The Pictures of War You Aren't Supposed to See

War is brutal and impersonal. It mocks the
fantasy of individual heroism and the absurdity of utopian goals like
democracy. In an instant, industrial warfare can kill dozens, even
hundreds of people, who never see their attackers. The power of these
industrial weapons is indiscriminate and staggering. They can take down
apartment blocks in seconds, burying and crushing everyone inside. They
can demolish villages and send tanks, planes and ships up in fiery
blasts. The wounds, for those who survive, result in terrible burns,
blindness, amputation and lifelong pain and trauma. No one returns the
same from such warfare. And once these weapons are employed all talk of
human rights is a farce.

In Peter van Agtmael's "2nd Tour Hope I don't Die" and Lori Grinker's "Afterwar: Veterans From a World in Conflict,"
two haunting books of war photographs, we see pictures of war which are
almost always hidden from public view. These pictures are shadows, for
only those who go to and suffer from war can fully confront the
visceral horror of it, but they are at least an attempt to unmask war's

"Over ninety percent of this soldier's
body was burned when a roadside bomb hit his vehicle, igniting the fuel
tank and burning two other soldiers to death," reads the caption in
Agtmael's book next to a photograph of the bloodied body of a soldier
in an operating room. "His camouflage uniform dangled over the bed,
ripped open by the medics who had treated him on the helicopter. Clumps
of his skin had peeled away, and what was left of it was translucent.
He was in and out of consciousness, his eyes stabbing open for a few
seconds. As he was lifted from the stretcher to the ER bed, he screamed
'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,' then 'Put me to sleep, please put me to
sleep.' There was another photographer in the ER, and he leaned his
camera over the heads of the medical staff to get an overhead shot. The
soldier yelled, 'Get that fucking camera out of my face.' Those were
his last words. I visited his grave one winter afternoon six months
later," Agtmael writes, "and the scene of his death is never far from
my thoughts."

"There were three of us inside, and the
jeep caught fire," Israeli soldier Yossi Arditi, quoted in Grinker's
book, says of the moment when a Molotov cocktail exploded in his
vehicle. "The fuel tank was full and it was about to explode, my skin
was hanging from my arms and face-but I didn't lose my head. I knew
nobody could get inside to help me, that my only way out was through
the fire to the doors. I wanted to take my gun, but I couldn't touch it
because my hands were burning." [To see long excerpts from "Afterwar" and to read an introduction written by Chris Hedges, click here.]

Arditi spent six months in the hospital.
He had surgery every two or three months, about 20 operations, over the
next three years.

Filmic and most photographic images of war
are shorn of the heart-pounding fear, awful stench, deafening noise and
exhaustion of the battlefield. Such images turn confusion and chaos,
the chief element of combat, into an artful war narrative. They turn
war into porn. Soldiers and Marines, especially those who have never
seen war, buy cases of beer and watch movies like "Platoon," movies
meant to denounce war, and as they do so revel in the despicable power
of the weapons shown. The reality of violence is different. Everything
formed by violence is senseless and useless. It exists without a
future. It leaves behind nothing but death, grief and destruction.

Chronicles of war, such as these two
books, that eschew images and scenes of combat begin to capture war's
reality. War's effects are what the state and the press, the handmaiden
of the war makers, work hard to keep hidden. If we really saw war, what
war does to young minds and bodies, it would be harder to embrace the
myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of the eight
schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan a week ago and listen to the wails
of their parents we would not be able to repeat cliches about
liberating the women of Afghanistan or bringing freedom to the Afghan
people. This is why war is carefully sanitized. This is why we are
given war's perverse and dark thrill but are spared from seeing war's
consequences. The mythic visions of war keep it heroic and
entertaining. And the press is as guilty as Hollywood. During the start
of the Iraq war, television reports gave us the visceral thrill of
force and hid from us the effects of bullets, tank rounds, iron
fragmentation bombs and artillery rounds. We tasted a bit of war's
exhilaration, but were protected from seeing what war actually does.

The wounded, the crippled and the dead
are, in this great charade, swiftly carted off stage. They are war's
refuse. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like
wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness,
ignored, even reviled. The message they tell is too painful for us to
hear. We prefer to celebrate ourselves and our nation by imbibing the
myth of glory, honor, patriotism and heroism, words that in combat
become empty and meaningless. And those whom fate has decreed must face
war's effects often turn and flee.

Saul Alfaro, who lost his legs in the war
in El Salvador, speaks in Grinker's book about the first and final
visit from his girlfriend as he lay in an army hospital bed.

"She had been my girlfriend in the
military and we had planned to be married," he says. "But when she saw
me in the hospital-I don't know exactly what happened, but later they
told me when she saw me she began to cry. Afterwards, she ran away and
never came back."

The public manifestations of gratitude are
reserved for veterans who dutifully read from the script handed to them
by the state. The veterans trotted out for viewing are those who are
compliant and palatable, those we can stand to look at without horror,
those who are willing to go along with the lie that war is about
patriotism and is the highest good. "Thank you for your service," we
are supposed to say. They are used to perpetuate the myth. We are used
to honor it.

Gary Zuspann, who lives in a special
enclosed environment in his parent's home in Waco, Texas, suffering
from Gulf War syndrome, speaks in Grinker's book of feeling like "a
prisoner of war" even after the war had ended.

"Basically they put me on the curb and
said, okay, fend for yourself," he says in the book. "I was living in a
fantasy world where I thought our government cared about us and they
take care of their own. I believed it was in my contract, that if
you're maimed or wounded during your service in war, you should be
taken care of. Now I'm angry."

I went back to Sarajevo after covering the 1990s war for The New York
Times and found hundreds of cripples trapped in rooms in apartment
blocks with no elevators and no wheelchairs. Most were young men, many
without limbs, being cared for by their elderly parents, the glorious
war heroes left to rot.

Despair and suicide grip survivors. More
Vietnam veterans committed suicide after the war than were killed
during it. The inhuman qualities drilled into soldiers and Marines in
wartime defeat them in peacetime. This is what Homer taught us in "The
Iliad," the great book on war, and "The Odyssey," the great book on the
long journey to recovery by professional killers. Many never readjust.
They cannot connect again with wives, children, parents or friends,
retreating into personal hells of self-destructive anguish and rage.

"They program you to have no emotion-like
if somebody sitting next to you gets killed you just have to carry on
doing your job and shut up," Steve Annabell, a British veteran of the
Falklands War, says to Grinker. "When you leave the service, when you
come back from a situation like that, there's no button they can press
to switch your emotions back on. So you walk around like a zombie. They
don't deprogram you. If you become a problem they just sweep you under
the carpet."

"To get you to join up they do all these
advertisements-they show people skiing down mountains and doing great
things-but they don't show you getting shot at and people with their
legs blown off or burning to death," he says. "They don't show you what
really happens. It's just bullshit. And they never prepare you for it.
They can give you all the training in the world, but it's never the
same as the real thing."

Those with whom veterans have most in common when the war is over are often those they fought.

"Nobody comes back from war the same,"
says Horacio Javier Benitez, who fought the British in the Falklands
and is quoted in Grinker's book. "The person, Horacio, who was sent to
war, doesn't exist anymore. It's hard to be enthusiastic about normal
life; too much seems inconsequential. You contend with craziness and

"Many who served in the Malvinas," he says, using the Argentine name of the islands, "committed suicide, many of my friends."

"I miss my family," reads a wall graffito
captured in one of Agtmael's photographs. "Please God forgive the lives
I took and let my family be happy if I don't go home again."

Next to the plea someone had drawn an arrow toward the words and written in thick, black marker "Fag!!!"

Look beyond the nationalist cant used to
justify war. Look beyond the seduction of the weapons and the
pornography of violence. Look beyond Barack Obama's ridiculous rhetoric
about finishing the job or fighting terror. Focus on the evil of war.
War begins by calling for the annihilation of the others but ends
ultimately in self-annihilation. It corrupts souls and mutilates
bodies. It destroys homes and villages and murders children on their
way to school. It grinds into the dirt all that is tender and beautiful
and sacred. It empowers human deformities-warlords, Shiite death
squads, Sunni insurgents, the Taliban, al-Qaida and our own killers-who
can speak only in the despicable language of force. War is a scourge.
It is a plague. It is industrial murder. And before you support war,
especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, look into the hollow eyes
of the men, women and children who know it.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 TruthDig