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What I Read at War

   
    …sed carmina tantum

nostra valent, Lycida, tela inter Martia, quantum
Chaonias dicunt aquila veniente columbas.
Virgil, Eclogue IX, lines 11-13
       …but songs of ours
Avail among the War-God’s weapons, Lycidas,
As much as Chaonian doves, they say, when the
eagle comes.

 

Sarajevo in the summer of 1995 came as close to Dante’s inner circle of hell as any spot on the planet. We entered the besieged city by driving in white armored vehicles down a dirt track on Mount Igman, one stretch directly in the line of Serb fire. The vehicles that had failed to make it lay twisted and upended in the ravine below, often with the charred remains of their human cargo inside.

The city, surrounded by Serb gunners on the heights above, was subjected to 2,000 shells a day, all crashing into an area twice the size of Central Park. Ninety-millimeter tank rounds and blasts fired from huge 155-millimeter howitzers set up a deadly rhythm of detonations. Multiple Katyusha rockets—whooshing overhead—burst in rapid succession; they could take down a four- or five-story apartment building in seconds, killing or wounding everyone inside. There was no running water or electricity and little to eat; most people were subsisting on a bowl of soup a day. Families lived huddled in basements and mothers, who had to dash to the common water taps set up by the United Nations, faced an excruciating choice—whether to run through the streets with their children or leave them in a building that could be rubble when they returned.

The hurling bits of iron fragmentation left bodies mangled, dismembered, decapitated. We slipped and slid in the gore, heard the groans of anguish, and were, for our pains, in the sights of Serb snipers, often just a couple of hundred yards away. The latest victims lay with gaping wounds untended in the corridors of hospitals that lacked antibiotics and painkillers.

Four to five dead a day when the cease-fires broke down. A dozen wounded. It was a roulette wheel of death, a wheel of fire. By that summer 45 foreign reporters had been killed, scores injured—including a photographer with whom I had worked in Central America and the Middle East.

War-children

Sarajevo, January 1994. Avoiding sniper fire, children make their daily dash from home in search of donated food. Photograph by Javier Baulez Stringer/Associated Press

Where do you turn in the midst of a world bent on self-annihilation, a world where lives are snuffed out at random? Whom do you reach for to keep from disintegrating under the pressure, the carnage, and the loneliness? Who speaks to you in such trance-like misery?

To a certain extent, no one. All of us who have been in war bear with us memories we would prefer to bury or forget. War has an otherworldliness, a strangeness unlike most other experiences. It is its own culture. It infects everything around it, even humor, which is preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Such tragedy, such inexplicable cruelty, banishes all vague generalizations about existence and obliterates ideological constructs. The fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our existence are laid bare when we sink to the lowest depths.

But war is also fundamental to the human condition. Will Durant calculated that there have been only 29 years in all of human history during which a war was not underway somewhere. Rather than an aberration, war exposes a side of human nature that is masked by the often unacknowledged coercion and constraints that glue us together. Our cultivated conventions and little lies of civility lull us into a refined and idealistic view of ourselves. Look just at our last decade—2 million dead in the war in Afghanistan, 1.5 million dead in the fighting in the Sudan, some 800,000 butchered in the 90-day slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus by soldiers and militias directed by the Hutu government in Rwanda, a half-million dead in Angola, a quarter of a million dead in Bosnia, 200,000 dead in Guatemala, 150,000 dead in Liberia, a quarter of a million dead in Burundi, 75,000 dead in Algeria, and untold tens of thousands lost in the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the fighting in Colombia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, southeastern Turkey, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf War (where perhaps as many as 35,000 Iraqi civilians were killed). Civil war, brutality, ideological intolerance, conspiracy, and murderous repression are part of the human condition—indeed the daily fare for all but the privileged few in the industrialized world.

“The gallows,” the gravediggers in Hamlet aptly remind us, “is built stronger than the church.”

 

From the time I began covering war in 1983 in El Salvador, where I spent five years, through the Palestinian uprising, the civil war in the Sudan, the conflicts in Yemen, Algeria, the Punjab, the fall of Ceau¸sescu, the Gulf War, the Kurdish rebellion, the war in Bosnia, and finally Kosovo, I have carried with me books that are my refuge. Some of the writers include the obvious: Homer, Shakespeare, Orwell, Conrad. Also Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time carried me through the war in Bosnia. All these men understood the monstrous indifference of nature. So have other authors of great modern war novels: Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Journey to the End of the Night); Olivia Manning (Fortunes of War); Elsa Morante (History: A Novel); Evelyn Waugh (the Sword of Honour trilogy); James Jones (From Here to Eternity); Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead).

I found in these works, if not always solace, then at least an understanding of the dark forces within all of us—the Hobbesian universe that is born out of violence and chaos—and steady reminders that, among mutable and inconstant human beings, there remain glimpses of redemption, understanding, and compassion—even though these virtues rarely triumph.

Following the Gulf War, during the Shiite uprising in Basra, I was captured by the Iraqi Republican Guard. The soldiers threw me onto the floor in the back of my Jeep, pressed the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle to my forehead, and drove into the desert. They stripped me of my M-65 jacket, useful to them in the cold desert night. In its pocket were three books: Antony and Cleopatra, the Iliad, and Conrad’s Outcast of the Islands. I was bereft of reading material, left to cling to those lines of Shakespeare and poems by W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats I had memorized in my youth. Over and over during my captivity I pieced them back together, phrase by phrase, line by line, resurrecting whole speeches and poems uttered over a decade before as a student actor, along with passages that constant repetition had made a part of me.

In the misery of the fighting—our small convoy was heavily ambushed on the second day, 60 miles north of Basra—and gnawing uncertainty, these passages at once consoled, pained, and protected me, often from myself.

One afternoon, in the driving rain, I was seated in a Pajero Jeep, hot-wired and stolen by my Iraqi captors during the frantic flight from Kuwait City. We had stopped to fill our canteens from muddy puddles. All of the water purification plants had been bombed. The muck and rainwater had already turned my own guts inside out. As I made my way to the brackish pools I noticed a woman and two small children scooping up their hands to drink. I knew what such foul water would do to these innocents and in the cold downpour recited Auden’s “Epitaph on a Tyrant” as a kind of quiet, unintelligible blessing:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

As the days wore on, sick, with little to eat, constantly under fire (at one point for 16 merciless hours), I began to fully appreciate the misery, pathos, and the courage of soldiership. One night, sheltering from rebel snipers behind an armored personnel carrier, some of my guards and I shared one can of peas and a jar of peach jam. Each of us got a few peas dropped into our dirt-caked palms and one plastic spoonful of jam. It was all any of us ate that day.

The words of Octavius, calling Antony from the bed of Cleopatra, seemed to sing out amid the deep-throated rattle of the machine guns in the night air:

                                 Antony,
Leave thy lascivious wassails. When thou once
Wast beaten from Modena, where thou slew’st
Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel
Did famine follow; whom thou fought’st against—
Though daintily brought up—with patience more
Than savages could suffer. Thou didst drink
The stale of horses, and the gilded puddle
Which beasts would cough at. Thy palate then did deign
The roughest berry on the rudest hedge.
Yea, like the stag when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou browsed. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
Which some did die to look on; and all this—
It wounds thine honour that I speak it now—
Was borne so like a soldier, that thy cheek
So much as lanked not.

All great works of art find their full force in those moments when the conventions of the world are stripped away and we confront our weakness, vulnerability, and mortality. For learning, in the end, meant little to writers like Shakespeare unless it could be translated into human experience.

“As long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling-places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary,” Proust wrote. “It becomes dangerous, on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place….”

Heroism never feels like heroism. Soldiers in the moments before real battles weep, vomit, and write last letters home, the last more as a precaution than a belief. All are paralyzed with fright. A morbid silence grips a battlefield in the final moments before a conflict, one that sets the back of my own head pounding in pain, wipes away all appetite, and makes my fingers tremble as I ready myself to go forward against logic. You do not think of home, of family; to do so is to be overcome by a wave of nostalgia and emotion that can impair your ability to survive. So far as is possible one thinks of nothing beyond cleaning weapons, or readying for the business of killing. No one ever charges into battle for God and country. “Just remember,” said a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel as he strapped his pistol belt under his arm hours before we crossed into Kuwait, “that none of these boys are fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap the politicians feed the public. They are fighting for each other, just for each other.”

War-salvador

San Salvador, January 1982. At the city morgue, family members identify relatives—victims of a pre-dawn massacre. Photograph ©Bettmann/Corbis

Although Jack Falstaff is a coward, a liar, and a cheat, although he embodies all the scourges of human frailty Henry V rejects, I delight more in Falstaff’s address to himself in the Boar’s Head Tavern, where at least he admits being in service to his own hedonism, than I do in Henry’s call to arms before Agincourt. Falstaff personifies a lust for life and the mockery of heaven and hell, of the crown and all other instruments of authority. He disdains history and glory for what they are. Falstaff is a much more accurate picture of the common soldier, who finds little in the rhetoric of officers who urge him into danger, and probably sympathizes more than you would suspect with Falstaff’s stratagems to save his own hide. Prince Hal is a hero and defeats Percy while Falstaff pretends to be a corpse. But Falstaff embodies the basic desires we all have. He is baser than most. He lacks the essential comradeship necessary among soldiers, but he clings to life in a way a soldier under fire can sympathize with. It is to the ale houses and the taverns, not the court, that these soldiers return when the war is done. Jack Falstaff’s selfish lust for pleasure hurts few, while Henry’s selfish lust for power leaves corpses strewn across muddy battlefields.

There is a wonderful moment in Henry IV, Part I, when Falstaff leads his motley band of followers to the place where the army has assembled. Lined up behind him are cripples and beggars, all in rags, because those with money were able to evade military service. Prince Hal looks askance at the pathetic collection before him, but Falstaff says, “Tut, tut, good enough to toss, food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.”

I have seen the pits in the torpid heat in El Salvador, the arid valleys in northern Iraq, and the forested slopes in Bosnia. And Falstaff is right. For despite the promises never to forget the sacrifices of the honored dead, and those crippled and maimed by war, the suffering they and their families endure quickly become superfluous.

During the Croatian campaign to drive ethnic Serbs from Krajina Province, I encountered an elderly man in a wooden wheel chair with a wicker seat being wheeled in the middle of a column of refugees by his wife. He had been wounded and paralyzed as a partisan in World War II and honored in Tito’s Yugoslavia as a hero. Now he was a refugee, his sacrifices forgotten and his suffering irrelevant. In his lap lay a small box with a collection of communist medals.

In one of the great modern war novels, Life in the Tomb, by the Greek author Stratis Myrvilis, the writer makes just this point:

A few years from now, I told him, perhaps others would be killing each other for anti-nationalist ideals. Then they would laugh at our own killings just as we had laughed at those of the Byzantines. These others would indulge in mutual slaughter with the same enthusiasm, though their ideals were new. Warfare under the entirely fresh banners would be just as disgraceful as always. They might even rip out each other’s guts then with religious zeal, claiming that they were ‘fighting to end all fighting.’ But they too would be followed by still others who would laugh at them with the same gusto.

 

War can be the natural outcome of brutal repression—witness Kosovo or El Salvador. Or it can be manufactured by warlords intent on enrichment, as in Bosnia. Less often now, it can also be the result of vying interests between nation states, such as the Gulf War, fought over control of the oil fields in Kuwait. War, at times inevitable and unavoidable, is part of human society. It has been since the dawn of time and probably will be until we are snuffed out by our own foolishness.

War-Kuwait

From Kuwait City en route to Basra and Baghdad, February 1991. Allied bombers scorch Saddam Hussein’s retreating forces. Photograph by Laurent Roberts/Associated Press

But can war ever be just?

The very employment of violence corrupts those who carry it out. The reasons for most conflicts, usually hidden from public view, are buried under platitudes and rhetoric. This does not mean that there is not a right and a wrong, that causes are not worth supporting, but that by using force we embrace a necessary evil, one that corrodes even those who employ it for nobler ends. The central reality of war is violent death and betrayal.

“Let it be said then that I wrote this book in the absolute conviction that there never has been, nor ever can be a ‘good’ or worthwhile war,” wrote Farley Mowat in his memoir of World War II, And No Birds Sang. “Mine was one of the better ones (as such calamities are measured), but still, a bloody awful thing it was. So awful that through three decades I kept the deeper agonies of it wrapped in the cotton-wool of protective forgetfulness, and would have been content to leave them buried so forever…but could not, because the Old Lie—temporarily discredited by the Vietnam debacle—is once more gaining credence; a whisper which may soon become another strident shout urging us on to mayhem.”

War, at its most basic, is about seduction and then tragic betrayal. Its final consequence is always deceit, lechery, and annihilation. “We believed we were there for a high moral purpose,” wrote Philip Caputo in his book on Vietnam, Rumor of War. “But somehow our idealism was lost, our morals corrupted, and the purpose forgotten.”

There was no reason for the war in Bosnia. The warring sides invented national myths and histories designed to mask the fact that Croats, Muslims, and Serbs are ethnically and linguistically indistinguishable. It was the absurd nuance of difference that propelled the war: invented historical wrongs that, as in the Middle East, stretched back to dubious accounts of ancient history. I have heard Israeli settlers on the West Bank, for example, argue that Palestinian towns—towns that have been Muslim since the seventh century—belong to them because it says so in the Bible. Such sophistry, sadly, extends to and beyond the Balkans.

The competing nationalist propaganda in Yugoslavia created a conflict in the country best equipped of all the eastern European states to integrate with the West after the collapse of communism. Because there was no real reason to fight, there was an urgent need to swiftly turn a senseless fratricide—organized by criminals and third-rate political leaders for power and wealth—into an orgy of killing, torture, mass execution. This indiscriminate murder, these campaigns of ethnic cleansing, were used to create facts, as it were. The slaughter was carried out to give these wars the justifications they lacked when they began, to fuel mutual hatred and paranoia, as well as to enrich the militias and paramilitary groups that stole and looted from their victims. Ethnic warfare is a business; the Mercedes and mansions of the warlords in Belgrade prove it.

Duty and ambition lure us to deny our common humanity. Yet to pursue, in the broadest sense, what is human, what is moral, in the midst of conflict or under the heel of the totalitarian state is a form of self-destruction. And while Shakespeare, Proust, and Conrad meditate on success, they exalt failure, knowing that there is more to how a life is lived than what it achieves. Lear and Richard II gain knowledge only as they are pushed down the ladder, as they are stripped of all illusions.

In the end, I read these works mostly for those brief passages when pity and compassion burst forth from the venal world of violence, betrayal, and inconstancy, for those poignant moments when tragedy is projected onto everyday life.

Late one night, unable to sleep during the war in El Salvador, I picked up Macbeth. It was not a calculated decision. I had come that day from a village where about a dozen people had been murdered by the death squads, their thumbs tied behind their backs with wire and their throats slit.

I had read the play before with Professor Gwynne Evans. Now it took on a new, electric force. A thirst for power at the cost of human life was no longer an abstraction. It had become part of my experience of the universe.

I came upon Macduff’s wife’s speech, made when the murderers, sent by Macbeth, arrive to kill her and her small children. “Whither should I fly?” she asks.

I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world, where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly.

Those words seized me like Furies and cried out for the dead I had seen lined up that day in a dusty market square, the dead I have seen since: the 3,000 children who were killed in Sarajevo, the dead who lie in unmarked mass graves in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, the Sudan, Algeria, El Salvador, the dead who are my own, who carried notebooks, cameras, and a vanquished idealism into war and never returned. Of course resistance is usually folly, of course power exercised with ruthlessness will win, of course force easily snuffs out gentleness, compassion, and decency. In the end, all we can cling to is each other.

 

war-A+CI returned from Kosovo to Harvard in the fall of 1998, to a Nieman Fellowship, after 15 years abroad. I had been maimed by war. I lacked the emotional and physical resilience of youth. I moved up Francis Avenue from the Divinity School to Lippmann House. The curator of the foundation, Bill Kovach, suggested that I see the retired president of Dartmouth, James O. Freedman, for advice on how to spend the year.

Freedman recommended the classics and urged me to take Greek or Latin. I had studied Biblical Greek as a seminarian, limping through it with the aid of an eccentric tutor who lived in a tiny room filled with tanks of tropical fish. Greek to this day conjures up the gurgle of air bubbles, the smell of stale pipe tobacco, and the eerie cast of ultraviolet light. I opted for Latin.

But I also repaid a debt to Homer, whose Iliad I once again read in translation. No other work captures in such pitiless verse the horror, capriciousness, and intoxication of war—especially war waged against civilians. Human beings, caught in the maw of violence, are instantly transformed, as the poet never tires of pointing out, into mutilated and discarded objects, their bodies “dearer to the vultures than to their wives.” Of course, there is nothing sacred, or necessarily redeeming, about ancient texts. The German and Italian fascists used and misused classical literature, especially Virgil’s Aeneid, in their propaganda. The Greeks and Romans embraced magic, slavery, the subjugation of women, racial triumphalism, animal sacrifice, and infanticide. The Roman emperors staged elaborate reenactments of battles in and outside the arena that saw hundreds and at times thousands of prisoners and slaves maimed and killed for sport. At lunchtime, in between shows, they publicly executed prisoners. Any democratic participation was the prerogative of male citizens and was snuffed out for long periods by tyrants and near-constant warfare.

Idylls must end

But the classics offer a continuum with Western literature, architecture, art, and political systems. Our country’s past, our political and social philosophy, and our intellectual achievements cannot—if we are not conversant in the classics—be connected seamlessly.

“All literature, all philosophical treatises, all the voices of antiquity,” Cicero wrote, “are full of examples for imitation, which would all lie unseen in darkness without the light of literature.” Thucydides, knowing that Athens was doomed in the war with Sparta, consoled himself with the belief that his city’s artistic and intellectual achievements would in the coming centuries overshadow raw Spartan militarism. Beauty and knowledge could, ultimately, triumph over power.

As my year progressed, I devoured the classical authors in translation in courses taught by David Mitten, Richard J. Tarrant, Gregory Nagy, and Richard Thomas, but wasn’t always as sure about taking on another dead language. One of my favorite teachers, Kathleen Coleman, stopped me one morning in Boylston Hall and announced that I needed a purpose behind my slog through Latin. Once a week, she instructed, I would appear at her office prepared to do a translation of a poem by Catullus or passage from Virgil. I had never read Catullus, but swiftly came to love him.

Carrying my books, I retreated in the afternoons to the small Smyth Classical Library in Widener, with its huge oak tables and sagging leather chairs. There I read Herodotus—the father not of history, I suspect, but of tabloid journalism. My fondest memories revolve around this sanctuary with its well-thumbed volumes, noisy heating system, and glass cases with dusty displays of items like Roman table legs. I was freed to step outside myself, to struggle with questions the cant of modern culture often allows us to ignore. I admired the past for its achievements and was better able to question the present for its assumptions.

War-sudan

Yei, Sudan, October 1997. Sudan People’s Liberation Army soldiers celebrate a victory in a war that has consumed an entire generation. Photograph by John Cobb/Associated Press

All idylls must end. Mine was shattered on March 24, 1999, when NATO began its bombing of Kosovo. I had come to Cambridge from Kosovo. Kosovar Albanians I had known for three years were missing or found dead along roadsides. I slept little. I was chained to the news reports. My translator, a published poet, vanished. (I returned to Kosovo that summer and her family was searching for her in mass graves.) The horrors of Kosovo were abstractions to most in Cambridge. I held a communion, in my final weeks at Harvard, with the long dead.

I had memorized a few poems by Catullus and parts of the Aeneid. I woke one morning well before dawn, haunted by a Catullus poem written to Calvus, whose lover Quintilia had died. Calvus had abandoned her, as I felt I had abandoned those in Kosovo, and his grief was mingled with his guilt.

If anything welcome or pleasing, Calvus, can be felt
by silent tombs in answer to our grief,
from that painful longing in which we renew old loves
and weep for friendships we once cast away,
Surely Quintilia does not lament her early death
as much as she rejoices in your love.

In the end, these words give me a balm to my grief, a momentary solace, a little understanding, as I stumble forward into the void.