War is hell

A combat veteran remembers

The early battles of the presidential campaign are now being waged, like a preemptive electoral crusade in which both sides promise to take no prisoners. Already we have been treated (or subjected) to a barrage of war talk, pitting a decorated-combat-veteran-turned-war-protester against a self-proclaimed war president without combat experience. Broadsides about John Kerry’s weakness on defense spending have been met by a counterfire of accusations that the Bush administration was asleep on its watch oblivious to pre-9/11 terrorist threats.

In steeling ourselves for the long rhetorical war that awaits us in deciding who is most worthy to be our commander in chief, we would do well to recall the words of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Having himself perpetrated an extraordinary amount of bloodshed and devastation, he warned all who might be given to bellicosity that “war is hell.”

Sherman prefaced that timeless observation by noting that “War is at best barbarism....Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation.” War is barbarism because it accomplishes nothing, at least nothing constructive or productive, that couldn’t be accomplished by other means. More to the point, war is moonshine because resorting to it signifies failure.

It is, first, a failure of diplomacy-the secretive, sweet-talking, arm-twisting dealmaking that politicians and career diplomats are supposed to be so good at, but frequently aren’t. It is a failure of intelligence, which-no matter how much money we throw at collecting and analyzing information on enemies, suspected and real-rarely predicts the conditions and events that precipitate war. War is a failure of imagination in effectively utilizing the many available instruments of foreign policy that offer alternatives to force. And it is a failure of strategic vision: an inability to discern underlying causes and unanticipated consequences, and an unwillingness to undertake preventive measures when they are needed.

When you’ve seen a comrade shot through the eye, and the back of his head blown off by an enemy bullet....When you’ve evacuated another, a ski instructor in regular life, whose legs have been blown off at the knee by a booby trap, and when you’ve visited him in the hospital but couldn’t recognize him because his body was swollen to twice its normal size...When you’ve taken an enemy soldier’s life and found a picture of his young wife and child in his pocket...When you’ve tended moaning wounded all night who couldn’t be evacuated because of enemy fire and the weather...When you’ve been trapped in the open by enemy mortar fire, and couldn’t find a place to hide...When you’ve lost your commander, the finest leader you’ve ever known, because his head was split open like a watermelon by the blade of a helicopter an inept pilot couldn’t control, and you’ve later offered feeble consolation to his widow and teenage son...When you’ve had a courageous comrade lose the use of his arm because friendly aircraft unloaded their ordnance too close to your position...When you’ve stood in front of your troops and tried reciting the names of their fallen comrades, without showing emotion...When you’ve had to write even one of those letters to the parents of a dead soldier that begins, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Jones, It is with deepest sorrow that I write to express my sympathy over the loss of your son...”

When you’ve endured thirst, hunger, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, loneliness, fear, anger, sorrow, and pain; brain-frying heat, bone-chilling cold, soaking rain, debilitating mud, and choking dust; contaminated water and cold rations; snakes, leeches, scorpions, and spiders; boils, dysentery, infection, and malaria; hostile fire and friendly fire...

When you’ve experienced such things, always for some higher cause that demands your unquestioning soldierly obedience despite-or because of-the frustrating ambiguity of the stakes involved...And then you consider that most politicians today who commit the nation to war have never donned a uniform or heard a shot fired in anger; that many of them assiduously avoided answering the call when it was their turn; that many of them, in turn, are among the most bellicose advocates of war...And then you consider that the same politicians, casually employing the duplicitous rhetoric of “national interest, national survival, clear and present danger, urgency, and necessity,” are only too willing to risk the lives of others for their own ulterior political motives...And then you consider that, in committing forces to war without a formal declaration, as they are wont to do, regularly undercut the Constitution the military is sworn to support and defend...

Then you know something about the barbarity and the stupidity of war. Too bad so many of us don’t get it.

Published in the 2004-04-09 issue: 

Gregory D. Foster, a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, Washington, D.C., is a West Point graduate and decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. The views expressed here are his own.

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