The Truth About War

In one of Jack Nicholson’s strongest roles, Marine Colonel Nathan Jessup is prodded by Navy Investigators about the death of an enlisted Marine. The Navy officer, played by Tom Cruise, looks the Colonel in the eyes and says, “I want the truth.” An enraged Jessup snarls back, “You can’t handle the truth!”

I believe this applies to Americans who speak glibly about war from the safety of our shores, as they rally in “Support the Troops” events. Only one percent of our population is now serving in military uniform; there is an increasing disconnect between our armed forces and the civilian world.

As Kabul was falling a few days ago, a retired Army Colonel said to me, “People seem to think that war is merely an extension of foreign policy with our overwhelming military strength always winning the day. It may turn out to be that way, but in the meantime, war is about killing the enemy and destroying everything that belongs to him.”

That’s the truth about war. It is brutal. It’s dehumanizing. It turns the enemy into a subhuman entity, since humans are not able to shoot someone we see as a father or mother, sister or brother, son or daughter. Combat is filled with the cries of the wounded and the dying. It is, in the words of Civil War General Sherman, “all hell.”

All this struck me recently as I heard the news of bomb blasts in Kabul that took the lives of several American troops and nearly two hundred Afghans. Here is what I saw in my mind’s eye as memories inundated me in a surge of gore. When a bomb of that size detonates, it sends a shock wave and a torrent of metal in all directions. It rips human flesh apart with a velocity that vaporizes what was once human. Arms, legs, torsos, faces, eyeballs, teeth, and bones are shredded and scattered across the terrain or plastered against a nearby wall. All of this carnage is accompanied by a hellish gale of blood and human connective tissue, now disconnected.

In the aftermath, there is nothing to do but try to rescue those who miraculously survived and then pick up the pieces of men, women, and children. I’ve seen some of the strongest warriors weep as they held a tiny foot or ear in their hands.

War is this, and much worse. It is the ultimate declaration that life is disposable. I don’t believe the human mind is capable of generating a more blasphemous affront to the Creator, who made all humankind in His image.

We can’t handle this kind of truth.