Chris Hedges: War is a Force that Gives us Meaning (2004; must-see; transcript)

Updated: added transcript

by Chris Hedges
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad

UCTV – University of California Television

59 minutes

Veteran New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges has covered conflicts in Bosnia, El Salvador and Israel. Tune in for this thought-provoking lecture based on his best selling book that argues life is lived most intensely in times of war, often with tragic consequences. (#9109)

UCtelevision·Apr 24, 2008




Chris Hedges’ – War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning

I have, as you heard, spent most of my adult life in war. I began two decades ago covering wars in Central America, I spent five years in the Middle East, I spent seven in the Balkans, where as Mary Ellen mentioned, I covered the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. My life has been marred, let me say deformed, by the organized industrial violence that year after year was an intimate part of my existence. I have watched young men bleed to death on lonely Central American dirt roads and cobble stone squares in Sarajevo. I have looked into the eyes of mothers keening over the lifeless and mutilated bodies of their children and I have stood in warehouses with rows of corpses, including children and breathed death into my lungs. I carry within me the ghosts of those I worked with my comrades now gone.

War has found me, found us out again. We have blundered into nations we know little about, caught between bitter rivalry as between competing ethnic and religious groups and we have embarked on an occupation in Iraq that is as damaging to our souls as it is to our prestige and power and security. We have become tyrants to others weaker than ourselves and we believe falsely that because we have the capacity to wage war we have the right to wage war. Once you master a people by force you depend on force for control. Isolation always impairs judgment and we are very isolated now.

In Antigone, the king imposes his will without listening to those he rules and dooms himself. Thucydideswrote of Athens’ expanding empire and how this empire led it to become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. The tyranny Athens imposed on others, it finally imposed on itself. The lust for war, the desire for profits led the Athenians to lose sight of democratic ideals, ideals that are their legacy to us and should be our legacy to others. We are fed images and slogans that perpetuate fantasies about our own invulnerability, our own might, our own goodness, and these illusions blind us. We cannot see ourselves as others see us. We have fed the heart on fantasies. William Butler Yeates wrote, “The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”

It is 1967 in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and we have become Israel. Our empire has expanded and in this we have become piranhas. We are propelled forward, not by logic or compassion or understanding, but by fear. We have created and live in a world where violence is the primary form of communication and we have built an alliance against terror with Ariel Sharon and Vladimir Putin, two men who do not shrink from gratuitous and senseless killing in the Israeli occupied territories and Chechnya. And those who are not with us, and few are with us now, we ridicule and belittle and condemn. We have become the company we keep. Much of the world, certainly the Muslim world, one fifth of the world’s population, most of whom I remind you are not Arab, see us through the prism of Iraq, Palestine, and Chechnya. And this prism is one that is igniting the dispossessed and deteriorating by the hour our security and safety.

The attacks on the World Trade Center illustrate that those who oppose us, rather than coming from another moral universe have been schooled well in modern warfare. The dramatic explosions, the fireballs, the victims plummeting to their deaths, the collapse of the Towers in Manhattan, were straight out of Hollywood. Where else, but from the industrialized world, did the suicide bombers learn that huge explosions and death above a city skyline are a peculiar and effective form of communication? They have mastered the language we taught them. They understand that the use of indiscriminate violence against innocence is a way to make a statement.

We leave the same calling cards. We delivered such incendiary messages in Vietnam, Serbia, Afghanistan, and now Iraq. It was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who in the summer of 1965 defined the bombing raids that would kill hundreds of thousands of civilians north of Saigon as a means of communication to the Communist regime in Hanoi.

The seduction of war is insidious. It appears to be a way to eradicate our enemies, to banish from the world of the living those who would do us harm. At a time when we are afraid it gives us a false sense of power and security. Of course, we do not see the war in Iraq.

The press always masks the essence of war and death from public view. The coverage is presented as a game, as entertainment. Commentators on the cable news channels rival in the power and might of our weaponry and by extension, our own power. We watch neatly packaged video clips fed to the press by the war makers and we are spared the pools of blood, the agony of the dying on the other end. It is clean, and neat, and tidy, and wildly out of context.

There is the technological capacity to show us war. We could have watched live footage of a young Iraqi soldier with his legs blown off with an anti-tank mine dying in the sand, something I saw in the Persian Gulf War. But such coverage would hardly boost ratings, hardly make us to want to wage war and so we are fed the myth. The myth the press almost always feeds us in war time and (the reality we are) kept from seeing.

There is no more candor in Iraq or Afghanistan than there was in Vietnam, but in the age of live satellite feeds the military has perfected the appearance of candor. For the myth of war, the myth of glory and honor, sells newspapers and boosts ratings real war reporting does not. Look at CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. Nearly every embedded correspondent sees his or her mission as sustaining civilian and army morale. The identification of reporters with the units they cover is insipid, and dangerous, but also usual, for in war the press is always part of the problem.

In war time, as Senator Hiram Johnson reminded us in 1917, “truth is the first casualty.” We have lost touch with the essence of war. After our defeat in Vietnam, we became a better nation. We were humbled, even humiliated. We asked questions about ourselves we had not asked before. We were forced to see ourselves as others saw us and the sight was not an attractive one. We were forced to confront our own capacity for atrocity, for evil, and in this we understood not only war, but ourselves.

But this humility is gone. The good name of war has been resurrected. It began under President Reagan in Grenada and Panama, and culminated in the Persian Gulf War. We have been led to believe, in the same way the doomed empires of the late 19th century believed, that our technology makes us invulnerable. A lie sadly unmasked, as I speak today, in the streets of Fallujah.

War is the pornography of violence. It has a dark beauty, filled with the monstrous and the grotesque. The Bible calls it “the lust of the eye” and warns believers against it. War gives us a distorted sense of self. It gives us meaning. It creates a feeling of comradeship that obliterates our alienation and makes us feel, for perhaps the first time in our lives, that we belong. War allows us to rise above our small stations in life, to find nobility in the cause, feelings of selflessness, even bliss.

Once in a conflict, the shallowness of much of our lives becomes apparent; the fruitless search to find fulfillment in the acquisition of things and wealth and power is laid bare. The trivia that dominates our airwaves is exposed as empty chatter. War allows us to engage in lusts and passions we keep hidden in the deepest, most private interiors of our fantasy life. It allows us to destroy not only things but human beings, and in that moment of wholesale destruction, we wield the power of the divine, the power to revoke another person’s charter to live on this earth.

The frenzy of this destruction – and when unit discipline breaks down or there was no unit discipline to begin with, frenzy is the right word – sees armed bands crazed by the poisonous elixir our power to bring about the obliteration of others delivers. All things, including human beings, become objects, objects to either gratify or destroy or both. Almost no one is immune. The contagion of the crowd sees to that.

“Force,” Simone Weil writes, “is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates.” And those who have the least meaning in their lives – the impoverished Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of youth in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world – are all susceptible to war’s appeal.

I do not miss war, but I miss what it brought. I could never say I was happy in the fighting in El Salvador or Bosnia or Kosova, but I had a sense of purpose. This is a quality war shares with love, for we are also able to choose fealty and self-sacrifice over security for those we love. This is why war, at its inception, always looks and feels like love, the chief emotion war destroys. We are tempted, maybe even encouraged, to reduce life to a simple search for happiness. Happiness, however, withers if there is no meaning.

The other temptation is to disavow the search for happiness in order to be faithful to that which provides meaning. But to live only for meaning, indifferent to all happiness, makes us fanatic, self-righteous, and cold. It leaves us cut off from our own humanity and the humanity of others.

The ancient Greeks understood the perverse attraction between love and death in war time. When Achilles killed Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons, in the Trojan War, he fell in love with her as she expired on the battlefield. He murdered love, and once he murdered love, he himself was doomed. He courted death. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, had an illicit affair with Aries, the god of war, who was hated by all the other gods with the exception of the god of the underworld, to whom he steadily brought new souls.

We feel, in war time, comradeship. We confuse this with friendship, with love. There are those who will insist that the comradeship of war is love, the ecstatic glow that makes us, in war, feel as one people, one entity, is real. But this is part of war’s intoxication. Think back on the days after the attacks of 9/11. Suddenly, we no longer felt alone. We connected with strangers, even with people we did not like. We felt we belonged, that we were somehow wrapped in the embrace of the nation, the community. In short, we no longer felt alienated. As this feeling dissipated in the weeks after the attack, there was a nostalgia for its warm glow. War time always brings with it this comradeship, which is the opposite of friendship.

Friends, as J. Glenn Gray points out in his book “The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle,” are predetermined. Friendship takes place between men and women who possess an intellectual and emotional affinity for each other. And many of us will admit that we never really had a friend, and even the most fortunate of us have very few.

But comradeship, that ecstatic bliss that comes with belonging to the crowd in war time, is within our reach. We can all have comrades. The danger, the external threat that comes when we have an enemy, does not create friendship, it creates comradeship. And those in war time are deceived about what they are undergoing. This is why once the war ends these comrades again become strangers to us. This is why, after war, we fall into despair.

In friendship, there is a deepening of our sense of self. We become, through the friend, more aware of who we are and what we are about. We find ourselves in the eyes of the friend. Friends probe and question and challenge each other to make each more complete. They draw the secrets out of us and know our inner core of being. For we reach and change others, and we ourselves are changed when we plunge to the depths of our inner life, the depths that expose our insecurities, our incompleteness, those depths that often lie beyond articulation.

In comradeship, the kind that comes to us in patriotic fervor, there is a suppression of self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-possession. Comrades lose their identities in war time for the collective rush of a common cause, a common purpose. In comradeship, life is ecstatic and corporate, as opposed to friendship, where life is singular and individual.

In comradeship, Gray reminds us, there are no demands on the self. This is part of its appeal and one of the reasons we miss it and seek to recreate it. This is why once the war is over, once the danger that linked us together is past, these feelings are instantly extinguished.

Sebastian Haffner, who was a lawyer in Nazi Germany, wrote of this comradeship in his book “Defying Hitler.” He noted that comradeship destroys the sense of responsibility for oneself, be it civilian or, worse still, the religious sense. Comradeship always sets the cultural tone at the lowest possible level accessible to everyone, he wrote. It cannot tolerate discussion. In the chemical solution of comradeship, discussion immediately takes on the color of whining and grumbling. It becomes a mortal sin. Comradeship admits no thoughts, just mass feelings of the most primitive sort. These, on the other hand, are inescapable. To try and evade them is to put oneself beyond the pale. In war time, when we feel threatened, we no longer face death alone, but as a group. And this makes death easier to bear. We ennoble and self sacrifice for the other, for the comrade. In short, we begin to worship death, and this is what the god of war demands from us.

Think, finally, of what it means to die for a friend. It is deliberate and painful. There is no ecstasy. For friends, dying is hard and bitter. The dialogue they have and cherish will perhaps never be recreated. Friends do not, the way comrades do, love death and sacrifice. To friends, the prospect of death is frightening and this is why friendship – or let me say, love – is the most potent enemy of war.

We do not see war in the images of war presented to us in films and novels, nor in the mythic narratives the government and the press spins out for us. We do not see war in the televised images from Iraq. The war is carefully packaged, the way tobacco or liquor companies package their own poisons. The titillation is there, but always in doses we can digest. The reports give us war that has a coherency and logic it never has in battle. We taste a bit of war’s exhilaration, but are safe.

War from Iraq is seen through the prism of the U.S. military, and it comes complete with manufactured heroes, feel-good stories about our own, and an enemy that is always painted as barbaric and uncivilized. We can thrill in the perversity of war even as we watch films or read books that are meant to denounce war. It is almost impossible to produce antiwar films or documentaries that also present images of battle. It is like trying to condemn pornography while showing erotic love scenes. The prurient fascination with violent death always overpowers the message. War has become part of the modern industrial landscape. Indeed, its tools are often the cutting edge of technology.

By World War I, we had created ways in which thousands of people, who never saw their attackers, could die in an instant. And weapons that carry out this impersonal mass slaughter are beautiful. They are crafted, sleek, and harbor within them awesome power. The machines of war – the planes, the tanks, the heavy machine guns, the huge, hulking howitzers and the helicopters – are pieces of art. I have seen them at work. They are angels of death, streaking through the sky. I was with a unit of guerrillas in El Salvador when some Huey helicopters raced in over a lake to hunt us down. We hid in the ruins of an abandoned village, darting from wall to wall, standing with our backs to the shattered bricks, so our hunters could not see us as they passed low overhead. As I looked up at these machines that were trying to kill me, I found them seductive.

Once in a conflict, once we live in the midst of fighting, we are moved from the abstract to the real, from the mythic to the sensory. No soldier, after a few seconds of combat, believes in the myth of war anymore. And this is why wounded marines jeered John Wayne when he visited them in a hospital in World War II. When this move takes place, we have nothing to do with a world not at war. The world, when we return to it, is viewed from the end of a very long tunnel. There, they still believe. There, they do not understand. We feel different, wiser, greater. This experience is so overpowering that, if we can control our fear, we go back to seek it out again. War is addictive. Indeed, it is the most potent narcotic invented by humankind.

The first time I was in an ambush was in the Salvadoran town of Suchitoto. It was a dreary peasant outpost made up of stucco and mud and wattle huts off the main road. The town was surrounded by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels, who, when I arrived in El Salvador, were winning the war. The government forces kept a small garrison in the town, although its relief columns were frequently ambushed as they ambled down the small strip of asphalt, surrounded by high grass. It was one of the most dangerous spots in the country.

The rebels launched an attack to take the town. A convoy of reporters in cars marked with “TV” in masking tape on the windshields high-tailed it to the small bridge that led to the lonely stretch of road into Suchitoto. Then we moved slowly down the road, the odd round fired ahead or behind us. We made it to the edge of town, where we ran into rebel units, now accustomed to the follies of the press. On foot we moved through the deserted streets. The firing from the garrison became louder as we weaved our way with rebel units to the siege that had been set up. Then, as I rounded a corner, several full bursts of automatic fire rent the air. Bullets hit the mud wall behind me. We dove onto the dirt. Rebels began to fire noisy rounds from their M-16 assault rifles. The scent of cordite filled the air. Rebels around me were wounded and crying out in pain. One died yelling, in a sad cadence for his mother. His desperate and final plea cutting through the absurd posturing of soldiering. At first, his cries haunted me. Soon, I just wished he would be quiet.

The firefight seemed to go on for an eternity. I cannot say how long I lay there. It could have been a few minutes. It could have been an hour. Here was war, real war, sensory war, not the war of the movies and novels I had consumed in my youth. It was horrifying, confusing, numbing, and nothing like the myth I had been peddled. I realized at once that it controlled me. I would never control it. In a lull, I made a dash across an empty square to find shelter behind a house. My heart was racing. Adrenaline coursed through my bloodstream. I was safe.

I made it back to the capital. And, like most war correspondents, soon considered the experience a great cosmic joke. I drank away the fear in a seedy bar in downtown San Salvador that night. Most people, after such an experience, would learn to stay away. I was hooked. Drawn into the world of war, it becomes hard to escape. It perverts and destroys you. It pushes you closer and closer to your own annihilation – spiritual, emotional and, finally, physical.

I covered the war in El Salvador from 1983 to 1988. By the end, I had a nervous twitch in my face. I was evacuated three times by the U.S. embassy because of tips that the death squads planned to kill me. Yet, each time, I came back. I accepted with a grim fatalism that I would be killed in El Salvador. I could not articulate why I accepted my own destruction and cannot now. There came to be a part of me, maybe it is a part of all of us, which decided I would rather die like this than go back to the dull routine.

During the war in El Salvador, I worked with a photographer who covered the war, had a slew of close calls, and then called it quits. He moved to Miami and took pictures for one of the newsweeklies. But life in Florida was flat, dull, uninteresting. He could not adjust and soon came back. From the moment he stepped off the plane it was clear: He had returned to die. Just as there are some soldiers or war correspondents that seem to us immortal and whose loss comes as a sobering reminder that death has no favorites, there are also those in war who are locked in a grim embrace with death from which they cannot escape. He was frightening to behold, a walking corpse. He was shot through the back in a firefight and died in less than a minute.

Sigmund Freud divided the forces in human nature between the Eros instinct, the impulse within us that propels us to become close to others, to preserve and conserve, and the Thanatos, or death instinct, the impulse that works toward the annihilation of all living things, including ourselves. For Freud, these forces were in eternal conflict. He was, therefore, pessimistic about eradicating war. All human history, he argued, and civilization and its discontents, is a tug-of-war between these two instincts.

Taste enough of war and you come to believe the stoics were right. We will, in the end, all consume ourselves in a vast conflagration.

There is a constant search in war to find new perversities, new forms of death when the initial flush fades a rear guard and finally a futile effort to ward off the boredom of routine death. This is way we would drive into towns in Bosnia and find bodies crucified on the sides of barns, or decapitated and mutilated. This is way those slain in combat are treated as trophies belonging to the killers turned into grotesque pieces of performance art. I know soldiers that to this day carry in their wallets the identity cards of men they know they killed. They take them everywhere. They show them to you with the imploring look of a lost child. They will never understand. The job of killing allows our senses to command our bodies. The killing with spiders into greater orgies of destruction, hedonism, and perversion spirals out of control. The comradeship of war, actively works to stomp out all feelings, of love, of tenderness, for love alone shields us. The most important part of the individual life which cannot be subsumed in communal life is love, Haffner wrote. So comradeship has its special weapon against love, smut.

Every evening in bed, after the last patrol round, there was the ritual reciting of lurid song and jokes. This is hard and fast rule of neocomradship and nothing is more mistaken than the widely held opinion that this is a safety valve for frustrated erotic or sexually feelings. These songs and jokes do not have an erotic arousing effect. On the contrary, they make the act of love appear as unappetizing as possible. They treat it like digestion and defecation and make it an object of ridicule. The men who recite three lurid songs and use coarse words for female body parts were in effect denying that they ever had tender feelings or had been in love. That they had ever made themselves attractive, behaved gently, and used sweet words for these same parts. They were rough, tough, and above such civilized tenderness.

In war we deform ourselves, our essence. We give up individual conscious, maybe even consciousness for the contagion of the crowd, the rush of patriotism, the belief that we must stand together as a nation in moments of extremity. The normal order is turned upside down. Better to give yourself up to the lust of war, to make a moral choice, to defy war’s enticement; to defend love can be self-destructive. In the rise to power we always become smaller.

Power absorbs us and once power is obtained we are its pawn. As in Shakespeare’s Richard III the all powerful prince who molded the world, we fall prey to the forces we thought we had harnessed. Love may not always triumph but it keeps us human. It offers the only chance to escape from the contagion of war. Perhaps it is the only antidote and there are times when remaining human is the only victory possible. When the mask of war slips away and the rot and corruption is uncovered, when it turns sour and rank, when the myth is exposed as a fraud, we feel soiled and spent, it is then that we sink into despair.

In the Arab/Israeli 1973 War, almost a third of all Israeli casualties were due to psychiatric causes and the war lasted only a few days. A World War II study determined that after sixty days of continuous combat, 98% of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties. The study found that a common trait among the 2 percent who were able to endure a sustained combat was a predisposition towards “aggressive psychopathic personalities.” During the war in El Salvador soldiers could serve in the army for three or four years or longer, virtually until they psychologically or physically collapsed. In garrison towns commanders banned the sale of sedatives because of the abuse by troops.

In this war, the emotionally maimed were common. I once interviewed a nineteen year old Salvadoran army sergeant who had spent five years fighting and suddenly lost his vision after his unit walked into a rebel ambush. The rebels killed 11 soldiers in the fire fight including his closest friend. A couple dozen soldiers were wounded. He was unable to see again until he was placed in the army hospital. “I have these horrible headaches,” he told me, sitting on the edge of his bed. “There is shrapnel in my head. I keep telling the doctors to take it out.”

But the doctors told me he had no head wounds. I saw other soldiers in other conflicts go deaf or stop speaking or simply shake without being able to stop.

War is necrophilia. This necrophilia is central to soldiering just as it is central to the makeup of suicide bombers and terrorists. The necrophilia is hidden under platitudes about duty or comradeship. It waits, especially in moments when we seem to have little to live for and no hope, or in moments when the intoxication of war is at its pitch, to be unleashed. When we spend long enough in war it comes to us as a kind of release, a fatal and seductive embrace that can consummate the long flirtation with our own destruction.

In Milovan Djilas’s memoir of the partisan war in Yugoslavia, he wrote of the enticement death held for the combatants. He stood over the body of his comrade, the Commander Sava Kovaèeviæ, and found

“Dying did not seem terrible or unjust. This was the most extraordinary, the most exultant moment of my life: Death did not seem strange or undesirable. That I restrained myself from charging blindly into the fray and death, was perhaps due to my sense of obligation to the troops, or to some comrade’s reminder concerning the tasks at hand. In my memory I return to those moments many times, with the same feeling of intimacy with death and desire for it, while I was in prison, especially during my first incarceration.”

War ascendant wipes out Eros. It wipes out delicacy and tenderness. And this is why those in war swing from rank sentimentality to perversion, with little in between.

A year after the war in Sarajevo, I sat with Bosnian friends who had suffered horribly. A young woman, Ljiljana, had lost her father, a Serb, who refused to join the besieging Serb forces around the city. She had been forced a few days earlier to identify his corpse. The body was lifted, the water running out of the sides of a rotting coffin, from a small park for reburial in the central cemetery. She was emigrating to Australia soon – where she told me, “I will marry a man who has never heard of this war and raise children that will be told nothing about it, nothing about the country I am from.”

Ljiljana was young, but the war had exacted a toll. Her cheeks were hollow, her hair dry and brittle. Her teeth were decayed; some had broken into jagged bits. She had no money for a dentist. She hoped to fix them in Australia. Yet, all she and her friends did that afternoon was lament the days when they lived in fear and hunger, emaciated, targeted by Serb gunners on the heights above. They did not wish back the suffering and yet, they admitted, these may have been the fullest days of their lives. They looked at me in despair.

I knew them when they were being pounded by hundreds of shells a day, when they had no water to bathe in or wash their clothes, when they huddled in unheated apartments, as sniper bullets hit the walls outside. But what they expressed was real. It was the disillusionment with a sterile, futile, and empty present. Peace had again peeled back the void that the rush of war of battle had filled. Once again they were, as perhaps we all are, alone, no longer bound by that common sense of struggle, no longer given the opportunity to be noble, heroic, no longer sure of what life was about or what it meant.

The old comradeship, however false, that allowed them to love men and women they hardly knew, had vanished with the last shot. Moreover, they had seen that all the sacrifice had been for naught. They had been, as we all are in war, betrayed. The corrupt old Communist Party bosses, who became nationalists overnight and got them into the mess in the first place, had grown rich off their suffering, and were still in power. There was a 70% unemployment rate. They depended on handouts from the international community. They understood that their cause, once as fashionable in certain intellectual circles as they were themselves, lay forgotten. No longer did actors, politicians, and artists scramble to visit during the cease fires, acts that were almost always ones of gross self-promotion. They knew the lie of war, the mockery of their idealism and struggled with their shattered illusions. And yet, they wished it all back, and I did too.

A year later I received a Christmas card. It was signed “Ljiljana from Australia.” It had no return address. I never heard from her again.

But many of those I worked with as war correspondents during the past two decades did not escape. They could not break free from the dance with death. They wandered from conflict to conflict, seeking always one more hit. By then I was back in Gaza and found myself pinned down in another ambush. A young Palestinian 15 feet away was shot through the chest and killed. I had been lured back but now felt none of the old rush, just fear. It was time to break free, to let go, to accept that none of this would or could or should return. I knew then that it was over. I was lucky to get out alive.

Kurt Schork, brilliant, courageous and driven, could not let go. He died in an ambush in Sierra Leone, along with another friend, Miguel Gil Morano. His entrapment, his embrace of Thanatos of the death instinct was never mentioned in the sterile and antiseptic memorial service staged for him in Washington. Everyone tiptoed around it, but for those of us who knew him we understood that he had been consumed. I had worked with Kurt for ten years, starting in northern Iraq. Literate, funny – it seems the brave are often funny – he and I passed books back and forth in our struggle to make sense of the madness around us. His loss is a hole that will never be filled. His ashes were placed in Lion’s Cemetery in Sarajevo for the victims of the war.

I flew to Sarajevo and met the British documentary filmmaker Dan Reed. It was an overcast November day. We stood over the grave and downed a pint of whiskey. Dan lit a candle. I recited a poem the Roman lyric poet Catullus had written to honor his dead brother.

By strangers’ coasts and waters, many days at sea,
I come here for the rites of your unworlding,
Bringing for you, the dead, these last gifts of the living
And my words – vain sounds for the man of dust.
Alas, my brother,
You have been taken from me. You have been taken from me,
By cold chance turned a shadow, and my pain.
Here are the foods of the old ceremony, appointed
Long ago for the starvelings under the earth:
Take them: your brother’s tears have made them wet; and take
Into eternity my hail and my farewell.

It was there, among a few thousand war dead, that Kurt belonged. He died because he could not free himself from war. He was trying to replicate what he had found in Sarajevo. But he could not. War could never be new again. Kurt had been in East Timor and Chechnya. Sierra Leone, I was sure, meant nothing to him. Kurt and Miguel could not let go. They would be the first to admit it. Spend long enough at war and you cannot fit in anywhere else. It finally kills you. It is not a new story. It starts out like love, but it is death.

War is the beautiful young nymph in the fairy tale that when kissed exhales the vapors of the underworld. The ancient Greeks had a word for such a fate – ekpyrosis. It means, “to be consumed by a ball of fire.” And they used it to describe heroes.

Thank you.

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