Nicholas Fearn

When conscience is a doubtful guide

In the summer, I met a man who made his living by selling computer hardware he found discarded around London’s business districts. A Scorpion tank driver during the Gulf war, he told me how he had been wounded in a firefight and now found himself unequipped for ordinary employment. Soldiers who have seen action are not supposed to enjoy talking about their experiences, so I took him for a fantasist, until he pulled down the neck of his t-shirt and showed me his bullet wounds. The man may have risked his life for a cheap oil supply and the restoration of a despotic government, but he had come out of it with some good stories to tell – and this was recompense enough.

Not every combat veteran conforms to the popular image of quiet dignity. Some relate their tales with all the gusto of celebrities recounting their charity work, believing that what they endured was the most meaningful time in their lives. This is doubtful, as meaningfulness tends to be imposed on events retrospectively, whereas fear and pain – the common currencies of war – occur in the present tense. However, to take such an attitude is not necessarily a form of denial. That it can also be affirmation is what has driven the war correspondent Chris Hedges to despair. After a career spent reporting on conflicts from Bosnia to the Middle East, he has written a subtle and considered account of the mythology that causes, sustains and excuses organised killing.

Where other writers are content with clichZd allusions to ‘dark, inner drives’ that take hold of men in wartime, Hedges warns that supposedly positive traits serve the same purpose equally well.

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