War is hell. Nobody will ever improve on William Tecumseh Sherman's famous definition of his craft. But like Dante's Inferno, war includes several circles of crime - and punishment. War is noble as well, and brings out the best in men and women with the highest appeal to honor and the ultimate sacrifice.
The camera and the correspondent cover war by capturing the good, the bad and the ugly. The bad and the ugly get most of the attention, framing the sensational sins of the beast that lurks within man. The ugly confers the shock of recognition of how evil man can be both on and off the killing fields, where fear is the soldier's constant companion. The ugliness of vile behavior exposes the weak links in performance under stress.
The photographs of American soldiers torturing prisoners outrage us all. We wonder how such things can happen, can be allowed to happen. But such things do happen, and in every war. This truth does not excuse them, but puts them in realistic perspective.
When atrocities are uncovered, the first impulse is to search for excuses. Some of us blame it on the "kind of war" we're fighting. Others blame it on the way we've raised our children, of how the culture shapes character. Still others say that war coarsens in degrees and a combination of certain circumstances can corrode and corrupt a "band of brothers," who suddenly fail to make the crucial distinctions between right and wrong.
This happens to rogue cops, who become no better than the criminals they set out to catch. Soldiers can snap when they are no longer able to see the virtue of their cause and they shatter the rules of engagement. They may lust for revenge for a fallen comrade, or despair of preventing vicious crimes of the enemy. The misguided man may use torture to elicit information. There has never been a war in which some soldiers haven't demonized the enemy to make him seem less than human. How else can a decent man learn to kill?
A World War II veteran of the Pacific fighting told me how one of his buddies sliced off the ear of a Japanese prisoner, serving no purpose but to assuage fury at the madness of war. Honor can be distorted into perversion. The movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai" tells how a fine British officer, overseeing his men in a Japanese prison camp in Burma in World War II, allows courage and integrity to take on a life of its own, driving him to sacrifice the good of his men and the interests of his country for the satisfaction of personal heroics.