In the past few days the Los Angeles Times posted photos from Afghanistan of more than a dozen solders of the 82nd Airborne Division posing with the severed hands and legs of Taliban attackers. The images join a troubling list of cases – including Marines videotaped urinating on Taliban corpses, and the massacre of villagers by a lone American sergeant.
Such horrific ‘trophies of war’ have been part of wartime since the beginning of time. A friend is reading a book about the conquest of the Comanche Indians in Texas in the years following the Civil War. General Ulysses S. Grant ordered soldiers to show no mercy in wiping out the Comanche. The Comanche known as fierce warriors were ruthless in return.
It makes one wonder about the impact of war on the human spirit. To ponder such a question seems counter cultural for we live in a society that honors the role of the military in protecting our freedom and defending us from the forces of evil.
Of course most countries feel the same way, that their military is defending their principles and values. I imagine General Grant felt that his soldiers were being ordered into battle for a noble cause, while the Comanche Chief Quanah, ordered his warriors for a noble purpose as well.
Yet what price do we as the human family pay when we go to war? The price is obvious to families of soldiers and civilians who bury a loved one or struggle to support those maimed. But what price do the soldiers who live through the war pay? What emotional and spiritual price do young men and women of our military pay for multiple deployments to far off battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Chris Hedges in his book ‘War is a Force that Gives us Meaning’ reflects upon the hold of war on our imagination. He speaks of our ability to romanticize war for our own purpose. War he says, ‘has the ability to bring out the best in the human condition e.g. sacrifice, selflessness, loyalty, courage’. To a point this is true. Such is the stuff of war movies and battle hymns.
What is often overlooked, what is too painful to focus upon, is the emotional and spiritual price that also accompanies war. To take another’s life is to begin to lose a piece of one’s own humanity. To see the indiscriminate carnage that always accompanies war is to unmask euphemisms such as ‘smart bombs’ and ‘collateral damage’.
Is it any surprise that the violence of war so fractures the human mind that the result is Abu Ghraib or soldiers mugging for the camera with severed hands, ears and arms of their enemy? Those young soldiers smiling for the camera on the Los Angeles Times web site, they too are victims of the violence that is war.
Each is another casualty of a war that has stretched on for eleven years asking more than the human spirit can bear. Should we be surprised it has come to this? For me the great surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often.
The poet William Stafford said “every war has two losers”. When will we decide that the price of war is too great a burden to carry? When will we decide that non-violent alternatives must be found?