Yesterday on this page, my colleague Aubrey Henretty considered the symbolic and psychological effects of material damage in the American-Iraqi war. Her points were important ones: The buildings we destroy are metaphysical extensions of the people we are seeking to “liberate,” and can at times be as psychologically devastating to a defending soldier as the death of a comrade in another battle.
But nothing – nothing – is more fundamental to appreciating the sobering effects of war than a tempered and objective understanding of the destruction of individual life.
When we wage war we are not waging war on an army, but on a collection of individuals. An army is an arbitrary, political body; the individual’s body – her flesh and blood and mind and spirit – is unconditionally sacred. So when we listen to the news broadcasts and read the papers, we must be careful not to allow ourselves to be pacified by the benign language and convenient euphemisms that make war more palatable to a skeptical American public.
From less than five minutes of CNN’s broadcast early Tuesday morning: “The Brits took a combat fatality there today … The city is in some kind of humanitarian crisis … At the risk of harming civilians … More evidence of fierce shelling, involving Marines … We had good results on this mission. It’s the start of grinding down one of the key Republican Guard divisions …”
Think. What does “grinding down” entail on the micro level? A lot of blood and ruptured flesh and suffering. CNN, of course, is not in a position where it can describe the horrific personal experiences of our enemies, or increasingly our own soldiers, without sickening and alienating its audience. I would argue though, that unless Osama bin Laden was correct in his estimation that Americans haven’t the stomach for war, news outlets have an obligation to honestly report the horrible reality of war. Many of my friends in the peace camp, and many friends who are vehemently pro-war, have told me that they have a hard time even hearing those relatively gentle reports. I ask them to watch and read and take it all in, and seek out more detailed descriptions of our army’s actions: This is what our country is doing and this is what war means. Regardless of how you feel about the war, understand that the destruction of individual life is its necessary component.
The major media outlets have realized that their audiences may not have the “stomach for war.” But if Americans do not really want to see what our armies are doing in the desert, then Americans do not really want to support President Bush and his means of disarming Iraq.
And “good results?” Good results in war are a tricky thing to gauge. I had hoped, and now believe, that our nation’s military is making an earnest effort to strike precisely and to avoid civilian casualties. Thus far it seems as if that effort has been moderately successful. But the distinction between a civilian Iraqi life and that of an Iraqi “soldier” is frighteningly arbitrary, and is created for the sake of justifying the violence that necessarily accompanies warfare. And as we near Baghdad and face increased paramilitary and guerrilla opposition, doesn’t the distinction between one of Saddam’s foot soldiers and an anti-American nationalist become dangerously blurred?
I watched one of CNN’s correspondents tell a story of the American cavalry division with which he is embedded, in which the division returned fire on a civilian home because an Iraqi soldier or paramilitary resistor fired upon their tanks from inside the house. The result was the house’s destruction, and the death of its inhabitants, which included two Iraqi children. Iraq reports that there have been 78 civilian deaths, and though I do not trust the information reported by the Iraqi government, I sense that if the number isn’t that high yet it certainly will be before our conquest of Baghdad is complete.
The horror of war – the deliberate infliction of pain, suffering and death upon other human beings – is happening in Iraq. Our media is sugarcoating it, as our media tends to do. The Pentagon and others have observed that the overwhelmingly comprehensive coverage that the war receives highlights the minute, and fails to offer a larger context to this captive American audience. And while they are correct in their observation, it is important to realize that every shot fired, every injury and casualty suffered and every instance of material or human destruction is vital to appreciating and understanding what our army is accomplishing in Iraq. That said, American needs to take ownership of this war and the destruction of life that accompanies it.
Horn can be reached at email@example.com.