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The Nature of War

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Warriors exist in a world totally incomprehensible to those who have never known war. For the apathetic and for those who trumpet and champion war’s necessity from a safe distance choosing not to fight in war themselves, war is a distraction – bleak, dire and unpleasant – from their consumer driven lives, better left for others and for other peoples’ children to fight. For many who oppose the war, it is murder declared by incompetent and deceitful politicians, to be prosecuted by soldiers who, it is hoped, would recognize the crime and refuse to become instruments of slaughter.

Whatever their point of view regarding the war, however, all sides proclaim their patriotism and allege to sincerely support and appreciate the sacrifices and efforts of the troops. With the occasional news report from the war zone, however, alleging an incident of barbarism and atrocity prosecuted by American troops, all morally sensitive human beings, regardless of their political ideology or position on the war, are understandably annoyed and righteously appalled by such an affront to the national conscience. In response, all other concerns and priorities lessen in importance. The apathetic and the supporters of the war set aside their patriotic duty to go shopping and their concerns regarding Brittany Spears’ fitness to maintain custody of her children. War’s opponents, while bolstered in their determination to end war and make the world a better place in which to live, recognize the importance of holding soldiers responsible for their actions. Confronting the incivility of war, though an unpleasant distraction, provides a welcomed opportunity for all to publicly reiterate their individual or America’s collective commitment to justice and virtue. With an appropriate air of moral ascendancy, the apathetic, the opponents, and the supporters of war, find common ground in dutifully judging and appropriately condemning and punishing, however reluctantly, as required by law and morality, those “depraved” individuals who dare tarnish the reputation of this great nation by violating the laws of god and of man.

Though I think it is clear to most, it bears noting that despite “lucrative” enlistment bonuses (some of which soldiers will be required to pay back should they become a casualty and unable to complete their tour of duty in the war zone), promises of job training, and money for college, members of the military are not mercenaries. Private contractors are “professionals,” who know war and seek it out either for the money or because they find war’s brutality, cruelty, and control over life and death exciting and empowering. Many, perhaps even most, young men and women who enlist in the armed forces in this time of war generally accept military service as a patriotic duty and the cause they soon will be fighting for in Iraq as just, necessary, and worthy of sacrifice. Perhaps they may even believe, however naively, that their political leaders are sincere and principled men and women and that, in fighting their war, they will be doing moral things for a moral nation. It is precisely this idealism, this naiveté, that morally differentiates, first, the soldier-warrior’s behavior from that of the mercenary and, second, how we view and morally evaluate the actions of each.

Though thoroughly indoctrinated – what the military terms “motivated” – during basic training/boot camp with a fanciful and unrealistic view of heroism, glory, and war, soldiers, at least soldiers living and dying as warriors, when confronted with the reality and horror of demythologized war, lose, rather quickly, the illusion of flag and country. Patriotic sentiments, political ideologies, and mythologies fade quickly beneath the deafening screams of the unbearable pain of the mutilated and the dying. What remains is a profound love of comrade and a desire for survival.

What the uninitiated and the unaffected – civilians and non-warrior members of the military – fail to realize is that war is a brutish endeavor in which barbarism and inhumanity becomes the norm rather than the exception. Further, they fail to understand that war, especially counter insurgency/guerilla war, is, by its very nature, cruel and inhumane. The battlefield is a wild place, a place of predator and prey. Consequently, barbarism and atrocity in such an environment is neither aberrant nor deviant. Nor is it the result of moral weakness or depravity. Rather, it is the reality of war, the inevitable consequence of confronting morally untenable conditions, what Jay Lifton describes as “atrocity-producing situations,” orchestrated by those who know little of the nature and realities of war and care less about its negative impact upon impressionable young men and women. To those struggling to survive the next improvised explosive device or suicide bomber, everyday living is a netherworld of horror and insanity in which life loses all meaning. As an inevitable consequence of war’s dehumanization and desensitization to death and destruction, judgments of right and wrong – morality – quickly become irrelevant and brutality and atrocity a primal response to an overwhelming threat of annihilation. Life amid the violence, death, horror, trauma, anxiety, and fatigue of war erodes our moral being, undoes character, and reduces decent men and women to savages capable of incredible cruelty that would never have been possible before being sacrificed to war.

While supporters and non supporters of the war discuss and debate the complexities and applicability of the Geneva Convention and military rules of engagement from the safe and sane environment of their judicial chambers, offices, classrooms, and cocktail parties, the soldier-warriors desperately struggle to stay alive and to ensure that their comrades do as well in a brutal and insane world bent upon their destruction. So, if she fails to meet your moral standards of appropriate behavior on the battlefield or weigh in on the debate to your satisfaction, please be tolerant and understanding as she has more fundamental and basic concerns to occupy her mind. For the soldier-warrior, the politics and rhetoric of such esoteric considerations are as distant and as irrelevant as whether Brittany Spears maintains custody of her children or whether the world becomes a utopian paradise. So, whether you support or oppose the war, or can care less, know that the war itself is the crime. Moreover, if you are truly concerned with justice, America’s moral integrity, and the well being of the troops, know that they chose not to be murderers, but patriots, and that they kill, not for money or empowerment, but for survival. Finally, please know that all who become tainted by war are its victims and if there is to be condemnation and punishment, let it begin with those whose apathy, blind allegiance, or idealism hamper their ability to understand and appreciate the nature of war.

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Camillo "Mac" Bica, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, a long-time activist for peace and justice, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the coordinator of the Long Island Chapter of Veterans for Peace. His books include "Beyond PTSD: The Moral (more...)

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