Eternal Return: Burying the Real Story of War


One of the best understandings of the war in Iraq can be found in a book published 30 years ago: Dispatches, by Michael Herr, an account of his time as a correspondent in Vietnam. Most of the book deals with Herr's experiences in the field alongside the soldiers and Marines during some of the most intensive fighting of the war, including the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh. But at the end of the book, he offers some broader reflections, including this telling passage that reads as if it had been written today -- or yesterday -- or tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Somewhere on the periphery of that total Vietnam issue, lost in the surreal contexts of television, there was a story as simple as it had always been, men hunting men, a hideous war and all kinds of victims. But there was also a Command that didn't feel this, that rode us into attrition traps on the back of fictional kill-ratios, and an Administration that believed the Command, a cross-fertilization of ignorance, and a press whose tradition of objectivity and fairness (not to mention self-interest) saw that it all got space. It was inevitable that once the media took the diversions seriously enough to report them, they also legitimized them. The spokesmen spoke in words that had no currency left as words, sentences with no hope of meaning in the sane world, and if much of it was sharply queried by the press, all of it got quoted. The press got all the facts (more or less), it got too many of them. But it never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which of course was really what it was all about it. The most repulsive, transparent gropes from sanctity in the midst of the killing received serious treatment in the papers and on the air. The jargon of Progress got blown into your head like bullets, and by the time you waded through all the Washington stories and all the Saigon stories, all the Other War  stories and the corruption stories and the stories about brisk new gains in ARVN effectiveness, the suffering was somehow unimpressive. And after years of that, so many that it seemed to have been going on forever, you got to the point where you could sit there in the evening and listen to the man say that American casualties for the week had reached a six-week low, only eighty GIs had died in combat, and you'd feel like you'd just gotten a bargain.

UPDATE: In further illustration of Herr's points above, here are two stories from today's news. First, we get the "Command" mindset in action, the "jargon of progess" that has "no currency left as words." From the Washington Post:

The Pentagon announced yesterday that 35,000 soldiers in 10 Army combat brigades will begin deploying to Iraq in August as replacements, making it possible to sustain the increase of U.S. troops there until at least the end of this year. U.S. commanders in Iraq are increasingly convinced that heightened troop levels, announced by President Bush in January, will need to last into the spring of 2008. The military has said it would assess in September how well its counterinsurgency strategy, intended to pacify Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, is working.

"The surge needs to go through the beginning of next year for sure," said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day commander for U.S. military operations in Iraq. The new requirement of up to 15-month tours for active-duty soldiers will allow the troop increase to last until spring, said Odierno, who favors keeping experienced forces in place for now.

"What I am trying to do is to get until April so we can decide whether to keep it going or not," he said in an interview in Baghdad last week. "Are we making progress? If we're not making any progress, we need to change our strategy. If we're making progress, then we need to make a decision on whether we continue to surge."

Beyond the obscenity of sending more men and women to die -- and kill -- in the ungodly quagmire of a failed criminal enterprise, can we just point out here that increasing troops levels by tens of thousands from January 2007 to at least April 2008 is not a "surge;" it is what used to be known in the English language as an "escalation."

Our second story gets to the essence of war that Herr discovered with the grunts in Vietnam: "a story as simple as it had always been, men hunting men, a hideous war and all kinds of victims." From the BBC:

An attack by a US helicopter against suspected insurgents in Iraq has killed a number of children at a primary school, Iraqi security sources say. The attack took place in Diyala province north-east of Baghdad, the sources say…The school is in the village of al-Nedawat close to the Iranian border.

One police officer said the helicopter was shot at from the ground during the morning. The school was said to have been hit when the aircraft returned fire. The officer said police had spoken to eyewitnesses and that six children had been killed and six injured but the figures have not been independently confirmed.

There will, of course, be an investigation, US authorities say. And what will it find? That the helicopter was shot at from the vicinity. That the helicopter returned fire in clear compliance with the rules of engagement for the mission. That if there was any collateral damage -- a fact that will be questioned by the Pentagon until it can no longer be plausibly denied -- it was indeed unfortunate, but the fault lies with the insurgents for hiding in civilian areas. Others will note that if Bush hadn't ordered the invasion in the first place, much less the current escalation, there wouldn't be any insurgents hiding in civilian areas and shooting at invaders. There will be heated rhetoric about the incident in Iraq, and near-total avoidance of the story in the American media.

But the children -- the children -- will still be dead. It's a simple story. And a hideous war.