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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  • Mark DeFrancisis


    Excellent, penetrating look at the dynamics of this war, as a public spectacle; and in the minds of those unfortunate soldiers who have been ordered to fight it.

    Looking forward to part II

  • What Mark said.

  • Magdalena

    A.G. is indeed a shameful part of our naton’s history but the problem is it will not be long remembered as such, nor do many people particularly care what happened there. Also the so-called “liberation” effort is probably not doomed at all, if doomed means that Iraq is in the end going to be a failed state.

  • Mark, Matt,


    We’ve completely missed the lessons of Vietnam. A key indicator of what to expect in Afghanistan & the northwestern frontiers of Pakistan could be whether we continue to use drones to attack terrorists on the ground.

    According to Pakistani sources, nearly 750 civilians have been killed by American drones whose intent was to seek out terrorist leaders. From what I can tell, fourteen terrorist leaders have been killed thus far. But — and this is crucial — more than 50 civilians have been killed for every terrorist killed!

    The inanity is just amazing! Is it really bottomless? Apparently so.

  • Magdalena,

    Abu Ghraib will be remembered if we choose to remember it. There are those who are intent on having it fade into oblivion. Will they succeed? We shall see.

    The U.S. liberation effort in Iraq was a failure from the outset. To date, there has been no political reconciliation and, so long as we remain in Iraq, none will be forthcoming. Such settlement can only come after we leave. The factions alone will decide.

    In short, we’ve wasted, as some projections indicate, three trillion dollars! A nice tidy sum, isn’t it?

  • Excellent writing.

    I know a girl who was a prison guard in various places (Guantanamo, Ft. Leavenworth, Iraq, Afghanistan, prisoner transports). The experience messed her up so bad the military is paying her a rather high amount each month. Unless you’re a sociopath, perpetrating takes a huge toll as well. She says that anything we see in the media is nothing compared to reality – especially in less prominent places and ‘on the road.’

  • Gerald Naus,


    The stories of people like your friend — those who have witnessed first hand and helped to create the wreckage of broken humanity — will be the prophets of a new age. They have seen firsthand the soulless void that is war.

    It is our duty to seek them out and enter into the depths of their suffering. Somehow we must make their story to be part of our national narrative.

    We must do this so we can save the soul of our nation.

  • Ronald King

    Gerald, I had a contract for 5 years with a state Veterans organization to provide group and individual psychotherapy for Vietnam Vets. In Vietnam the draft was the main source of human resources for the war effort, while others enlisted in different branches of the military for different reasons.
    The existential crisis of death and meaning then was acted out depending on the individual’s unique unconscious predisposition and social history. However, each individual that I known during those 5 years desired to be special in the heroic sense whether they were drafted or not. They also formed relationships that were more intimate than ever before due to the crisis of death. Generally speaking they experience love more deeply than ever before and consequently the threat to a “brother” or the death of a “brother” was experienced as a raw overwhelming feeling of such complexity that the only response was to eliminate the threat as an instinctive survival impulse that disengaged the awareness of the threat from being human in the moment of that experience.
    It was only afterwards when integration of experiences began to occur that symptoms of dissonance would appear and cause distress and then other ways of coping with that dissonance would be developed so as not to experience the horror that is war.

  • Ronald, it seems the immanence of death deepens bonds – and makes the horrors inflicted on ‘the enemy’ seem secondary. This bond of the band of brothers works perniciously well, keeping them from questioning the ‘war effort’. It is commonly accepted that for them to not have “died in vain”, more have to die. “Supporting our troops” means keeping them at war. Interesting, no?

    It has to be said that in the West this mindset is almost uniquely American these days. Others learned their lesson. The US didn’t get bombed enough, apparently. If it had been, it might produce good cars and cameras. /sarcasm

    “The few. The proud. The Marines” – how can this not appear comical to everyone ?

    The draft is actually counterproductive for the military. An army of mercenaries is the best way to keep wars going. They come with the (im)proper disposition to begin with.

    I come from a long line of anti-military people. My paternal grandfather was in WW II 1939-1945, never made it past Private, kept getting into trouble and eventually deserted, hopping on a train to bombed out Vienna. My maternal grandfather was too young for the Wehrmacht, he was doing similar things as the current pope, actually. My father hated nothing more than the military (a 9-month stint is mandatory in Austria), and I emigrated before my deferment options had run out 😛 … and I am not trading in my Austrian for the American citizenship, cause you never know with the US. Some future lunatic president might want my kids for another ‘liberation’.

  • Ronald,

    What you say here conforms to what I’ve learned from the homeless (many of whom were vets), gang members, violent youth, and substance abusers. Love is central to the dynamic that unfolds in their lives. The dialectic of fear is not only about oneself but others as well. Ultimately, it is about love.

    My sense is that many of those who were in combat in Vietnam forged relations that have no parallel in ordinary life. One guy, for instance, told me he was with a unit of twelve (Special Forces) who went into Cambodia. They stayed there in that hostile environment for six months at a time . He told me he got to know the strengths and weaknesses of each member of the unit. This knowledge was not merely an awareness built on intellectual abstractions and the experiences they shared. More significantly, it was a knowledge that had its roots in an emerging love — the connaturality of which Jacques Maritain speaks. The spiritual bonds these men forged with one another became so strong that a willingness to give one’s life to save an other was integral to their relationship. It was unthinkable to do otherwise. This help to demonize those who were a threat.

    When this person returned to the States after a couple tours of duty he got married. But the marriage did not last. He said he couldn’t build as profound a relationship with his wife as he did with the guys he lived with in the foxhole. The marriage relationship seemed shallow, almost perfunctory. He longed for something more, something his wife could never give.

    It is then that he began to gravitate to the street. The street, he discovered, was a place where love and freedom could blossom. It was like a narcotic. Once it pulls you in it won’t let you escape. The street was not unlike how he described his relationships in Cambodia. Through risk and fear, he had developed a yearning for life with his comrades that he could not satisfy in less risky circumstances.

    All this makes me wonder about the rhetoric normally attached to the notion of the “nuclear family.” Just how powerful a bond is the nuclear family? Is it the highest on the scale of potential human bonds, as we are led to believe? I’m not so sure it is.

  • Gerald,

    If you have not, you might like reading some of CS Lewis’ comments on the issue of love/marriage/friendship. While I think the marriage between husband and wife leading to children, in an ideal, unfallen, situation, is a great image of the Trinity, and perfectly sanctified and strong, in the world we live in, with the inability of many to truly be Trinitarian in love (and looking for selfishness instead), many do find greater bonds between friends than their mate. History shows this many times, even.

    But I think the family as Trinity, when properly lived out, is the highest bond. It’s just rare.

  • Henry,

    I did read CS Lewis’ Allegory of Love, but that was a long time ago. But I never read him with a view to the questions which I raised here. I should probably read him again. There is also the book by Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western Wprld.

    I agree with you. Trinitarian love in human relations is powerful and when expressed through the family might well be the highest bond. But there are many factors that get in the way of its ultimate expression.

    One has to do with the notion itself of the nuclear family. It seems to me the expression of the nuclear family is essentially atomistic and therefore flawed. How does the nuclear family related to the human family? How does the Holy family relate to the human family? Is there a difference? The black family is substantially different from that found in Anglo-Saxon circles. Biology is not even a prerequisite. When we use the term “family” in America, just what are we talking about?

    I recall a friend getting married. After three or four years they got divorced. Both Catholics. He was in desperate need of advice so I assisted. One time he asked me what I thought when he and his wife got married. I replied: “I thought it was a good business relationship.” He just looked at me, knowing instantly what I meant.

    Another point is that the same cultural constraints operating against the full expression of the family also work against relations in the fox hole or on the street, or in a gang. Yet, the fox hole breeds very profound relations. The family rarely does (look at the statistics). More often than not, relations are deeper in the foxhole than in the family. What happens in the fox hole that does not happen in the family?

    Given the 20th century wars, one would think the Church would have the curiosity to explore these dynamics. But I don’t see that happening. There is little engagement of concrete experience that I see. Teaching is abstract and increasingly irrelevant to too many people.

    Notice how the nature of comments on this site when controversial issues like abortion are raised. They are always discussed in the abstract! No attention is paid to the circumstances, or intention, or conscience. Yet in every moral act intentions and circumstances are decisive for that act. It appears to me we have raised a generation of moral and intellectual adolescents who know nothing about addressing moral issues in the real world. From my perspective, this is tragic because it makes the Catholic contribution to America to be a huge joke.

  • Ronald King

    Gerald and Henry,
    When I first returned to Catholicism in ’05 I was on fire and listened to EWTN with a sense of belonging–now I listen with a sense of longing. I remember around that time telling my friends next door how excited I was about what I was hearing on the radio and being the good friends they are just smiled and looked at me as though I had lost my mind in a way much different than with other statements I had made in our 20 years of getting to know and love each other. When I returned to earth at the end of ’06 I realized that the love of God and the love of neighbor was limited to those who were in agreement on doctrine in the most concrete dualistic interpretation.
    When you describe love being learned in the concrete experience of the foxhole and the street, if I am not mistaken, are you saying that it is the experience of suffering together for a “higher” purpose that breaks down human constructs of self and others which results in a transcendent unification of sacrificial love of neighbor?
    Another point that comes to mind from your comments above relates to faith that evolves from the unconscious, unresolved pain of unmet childhood needs that have been hidden from awareness through decades of impenetrable primitive psychological defenses. This expression of faith appears to have the appearance of rigidity and lack of empathic understanding of others who differ from them. This type of faith appears to express that belief is a choice and failure to believe is seen as an attack against the faith and a conscious moral failure on the part of the person who does not believe. It is a faith that rationalizes the protection of “freedom” and material possessions. It seems to express the right to birth but life after birth gets the minimum support that is enough to mute the signal of guilt that arises for not giving enough.
    Passion in this expression of faith is passion for the idea of faith and not the day to day action of creating a family that draws strangers into its love. There are fragmented pockets of true saints out there who live the love of neighbor day to day and they are highlighted once in a while. However, they are then pushed into the background while the faceless voices on the radio continue to pontificate their expression of “I have the truth and you don’t.”–spiritual narcissism.
    I must go now.
    Thanks for stimulating my sleeping conscience.

  • Ronald,

    Most of what I’ve heard and watched on EWTN is disconcerting. It is syrupy and dualistic, as you say. It represents few of the qualities that have kept me in the Church these many years.

    When I reflect on the great Jesuits who have taught me, I perceive men who experienced life, were adventurous and daring, and were intellectually astute. Yes, they were also pious. They prayed daily. But beneath their piety was a lived reality. I see little, or none, of this on EWTN.

    Suffering with another for a “higher” purpose — a purpose with elements of transcendence within — does break down spiritual alienation. So does adventure. Risk behavior, for instance, not only tests, but verifies, the strength of one’s bonding with another. Two boys who climb El Capitan — and who have struggled through a 2000′ vertical climb — are more bonded after than before the climb. Two young boys who decide to commit a robbery are also testing and verifying the strength of their relations. Are you with me? The act performed says “yes I am.” “OK, man, we’re tight!”

    Too much of what passes for faith can be reduced to a narcissistic belief. It is little more than a psycho/social construct.

    Frankly, when I hear people talking about their faith, I usually don’t know what they are talking about. Much of what they say sounds like “self-justification.” “My faith tells me …..!” I think to myself: “OK, if you say so.” And I move on to other things.

    Where does the content of one’s faith have its roots? Is it a gift? Or does it have origins within. For most, I suspect, the question would be confounding.
    When people speak of their faith I suspect they are referring to a feeling or a belief of some kind. Mostly, it has conventional origins. There is little , if any, transcendental causation.

  • Ronald King

    Gerald, I have written EWTN and the hosts of different shows and apostolates telling them of my unwanted and miraculous return to our faith. I told them of praying the Rosary while running in the morning and how I had received the thought of writing the Pope to lead us on a pilgrimage to Darfur in September of 2006 in order to live the faith as an action of caring for the refugees.
    I also wrote telling them of another Rosary Run in 2007 that produced the thought of a cross-country Rosary Run/Walk pilgrimage to unite spiritually to the suffering of women and their children in and out of the womb. The idea was to leave the comfort and security of the known and live the mystery of the Eucharist in raising compassion and support for all women who suffer. From that communion would evolve even more actions of love.
    I was dismissed with replies of impractical, “I will pray about it.”, etc.
    Transcendence is what the Eucharist is. The Eucharist is the only reason I am here and It is where I get my direction.
    So I sit here and wait to see what evolves as I continue to express what is given to me.
    Thanks for your consideration Gerald.

  • Ronald,

    The prophets of today will not be found among those who lecture from the pulpit or express pieties on EWTN. As I wrote earlier in one of my comments, the prophets will be those, like the broken men from Iraq, who have real experience about what war means. They have suffered and their broken bodies are a living testimony to their suffering and their subsequent nobility. Or it might come from the homeless who know the meaning of bonding in simple humanity.

    American Jazz was a major source of spiritual energy that not only helped transform Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but continues to impact the world. Rap is an instrument that allows young people the world over — those who have been forgotten and dispossessed — to tell their story of injustice and to unleash dynamics bring to bring about change. Rap is a major musical form in Iran and throughout the Muslim world. It is a vehicle that supplies a voice for the voiceless. Yet look at the origins of black music. It came out of slavery, the cotton fields, and the Mississippi Delta.

    I think the suggestions you sent to EWTN make more sense than all their broadcasting. If there is anything impractical, it is what they are doing. What practical impact have they had? Where is the change? Are they doing what they do because they can do what they do? Perhaps. But then where is the purpose? Where is the outcome?

    Robert Johnson, the blues man, has stirred more hearts than all the broadcasts of EWTN. Has any EWTN broadcast ever reached the spiritual heights of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Absolutely not. Arroyo vs. Coltrane — no contest!

    What I’m suggesting is that there is a need for new thinking. The Church is not engaging the world. It still stands above the world. Of course, the Church does stand above the world, but it must also engage the world in ways that are truly transformational. It is the latter challenge where the Church has failed greatly.

  • Ronald King

    Gerald, Great points. Gurdjieff, who was a Russian mystic, discussed the different vibrational states that represent the different levels of consciousness of human awareness. He equated these states to the vibrational qualities of music notes.
    The lower the vibration the more mechanical and unaware is the individual in response to others on a physical, emotional and intellectual relationship. He points out that fear is the cause of this state of being. Existence at this level is competitive and is based on instincts and intelligence is used to enhance the chances for survival.
    As the individual begins to open to spiritual experiences then self-awareness begins to develop. The vibrational state begins to increase and new thoughts begin to weaken the mechanistic response. However, the old mechanistic patterns are still quite strong and can influence the person to remain in this early state of awakening and as a result a rigidity of faith or no faith exists with fear still operating under the guise of truth.
    Must go now to cut grass.
    I love our faith. I like what Ghandi said about loving our Christ but not our Christians who are so unlike Christ.