War is a theme that gives me a nearly welcome unease. If that seems a strange thing to say, I'll admit upfront that while I mean it, it's really a bad paraphrase. After years covering wars all over the world, the journalist Chris Hedges wrote a small masterpiece of a book called War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. In it and in lectures he has given since, he explores war as elixir and grime, as myth and betrayal. To me, it is a profoundly anti-war book, without being merely pacifist. That's the understanding Hedges has, grown from his experiences. I won't say more, you should read the book.
I buy and read books about war with a sort of compulsive fascination. My shelves are dotted with them: about battles from Leonidas and his heroic Spartans to Agincourt, the World Wars to Vietnam and the Gulf Wars. I haven't read a lot of books on my shelves, but the war books -- they get read. The best of them sadden me greatly; more than that, they make me choke to hear emptiness like the "glory" of war. And they drive me to read ever more. That's the welcome unease.
The best of them: Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed, John Keegan's The Face of Battle, Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire and Hedges's book. Others. I'm now reading Tobias Wolff's Vietnam memoir, In Pharaoh's Army.
You'll notice I've not mentioned Indian books on war. I've often wondered: is there truly no outstanding book-length writing on our wars? Or have I missed something? Memoirs by retired Generals tend to be stilted and self-serving, and I've never been inclined to read regimental histories that other retired Generals write. (Who does read those?) The HarperCollins book, Guns and Yellow Roses, is thought-provoking and features some superb writers, but it is in the end a collection of essays that doesn't dig deep enough.
Where's the Indian Sledge, the jawan or young officer who fights and has no illusions about the other side, but is clear-eyed too about his own Army and country, and what his fellow-soldiers do in their names? Where's the look back at the wars we fought, the mistakes we made, that's not drenched in enemy perfidy? Where's the gripping retelling of Porus fighting Alexander, or the carnage at Kalinga that awoke an Emperor's conscience?
Yes, what am I missing?
But back to Chris Hedges. He writes, and has often spoken, of a close friend who died in Sierra Leone in 2000 -- Kurt Schork, also a war correspondent. He and Hedges worked together for a decade, starting in northern Iraq. In a lecture at Harvard two years ago, Hedges spoke of how they would "pass books back and forth in our struggle to make sense of the madness around us."
Sometimes I think that's why I read so compulsively on war, Hedges's book included.
Kurt Schork was buried in a Sarajevo cemetery. In November 2000, Hedges went to Sarajevo to visit Schork's grave. He read a poem there. Now most times, poetry does very little for me. But this one haunts me, there's no other word I have. The Roman lyric poet, Catullus, wrote it to honour his brother, killed near Troy in 58 BC. Here it is, in full.
By strangers' coasts and waters, many days at sea,
I came here for the rites of your unworlding,
Bringing for you, the dead, these last gifts of the living
And my words -- vain sounds for the man of dust.
Alas, my brother,
You have been taken from me. You have been taken from me
And by cold hands turned to shadow, and my pain.
Here are the foods of the old ceremony appointed
Long ago for the starvelings under the earth.
Take them. Your brother's tears have made them wet. And take
Into eternity my hail and my farewell.
I sent these lines to a young man I know who lost his brother in Kashmir in 2000. They come to me whenever I come across names like Nawang Kapadia, Abhimanyu Sikka, Nissar Ahmed Rishi, Abhijit Gadgil, Saurabh Kalia, Baban Chawa, S Shabiyullah ... A very long list. All taken from brothers like Catullus and Hedges, from sisters and wives and families -- and by cold hands turned to shadow, and their pain.
War gives us meaning, Hedges writes. Pain, unease and some haunting questions, in that meaning.