Thursday, May 06, 2004

why war images are important

I just have one thing to say about war images--the brutal, messy battlefield portraits as well as the solemn and stylized pictures: we need to see them because it forces us to confront our decision to wage war in the first place.

I don't agree with people who seem to see these images only as weapons to break the will of pro-war Americans. In fact I thought this view was a straw man until I actually heard people reiterating it. But if the pictures are not weapons, neither are they shameful evidence of mistakes.

They are reality. If we choose to wage war, we need to face the consequences of our choice. And I don't mean to characterize this reality check as any kind of punishment. I do not say that war is always wrong. But it does, always, result in death and destruction, and we should never try to pretend it doesn't (even if--especially if--all the death and destruction is suffered by the other side). Because the opportunity to declare war will come again, and we need to the tools--the memories and the hard-won understanding--that will give us pause before making a cavalier decision. The worst thing we could ever become is a people who believe we can wage war with impugnity--forgetting the suffering we both cause and receive.

I would expect, for those who believe a war is just, that these people would be strengthened by evidence of sacrifice for a just cause. And when the cause is truly just, we should celebrate that this son or that wife did for all of us. We need to recognize that because they went and stood in front, we didn't have to.

And that's my point. The reality of war gives us understanding about what we, as individuals, stand for. And when the cause is just, it firms our will because it makes us confront the fact that our values carry a heavy price, and what we value becomes more real and more precious to us. Of course, we might also end up realizing that what we originally valued was empty, or at least not as valuable as the final price.