We have entered our Heart of Darkness at Abu Ghraib, a prison haunted by horrors Saddam Hussein unleashed there. Now that prison has become the setting for images of young American men and women we'll never forget. For the rest of our lives we'll see them laughing for the camera while they force Iraqis to commit sex acts, hook them to electrodes, cover them with hoods and beat them with sticks, drag them on dog collars and pack out bodies in ice.
Does anyone believe these young women and men acted from patriotism? No, the program of abuse in Abu Ghraib served a force quite apart from patriotism. It served the flip side of war—the savagery and cruelty that every war unleashes.
Nothing has brought the horror home to us more starkly than the beheading of Nick Berg, a young man who set out to make a dollar while doing some good in Iraq. Now he's entered the annals of warfare in the modern age. His beheading plays endlessly in digital time on the Internet.
I won't go there. I've no desire to see that all too common act, just as I've no desire to see more pictures from Abu Ghraib. Don't mention them to me. We both know how that conversation goes.
How many times in the past week has someone begun, “Did you see those pictures?” Or, “Did you see that poor young man who was beheaded?” only to let the conversation die. What's left to say after all, except, “How horrible?”
Oh, sure, there are those who blather on. Those who strut like bull apes and speak the language of doom and revenge. Yet who shouldn't have seen this coming? You don't need pictures to know what we all should have learned long ago. That such things happen in war. That it's a force best resisted. Who doubts we could have prevented this war in Iraq?
Yet generation after generation yields to the seductive power of state violence, sanctioned killing, in which a few profit at the expense of many. We think we can master war. Trust us, we know how this thing's done, our leaders tell us as they march out their latest plan. Enthralled, we dress it up in patriotic bunting. Wrap it in flags. Set it to music.
Eventually, though, every war reveals its heart of darkness.
We see it clearly in the aftermath of Shiloh and Verdun and Dresden and Hiroshima and My Lai—horrific slaughters in which distinctions of who's right and who's wrong and who has God's approval become blurred, confused, so that even the most rational among us are reduced to saying “Wasn't that horrible?”
If an evil spirit is a force with an appetite for misery, a force with its own internal logic, an ability to enter the hearts of its hosts and bring out the worst in them, then war is an evil spirit. It thrives when reasonable people surrender to its perverse logic.
Here is the logic of war: Somebody hit me, could've been you. I hit you. You hit me back. I hit you back harder. You are bad. I am good. No, you are the bad one. God knows it's me that's good.
Like children who can't quit squabbling, though parents promise doom, we find ourselves injured and enraged by horrific acts and events we should have seen coming, like the sins at Abu Ghraib, the beheading of Nick Berg.
We should've seen them coming 10,000 miles away, because nothing's more common in warfare than torture and beheadings. Look at the French Revolution. Men with guillotines severed the heads from thousands, including the Guillotine's inventor, as a whole society bowed to the logic of war. Afterward, Napoleon proclaimed that he would spread freedom, equality and liberty—the ideals of the French Revolution--to the rest of the world. In one campaign alone Napoleon marched 600,000 men into the heart of Russia, where they were shot, stabbed, burnt, starved and frozen to death. Only 20,000 straggled back to tell the horrible reality. Think of that. Incredibly, many still regard Napoleon as a hero. Few learn the true lessons of war. Who foresaw Shiloh, Verdun, My Lai?
Yet every war, like every river, leads to a source. And the headwaters of the river of war that wends through every true account of human history begin in the darkness that competes with light inside each human heart. That's the lesson contained in those sad, banal images from Abu Ghraib. Images at which we stare as if possessed, like Col. Kurtz at the end of Joseph Conrad's novel, “The Heart of Darkness,” so that if we speak at all, it's only to speak words like he utters there:
“The horror. The horror.”