The war in Afghanistan—where the enemy is elusive and rarely seen, where the cultural and linguistic disconnect makes every trip outside the wire a visit to hostile territory, where it is clear that you are losing despite the vast industrial killing machine at your disposal—feeds the culture of atrocity. The fear and stress, the anger and hatred, reduce all Afghans to the enemy, and this includes women, children and the elderly. Civilians and combatants merge into one detested nameless, faceless mass. The psychological leap to murder is short. And murder happens every day in Afghanistan. It happens in drone strikes, artillery bombardments, airstrikes, missile attacks and the withering suppressing fire unleashed in villages from belt-fed machine guns.
Military attacks like these in civilian areas make discussions of human rights an absurdity. Robert Bales, a U.S. Army staff sergeant who allegedly killed 16 civilians in two Afghan villages, including nine children, is not an anomaly. To decry the butchery of this case and to defend the wars of occupation we wage is to know nothing about combat. We kill children nearly every day in Afghanistan. We do not usually kill them outside the structure of a military unit. If an American soldier had killed or wounded scores of civilians after the ignition of an improvised explosive device against his convoy, it would not have made the news. Units do not stick around to count their “collateral damage.” But the Afghans know. They hate us for the murderous rampages. They hate us for our hypocrisy.
The scale of our state-sponsored murder is masked from public view. Reporters who travel with military units and become psychologically part of the team spin out what the public and their military handlers want, mythic tales of heroism and valor. War is seen only through the lens of the occupiers. It is defended as a national virtue. This myth allows us to make sense of mayhem and death. It justifies what is usually nothing more than gross human cruelty, brutality 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 the impotence and ordinariness of our leaders. But in turning history into myth we transform random events into a sequence of events directed by a will greater than our own, one that is determined and preordained. We are elevated above the multitude. We march to nobility. But it is a lie. And it is a lie that combat veterans carry within them. It is why so many commit suicide.
“I, too, belong to this species,” J. Glenn Gray wrote of his experience in World War II. “I am ashamed not only of my own deeds, not only of my nation’s deeds, but of human deeds as well. I am ashamed to be a man.”
When Ernie Pyle, the famous World War II correspondent, was killed on the Pacific island of Ie Shima in 1945, a rough draft of a column was found on his body. He was preparing it for release upon the end of the war in Europe. He had done much to promote the myth of the warrior and the nobility of soldiering, but by the end he seemed to have tired of it all:
But there are many of the living who have burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.
Dead men by mass production—in one country after another—month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.
Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.
Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.
These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.
We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference.
There is a constant search in all wars 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 during the war in El Salvador the death squads and soldiers would cut off the genitals of those they killed and stuff them in the mouths of the corpses. This is why we reporters in Bosnia would find bodies crucified on the sides of barns or decapitated. This is why U.S. Marines have urinated on dead Taliban fighters. Those slain in combat are treated as trophies by their killers, turned into grotesque pieces of performance art. It happened in every war I covered.
“Force,” Simone Weil wrote, “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.”
War perverts and destroys you. It pushes you closer and closer to your own annihilation—spiritual, emotional and finally physical. It destroys the continuity of life, tearing apart all systems—economic, social, environmental and political—that sustain us as human beings. 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, can in the culture of war be self-destructive. The essence of war is death. Taste enough of war and you come to believe that the stoics were right: We will, in the end, all consume ourselves in a vast conflagration.
A World War II study determined that, after 60 days of continuous combat, 98 percent of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties. A common trait among the remaining 2 percent was a predisposition toward having “aggressive psychopathic personalities.” Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in his book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” notes: “It is not too far from the mark to observe that there is something about continuous, inescapable combat which will drive 98 percent of all men insane, and the other 2 percent were crazy when they go there.”
During the war in El Salvador, many soldiers served for three or four years or longer, as in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, until they psychologically or physically collapsed. In garrison towns, commanders banned the sale of sedatives because those drugs were abused by the troops. In that war, as in the wars in the Middle East, the emotionally and psychologically maimed were common. I once interviewed a 19-year-old Salvadoran army sergeant who had spent five years fighting and then suddenly lost his vision after his unit walked into a rebel ambush. The rebels killed 11 of his fellow soldiers in the firefight, including his closest friend. He was unable to see again until he was placed in an army hospital. “I have these horrible headaches,” he told me as he sat 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 mute or 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 is unleashed 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 highest pitch. 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.
In his memoir “Wartime,” about the partisan war in Yugoslavia, Milovan Djilas wrote of the enticement that 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 ascendant wipes out Eros. It wipes out delicacy and tenderness. Its communal power seeks to render the individual obsolete, to hand all passions, all choice, all voice to the crowd.
“The most important part of the individual life, which cannot be subsumed in communal life, is love,” Sebastian Haffner wrote in “Defying Hitler.” “So comradeship has its special weapons against love: smut. Every evening in bed, after the last patrol round, there was the ritual reciting of lewd songs and jokes. That is the hard and fast rule of male comradeship, and nothing is more mistaken than the widely held opinion that this is a safety valve for frustrated erotic or sexual feelings. These songs and jokes do not have an erotic, arousing effect. On the contrary, they make the act of love appear as unappetizing as possible. They treat it like digestion and defecation, and make it an object of ridicule. The men who recited rude songs and used coarse words for female body parts were in effect denying that they ever had tender feelings or had been in love, that they had ever made themselves attractive, behaved gently. ...”
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 after returning from Sarajevo.
Steele had come to understand the reality of his work, a reality that stripped away the self-righteous, high-octane gloss. When he was in Sarajevo he was “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,” he wrote. “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. This wiped me out. I grabbed the camera, and started running down Sniper’s Alley, filming at knee level the Bosnians running from place to place.”
A year after the end of 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. A few days earlier she had to identify his corpse. The body was lifted, water running out of the sides of a rotting coffin, from a small park for reburial in the central cemetery. Soon she would emigrate to Australia—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 have them fixed 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, those may have been the fullest days of their lives. They looked at me in despair. I had known them when hundreds of shells a day fell nearby, 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.
What they expressed was disillusionment with a sterile, futile and empty present. Peace had again exposed 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 a common struggle, no longer given the opportunity to be noble, heroic, no longer sure of what life was about or what it meant. The old comradeship, however false, 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. Ljiljana and the others faced a 70 percent unemployment rate. They depended on handouts from the international community. 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 visit during the cease-fires—acts that were almost always ones of gross self-promotion. They knew the lie of war, the mockery of their idealism, and struggled with their shattered illusions. And yet, they wished it all back, and I did, too.
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 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 at one point found myself pinned down in still another ambush. A young Palestinian 15 feet away was fatally shot through the chest. I had been lured back but now felt none of the old rush, just fear. It was time to break free, to let go. I knew it was over for me. I was lucky to get alive.
Kurt Schork—brilliant, courageous and driven—could not let go. He died in an ambush in Sierra Leone along with another friend of mine, Miguel Gil Moreno. His entrapment—his embrace of Thanatos, of the death instinct—was never mentioned in the sterile and antiseptic memorial service held for him in Washington, D.C. Everyone tiptoed around the issue. But those of us who had known him understood 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 Sarajevo’s Lion Cemetery, 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’ costs 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 4,000 war dead, that Kurt belonged. He died because he could not free himself from war. He had been 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 have been 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.