Watching the war movie

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I have a confession to make. I find war interesting. I think it’s okay to say this because I don’t think I’m alone. That’s why CNN is giving the war in Iraq the 24-hour treatment. It’s a life and death struggle in a foreign place with exotic sounding names like, Najaf, Basra, and Nasyria. I’m interested in the way events unfold and whether the outcome will be good or bad. At a gut level, it’s exciting.

I think in part it’s a guy thing. From an early age boys and girls watch war movies and imagine how they would do if they were placed in battle. Those elemental questions like courage, loyalty and other virtues get thrown at you when you go to the movies or when you watch the news. My gut level interest in big events provokes a bit of envy with regard for the news professionals on the ground in Iraq.

I make this admission as someone who has never been close to a war. In fact a youthful fascination with war is usually followed by encounters with literary classics that inform us that the glory of war is an illusion. That it’s an ugly business. And that our idea of war as a grandiose test of our virtues is dangerous. So as teenagers we read Red Badge of Courage and other classics of the genre and congratulate ourselves that we’re wiser because we know the grim truth.

But we don’t know. Eventually we encounter veterans who have been there and we know they have a knowledge we can never share. It’s a knowledge they want us to respect, or honor but not to glorify. Often veterans are the last people who want to hear a lot of high flown rhetoric about the glories of war. That’s why I’m careful to remind myself to look beyond the surface story to the grimmer truth.

It’s easy to get caught up in the daily events: our troops are bogged down, they’re not bogged down; they’re rolling ahead; they’re encountering fire; they’re moving into Baghdad. But a marine in a field littered with dead people was quoted in a New York Times account. He said, now that he’s seen it, he never wants to see it again. I’ve never seen what he saw, and I hope I never do. It makes you sick to think about it. The victory that we have won has come at an awful price. Our leaders don’t want us to look to hard at the piles of dead civilian, but they’re there. We’ve suffered our own losses and they’re painful.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that boyish interest in war. But if we’re paying attention we learn pretty quickly it’s not a movie. It’s a lot sadder than a movie, a lot more disappointing. A quick victory makes it better than it could have been, but it doesn’t make it good. It’s an awful thing. I think everyone can agree about that.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

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