The Smell of War

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.

Meanwhile, the contradictions coming out of Washington almost outdo Orwell. The president and his Cabinet told us that this war will make us more secure, but before the first shot was fired, Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security secretary, raised the national threat level to orange and tightened domestic security.

We are further told that after our laser-guided bombs have sent Hussein to hell, a democratic Iraq will be born, with the U.S. as midwife. Well, I covered the Middle East for four years, from Morocco to Tehran, and feel reasonably confident in predicting that we would find it easier to grow bananas in the Sahara than to plant a flourishing democracy in that blood-dimmed, fractious country. I feel reasonably confident in further predicting, as people more expert in these matters have already done, that a prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq will in time inflame Arab nationalism and Islamist fervor, and serve as a giant recruiting poster for Al Qaeda or some other band of murderous fanatics. Uncle Osama Wants You!

Before hostilities began, polls showed a majority of Americans supported an invasion of Iraq, but that support dropped considerably when respondents were asked to maintain it in the face of prolonged fighting and escalating casualties. In so many words, people were saying, “We’re all for it so long as it doesn’t cost too much.” That is also appalling. If Hussein really is as dangerous as the administration says he is, then we ought to be willing to pay the price to disarm him and remove him from power.

After Pearl Harbor, Americans didn’t say, let’s fight the Japanese, but not if too many of our boys get killed and wounded. But this isn’t the America of 1941, this is “Fast Food Nation.” We are not accustomed to making sacrifices. We want it both ways, quick and easy, and Washington hasn’t done much to discourage that attitude. Perhaps recent images of shattered American bodies lying on the road to Baghdad will serve as a reality check. It isn’t going to be quick and easy.

It’s not that I think this conflict will be long or extract a high price in American blood, in comparison with previous wars. I will be surprised if it lasts longer than a month and results in more than 1,000 casualties. That said -- and the unexpected vigor of Iraqi resistance has already shown this -- war is the province of uncertainty, the kingdom of the unpredictable. And so I leave the arguments opposing this one, which are just as abstract as those for it, and come back to the concrete realities of war, not just the smell but the sights and the sounds of it. The awesome, soul-shattering noise of incoming shellfire, whip-crack of bullets streaming overhead, nervous stutter of automatic weapons, grenade blast, confused yells, screams.

The machine-gunner in my platoon who lies in paddy muck after an ambush, one arm hanging by a single strand of muscle; the corporal blowing red bubbles through his mouth, a bullet in his lung; the body bags lined up outside the 3rd Marine Division hospital near Da Nang and the wards so dense with wounded there is barely an inch between their beds; the young Marine with bandaged eyes feeling his way down the aisle, calling out, “I can’t find my rack, somebody help me find my rack”; and the three riflemen killed inside their bunker by an infiltrator’s grenade that set off their grenades and me answering, “I’m not sure,” when the graves registration officer asks if I can identify them.

The concrete realties, names and numbers. Those are the only arguments that mean anything. Here’s a number for you: 16. Here are the names: Gautier. Guzman. Fankhauser. Fernandez. Levy. Lockhart. Manning. Muir. Page. Reasoner. Sissler. Simpson. Snow. Sullivan. Warner. West.

I knew them all. If you wish to meet them, you can find them on a black granite wall in Washington.