I recently watched the HBO TV show Generation Kill (based on a great book by Evan Wright) about a group of US marines in Iraq. It is a really good show (although the language and violence will be hard for many to stomach) and it made me think of how effectively visual and written media have made war for the general public and why this does not seem to stem public enthusiasm for such ventures.
(Incidentally, it is interesting that a TV show, albeit one based on a true story and on true characters, can so effectively portray reality using the medium and tools of fiction.)
You will get plenty of people opposed to the NATO attack on Libya for example, but their objections are not rooted in the terrible human consequences of the conflict. Instead it becomes a matter of protecting ‘African sovereignty’ and ‘resisting neo-imperialism’.
If NATO troops were actually on the ground, many would feverishly hope the war would drag on forever so that it can vindicate their own intellectual flights of fancy.
But Generation Kill shows that theories and concepts break down once you have men trying desperately to kill each other in combat.
There are always two wars going on- the verbal one where people pontificate and theorize and the real one on the ground where men fight and die.
But war itself- even one that is morally right- can never really be sane, even though the arguments for and against it might be so.
It exists on a completely different plane. Even someone like me who is mildly sympathetic to the air strikes on Libya can barely contemplate what such actions entail.
Michael Herr’s book Dispatches about his experiences in Vietnam also shows that war is such an alien and unreal environment, it may as well be occurring on a different planet. Right and wrong doesn’t hold much meaning in the fog of war.
It is such a drastic, overwhelming event that it creates its own bubble of insanity and makes many other things meaningless.
War is humanity pushed to the edge and trying desperately not to look down. And yet, war is sometimes a necessity and a moral imperative. How does one reconcile those opposing viewpoints?
But war also creates its own absurdity that is almost comic if the events were not so deadly serious. During the Vietnam War, Americans soldiers were prevented from writing vulgar words onto the bombs they were loading onto their fighter planes.
The top brass had little problem with bombing people, but bizarrely it drew the line at writing offensive words on those very weapons of destruction.
Meanwhile as Generation kill shows, killing civilians is excusable but an unruly moustache on a soldier is not permissible under any circumstances.
Dexter Filkin’s book The forever war (tracing his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan) shows how ultimately the insanity of war swallows everything, even the most powerful symbols of healing and normalcy.
In one chilling passage, the author recounts how an Iraqi suicide bomber uses an ambulance to deliver his deadly cargo to a group of American soldiers and passing civilians.
It is a terrifying reversal of the norm but in a warzone, it achieves something approaching normalcy.
Once you are not dealing with reality as we know it anymore, what do you use to make sense of such situations? It is a question few can really answer.