Published on Tuesday, May 22, 2001 in the Boston Globe
Retreating From 'The Death Ground'
by John Carroll
MILITARY THEORISTS define the point of no return in war as the ''Death Ground,'' the place from which the only way out is to kill. After soldiers experience that, the ruthlessness of combat moves to a new level, and fighting to the death becomes natural.
The Death Ground is the most fearsome place in the world, yet, of course, it is not a place at all, but a state of mind. Where a military initiative may have first been organized to assure the well-being of one's group, on the Death Ground the very meaning of such well-being shifts, and now even survival can seem a lesser value. Honor or revenge or the feeling of mastery over one's destiny can matter more than life.
This is a predictable pattern of war-making, a movement from the illusion that brutal force can be humane to the revelation that brutal force dehumanizes the victor and the vanquished alike. At a certain point in the escalation of violence, what began as a rational process, with clearly defined limits and purposes, becomes something else entirely.
In a definition offered by the historian Sue Mansfield (whose ''The Gestalts of War'' inspires this column), war ''refers to organized, premeditated, socially approved action involving groups of men in relatively complex operations of aggression and defense, and pursued in a rational fashion in order to accomplish certain goals.''
But the dynamic of war is such that at an inevitable point, at the boundary of the Death Ground, the order implicit in such an idea completely breaks down. Organized activity becomes chaotic. Premeditation gives way to emotional reflex. Rage replaces strategy. Social approval falls before fear and shame. The goals for which war was begun are forgotten. War becomes its own goal.
In the Death Ground, warring parties who despise each other come to resemble each other, if not in tactics, in attitudes. Together they create the Death Ground by taking up positions from which, for psychological reasons as much as military ones, they cannot find ways of escape. Perception is the only reality, and each party becomes an aggressor in the firm belief that it is reacting to the aggression of the other.
Once the Death Ground is entered, the justice and virtue in the name of which each party began yield to the irresistible dynamic of war itself, which, despite martial rhetoric, knows nothing of justice, nothing of virtue. ''And we are here as on a darkling plain,'' in the immortal words of Matthew Arnold's ''Dover Beach,'' ''Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight / Where ignorant armies clash by night.''
The war between Israelis and Palestinians, of course, is the occasion of this grim meditation. Half a dozen Israeli shoppers dead in a mall; Israeli F-16s striking back in a first use of such warplanes in the West Bank in decades; a dozen Palestinians dead: the bloodiest day of the conflict. And now, predictably, Palestinian fighters launching mortars into Israeli neighborhoods; young Palestinian men strapping bombs to their waists again; Arab leaders hastening the drum beat with increasingly anti-Semitic rhetoric; Ariel Sharon acting, in effect, like a self-appointed recruiting officer for Hamas.
Last week marked a definitive turn in the gyre of Middle East violence, with the Death Ground closer than ever, the place where the inbuilt momentum of war trumps the purposeful action of human beings no matter the righteousness of their cause. In the Death Ground righteousness no longer counts. War now leads only to a dead end for all concerned, ''literally and figuratively,'' as an American official said over the weekend.
Yesterday the White House released the Mitchell Report, an assessment of the conflict undertaken with the agreement of both Israel and the Palestinians. This report, carrying the stamp of George Mitchell's established credibility, offers the United States a fresh opportunity to alter the dynamic of the war before it is too late. Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks of throwing ''lifelines'' to the parties, but nothing less than a major American diplomatic initiative is required now, one designed to lift up a new sense of alternative possibility for everyone.
Powell leaves today on a major trip to Africa and Europe: He is reported to be considering a stop in the Middle East, a signal of new American readiness to intervene. He should do it.
Last week's violent upsurge can be an opportunity. Israelis and Palestinians alike have seen the harsh reality of the killing fields that threaten to corral both peoples; that shocking vista can change everything. Security for Israel - yes. Justice for Palestinians - yes. But each outcome now presumes an end to killing, a prompt mutual retreat from the Death Ground, the place in which, ironically, hope presents itself as one last chance.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company