Pity, poetry and praise for the noble warrior

Suzanne Fields

4/10/2003 12:00:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

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.

Michael Kelly, the newspaperman who was the first reporter to die in Iraq, was among the best and the most thoughtful. He knew the danger that Saddam Hussein posed for his own people and the rest of us. He saw the last Gulf War up close and recalled the tortured bodies of corpses he had seen in Kuwait City where skins were left black and blue from beatings, where men had been burnt alive, where eyes were ripped from their sockets.

"After that," he writes, " I never could stand the arguments of those who sat in the luxury of safety - 'advocating nonresistance behind the guns of the American Fleet' as George Orwell wrote of World War II pacifists."

Orwell taught him about tyranny, too. "Tyranny truly is a horror: an immense, endlessly bloody, endlessly painful, endlessly varied, endless crime against not humanity in the abstract but a lot of humans in the flesh. It is, as Orwell wrote, a jackboot forever stomping on a human face."

Courage requires a deep appreciation of life and that appreciation was incandescent in Michael Kelly's columns. He was known as a reporter who had a brilliant eye for the specific detail that illuminates, but his words brought intellectual order and poetry to the clouds of chaotic fire and death around him.

The Germans and the French depict President Bush as an out-of-control cowboy riding a bucking bronco with only a dim perception of where he will land. They ought to read Michael Kelly's columns. They might find something to contemplate in this reflection, written six weeks ago:

"I understand why some dislike the idea, and fear the ramifications of, America as a liberator. But I do not understand why they do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot. And that any rescue of a people under the boot (be they Afghan, Kuwaiti or Iraqi) is something to be desired. Even if the rescue is less than perfectly realized. Even if the rescuer is a great overmuscled, bossy, selfish oaf. Or would you, for yourself, choose the boot?"