The Death Mask of War – I

The Death Mask of War – I June 10, 2009

Abu Ghraib is an epitome of torture and abuse.  Its very mention awakens passions of horror, anger, and sorrow.  It brings to mind a tragic affair in which the United States: 1) failed to uphold its commitment to the dignity of the person; 2) reneged on its constitutional and living obligations to civil liberties; and 3) acted in a willful manner to contravene the Geneva Conventions.

Indeed, Abu Ghraib stands as a shameful chapter in our national history.  It will long be etched in the world’s memory as a time and place in which fear tore the fabric of American principle, tradition, and law, and drove the U.S. to enlist expediency as a rationale to forsake solemn international covenants.  Abu Ghraib deserves to be lifted up as a symbol of evil and renounced as such by all succeeding generations.

Just as troubling, however, are the affronts to personal dignity oftentimes committed by U.S. soldiers in the field.  Such abuses have been especially widespread in operations located in and around the urban centers of Iraq.

Until recently, stories about the terrifying treatment of Iraqi civilians by U.S. military personnel have gone unreported or been hidden from public scrutiny.  It is as though such acts did not exist or that they did not matter.  But now they are coming to light.  What they reveal is an emotional intoxication and a pattern of callous behavior that flows necessarily from the logic of urban warfare.  These acts, aside from being ethically flawed, call into question the essentials of America’s war-fighting strategy in Iraq.

Americans are inclined to romanticize war as a struggle between good and evil.  They tend to see it as a morality play performed in remote regions.  It is a drama wherein the forces of light are aligned against the forces of darkness.  As the contest unfolds, the outcome stands in the balance until the armies of good gain the inevitable ascendency and emerge triumphant over the armies of evil.

Chris Hedges, a twenty year foreign/war correspondent for the New York Times and author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, takes a more penetrating look.  In an article entitled The Death Mask of War he explores the existential and emotional context in which war takes place.  He shows how the logic of war paints an unexpected and frightful face that demolishes the triumphal dialectic of good and evil.

Indeed, Hedges’ analysis presents a riveting drama of how soldiers acting in urban settings necessarily succumb to uncertainty and fear.  Routinely, they discover themselves unable to distinguish friend from foe.  Ten year old boys and girls pose the same mortal threat as someone older.  A woman carrying a new born baby could well have explosives strapped around her waist.  Or a young boy, darting through city streets, could simply be running to get milk for his baby sister.  Events do not speak with clarity.

Lacking any way to make elementary distinctions, the natural response is to cast a blanket of suspicion over the entire Iraqi population.  Every man, woman, and child is judged a threat, maybe even an enemy.  Given such chaos, a deep-seated fear infects and excites the imagination of U.S. soldiers.  It is a fear they cannot avoid or manage.  It poisons their will and sets about to control their behavior.  Soon they begin to act out of the cold embrace of fear’s pitiless logic.  Without even being aware, U.S. soldiers become victimized by the ruthless dynamics of urban warfare.

Tinged with dread, U.S. troops discover themselves caught up in a profound and cruel metamorphosis of spirit, mind, and feelings.  Iraqi men, women, and children — nearly all innocent — are suspected of colluding with the enemy.  Danger is ubiquitous.  To trust is to place one’s life at risk.  Doubt is a prerequisite for survival.  Infected by an ambiance of fear and distrust, U.S. soldiers are then driven to commit acts they would never have committed before, acts that are callous and brutal.  Either for reasons of anger, an abiding sense of caution, or a desire to eliminate uncertainty, innocent Iraqis are dehumanized and frequently killed outright.

It is this existential and emotional volatility that has doomed America’s liberation effort in Iraq.  What began as a conventional blitzkrieg was quickly transmuted into a star-crossed tragedy where U.S. troops became bogged down and forced to commit cruel acts against innocent people.  In Iraq, as in Vietnam, fate follows the logic of urban warfare. The existential dynamics of fear shapes its final outcome.

Next: Part II

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