War is a different universe

January 19, 2012


Nearly 30 years ago, Greg told me how it was, cutting the ears off dead men.

I had sought out Vietnam veterans to interview for a story about a pop song that was inspired by the war — “19” by Paul Hardcastle. Greg gave me an earful.

He explained how it is when the skin rots right off your foot. How it is when children are rigged to explode, so your first instinct is to shoot them when they come running up to you. How it is when the sight of an Asian face or the sound of a helicopter is enough to flash you from city streets to Vietnamese jungles. How it is living haunted days and nightmare nights, craving suicide, but lacking “the guts.” And, yes, how it is that guys used to collect the ears from dead enemy soldiers as souvenirs, sometimes stringing them together and wearing them like grisly necklaces.

I think of Greg whenever it is time to pass judgment on the things soldiers do.

As it happens, much of the nation is now passing judgment on something a group of Marines did. In a video that has sparked international outrage, four of them are seen apparently urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. The White House is embarrassed, there is speculation this will derail peace talks with the Taliban, and the four Marines are being both defended and reviled by the usual media and political figures. 

Here’s a newspaper editorial bemoaning the damage to U.S. interests. Here’s a radio pundit saying she would gladly do as the Marines did. Here’s the White House calling the video deplorable. Here’s a presidential candidate reminding us these Marines were kids, not criminals.

But with Greg in mind, I can say only this: Your average, well-adjusted person does not go about with a necklace made of body parts, nor urinate on corpses nor otherwise desecrate the bodies of the dead — even the dead and reviled. Your average well-adjusted person would be repelled by the thought.

The point being, war is a different universe. What seems normal there is appalling here. It is not too much to say that war is a form of madness.

This is not to suggest those Marines ought not be criticized — not only for doing an awful thing, but also, frankly, for being dumb enough to allow it to be recorded and posted online. It is not to suggest the government ought not be chagrined or that the rest of us should not be asking the White House pointed questions about indiscipline in the ranks — especially given that this comes in the wake of multiple scandals involving military mistreatment of enemy combatants, including the debacle at Abu Ghraib. It is not to suggest military service is a moral “Get Out Of Jail Free” card.

No, this is only to suggest that our judgment be tempered by a recognition that these people have been in a place where the rules are different, that not every wound you carry out of such places is visible, and that in their way, the invisible wounds may be the costliest ones. 

Greg spoke to me in a voice I can still hear all too clearly: whisper soft and matter of fact as he recounted atrocities committed upon enemy soldiers — and the consequent degradation of his own soul.

I suspect he’d see this video as a reminder: War maims the body, yes. But it brutalizes conscience, too.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


Fred Whitehead Jr. 6 years, 3 months ago

I think that if most any of us who were in the Vietnam War were present, we would have joined in. All the phony anguish and hand wringing is simply fodder for the 24 hour news cycle dolts to digest and use to sell soap and bluejeans. General Sherman said "War is Hell" and to thoue of you who have never bothered to serve or participate in combat operations, you have no right or reason to offer your lame opinions. You votred for the nutcases that got us into this war and now you want to [prosecute those you sent to be killed and maimed by these terrorists who are killing their own people.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 3 months ago

I really feel for one man I know, the nicest man you could imagine. But he can't hold a job for very long for reasons that he can't explain.

The most tragic thing is that just about every night, for hours sometimes, he walks back and forth in his house, still doing his guard duty in Vietnam.

ThePilgrim 6 years, 3 months ago

War is Hell. And if it is not seen as Hell, our politicians will continue to commit young lives, blood, and treasure on stupid international peacekeeping and nation building. And assisting political protesters who are being persecuted against...wait, I mean Libyan rebels in a civil war...wait, no that it isn't it...

We should wage war like it is Hell. Bomb our enemy into the stone age. After all, admit it - war is designed to rack up as many casualties until one side capitulates.

That is the way it was in WWII - German cities were bombed (and Germany bombed British cities). There were no smart bombs, and targets were blown to smithereens, including the citizens in the cities and manufacturing plants. Power plants and water treatment plants were even bombed. And even as recently as Kosovo, Clinton bombed the bridges and a major water treatment plant on the river, cutting off clean water to Serbians and flooding the river with waste.

But we have smart bombs. We like to pretend that war is some sterile environment, we can minimize casualties, and somehow it is all nicey nicey and civilized. But it is not. Two or three civilians get bombed as collateral damage and they show it on the international news. Our soldiers come home in caskets to Dover. And people are somehow horrified and surprised.

War is Hell. And if it is not seen as Hell, it leads to more war.

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