War as a Meteor

W.J. Astore

A great book on the brutality of war and its aftershocks is Scott Anderson’s Triage (Scribner, 1998).  Anderson, a war journalist and author, captures the inhumanity of war as well as its lingering effects on war veterans themselves and the people in their lives.

One particular passage in Triage captures the intrinsic nature of war in a way that all proponents of war as politics should ponder.  The passage deals with the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, but it could refer to almost any war at any time:

To Joaquin, the war had hurtled down on Spain like a meteor–unforeseeable, a bad coincidence of nature–and even before those first tremors subsided, even before that first hysteria of bloodletting had spent itself, already the brutal and the daring had found their moment, had begun creeping out from their lairs to take over the land. And because decent men never act as quickly as tyrants, the decent of both sides were soon dispensed with. And because cruelty has always been man’s most awesome weapon–capable of shocking entire nations, entire peoples, into submission–the spoils of victory went to those who showed mercy the least, who knew cruelty the best.”

Yes, war unleashes cruelty and brutality, giving free rein to tyrants of all sorts.  What’s amazing is how infrequently this truth is captured in America media and especially in Hollywood movies about war, which celebrate heroism even when they bother to showcase how brutal war can be (see, for example, “Saving Private Ryan” or “Lone Survivor“).

This is not to say that war is always wrong; only that war is rarely noble.  Even when the cause is just, the means are cruel and despicable.

In a country made by war, Americans would do well to remember this.

The Dreadfulness of War

Confederate dead at Antietam, 1862, photo by Alexander Gardner (National Park Service)
Confederate dead at Antietam, 1862, photo by Alexander Gardner (National Park Service)

In our media and our culture today, there’s an unfortunate tendency to see military service as uniquely efficacious and ennobling, and to see war as necessary and even to view it as antiseptic (notably our so-called “surgical” drone strikes).

But real war is dirty.  It’s as likely to infect us, to spread sepsis through our bodies and souls, as it is to ennoble us by calling forth sacrifice.

This dark reality is captured in this quotation by the cultural critic Louis Menand:

War is specially terrible not because it destroys human beings, who can be destroyed in plenty of other ways, but because it turns human beings into destroyers.

Think here of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales in Afghanistan, who plead guilty to the premeditated murder of sixteen Afghan civilians.  Think here of the atrocities committed by American troops in Vietnam, harrowingly documented in Nick Turse’s recent book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (2013).

The point is not to condemn American troops, who generally serve honorably under challenging, even horrendous, conditions.  The point is to condemn war.

War warps.  War corrupts.  War murders.  It warps men’s souls, corrupts their morals, murders their innocence.

Let’s never forget the dreadfulness of war.

W.J. Astore