Glossing over war's gruesome truth

January 21, 2003|By George J. Bryjak

SAN DIEGO - 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 - if, in fact, it ever did.

Because of the way wars have been historically packaged and delivered to the American public - sanitized, embellished with romantic stories and neatly wrapped in a veneer of glory and patriotism - this is hardly surprising.

In the 20 years after 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 next generation of Americans 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 celebrated work Wartime, World War II combat veteran Paul Fussell offers some vivid examples of 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 at sea 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, about 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 first-hand 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 abominations 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 attacked should be made a crime.

Fighting the good fight is sometimes necessary, and our involvement in the two world wars is an example of conflicts that had to be fought and won, as is the current campaign against terrorism. The Vietnam War and the amount of firepower unleashed upon Iraqi cities in the Persian 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. Television 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 J. Bryjak is a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego.

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