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Facing the ‘seething hell’

Peter Quaranto | Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Walt Whitman, the great American poet, once wrote, “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background, the countless minor scenes and interiors of the secession war; and it is best they should not – the real war never gets in the books.” One hundred and twenty-two years later, Whitman’s words could not ring more true.

No one would disagree that the United States is a country at war, but how many of us directly feel the effects of war? As our country has waged two wars over the last three years, it has become as trendy to talk about war. Yet, we continue our quotidian lives with little consciousness of fellow Americans being brought home in body bags or Iraqi civilians being bombed. We are certainly not starved for war-talk, but we keep missing the human realities of war.

This summer I traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a land that knows too well the realities of war. From 1969 to 1973, the United States dropped 540,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia as a “sideshow” of the Vietnam War. Following the war, the Khmer Rouge, a communist-militia strengthened by poverty and suffering from the war, came to power in 1975. During four years, the Khmer Rouge killed more than two million Cambodians. This auto-genocide resulted in the deaths of more than one-fourth of the population and more than 80 percent of the educated members of society. In 1979, the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, but ushered in a decade of occupation and conflict. In 1993, the United Nations organized elections, but problems of poverty, corruption and violence have persisted.

Almost 25 years after the war and genocide, the people of Cambodia continue to feel the effects. First, the abject poverty and societal corruption are a result of devastated infrastructure. Second, the extremely high rate of tuberculosis cases in Cambodia, most of which result in death, is easily traced to the war years. Third, problems with landmines and uncontrolled small arms continue to kill many. Finally, the culture of fear continues to plague the society. Twenty-five years later, the Cambodian people continue to face the effects of war and genocide everyday.

When I walked through Tuol Sleng where thousands of people were tortured or stared at the tree at Choeung Elk against which babies were smashed to death, the temptation was to turn away from the human realities. The temptation was and remains to simply see these events on a conceptual level, but to never give them a human face. As humans, there is a seduction to war as long as we avoid the “seething hell” of which Whitman writes.

This summer, when I asked my students at the University about war and peace, they spoke with solemnity and somberness. They speak about losing family members, about fear, about their broken society. For them, war, though perhaps unavoidable at times, is never a good thing. War kills and destroys. And for them, peace is not a flowery concept; it is a dream of a day when they will not live in violence, despair or fear.

The story of Cambodia is not exclusive. It is a common story for people from El Salvador, Congo, East Timor, Colombia, Uganda and most of the world’s countries. It is a story that many U.S. veterans know too well. These people speak of the realities of war that never get into the books, but are never erased.

In our country today, we have every reason to face the human realities of war as more than 1,000 U.S. troops have been killed in the ongoing war in Iraq. The deadly fighting in Iraq has become a quagmire with no end in sight. More U.S. troops were wounded in August than any other month in the war. Every day, someone’s son, daughter, father or mother is being killed in a war that Donald Rumsfeld claims will only get worse in the coming months.

The saddest part of it all is that you and I are so easily able to avoid these human realities. We cheer at football games and dance at SYR’s with little consciousness that our fellow Americans are fighting and dying. For too many of us, the war in Iraq or the genocide in Sudan are nothing more than headlines in the newspaper.

Of course, this seems to be just what the powers-that-be want us to do. The Pentagon has banned photographs of dead soldiers, including the coffins in which they rest. There was even talk that those holding candlelight vigils for the dead U.S. troops last week were “hurting the war effort” and “unpatriotic.” While it would seem that bearing witness to the sacrifices of our troops would be the patriotic thing to do, we are told to do the opposite.

In a very important book, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” Christopher Hedges, a veteran war correspondent, writes, “War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one.” In a culture of war, thought is often the first casualty.

The only answer: facing the human realities of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Peter Quaranto is a junior political science and international peace studies major. He can be contacted at pquarant@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.