In his mostly excellent Nov. 3 Op-Ed article, "War Is Hell," Jonathan Zimmerman makes a very good point: You can't judge a war by the atrocities committed fighting it. This makes sense logically; the larger moral purpose of a war doesn't necessarily have anything to do with how soldiers fight that war.
But Zimmerman ignores the larger implication of wartime atrocities: You can judge all wars by the atrocities committed in any war, because violence defines war. Every war, from the seemingly insignificant battles of the Yanomamo tribes to the globe-spanning world wars, represents the larger concept of war.
War is violent. It is deadly, expensive, destructive and wasteful. And even the justified wars are ugly. As Zimmerman points out, during World War II — a noble, morally just war — GIs sent home the ears of dead Japanese soldiers as trophies. Add to this the thousands of Germans who suffocated in Dresden as the fire literally sucked the air out of their lungs, more than 100,000 Japanese burnt alive as Tokyo went up in flames, plus many more wartime horrors we don't even know about, and the implication is inescapable: Even just war is hell.
So Zimmerman is partially correct when he says, "These crimes don't speak to the larger purpose and validity of the war in Afghanistan." They don't, but they do speak to the cost of wars in general. For World War II or the Civil War, that cost was justified in the end. For the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, future generations will debate whether the wars were worth it.
But we, as a country, should have already had this debate. Instead, we avoided this uncomfortable discussion, ignoring the inevitable human costs of soldiers returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder and civilian collateral damage.
Discussing the human cost of war after committing to war is pointless; discussing the human cost of war before is a moral imperative. Before a nation goes to war, it must weigh the tactical and strategic gains against the deaths, atrocities and horrors we know will occur. Instead of debating weapons of mass destruction or nation building, we should discuss the likelihood that millions of people will lose their homes, hundreds of thousands will suffer injuries, and tens of thousands will die.
We should expect the worst case scenario and ask ourselves, "Is this worth it?"
We can't kid ourselves; all wars are tragic. Small wars like the Falklands war or the first conflict in Iraq seem insignificant compared with the Civil War, World War I or World War II. This is an illusion. There are no small, meaningless wars. Try telling a surviving spouse, parent or sibling that their loved one's death didn't matter. Try to tell them that their war isn't brutal or ugly. All war is some degree of ugly.
The larger purpose of war is destruction. Zimmerman quotes Eugene B. Sledge, who wrote, "The fierce struggle for survival eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all." I prefer the sentiment from Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness," an almost direct rebuttal to this line, that "primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both."
Forgetting the true cost of war, before we begin them, is the true sin. War isn't about building civilizations, but destroying them. Believing that America's overwhelming military power will keep war less bloody is, to paraphrase author Tim O'Brien, an old and terrible lie, but one we keep forgetting. Atrocities such as the alleged civilian murders in Afghanistan just force this ugly truth into the daylight.
Atrocities don't define the war in Afghanistan; they define war in general.
Eric Cummings writes for On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs, art and violence written by two brothers; one a soldier and the other a pacifist.