War Is (Still) Hell

War Is (Still) Hell

From the Gettysburg to Afghanistan, our tendency to romanticize war causes us to gloss over its hellish aspects.


Americans have a peculiar relationship to war. It structures and shapes much of our history: the nation was forged in war (American Revolution), divided by war (Civil War), emboldened by war (World War II) and radicalized by war (Vietnam). Too often, we tend to speak of war in positive, patriotic and Manichean terms: wars for “freedom” and “liberation”; wars to “extend American democracy” and “protect our American way of life”; “good” wars versus “evil” enemies. One consequence of this is that we tend to romanticize war, especially in hindsight, as an unambiguous catalyst for “progress”: the birth of the nation, the end of slavery, the empowerment of certain marginalized peoples, the defeat of fascism, communism or terrorism. All of this involves glossing over the hellish aspects of war (the immense violence, the death toll and civilian casualties, the suffering of loved ones, the physical and psychological trauma, the devastation of land and people) and forgetting that our history is chock full of invisible wars, illegal wars and wars we choose to ignore. The most recent example of this—the war in Afghanistan—is now the longest war in American history, a modern “quagmire” if ever there was one, and yet most of us go about our daily lives as if it doesn’t even exist. Of course, this was similarly true of Iraq. Sadly, our national ADD—to say nothing of what the late historian Howard Zinn called “our addiction to massive violence”—has produced a perilous state of denial over our collective PTSD. But let us not fool ourselves: war is still hell, whether we choose to fight or forget.

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks thinking about war—the history of war, the realities and consequences of war, the future of war.

Two weeks ago, on the morning of the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, I got together with several of my current and former students on the steps of Memorial Church at Harvard. We were a diverse group—men and women, gay and straight, multiracial and multi-faith—precisely the kind of gathering of good souls that makes me feel blessed to be alive, even in this precarious moment in history. Over the course of an hour or so, we prayed, offered readings, shared reflections and sat in silence. It was the first time I had marked the occasion in any formal or collective way. Usually, I keep to myself on 9/11, quietly reflecting on the scope of this tragedy, not only the 3,000 innocent lives that were lost to violent lunacy but also the countless lives—American, Iraqi, Afghan and the like—that have been lost in a subsequent fog of war that has only produced more violence, misunderstanding and terror. I have long argued that 9/11 destroyed America by unleashing some of the worst angels of our nation. This is never more evident than in the toxic mix of patriotic vengeance and pathetic indifference that has accompanied the wars waged in our name since that terrible day more than a decade ago.

At this recent gathering with my students, I decided to recite Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 “Gettysburg Address.” The poetic mix of sorrow and humility always gets me, to say nothing of Lincoln’s prophetic capacity to envision a better future—a “new birth of freedom”—in the midst of such a violent crucible. This was as rare in his day as it is in ours. I still can’t help but wonder if Lincoln would have loved or lamented the fact that his violent death turned his political life into one of the great ironies of American history. After all, he was a literary man as well as a political one.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that last Tuesday I attended the premiere of the PBS documentary Death and the Civil War, a film by Ric Burns inspired by Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust’s prize-winning book, This Republic of Suffering. The film, like the book, argues that the Civil War transformed Americans’ relationship with death. Faust’s book is part of a new wave of studies—including superb books like Jim Downs’s Sick from Freedom and Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation—that seek to restore a sense of realism to our study of the Civil War by reminding us that the war and its aftermath were hell for everyone (and everything) involved. All told, the war claimed 750,000 lives; adjusting for the size of the US population at the time (31 million), that would be the equivalent of roughly 7 million lives lost today. But unlike today, nearly every mid-nineteenth-century American knew someone who fought, was injured, or died in the war. One of the major themes of the film is the way the Civil War inspired the first large-scale federal effort to care for wounded soldiers, to provide support for the troops and their families, to account for the unprecedented death toll and to identify the bodies and ensure the proper return and burial of those who died in battle. As Faust argues, the Civil War inspired a “bureaucracy of death,” including the creation of military hospitals and national cemetaries. At the time, nearly every American—black and white, male and female, civilian and soldier, North and South—struggled in some way to answer another of Lincoln’s prophetic challenges (from his Second Inaugural Address): “to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” This was easier said than done, of course, but the Civil War was the first time in US history where Americans felt a national moral duty to come to terms with war by honoring the dead and trying to live together in peace.

With war very much on my mind, last Wednesday, I hosted a public screening and discussion of another extraordinary documentary film, Service: When Women Come Marching Home, with filmmaker Patricia Lee Stotter, lawyer Susan Burke and psychologist Paula Caplan. Service chronicles the lives of eight American female veterans struggling to transition from active duty to civilian life. A diverse cohort, these women had different motivations for wanting to serve in the military (family tradition, economic opportunity, patriotic duty) and different experiences in combat (some were officers, some were physically injured in battle, some were sexually harassed and raped by fellow soldiers). Whether or not they suffered physical harm, all of these women returned with what the filmmaker described as “invisible wounds” from the various forms of violence they had experienced during their time at war. Intentionally nonpartisan, the film nonetheless highlights the special burdens that women face as soldiers and citizens, mothers and wives, burdens that are often compounded by race, class and sexuality. At a time in our history when there is a growing—and troubling—chasm between our empty rhetoric of “support the troops,” even as we send them to war, and our enduring responsibility to care for them when they return home, Service reminds us that war is still hell—on both the battlefield and the home front.

Last week was also the first anniversary of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the discriminatory 1993 policy, signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, that prohibited gay, lesbian and bisexual citizens from serving openly in the United States military. Over the course of two decades, “don’t ask, don’t tell” resulted in more than 13,000 discharges before it was finally repealed by President Obama on September 20, 2011. (More on this in a subsequent post.)

Taken together, these reflections—on 9/11, the Civil War, women veterans and the repeal of DADT—got me thinking about how we, as a nation, understand the fraught relationship between war and “freedom.” To be sure, the Civil War brought about a “new birth of freedom” for African Americans with the abolition of slavery; in fact, many wars in American history have afforded black folks the opportunity to prove their citizenship through military service. Our modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given women unprecedented opportunities to both serve and lead. The repeal of DADT makes it possible for gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers to serve openly without fear of personal retribution or professional humiliation. If this were the whole story, we might be able to make a credible argument that war and military service are catalysts for progress.

But as our past and present make clear, this is not the whole story. War is indeed hell, but so, too, is the aftermath of war, especially for those who do not share the same rights as their fellow citizens. Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the nation retreated from its fleeting commitment to black freedom and equality, enacting black codes and Jim Crow laws to ensure another hundred years of racial segregation and subordination. In too many ways, the legacy of this betrayal still haunts us all. Women warriors continue to suffer discrimination, harassment and sexual violence within the military itself, even as they struggle—like so many military veterans—to access the support and services they need to heal the visible and invisible wounds these modern wars have wrought. What’s more, they have to contend with the domestic War on Women, which seeks to control their bodies and choices and deny them equal wages and opportunities. And while gay, lesbian and bisexual service members—still only a tiny percentage of both the military and the LGBT community—can finally serve openly in a military culture still well-known for its rampant homophobia and sexism, they still shoulder the burdens of second-class citizenship when it comes to employment, housing, healthcare, marriage, adoption, taxes and the like.

In other words, while so many black folks, women and queers have been willing to endure the hell of war for a taste of freedom, a chance at equality, the nation has continued to make life hell for them even after the wars are over.

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