Monday, July 30, 2007

The cruelty of war

If you roam the blogosphere at all, you have encountered this story, or at least the controversy about it. The remarkable thing is that anyone finds it remarkable.

I can understand why soldiers in Iraq might be offended if the stories Beauchamp tells turn out not be true. He makes other soldiers -- and himself -- look bad for no good reason. And I can understand why certain people just want to bash The New Republic. That's an entertaining thing to do.

But the idea that soldiers do mean things in wars is hardly news. Military history is full of the banal cruelty of war. Even under the best of circumstances, putting young men together under stress is likely to have coarse consequences. Just go to a rugby practice or cowboy bar. Give 20-year-olds superior firepower, and most anything could happen. That is no slur on soldiers, unless it is a slur to say that soldiers are human beings.

In "Goodbye to All That," Robert Graves describes moving with a bunch of soldiers during World War I through a trench past a soldier who had been buried so deep under an artillery shell that only one hand remained visible. As the soldiers passed by, each shook the hand in turn.

Now, Graves was a humane and erudite man. And the British Army is among the most disciplined and "civilized" in the world. Yet in Graves' memoirs, this grotesque act (imagine the response if rescue workers at a mining accident did such a thing) seems perfectly understandable and, yes, even funny. War does peculiar things to people.

That's one reason why using wars to pursue diplomatic aims so often backfires. Armies are good at breaking things, but not very good at putting them back together again.

And that may be why so many pro-war bloggers with no personal stake in the truth or falsity of The New Republic's claims have taken such offense. Having been wrong so long about how this war would turn out, they take every cruel detail as an affront.

The odd thing is that so many of those appalled by these stories are among those who think the war should be even crueler. We should loosen rules of engagement. We should torture prisoners. We should expand the war to Iran. Such actions inevitably expand the number of war stories that people like Scott Thomas Beauchamp tell.

War tests to its limits our capacity for civilized behavior. If we can't accept the consequences of pushing those limits, we have no business fighting wars.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dave, I must say WELCOME ABOARD! I'm glad that you're now doing lots of anti-THIS ABSURD-war stuff. For I remember a time not all that long ago when I had to plead with you to run a letter that I had written. (remember that one?) You were afraid that it might offend the pro-war, rahrah crowd. Well, if MORE people had been a little more critical right at the very begining, we might have been able to save the country of Iraq AND 3,600 American lives from devastation by a psycopathic imbecile named Bush! But keep hammering away. The sooner we get out, the better, BEFORE the idiot/preseident invades even MORE countries! And p.s. I recieved an e-mail regarding that particular letter from the head of the VFW in Texas about a month or so after it appeared in your paper. Seems that he actually READ IT at the statewide convention there! (seems that he agreed with what I had to say) I kid you not! And he told me about it. It got quite a reaction. Dead, stunned silence. I was quite proud of that e-mail. Can you even imagine? My letter read at the VFW convention in Bush's home state!


Larry Kralj, Environmental Rangers!

Get It Over With said...

“The odd thing is that so many of those appalled by these stories are among those who think the war should be even crueler.”

I am not appalled. And I do not think the war should be crueler. I am disappointed because I think the war should be bigger.

We need to incinerate all those Islamo-fascists in a flash of light. It’s the humane thing to do. Over the next several decades, we’re going to have to kill all or most of them anyway, so we might as well use the technology we have and get it over with quickly and cheaply. This will also reduce the number of personal war stories coming back from the war zone, since the whole war will be completely depersonalized.

“War tests to its limits our capacity for civilized behavior.”

Ha. You’re kidding. What do you think war is, an ice cream social?

Mark T said...

Conservatives go from denial that Americans are committing atrocities to acceptance of it as normal in the time it takes to cite the Pledge of Allegiance.