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Don’t call it war -- it’s mass horror


William Tecumseh Sherman is credited with uttering the now-famous phrase “War is hell.” Like so many millions of men, women and children who experienced or witnessed warfare, the Union general had firsthand knowledge of the unspeakable evil of armed conflict. Unfortunately, Sherman’s apt observation no longer conveys the emotional impact of the horror and madness of war.

Because of the way wars have been historically packaged and delivered to the American public -- sanitized, embellished with romantic backstories, and neatly wrapped in a veneer of glory and patriotism -- this is hardly surprising. In the 20 years following World War II, our image of that monumental struggle was viewed largely in terms of John Wayne-type movies that sang the praises of young, confident soldiers, going off to war. The following generation of Amer-icans was treated to the heroics of Sylvester “Rambo” Stallone, a one-man wrecking crew who took on whole battalions of enemy soldiers and won.

“Saving Private Ryan” notwithstanding, even the best war movies do little more than trivialize the revulsion of armed conflict. You can’t smell burning flesh and rotting corpses in a movie theater. In his book Wartime, World War II combat veteran Paul Fussell offers some vivid examples of what one soldier noted was the “real war” that “will never get into the books.”

Starvation and thirst were so grave among prisoners of the Japanese and downed American pilots adrift on boats in the ocean that many went insane. Some resorted to drinking their own urine; others tried to bite the necks of comrades and suck the blood from their jugular veins.

In Berlin, during the final days of the war after the city had been bombed for years and overrun by Russian troops, approximately 50,000 children were found living like animals in destroyed buildings and holes in the ground. Some were “one-eyed or one-legged veterans of 7 or 8 or so”; many were “so deranged that they screamed at the sight of any uniform, even a Salvation Army one.”

The producers and actors involved in war movies, along with the politicians who send soldiers into battle, cannot or will not convey this horror, perhaps because so few of them have firsthand combat experience. Humanity would be well served if the word war was stricken from every language and replaced with “mass horror.” Military historian Victor Davis Hanson notes that for members of his profession to speak of war without vividly portraying the horrors of this enterprise “is a near criminal offense.” The failure of our leaders to inform citizens of potential casualties on both sides in a military intervention other than after we have been attack-ed should be a crime.

The post-Vietnam War generations are especially removed from the realities of war. This is due to an absence of American military intervention of any consequence until the Gulf War, and the severe restrictions placed on the news media during that conflict. Determined to avoid anti-Vietnam War type protests at home, the Pentagon limited coverage of the Gulf War to an ongoing stream of officers standing in front of maps pointing at targets.

There was little coverage of what happened when those targets were hit. In 1992 Beth Osborne Daponte, a statistician-demographer for the Census Bureau’s International Division, was given the routine assignment of updating the government’s population profile of Iraq. To complete her assignment, Daponte had to consider how many Iraqis were killed during the war. She estimated that 86,194 men (including 40,000 soldiers), 39,612 women, and 32,195 children had perished as a consequence of the hostilities. While an estimated 13,000 civilians died because “precision bombing” was less than precise, the majority fell victim to postwar outbreaks of waterborne diseases. The destruction of water purification and sewage treatment plants typically results in high death rates among children and the elderly, those age groups whose immune systems have not yet fully developed or are beginning to fail.

The first Bush administration tried unsuccessfully to fire Daponte and prevent her findings from being published. Some have argued that the killing of innocent civilians is an unavoidable cost of war. This may or may not be true. However, it is a separate issue from why the American public was not told the truth about the number and nature of Iraqi casualties in the first place.

Historian Howard Zinn reports that when asked if he knew how many Iraqis perished in the war, a Pentagon official replied: “To tell you the truth, we’re not really focusing on this question.” Little wonder, as the bodies of an estimated 300 to 500 mostly women and children “charred and mutilated beyond recognition” after their bomb shelter was destroyed doesn’t make for pleasant viewing on the nightly news.

All of this is hardly surprising, given the government’s later rendition of the conflict. A three-volume Pentagon report on the Gulf War does not even address the issue of Iraqi deaths.

Fighting the good fight is sometimes necessary, and our involvement in World Wars I and II are examples of conflicts that had to be fought and won, as does the current campaign against terrorism. The Vietnam War and the amount of firepower unleashed upon Iraqi cities in the Gulf War are less clear.

Before American forces are sent to kill and die in morally ambiguous conflicts, we should revisit the dead of previous wars. In June 1969, Life magazine published photos of the 242 Americans killed in action between May 28 and June 3 of that year. The entire nation saw the faces of a week’s worth of dead soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel. Newspapers across the country should publish photos of all the military men and women killed in the Vietnam and Gulf Wars in their area of readership. Televison stations should interview the wives, husbands, parents, children, brothers, and sisters of the dead whose hearts still ache over the loss of loved ones. It would be noble to hear from relatives of a few of the estimated 1.2 million Vietnamese soldiers and 2.4 million civilians killed during that lengthy conflict.

War is said to bring about the best in humanity as well as the most despicable qualities of our species. While the heroism, courage and self-sacrifice exhibited by countless soldiers in thousands of wars is indisputable, these noble deeds are overwhelmed by the suffering and misery inflicted upon hundreds of millions of people throughout history.

Sherman was right. War is hell. This is something we should all learn, and never forget.

George Bryjak is professor of sociology at the University of San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003