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.
There's often only a tiny space between rage and honor, vengeance and victory, the coercion of anger and the more measured compulsion of conviction. The finest poets sing of arms and war and link brutality and heroism. The closing pages of the "Iliad" describe the triumph of Achilles, who drags Hector's dead body behind his chariot for all of the Trojans to see that Hector is vanquished.
It's a cruel and vicious gesture. But when Priam, Hector's father and king of Troy, goes to the tent of Achilles to ask the warrior to return his son for burial, Achilles rediscovers the human aspirations higher than brute force.
War is nothing if not theatrical and nothing is more dramatic than showing how decent men can become demoralized and "immoralized." Americans are rightly outraged by any behavior of our fighting men that is less than decent, because preserving human dignity in accordance with the ideals of democracy is what we fight for; this is what has made America the towering beacon of hope in the world.
American soldiers in Iraq have shown remarkable discipline and self-control against an enemy bereft not only of a uniform but of respect for human rights and the rules of warfare.
That does not excuse or rationalize the stupid, crass, and disgusting immorality in the photographs now showing around the world. With six investigations in motion, every fact must be uncovered and the guilty punished swiftly.
But let's not forget that most of our soldiers are more like Pat Tillman, who died for his country in Afghanistan. "Pat's best service to his country was to remind us all what courage really looks like," said Sen. John McCain, "and that the purpose of all good courage is love. He loved his country, and the values that make us exceptional among nations, and good."