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What Every Person Should Know About War

July 6, 2003

'What Every Person Should Know About War': Frequently Asked Questions


By Chris Hedges.
175 pp. New York: Free Press. Paper, $11.

Here is a noble, flawed effort to deepen our American understanding of war by making facts personal.

''Yo lo vi'': ''I saw it.'' ''Asi sucedio'': ''It happened this way.'' These captions of plates in Goya's series ''The Disasters of War'' assert the authority of actual experience, the war's irreducible fact. The laconic, minimal titles constitute not a commentary but a judgment beyond commentary. The words defer to Goya's great images, and behind the images to the brutality of Napoleon's war in Spain, a war that produced -- along with Goya's depictions of rape, torture, the slaughter of civilians, the power of explosives to effect a functional hell -- our modern term ''guerrilla.''

The declaration ''I saw it'' can stand for a rhetoric against rhetoric. Some 20th-century writing and film about war -- for example, Ernest Hemingway's story ''A Natural History of the Dead'' -- undertakes a similar mission of witness against delusion, terse fact against prettifying, a stylized reportorial scorn. As cultural forms will do, that debunking mission has generated its opposite: a paradoxical mystique of toughness, an aura of stoic, skeptical bravery as alluring as the old notions of knightly conduct in battle, or the sweetness of dying for one's country. That inversion, though, does not invalidate the passionate enterprise of seeing war not as a lofty field of honor, or a lively field of ''action'' entertainment, but as it is.

Chris Hedges' arresting, peculiar, significant ''What Every Person Should Know About War'' joins that rhetorical and moral tradition. Neither jingoistic nor pacifist, the book is about the moral authority of information, as it applies to the present and future nature of war. Hedges, a reporter for The New York Times who has covered war in Africa, the Balkans, Central America and the Middle East, says: ''The book is a manual on war. There is no rhetoric. There are very few adjectives. It is a book based on research. . . . We drew up basic questions about war and searched medical, psychological and military studies for information. We were meticulous about footnotes, fact checking and sourcing. If anyone wants more on any subject, the footnotes and bibliography show where to find it. We kept the book direct and accessible. And we operated on the assumption that the simplest and most obvious questions in life, and certainly war, often never get asked.''

I believe that all of this is true, in its own terms, and the passage justly indicates the considerable value of the book's material, its urgency and its resistance to an element of murderous blather in politics, news and entertainment. The footnotes draw from scholarly sources and, often, from American military publications. For us ordinary readers, the directness and accessibility begin to answer a thirst for understanding. The saying ''war is hell'' is attributed not to a poet or a preacher but to a general. We readers -- the ''every person'' of Hedges' title -- need to know in true detail what kind of hell, and how and why.

However, these introductory sentences also suggest the book's limitations. ''There is no rhetoric'' may be true if rhetoric means simply the lightweight, imprecise idea ''fancy language.'' But the serious meaning of rhetoric is language shaped to persuade, and the quoted passage with short declarative sentences certainly means to persuade. The footnotes supply a spine of information, but there is no way to present information with ''no rhetoric.'' A distinct rhetorical armature surrounds that core of field manual definitions, statistical studies and direct testimony. All writing, every utterance, has some formal means.

The most notable rhetorical feature here is the question-and-answer form, grouped under chapters headings beginning with ''War 101'' and ending with ''After the War.'' Chapters in between include ''Life in War,'' ''Combat,''''Imprisonment, Torture and Rape,''''Dying.'' What is the intention of this rhetoric, less like a catechism than the instructional FAQ's of a Web site or an insurance form? What does it do? Partly, the effect is ironic, treating hell on earth like a new piece of software or automobile coverage. The mostly first-person questions and the footnoted answers have a note of parody, forcing the terms of consumerism to witness the materials of Goya. (''Will I get dehydrated?''''Will I think about sex?'' ''What is a dirty bomb?'') Here are some samples:

''Will I become more religious?''

''Probably. War stimulates a new or stronger need for religious faith. Given the prevalence of violence, and the seeming randomness of who lives and dies, many in war find themselves drawn to the idea of a higher power.''

''How many people have died from smallpox?''

''In the 20th century, smallpox killed between 300 and 500 million people. It is one of the most devastating diseases known to mankind.''

''If I serve in an unpopular war, will I be received angrily when I come home?''

''No, at least not by most people. Ninety-nine percent of veterans returning from Vietnam said they had a friendly reception from close friends and family, and 94 percent said they got a friendly reception from people their own age who had not served. Seventy-five percent of Vietnam-era veterans thought war protesters did not blame veterans for the war.''

''What will I miss most about combat?''

''The camaraderie. Going through combat together produces a feeling of solidarity that is almost impossible to replicate. ''

''What are the most common forms of physical torture?''

''Some of the most common include use of electric shocks, long beatings (especially of the genitals and soles of the feet), violent sexual assault and rape, burning, choking and immersion in excrement.''

One learns that while fewer than half of World War II riflemen fired their weapons, because of improved military training 90 percent fired in Vietnam. That the most dangerous military jobs go to whites and Hispanics because blacks, more likely to pursue military careers, take safer jobs with more civilian transferability. That at the beginning of 2003 there were 30 active wars in the world, which has been ''entirely at peace'' for only 8 percent of its recorded history. That in peacetime American soldiers are statistically less likely to commit rape than male civilians of the same age. That contrary to the movies, wounded soldiers have no ability to predict if their wounds are fatal. That quite possibly 20 to 25 percent of officers killed in Vietnam were killed by their own troops. That fewer than 3,500 Medals of Honor have been awarded.

These molecules of information, formatted like the FAQ brochure for a new appliance, have a force akin to Hemingwayesque understatement: the rhetoric by flaunting its own inadequacy underscores the irreducible and finally unparaphrasable nature of experience itself. Hedges' great goal is to respect the reality of war on a personal level, in a culture that sometimes cannot tell the difference between the personal and the narcissistic.

An eminent poet tells me that after a lecture a young poet-scholar warned her that she had used philosophically discredited terms. These included the words ''experience'' and ''emotion.'' Hedges should be honored for trying to enter a realm beyond that Swiftian Laputa of young academics; beyond psychobabble about ''warriors''; beyond the timid bromides of politicians cowed by their pollsters; beyond the sentimentalities of left and right; beyond the docilities and compromises of his own profession. Underlying his effort I sense a patriotic emotion: a dread that the United States is about to change from its traditional position of reluctance toward war to a pre-emptive, or even entrepreneurial, adoption of war as a national tool.

The method of his book, its form (borrowed from a little-known book of the 1930's, Hedges explains), is too eccentric, too self-parodic, to be fully adequate to its purpose. The summary morsels of fact, the sometimes falsely naive questions, vaguely despise themselves. The form Wilfred Owen found for his poem of World War I spoke to and from his culture, an England where schoolboys who had studied the poetry of Horace a few years later confronted the effects of mustard gas:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-
corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some
desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The language and meaning are full of power, partly because they come from the center of a past reality; this is not our language or meaning, not the rhetoric or form for our own moment. Like Homeric epic, it moves us and it is relevant to us, and it is not us. To invoke these works of art is a measure of respect for Hedges' undertaking, as well as a measure of its limitations.

Robert Pinsky's most recent book of poems is ''Jersey Rain.''

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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