The emblems of war

March 19, 2003

TO THE CASUAL television viewer, modern war looks like a crosshair-framed view of smart bombs finding their targets, interspersed with tracers glowing green in the night, and maybe a squad of high-tech warriors pounding across the dunes.

War in person looks different.

A man lies in a corner of a semi-destroyed hospital, shot through the neck, gasping, dying. A widow rides with her extended family in a tractor cart down a dust road, away from danger, replaying in her mind the deaths of her husband and sons a few hours before. A doctor spends his days amputating the useless feet of landmine victims. Someone's severed head sits half-buried in the dirt. A soldier lies on the street, shot in the abdomen, while a small crowd gathers to watch him die.

A blood-soaked bandage drying on the ground, a foot left over from some massacre, human excrement in astonishing abundance - these are the real emblems of war.

Going to battle is an ancient human endeavor, yet for thousands of years the weapons were in some sense proportional to the warriors. Today, ordinary people wield enormously deadly technology. It's ingenious in its firepower, but it's not fastidious. It churns its targets into indecipherable mixtures of blood, dirt, rubble, pain and grief.

The American military is proud of its precision-guided munitions, and in fact these do go a long way toward reducing civilian casualties. In Kosovo and again in Afghanistan, it was clear to those on the ground that the missiles and bombs generally hit what they were aimed at - it was the choice of targets, sometimes, that was the problem. Of course innocent people were killed, but on nothing like the scale of the air raids of World War II.

And yet war is not and cannot be a finely tuned application of pressure. It's a blunt instrument, and its primary function is killing. Soldiers in the field don't weigh nuances, and they shouldn't be asked to.

Sometimes, in light of all this, war is the best option. Estimates suggest, for instance, that 3,000 civilians died in Afghanistan during the American campaign there. But if the Taliban had remained in power, there would by now be far more than 3,000 dead - killed in ethnic purges, in prison courtyards, on public gallows. Thousands more might have succumbed to starvation. And of course there's no telling what devastation an unmolested al-Qaida might have perpetrated. The war there saved lives.

Now America is plunging into a war in Iraq, and of all the consequences that flow from it some may be clearly positive - not least for the surviving Iraqis. But Americans would do well to remember at this moment that war is not a video game. It's a hell of fear and dismemberment, of cruelty and blindness, of sweat and death.

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