In the ’80s, the young man was with the IPKF in Sri Lanka. He tells a story of when he was on patrol, walking through a forest north of Jaffna. Suddenly, he was face-to-face with two even younger LTTE soldiers. “What did you do?” we asked. “What could I do?” he said simply. “I shot them before they could shoot me.”
Something about hearing these matter-of-fact words — in the confines of a comfortable Bombay flat, surrounded by the car horns and random shouts of city life — was utterly chilling. In another time, another place, the three actors in this little drama might have rubbed shoulders at a showing of Arzoo, might have watched the World Cup together. As your own children, your brothers and sisters, might have done.
But this was war in Sri Lanka. So a fresh-faced young man killed two barely adolescent girls before they could kill him.
That’s war, they say. No place for hesitation, for sentiment. No place, may I add, for dignity. For where is the dignity when a not-yet-man must shoot two not-quite-women? What is this but inhumanity?
The profoundest truth about war is surely that it so dehumanizes us. It turns everything we know and cherish about ourselves, our notions of civility and civilization, into so much blood-spattered tripe. Certainly there are Hitlers to be defeated. But the nitty-gritty of war, the minute-by-minute drudgery soldiers endure, the devastation it brings to our lives — these make war the greatest negation of humanity we have ever devised. This is why the most compelling war reporting is, and will remain, about the suffering it causes: it forces us to look at the beast within.
Real dignity is in ending war altogether. We may never get there, but in that ideal lies true humanity.
Self-styled realists, the hawks, will scoff at this. War is too often a necessity, they bluster. Because they see it that way, they must wrap the conduct of war in more bluster: the honour of battle, the glory of fighting for flag and country. We need such rhetoric, for otherwise the sheer bloody reality of war would keep every sane young man from becoming a soldier. And even with those stirring phrases, other incentives are necessary. The Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer’s book War reproduces a painting of dozens of soldiers hanging from a tree. He comments: “[P]ublic mass executions … were used to terrorize the soldier into accepting the brutality, boredom and misery of life in the army.”
No, I cannot see the dignity in “terrorizing” already frightened young men into “brutality, boredom and misery.” When their own possible execution is used to whip them into battle, and this is for glory of country, something is horribly skewed. This is not glory, this is shame.
There is more shame in how we consider civilians during war. We worry that today’s wars increasingly target those who do not fight. But war has always gone after civilians: from Kosovo refugees in 1999, to the massacre of villagers by American GIs in My-Lai in 1968, all the way back to the 2nd Century BC, when Rome ploughed salt into Carthage’s soil to starve its people for their enmity during the Punic Wars.
It makes sense, too. Those who wage war look for efficient ways to win. What’s more efficient than pounding the softest, the most vulnerable sections of the enemy? “Rape, massacre … were not regrettable byproducts of the fighting,” Mark Danner reports from Kosovo in the New York Review of Books, “but actions intrinsic to achieving the Serbs’ territorial objectives.” Indeed, the ugly side of every war is that women are raped, children butchered.
And why should it not be so? It is a perverse code of conduct that says only men who volunteer — too often, boys who are rounded up — can be in the firing line. When nations make war, each population learns to hate the other: we make no distinction between soldier and civilian, man and woman. Why must it be different on the frontline?
When we willingly accept the obscenity of war itself, why the squeamishness about civilians being assaulted?
I cannot see the dignity in pretending that civilians must somehow not be harmed in times of war. When we wage war, let us at least acknowledge that its inhuman logic consumes us all. Let that recognition guide the stories the media tells about war. Perhaps we will then comprehend the horror of it; perhaps we will then work to put an end to it.
In the famous Vietnam photograph, a child runs down a road, mouth open in a scream of terror that you can almost hear. She is fleeing from a US napalm attack on her village, buried under an ominous black cloud in the background. She is naked.
When I first saw this photograph, I was a teenager, grown up on the romance of war. I treasured my book about Japan’s magnificent Zero fighter, my copy of Cornelius Ryan’s The Last Battle. I remember well how this one image turned romance sour. I remember thinking: this girl is not nude, she is naked. The difference matters. The horror that had stripped her of her clothes also stripped war of every pretension I had imbued it with. This was war, naked to the world. Naked to this one teenager.
And clear as every sad crease on that skinny girl was, the truth about war was clearer still: it is a brutal, voracious monster.
In A Rumour of War, the Vietnam correspondent Philip Caputo describes hordes of miserable refugees trying to escape “the sounds of bombs and shellfire, the guttural rumbling of the beast, war, devouring its victims.” It is that rumbling you sense behind the naked girl, and you know: there is no dignity here. The rhetoric is designed to hide this truth: there is no dignity in war. There may be right and wrong, and war may even be essential to the human experience.
But when we give it dignity, we pretend.