War is Hell, But It’s Also War

April 08, 2011

Multiple Pages
War is Hell, But It’s Also War

The US has another public-relations nightmare on its hands in Afghanistan. One would think a war lasting over a decade with no plausible end in sight would be enough of a PR disaster.

This month’s issue of Rolling Stone magazine published numerous photos of American soldiers posed with and in the act of mutilating dead bodies. This followed a similar expose in Der Spiegel a week prior.

In addition to the photographs are firsthand accounts of stomach-churning depravity. Not least of the sickening details are that the targets were both quite young and possibly quite innocent.

Though I am as disgusted by these things as the next person, I am not at all surprised.

I am old enough to know that this was to be entirely expected. Once upon a time, when men were men, women were women, courtesy was courtesy, decorum was decorum, intelligence was intelligence, success was success, failure was failure, and war was war, people knew what to expect from each. Today all those definitions have been jumbled. We are shocked—shocked, I tell you—by the results.

Especially in the case of armed conflict. Sadly, these are precisely the things one should anticipate in wartime.

They have happened before. Many think that such acts didn’t happen because they aren’t shown in the classic propaganda films every month on TCM. Think again.

During World War II (and World War I, and probably as long as there have been wars), soldiers have taken war trophies. Much more often than one would like to think, these have been in the form of body parts.

“It’s long past time people remembered what the word ‘war’ really means.”

For any disbelievers, here is a little ditty from the poet Winfield Townley Scott. It’s called “The US Sailor with the Japanese Skull” and relates the technique for preserving such souvenirs.

Lest one think this was an isolated practice, Edward L. Jones, a war correspondent for Atlantic Magazine in the Pacific, wrote in February 1946: “We boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter-openers.”

For more personal convincing, look in the local newspaper for the estate auction of any man who served as a soldier in the Far East during the 1930-1945 period of conflict. If you attend half a dozen of them I assure you that you will find a human skull among the detritus of a life lived through war.

One need not confine himself to seeking skulls. Any number of desktop artifacts or general curiosities were made from enemy soldiers’ body parts. President Roosevelt himself was reportedly given a letter-opener made from a Japanese soldier’s arm bone. (To his credit, it was said that he asked it be given a proper burial.) Gold teeth were another popular item to bring home.

Similar monstrosities were perpetrated on a monumental scale, even by the so-called “Greatest Generation.” These are given short shrift or ignored by most elegiacs.

There was Dresden, which was a wooden holding pen of women, children, and the infirm, which the Americans and Brits burned to a crisp. (Henceforth, the Slavs would be warned never to send old women and orphans against the mighty Anglo forces once the war was over. On the flip side, the Soviets proved themselves rightful inheritors to Ivan the Terrible during their months-long rape spree throughout Berlin.)

There was more sordid business in Germany after the war. Good ol’ “Ike” (who may or may not have had Patton murdered, but probably did) decided it would be a good idea for millions of German POWs to do without food. Moreover, he ordered “shoot to kill” on wives and children who tried to sneak the starving men something to eat through the barbed wire after dark. He even denied them the relief parcels sent by the Red Cross! To this day, I’d like to knock the teeth out of that coward’s toothy grin.

Don’t be mistaken: We are to be glad who won was victorious and who lost was defeated. But let us not forget that the two sides were far more reflective of one another than most people today realize. And soldiers in general are more reflective of our basest animal instincts while in combat.

This minor historical lesson is not to denounce or defend. It is merely to elucidate.

Whatever else these current distasteful images from Afghanistan expose, I hope they at least show that once war begins, the “good” and the “evil” blend readily into one another.

This is to be expected when humans are forced for prolonged periods into grossly dehumanizing situations. Even so, there is a difference between recognition and justification.

For a millennium we had a word to describe precisely this atrocious behavior. Ensconced in its meaning were horror, torture, death, robbery, mutilation, remorse, callousness, arson, and brutality. Yet in the past half-century we stupidly thought that by excluding such traits from the word, they would also be bred out of the conduct.

It’s long past time people remembered what the word “war” really means.

Knowing the reality of what it actually entails is the first step toward avoiding it altogether.

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