The Shame of War (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. I want to talk about soldiers. I don't want to use the words that fill the speeches of politicians when they want young men to go off to kill and be killed. I don't want to use the words that accompany the photos of coffins and folded flags handed to weeping widows. Those words, honor, bravery, courage, glory, devotion to nation, have been used for centuries to replace fear with pride in the anxious hearts of mothers and fathers. These words have been used by older men no longer able to jump from planes, to crawl through mud, to run up and down dark alleys, to encourage youngsters to dream of victory and triumph and comradeship and purpose, always heroic and of necessary purpose. These words are true enough, but like the blankets that cover the bodies on the field they hide more than they reveal. These words, with a southern drawl, with the flat sounds of farm boys or city kids or Italian or Irish immigrants, both North and South, were heard by the soldiers lining up to run into the fields at Gettysburg. Both sides were told that they were serving a great cause, a cause larger than the life of any one of them. These same words were said in cockney or public school or Antipodean accents, perhaps in Turkish, German or French, at Gallipoli where waves and waves of boys, lost their brains, lost their limbs, broke their knees, splintered like dried branches on the conflagration of the battlefield. Someone told the fellows at the Marne on both sides of the forest that they were splendid in their effort to defend their homeland, to kill to save their way of life. And there was honor at Normandy and the Ardennes and honor and pride at Iwo Jima and honor wherever soldiers of either side lay, as beetles and ants moved across their open wounds. Someone speaking at a funeral told the brother and the sister of the soldier killed in the jungles of Burma or Korea or Vietnam or the Congo that the coffin at their feet was inhabited by a boy of remarkable courage, an honorable boy. And, while all that rhetoric contains a brain-numbing truth and while the sacrifice of young life may now and forever be necessary in this evil world, I think we should use the right words to describe what has happened. Not the words that have dulled our minds with repetition and familiarity. It must be terrifying to climb into a tank. Terror is a word we should use. It must defy all human reason to move toward the enemy who stands with knife, bayonet or gun, ready to destroy you, the child who just a few years before built a fort in the sand, played with his toy trains and imagined he might grow wings and fly. It is humiliating to be dirty, to be hungry, to be angry, to lose a friend who was killed right near you. Humiliation is a word we should use. It is a soul-aching thing to break the commandment, thou shalt not kill. Yes, in these circumstances you must, you should, you will and you may have to kill or be killed but the right word for all this is not honor but human shame. Not the soldier's shame although he may feel it, but our shame at having allowed this, imagined it, planned it in comfortable rooms a great distance away from the battle itself. Shame is a word we should use. How did we let ourselves come to this? How did we allow all that rhetoric, my land, your land, my nation against your nation, my rights, my home, your home, my orchard, your orchard, my political creed, your political creed? How did we let this all result in the death of young men, the maiming of young men, the nightmare of war? Anne Roiphe is a novelist and journalist living in New York. Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.