What Every Person Should Know About War

A recent essay by Jonathan Turley demonstrates how pervasive, and subtle, government propaganda can be. For instance, few Americans realize how much sway the Defense Department has in Hollywood. The military edits films for negative content, denies access to filmmakers who refuse to be censored, and even writes scripts for television shows. Sadly, our fantasies have as little integrity as our news.

Small wonder, then, that most Americans believe whatever Donald Rumsfeld says, or that recruits keep hopping on the fodder train. But while millions watch Steven Spielberg‘s latest paean to war and the Pentagon sells its Army of One to bored, hopeless teens, a U.S. soldier somewhere knows better. He might be staring in disbelief at his hospital bill. From Stars and Stripes:

"At a daily rate of $8.10, hospitalized troops, including those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, are being charged for their meals.

"’I was amazed. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it,’ said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, who has introduced a bill to repeal what he calls an ‘offensive’ law…

"To make a point about their objection, Young and his wife, Beverly, recently paid the $210.60 hospital [bill] from the National Navy Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for a Marine Corps reservist who lost part of his foot during a recent deployment in which, according to Young, a 10-year-old Iraqi dropped a grenade in the staff sergeant’s Humvee."

That’s some way to support our troops. I doubt the reservist’s recruiter said anything about this. But what if he had? What if the kids standing in line at the recruitment office actually knew what they were getting themselves into? What if voters knew what war really does to human beings? Could a mere FAQ change our belligerent ways?

In his latest book, Chris Hedges aims to provide "a glimpse into war as it is, not as it is usually portrayed by the entertainment industry, the state, and the press." What Every Person Should Know About War (03) answers 437 questions about the practice of war. It has no smoldering phrases, no calls to action, no arguments at all, just questions and answers. Each answer is footnoted, and almost every footnote leads to a scientific study or U.S. military publication. The book is blunt, dispassionate, and the last thing the government wants you to read.

Hedges focuses on specific, often mundane, concerns as he walks the reader through "war as it is." He opens with general information, such as the number of people in military service around the world, the size and expense of the U.S. military, and the number of wars currently underway. The rest of the book proceeds through the stages of military life, beginning at enlistment. ("What will happen to me at boot camp?" "Can I sign up for a job that will keep me out of combat?" "What is the median income of those who enlist?") No detail is too small. Consider this entry from the chapter on life during war:

"What will I eat? It will depend on what you are supposed to do that day. If you have a day of hard work ahead, you will be given a carbohydrate-rich meal. If your mission requires peak cognitive ability, you will receive protein. You may be given food rich in carbohydrates and low in protein to make you tired if you need to sleep during irregular hours. A typical meal ready to eat (MRE) or self-heating individual meal module (SHIMM) might include a Salisbury steak, bread, and a specially formulated chocolate bar that is designed not to melt in hot climates."

Hedges gives answers, not editorials. Some entries offer practical advice from U.S. military training manuals on how to avoid being shot, how to prepare for battle, how to build a makeshift toilet, and how to avoid dehydration. Some entries explain medical issues:

"What are the best and worst places to get shot? A clean line through your arm, hand, or foot is best, though it will be painful. Bullets damage in different ways depending on where they hit. The pressure from a bullet that enters the brain will usually rupture the skull. Low density tissue like lungs offer less resistance, but a lung wound will make it very difficult to breathe. The spleen, liver, and kidney may rupture on impact. The damage to your stomach depends on what you have in it. An empty stomach is better. If you have water or food in your stomach, the bullet will push it outward against your organs. Nerve damage from a bullet can result in loss of feeling and temporary paralysis. Bullets often sever blood vessels rather than rupture them. If you are hit in an artery you will bleed to death very quickly unless you receive medical attention."

Part of military life is, of course, death. There are questions about killing and dying, but Hedges eschews scare tactics. He puts the odds of an American soldier being wounded or killed in a war zone at a relatively low 1 in 15 (1 in 5 for infantry in major wars). He examines various ways of dying and the likelihood of each: infection, land mines, aircraft accidents, friendly fire, chemical and biological weapons, radiation poisoning, and so on. As the data pile up, the glamour of war gives way not to hysteria, but to sober reflection. The truth shall wake you up:

"What will happen if I am exposed to nuclear radiation but do not die immediately? The Office of the Surgeon General’s Textbook of Military Medicine states: ‘Fatally irradiated soldiers should receive every possible palliative treatment, including narcotics, to prolong their utility and alleviate their physical and psychological distress. Depending on the amount of fatal radiation, such soldiers may have several weeks to live and to devote to the cause. Commanders and medical personnel should be familiar with estimating survival time based on onset of vomiting. Physicians should be prepared to give medications to alleviate diarrhea, and to prevent infection and other sequelae of radiation sickness in order to allow the soldier to serve as long as possible. The soldier must be allowed to make the full contribution to the war effort. He will already have made the ultimate sacrifice. He deserves a chance to strike back, and to do so while experiencing as little discomfort as possible.’"

The sensation of dying, what happens to the body postmortem, and funeral protocols are all covered in a tone devoid of sentiment. Yet facts alone are sometimes moving:

"Will I receive a 21-gun salute? Yes. You will receive a rifle volley of three volleys from seven rifles. Your family, if it requests them, may be allowed to keep the cartridges of the blanks that are fired."

Hedges sticks to small questions, but he clearly has a larger one in mind: Do our public officials and armchair generals ever think about the postscripts to their adventures? We often hear them say, with false resignation in their voices, that "war is hell," but it isn’t. Hell is an abstraction; war is tourniquets, amputations, paraplegics, orphans, widows, torture, rape, and a grief that never sleeps. By reminding us of this, What Every Person Should Know About War has enormous potential to change the terms of our public discourse.