War is an abstraction to anyone who is not into it. No matter how many words, strategies and arguments spent over what's right or wrong in any given war, putting a life on the line is something of a different order. Those who criticize the war in Iraq as motivated by oil and triumphant glory degrade themselves while degrading others.
I've been reading poetry about war and was startled to discover a passage in the Iliad, when Achilles turns down great wealth - horses, cattle, rams, gold, even women - offered to him to fight against the Trojans. This great hero of ancient Greece, whom most students know only as an angry, proud man who makes war for glory and fame, is not so shallow as all that.
If he is to die, it has to be for something worthy. He refuses the bounty that accompanies the honor. "Now I think no riches can compare with being alive," he says. "A man may come by cattle and sheep. . But his life's breath cannot be hunted back or recaptured once it passes his lips."
He rejects the superficial warrior code, seeking instead a moral purpose to avenge the death of his friend. Dying on the battlefield must have high purpose.
The war poems of British poet Wilfred Owen, who died from German fire on the Western front as he was leading his men to battle, fused intellectual integrity and a soulful nobility that transformed the ugliness of war into an uplifting spirit. Owen enlisted after a visit to a hospital in France. He set out to give voice to the pity and poetry in war, to make a soldier's suffering transcendent.
"I have perceived much beauty
In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
Heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate."
For the coalition troops in the middle of it all, war is terrifying, if animating. War reflects both pity and purpose. There is poetry in the gestures of the soldiers who break rules by distributing water to the thirsty Iraqi women and children who are so parched that saliva forms in the corners of their mouths. Poor villagers outside of Baghdad serve hot tea to Marines, offering humble appreciation for the generous supplies of drinking water the Marines have brought with them. This is the other side of war, suffused with magnanimity, that creates links with the future nation of Iraq.
The best of the reporters and photographers embedded in this war illustrate moral purpose with words and images.