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The Smell of War

March 30, 2003|Philip Caputo | Philip Caputo is the author of "A Rumor of War" and eight other books.

It is said that our most evocative sense is the sense of smell, and after the names of the villages and the numbers and the dates have grown dim in your memory, the thing you can never forget about a battlefield is the smell.

Riding up to the Golan Heights that bright morning in October 1973 to cover the Israeli counterattack, our maps and the distant grumbling of shells and bombs told us we were miles from the front, but the wind was easterly and the stench it carried deceived us into thinking we were much closer. The Syrians had annihilated an Israeli armored brigade in the first three days of the war, and the Israelis destroyed a Syrian division when they struck back. Something like 8,000 corpses lay out there amid the Golan's rocky fields. Their putrefying flesh overwhelmed the odors of smoke and diesel fuel and burned tanks, trucks and armored personnel carriers.

When we got to the front and saw them -- lying at the roadside or in their mangled vehicles or hanging out of tank turrets, some yellow, some blue, some as green and bloated as well-fed blowflies, some headless, some eviscerated, some charred into mere outlines of the human body, some with legs or arms or legs and arms blown off -- their stink made us gag and our eyes burn and wove itself into our clothes. No amount of laundering would wash out the smell after we got back to Tel Aviv, and some of us had to toss our shirts and trousers into the hotel incinerator. Even so, it stuck in our nostrils and memories, and years later we could wake up at some nightmare hour and there it would be, in bed with us, almost visible.

The smell, like names and numbers, turns abstract words and phrases like "disarmament" and "regime change" and "preemption" and "national credibility" into obscenities. I wish it could be bottled and the bottles placed on desks in the White House, the Capitol, the Washington think tanks, the editorial board rooms of magazines and newspapers whose cheerleaders called for war with Iraq, and the studios of the talk-radio hosts fulminating about French quislings and unpatriotic antiwar protesters.

Just when they were at their saber-rattling worst, I would uncork the bottles and make them sit there and inhale that hideous perfume. As a combat veteran of Vietnam and a war correspondent who covered the fall of Saigon, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the October War in the Middle East, the Eritrean rebellion in Ethiopia, the Sudanese civil war and the Lebanese civil war (in which I was wounded in both legs), I have been appalled to see such zest for war exhibited by people who don't know the first thing about it. If they did know, they wouldn't be so enthusiastic.

Yes, everyone in the administration from the president on down had said he (or she) didn't want war, that war was a last resort, but that was a sop to public and international opinion. This administration was talking about deposing Saddam Hussein by force long before 9/11. For a whole range of ideological and economic reasons, it and its neoconservative supporters wanted war, and war they now have.

Maybe I wouldn't feel so angry about that if President Bush hadn't spent the Vietnam years in the Texas Air National Guard and Vice President Dick Cheney hadn't said that he never went to Vietnam because he had "other priorities."

Maybe I wouldn't feel so angry if I could be half convinced this war is necessary, for only necessity can justify war. We hear a lot about "moral clarity" these days. My opposition to this war is based on a clear moral principle: You don't attack another nation that has not attacked you and that does not pose an imminent threat to your national security or vital national interests. Hussein, barbarian though he is, doesn't fit that profile.

Even the administration admits that Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, that its links to Al Qaeda, in the words of one senior official interviewed by the New Yorker magazine, are "nonexistent, for all intents and purposes."

As for Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, so far we have yet to see concrete evidence to substantiate Washington's assertions that Iraq possesses them in sufficient quantities to threaten us. Maybe, in coming days or weeks, the proverbial smoking gun will be found, but until then, I can only conclude that this conflict is not a preemptive war (military action taken against an enemy that is about to attack you) but a preventive one, waged against the possibility that Hussein might someday strike us with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, either directly or through a terrorist group. He is, then, a surrogate for our real enemy -- our inability to live with the dread of an uncertain future.

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