in El Salvador where I spent five years. Then I went to Guatemala and Nicaragua and Colombia, through the first intifada in the West Bank in Gaza, the civil war in the Sudan and Yemen, the uprisings in Algeria and the Punjab, the fall of the Romanian dictator Nikolai Ceausescu, the Gulf War, the Kurdish rebellion in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq, the war in Bosnia and finally to Kosovo.

Painful Memories

I have been in ambushes on desolate stretches of Central American roads, shot at in the marshes of southern Iraq, imprisoned in the Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured and held prisoner for a week by the Iraqi Republican Guard during the Shiite rebellion following the Gulf War, strafed by MIG-21s in Bosnia, fired upon by Serb snipers and shelled for days on end in Sarajevo with deafening rounds of heavy artillery that threw out thousands of deadly bits of iron fragments. I’ve seen too much of violent death. I have tasted too much of my own fear. I have painful memories that lie buried and untouched most of the time. It is never easy when they surface.

I went as an idealist, as a young man who spent his teenage years reading books on the Holocaust and the Spanish Civil War. I was a young man who dreamed of an epic battle against evil that could fill his own life. I thought I would find this in the battles in Latin America two decades ago when military regimes in Argentina, Chile and El Salvador tortured and murdered dissidents and ruthlessly crushed all popular dissent. I left seminary to go to El Salvador and in that decision, plunged myself into the culture of war.

We have, I believe, lost touch with the essence of war. Following our defeat in Vietnam, we became a better nation. We were humbled, even humiliated. We asked questions about ourselves we had not asked before. We were forced to see ourselves as others saw us. The sight was not always a pretty one. We were forced to confront our own capacity for atrocity, for evil. In this we understood not only war, but more about ourselves. But that humility is gone.

The good name of war has been resurrected. It began under President Reagan in Grenada and Panama and culminated with the Persian Gulf War, where we came to believe war was fun — another form of entertainment. We believe we can wage war and it can be cost-free. We believe — in the same way that doomed empires at the end of the 19th century believed — that our military technology makes us invulnerable.

A Vast Video-Arcade Game

War, we have come believe, is a spectator sport. The military and the press — and remember, in wartime the press is almost always a part of the problem — have turned war into a vast video-arcade game. Its very essence, death, is hidden from public view. There was no more candor in the Persian Gulf War or the war in Afghanistan. There will be no more candor in the upcoming war with Iraq than there was in Vietnam. But in the age of live feeds and satellite television, the state and the military has affected the appearance of candor. Because we no longer understand war, no longer understand that it all can go horribly wrong. We no longer understand that war begins by calling for the annihilation of others but ends — if we do not know when to make or maintain peace — with self-annihilation.

We flirt, given the potency of modern industrial weapons, with our own destruction. We do so not for the vaunted war on terror but for America’s right to control the world’s oil supply, for what a senior administration official told The New York Times a few days ago were “the spoils of war.” If this was a war on terror, we would be attacking North Korea, a nation that has at least two or three nuclear weapons and 5,000 tons of poison gas and germs, plus the missiles and artillery to deliver them to Seoul, the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, all of Japan and U.S. bases in Okinawa and Guam.

But we do not attack North Korea, which is also trying to build an ICBM to deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. We tried to buy them off with $4 billion in oil, food and nuclear reactors. We plead. We cajole. We turn our backs on the problem — a problem that, like al Qaeda, I believe, is a far more serious and real crisis. We turn our backs for a war that is about American empire.

The seduction of wars is insidious because so much of what we are told about is true: It does create a feeling of comradeship which obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time in our life, feel that we belong. War allows us to rise above our small stations in life. We find nobility in a cause and feelings of selflessness, even bliss. At a time of soaring deficits and financial scandals and the very deterioration of our domestic fabric, war is a fine diversion.

War’s Dark Beauty

War, for those who enter into combat, has a dark beauty filled with the monstrous and the grotesque. The Bible calls it “a lust of the eye” and warns believers against it. War gives us a distorted sense of self. It gives us meaning. Once in war, the conflict obliterates the past and the future. All is one heady, intoxicating present. You feel every heartbeat in war. Colors are brighter. Your mind races ahead of itself. You are aware in ways you never were before. War is Zen. They do tell you this and this is not a lie.

Moreover, war allows you to engage is lusts and passions you kept hidden in the deepest, most private interiors of your fantasy life. It allows you to destroy not only things but human beings. In that moment of wholesale destruction, you feel the power of the divine, the power to revoke another person’s charter to live on this Earth.

The frenzy of this destruction — and when unit discipline breaks down or there was no unit discipline to begin with frenzy is the right word — sees armed bands become consumed and crazed by the poisonous elixir that our power to bring about the obliteration of others always brings. All things, including human beings, become objects — objects to either gratify or destroy or both. Almost no one is immune. The contagion of the crowd sees to that.

“Force,” Simone Weil writes, “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.” Once we are in the middle of conflict, the shallowness of much of our lives becomes apparent. The emptiness of a society that seeks fulfillment in the acquisition of things and wealth and power pushes us to peer into our own hollowness. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. The purpose of war is enticing. It gives us a resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.

Those who have the least meaning in their lives — the impoverished Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of youth in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world — are all susceptible to war’s appeal. I do not miss war, but I miss what it brought. I could never say I was happy in the fighting in El Salvador or Bosnia or Kosovo, but I had a sense of purpose. This is a quality war shares with love, for we are also able to choose fealty and self-sacrifice over security for those we love.

Search for Happiness

This is why war, at its inception, always looks and feels like love — the chief emotion war destroys. We are tempted, maybe even encouraged, to reduce life to a simple search for happiness. Happiness, however, withers if there is no meaning. The other temptation is to disavow the search for happiness in order to be faithful to that which provides meaning. But to live only for meaning, indifferent to all happiness, makes us fanatic, self-righteous and cold. It leaves us cut off from our own humanity and the humanity of others.

The ancient Greeks understood the perverse attraction between love and death in wartime. When Achilles killed Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons, in the Trojan War, he falls in love with her as she expires on the battlefield. He murders love. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, had an illicit affair with Ares, the god of war, who was hated by nearly all the other gods with the exception of the god of the underworld, to whom he steadily brought new souls.

I want to talk to you about an emotion we will all soon feel when we go to war and that is comradeship. I want to warn you not to confuse this with friendship, with love. There are those who will insist that the comradeship of war is love. The ecstatic glow that makes us in war feel as one people, as one entity, is real. But this is part of war’s intoxication. Think back on the days after the attacks on 9/11. Suddenly we no longer felt alone. We connected with strangers, even with people we did not like. We felt that we belonged — that we were somehow wrapped in the embrace of the nation, the community. In short, we no longer felt alienated.

As this feeling dissipated in the weeks after the attack, there was a kind of nostalgia for its warm glow. Wartime always brings with it this comradeship. We think this is love, this is friendship. But it is the very opposite.

Friendship vs. Comradeship

Friends, as J. Glenn Gray points out in his book “The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle,” are predetermined. Friendship takes place between men and women who possess an intellectual and emotional affinity for each other. Many of us will admit that we never really had a friend, and even the most fortunate of us have very few. But comradeship, that ecstatic bliss that comes with belonging to the crowd in wartime, is within our reach. We can all have comrades.

The danger, the external threat that comes when we have an enemy, does not create friendship. It creates comradeship. Those in wartime, just as those who live through danger and trial as a group, are deceived about what they are undergoing. This is why, once the war ends, once the period of trial is over, these comrades once again become strangers to us. This is why, after war, we fall into such despair. In fact, comradeship is the very opposite of friendship.

In friendship, there is a deepening of our sense of self. We become, through the friend, more aware of who we are and what we are about. We find ourselves in the eyes of the friend. Friends probe and question and challenge each other to make each more complete. They draw the secrets out of each other and know finally that inner core of being that makes us all special.

In comradeship, the kind that comes to us in patriotic fervor, there is a complete suppression of self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-possession. Comrades seek to lose their identities in wartime for the collective rush of a common cause, the common purpose. They are like erotic lovers.

In comradeship, life is ecstatic and corporate as opposed to friendship, where life is singular and individual. In comradeship, there are no demands on the self. This is part of its appeal and one of the reasons we miss it and seek to recreate it. Comradeship allows us to escape the demands on the self that is part of friendship. This is why, once the war is over, once the danger that links us together is passed, these feelings are extinguished.

Noble Self-Sacrifice

In wartime, when we feel threatened — and I notice our attorney general is doing his best to make us feel threatened often — we no longer face death alone but as a group. This makes death easier to bear. We are noble, self-sacrifice for the other, for the comrade. In short, we begin to worship death. And this is what the god of war demands from us.

Think, finally, of what it means to die for a friend. It is deliberate and painful. There is no ecstasy. For friends, dying is hard and bitter. The dialogue they have and cherish will perhaps never be recreated. Friends do not, the way comrades do, love death and sacrifice. To friends the prospect of death is frightening. This is why friendship, or let me say love, is the most potent enemy of war.

I will speak more about this later, but I want to make this distinction now for it is important to remind you that war is about, at its core, death, and to show you the seductive ways war calls upon us to embrace death.

We do not see — in the images of war in films and novels and the mythic narratives the government and the press spins out for you — what war is like. War is carefully packaged the way tobacco or liquor companies package their own poisons. The titillation is there, although it is given a coherency and logic it rarely has in battle. We taste a bit of war’s exhilaration in the images that are safe. In this safety, we are fooled into believing that we can control war instead of the awful fact that war always controls and ultimately, if we do not get out, destroys us.

We can thrill in the perversity of war, even as we watch films or read books that are meant to denounce war. It is almost impossible to produce antiwar films or books or documentaries that also present images of battle. It is like trying to condemn pornography while showing erotic love scenes. The prurient fascination with violent death always overpowers the message.

Obsessed with Death

There’s a film by Rene Clement, the French filmmaker, called “Les Jeux Interdits” or “Forbidden Games.” It is about two children who play war games in World War II in France. They bury things. They become obsessed with death. But there is only one scene right at the beginning when they are fleeing with a column of French refugees and are attacked by German planes. The little girl’s parents are killed, and she is told they have been buried in the ground. She thinks repeatedly of her mother and father, now under the earth. The boy and the orphan girl are shown in a village. All they do is bury dolls, dead bugs, animals, until they have to create corpses to bury. Their lives, their focus, their actions are concerned only with death.

This is one of the best insights into the brutalizing effect of war — what it does to culture, to children and to civilization. Death is inherent to war. Yet we are sadly unaware of how war distorts us, how it brings out within us the morbid, the brutal, the macabre. We embrace, instead, the abstract words of glory, honor, courage and patriotism that mask the reality of war. War is part of the modern industrial landscape. Indeed, its tools are often the cutting edges of technology.

Modern society created industrial warfare in World War I. It created ways in which thousands of people who never saw their attackers could die in an instant. Weapons that carry out this impersonal mass slaughter are beautiful. They are crafted, sleek and harbor within them awesome power. The machines of war — the planes, the tanks, the heavy machine guns, the huge hulking Howitzers and the helicopters — are pieces of art. I have seen them at work. They are angels of death streaking through the sky.

I was once with a unit of guerillas in El Salvador when some Huey helicopters raced in over a lake to hunt us down. We hid in the ruins of an abandoned village, darting from wall to wall and standing with our backs to the shattered bricks so our hunters could not see us as they passed low overhead. Even then, as I looked up at these machines that were trying to kill me, I found them seductive.

Empowering Others to Kill

We are the biggest dealer of war on the planet. We sell more arms abroad than all of the other countries in the world combined. We sell these weapons to be used, to empower others to kill. We promise the users victory or the flip side: the death and defeat of their enemies.

Once these weapons are acquired, once a state or an ethnic group feels emboldened with these weapons, they must then manufacture war itself, manufacture the need for war. We make the tools and many times we make the war. The chief institutions that peddle war are the state and the press. Nearly every war correspondent 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 a mission.

The blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the ruthless murder 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 was in Vietnam, does the media begin to report in a sensory rather than a mythic manner. It simply reacts to a public that has changed it perception of war. Newspaper and television-station owners have always found that mythic war reporting sells papers and boosts ratings — look at CNN. Real reporting does not. The coverage in the Persian Gulf was typical.

The international press willingly administered a restrictive pool system on behalf of the military, one that saw a handful of reporters escorted by officers among the troops. These pools filed reports to the bulk of the press, who sat rewriting the stories or sharing the pool video in hotel rooms. In the management of the war, the press parroted back to you lie after lie after lie.

Think back, for those of you who remember, what images you were fed during the Persian Gulf War. From the coverage you would believe that we used precision-guided weapons to hit specific targets, take out planes and Iraqi Scud missiles. But this use of precision-guided weaponry was only a tiny percentage, two or four percent of the ordnance dropped on Iraq.

In the Front Line

I was with Marines in the front line. I went into Kuwait with them. Night after night I watched huge fireballs shoot up from the Iraqi lines where Vietnam War-era B-52 bombers were dropping hundreds of thousands of pounds of iron fragmentation bombs all over southern Iraq. And I was in southern Iraq after the war, where perhaps as many as 85,000 Iraqi civilians were killed.

I saw the devastation that destroyed water-purification plants; wrecked roads, bridges, factories, power stations and buildings. This was not the perception handed to us by the press. No one was there to report it, just as there were no reporters allowed to cover the return of our own dead to Dover Air Force Base, because those who wage war today do not want you to see what war is and what war is about because you might think twice about waging it — not that any of this is new in wartime.

“The first casualty, when war comes,” wrote [U.S.] Sen. Hiram Johnson [R-Calif.] in 1917, “is truth.” When Iraqi troops seized the Saudi border town of Khafji sending Saudi soldiers fleeing out in a panic, the flight was covered up. Two French photographers and I watched as frantic Saudi soldiers raced away from the fighting. Dozen crowded on a fire truck that tore down the road. U.S. Marines were called in to push the Iraqis back. We stood on rooftops with young Marine radio operators who called in air strikes as units fought their way through the streets under heavy fire.

Yet back in Riyadh and Tehran, the world was told of our gallant Saudi allies who were defending their homeland. The press bus stopped a few miles down the road, allowed the pool television reporters to do standups with the distant sound of artillery and smoke as a backdrop for the lie the Pentagon wanted told.

Once in a conflict, once we live in the midst of fighting, we are moved from the abstract to the real, from the mythic to the sensory. No soldier after 30 seconds of combat believes in the myth of war anymore. This is why wounded Marines threw their bedpans at John Wayne when he visited them in a hospital in World War II.

Potent Narcotic

When this move takes place, we have nothing to do with a world at war. The world, when we return to it, is viewed from the end of a very long tunnel. There, they still believe. There, they do not understand. We feel different, wiser, greater. This experience is so overpowering that, if we can control our fear, we can go back to seek it out again. War is addictive. Indeed, it is the most potent narcotic invented by humankind.

The first time I was in an ambush was in the Salvadoran town of Suchitoto. It was a dreary peasant outpost made up of stucco and mud-walled huts off the main road. The town was surrounded by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels who, when I arrived in El Salvador in 1983, were winning the war. The government forces kept a small garrison in the town, although its relief columns were regularly ambushed as they ambled down the small strip of asphalt surrounded by high grass. It was one of the most dangerous spots in El Salvador.

The rebels launched an attack to take the town. A convoy of reporters in cars marked with “TV” in masking tape on the windshields hightailed it to the small bridge that led to the lonely stretch of road into Suchitoto. We stopped for the familiar ritual of getting high, something as a print reporter who could scramble to safety I did not do. But it was something the photographers who would stand and take pictures found a necessary balm to their nerves.

Then we moved slowly down the road, the odd round fired ahead or behind us. We made it to the edge of town where we ran into rebel units, now accustomed to the follies of the press. On foot we moved through the deserted streets. The firing from the garrison became louder as we weaved our way with rebel units to the siege that had been set up.

Then, as I rounded a corner, several full bursts of automatic fire rent the air. Bullets hit the mud wall behind me. We dove into the dirt. The rebels I was with began to fire noisy rounds from their M-16 assault rifles. The acrid scent of cordite filled the air. The rebels around me were wounded and crying out in pain. One died yelling out in a sad cadence for his mother, his desperate and final plea cut through the absurd posturing of soldiering. At first, it haunted me. Soon, I just wished he would be quiet. “Mama!” … “Mama!” … “Mama!”

Sensory War

The firefight seemed to go on for an eternity. I cannot say how long I lay there. It could have been a few minutes. It could have been an hour. Here was war — real war, sensory war, not the war of the movie and novels I had consumed in my youth. It was horrifying, confusing, numbing and nothing like the myth I had been peddled. I realized at once that it controlled me. I would never control it.

In a lull, I made a dash across an empty square to find shelter behind a house. My heart was racing. Adrenaline coursed through my bloodstream. I was safe. I made it back to the capital. Like most war correspondents, I soon considered the experience a great cosmic joke. I drank away the fear in a seedy bar in downtown San Salvador that night.

Most people, after such an experience, would learn to stay away. I was hooked. Drawn into the world of war, it becomes hard to escape. It perverts and destroys you. It pushes you closer and closer to your own annihilation — spiritual, emotional and finally physical.

I covered the war in El Salvador from 1983 to 1988. By the end, I had a nervous twitch in my face. I was evacuated three times by the U.S. Embassy because of tips that the death squads planned to kill me. Yet each time, I came back. I accepted with a grim fatalism that I would be killed in El Salvador. I could not articulate why I accepted my own destruction and cannot now. There came to be a part of me, maybe it is a part of all of us, which decided I would rather die like this than go back to the dull routine.

When I finally did leave, my last act was, in a frenzy of rage and anguish, to leap over the KLM counter in the airport in Costa Rica because of a perceived slight by a hapless airline clerk. I beat him to the floor as his bewildered colleagues locked themselves in the back room behind the counter. Blood streamed down my face from where he thrust his pen into my cheek. War’s sickness had become mine.

Grim Embrace

During the war in El Salvador, I worked with a photographer who covered the war, had a slew of close calls and then called it quits. He moved to Miami and took pictures of tepid domestic stories for one of the news weeklies. But life in Florida was flat, dull, uninteresting. He could not adjust, and he soon came back.

From the moment he stepped off the plane, it was clear he had returned to die. Just as there are some soldiers or war correspondents that seem to us immortal and whose loss comes as a sobering reminder that death has no favorites, there are also those in a war who are locked in a grim embrace with death from which they cannot escape. It was frightening to behold a walking corpse. He was shot through the back in a firefight and died in less than a minute.

Sigmund Freud divided the forces in human nature between the Eros instinct — the impulse within us that propels us to become close to others, to preserve and conserve — and the Thanatos or death instinct — the impulse that works towards the annihilation of all living things including ourselves. For Freud, these forces were in eternal conflict. He was therefore pessimistic about ever eradicating war. All human history, he argued in “Civilization and Its Discontents,” is a tug of war between these two instincts. Taste enough of a war and you come to believe the stoics were right: “We will, in the end, all consume ourselves in a vast conflagration.”

There is a constant search in war to find new perversities, new forms of death when the initial flush fades, a rear guard and finally futile effort to ward off the boredom of routine death. This is why we would drive into towns in Bosnia and find bodies crucified on the sides of barns or decapitated, mutilated. That is why those slain in combat are treated as trophies belonging to the killers, turned into grotesque pieces of performance art.

I know soldiers that, to this day, carry in their wallets the identity cards of men they know they killed. They take them everywhere. They show them to you with the imploring look of a lost child. They will never understand.

The Job of Killing

The job of killing allows our senses to command our bodies. The killing whips fighters into greater orgies of destruction. Hedonism and perversion spirals out of control. Those who worked hard all their lives are reviled as dupes and fools. They haunt the soup kitchens. The loyalty they express to the state or to the institutions they worked for has left them beggars. They collect pensions, when they are paid, that amount to a few dollars. The normal order is turned upside down. Decency, sobriety, honesty and moderation no longer pay. Better to give yourself up to the lust of war.

In war, we 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 and to defend love can be self-destructive. Shakespeare shows this in Anthony and Cleopatra, as he does in the final defeat of Coriolanus. Anthony embraces love and passion and loses empire. Like Dido, by giving himself up to love, he dooms himself and cuts his life short.

In the rise to power, we always become smaller. Power absorbs us, and once power is obtained we are its pawn. As in Shakespeare’s Richard III, the all-powerful prince who molded the world, we swiftly fall prey to the forces we thought we had harnessed. Shakespeare’s Lear and Richard II gain knowledge only as they are pushed down the ladder, as they are stripped of all illusions. Love may not always triumph, but it keeps us human. It offers the only chance to escape from the contagion of war. Perhaps it is the only antidote. And there are times when remaining human is the only victory possible.

Psychiatric Casualties

When the mask of war slips away and the rot and corruption is uncovered, when it turns sour and rank, when the myth is exposed as a fraud, we feel soiled and spent. It is then that we sink into despair.

In the Arab-Israeli 1973 war, almost a third of all Israeli casualties were due to psychiatric causes — and the war lasted only a few days. A World War II study determined that, after 60 days of continuous combat, 98 percent of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties. They found that a common trait among the 2 percent who were able to endure sustained combat was a predisposition toward aggressive psychopathic personalities.

During the war in El Salvador, soldiers could serve in the army for three or four years or longer, virtually until they psychologically or physically collapsed. In garrison towns, commanders ban the sale of sedatives because of the abuse by troops. In the war, the emotionally maimed were common.

I once interviewed a 19-year-old Salvadoran Army sergeant who had spent five years fighting and suddenly lost his vision after his unit walked into a rebel ambush. The rebels killed 11 soldiers in the firefight, including his closest friend. A couple dozen soldiers were wounded. He was unable to see again until he was placed in the army hospital. “I have these horrible headaches,” he told me, sitting on the edge of his bed. “There is shrapnel in my head. I keep telling the doctors to take it out.” But the doctors told me that he had no head wounds.

I saw other soldiers in other conflicts go deaf or stop speaking or simply shake without being able to stop. War is necrophilia. This necrophilia is central to soldiering, just as it is central to the makeup of suicide bombers and terrorists. The necrophilia is hidden under platitudes about duty or comradeship. It waits especially in moments when we seem to have little to live for and no hope, or in moments when the intoxication of war is at its pitch to be unleashed. When we spend long enough in war, it comes to us as a kind of release, a fatal and seductive embrace that can consummate the long flirtation with our own destruction.

Exalted Moment

In Milovan Djilas’ memoir of the partisan war in Yugoslavia, he wrote of the enticement death held for the combatants. He stood over the body of his comrade, the commander Sava Kovacevic, and found dying did not seem terrible or unjust.

“This was the most extraordinary, the most exalted moment of my life. Death did not seem strange or undesirable. That I restrained myself from charging blindly into the fray and death was perhaps due to my sense of obligation to the troops or to some comrade’s reminder concerning the tasks at hand. In my memory, I returned to those moments many times with the same feeling of intimacy with death and desire for it while I was in prison, especially during my first incarceration.”

War’s ascendant wipes out Eros. It wipes out delicacy and tenderness. This is why those in wars swing from rank sentimentality to perversion with little in between — stray puppies, street kids, cats, anything that could be an object of affection for soldiers or adopted and pampered even in the midst of killing, the beating and torture of prisoners, or the razing of villages.

If the pets die, they are buried with elaborate rituals and little grave markers. But it is not love, although the soldiers would say it feels like love. These animals, as well as the young waifs that collect around military units, are total dependents. They pay homage to the absolute power above them. When we see this, when we see our addiction for what it is, when we understand ourselves and how war has perverted us, life becomes hard to bear.

Jon Steele, a cameraman who spent years in war zones, had a nervous breakdown in a crowded Heathrow Airport in 1994 after returning from Sarajevo. He understood the realty of his work, a reality that stripped away the self-righteous, high-octane gloss.

Final Image

“I came back from Sarajevo,” he said in an interview in [the Israeli newspaper] Ha’aretz. “We were in a place called Sniper’s Alley, and I filmed a girl there who had been hit in the neck by a sniper’s bullet. I filmed her in the ambulance, and only after she was dead, I suddenly understood that the last thing she had seen was the reflection of the lens of the camera I was holding in front of her face. This wiped me out. I grabbed the camera, and I started running down Sniper’s Alley, filming at knee level the Bosnians running from place to place.”

A year after the war in Sarajevo, I sat with Bosnian friends who had suffered horribly. A young woman, Ljiljana, had lost her father, a Serb, who refused to join the besieging Serb forces around the city. She had been forced a few days earlier to identify his corpse. The body was lifted, the water running out of the sides of a rotting coffin, from a small park for reburial in the central cemetery.

She was emigrating for Australia soon — where, she told me, “I will marry a man who has never heard of this war and raise children that will be told nothing about it, nothing about the country I am from.” Ljiljana was young. But the war had exacted a toll. Her cheeks were hollow, her hair dry and brittle. Her teeth were decayed and some had broken into jagged bits. She had no money for a dentist. She hoped to fix them in Australia.

Yet all she and her friends did that afternoon was lament the days when they lived in fear and hunger, emaciated, targeted by Serb gunners on the heights above. They did not wish back the suffering. And yet, they admitted, these may have been the fullest days of their lives. They looked at me in despair. I knew them when they were being pounded by hundreds of shells a day, when they had no water to bathe in or wash their clothes, when they huddled in unheated flats as sniper bullets hit the walls outside. But what they expressed was real.

Futile and Empty Present

It was the disillusionment with a sterile, futile and empty present. Peace had again peeled back the void that the rush of war, of battle, had filled. Once again they were — as perhaps we all are — alone, no longer bound by that common sense of struggle, no longer given the opportunity to be noble, heroic, no longer sure what life was about or what it meant. The old comradeship, however false, that allowed them to love men and women they hardly knew — indeed, whom they may not have liked before the war — had vanished with the last shot. Moreover, they had seen that all the sacrifice had been for naught.

They had been, as we all are in war, betrayed. The corrupt old Communist Party bosses, who became nationalists overnight and got them into the mess in the first place, had grown rich off their suffering and were still in power. There was a 70-percent unemployment rate. They depended on handouts from the international community.

They knew the lie of war, the mockery of their idealism, and struggled with their shattered illusions. They understood that their cause, once as fashionable in certain intellectual circles as they were themselves, lay forgotten. No longer did actors, politicians and artists scramble to come and visit during the ceasefires — acts that were almost always ones of gross self-promotion. And yet they wished it all back. I did, too.

A year later, I received a Christmas card. It was signed “Ljiljana from Australia.” It had no return address. I never heard from her again. But many of those I worked with as war correspondents during the past 20 years did not escape. They could not break free from the dance with death. They wandered from conflict to conflict, seeking always one more hit.

By then, I was back in Gaza and found myself pinned down in another ambush. A young Palestinian 15 feet away was shot through the chest and killed. I had been lured back but now felt none of the old rush, just fear. It was time to break free, to let go, to accept that none of this would or could or should come back. I knew then that it was over. I was lucky to get out alive.

Embrace of Thanatos

Kurt Schork — brilliant, courageous and driven — could not let go. He died in an ambush in May 2000 in Sierra Leone along with another friend, Miguel Gil Morano. His entrapment — his embrace of Thanatos, of the death instinct — was never mentioned at the sterile and antiseptic memorial service staged for him in Washington. Everyone tiptoed around it. But for those of us who knew him, we understood that he had been consumed.

I had worked with Kurt for 10 years, starting in northern Iraq. Literate, funny — it seems the brave are often funny. He and I passed books back and forth in our struggle to make sense of the madness around us. His loss is a hole that will never be filled. His ashes were placed in the Lion’s Cemetery in Sarajevo for the victims of the war. I flew to Sarajevo and met the British filmmaker Dan Reed. It was an overcast November day. We stood over the grave and downed a pint of whiskey. Dan lit a candle. I recited a poem the Roman lyric poet, Catullus, had written to honor his dead brother.

By strangers’ coasts and waters, many days at sea,
I come here for the rites of your unworlding,
Bringing for you, the dead, these last gifts of the living
And my words — vain sounds for the man of dust.
Alas, my brother,
You have been taken from me. You have been taken from me,
By cold chance turned a shadow, and my pain.
Here are the foods of the old ceremony, appointed
Long ago for the starvelings under the earth:
Take them: your brother’s tears have made them wet; and take
Into eternity my hail and my farewell.

It was there, among a few thousand war dead, that Kurt belonged. He died because he could not free himself from war. He was trying to replicate what he had found in Sarajevo, but he could not. War could never be new again. Kurt had been in East Timor and Chechnya. Sierra Leone, I was sure, meant nothing to him. Kurt and Miguel could not let go. They would be the first to admit it.

Spend long enough at war, and you cannot fit in anywhere else. It finally kills you. It is not a new story. It starts out like love, but it is death. War is the beautiful young nymph in the fairy tale that, when kissed, exhales the vapors of the underworld.

The ancient Greeks had a word for such a fate: ekpyrosis. It means to be consumed by a ball of fire. They used it to describe heroes.

Thank you.