Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

From this morning’s New York Times:

The U.S. military said “there may have been collateral damage” in Kunduz. Doctors Without Borders said its hospital had been hit. President Obama offered his condolences for the deaths.

Reading that a few minutes ago, I recalled a piece I wrote eight years ago.

Here it is.


If you haven’t seen The Third Man, put it on your list of essential videos. (It’s better on a big screen, of course, but it’s almost sixty years old. You’re not likely to see it at the cineplex.) Even it you have seen it, it’s worth a second or a third viewing.

What brought that to mind was trying to sort out an old adage: “The first victim of war is truth.” It’s crisp, pointed and relevant to the moment. But as happens with so many anonymous truths, it works better as metaphor than as political fact. The problem — for me — is in that word “victim.” Who or what is a “victim?”

Orson Welles — title character in The Third Man — takes Joseph Cotten for a ride on Vienna’s enormous ferris wheel. When they get to the top, Welles assures Cotten he is not about to kill him. Just wants his old friend to look down, two hundred feet below them, at people going about their everyday chores.

Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?

Victim. A curt, sharp-edged word. Brutal, yet efficient. Been around, according to the reference books, for six hundred years, remarkable longevity in a language as fluid and variable as English. And its original meaning endures: “a living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice.”

No wonder governments are reluctant to talk about “victims.” The living things sacrificed by governments are not goats or pigeons or lambs. Goverments sacrifice people. The victims of governments are people. Dead ones.

Imagine citizens of a country at war, a war begun by their own government. If they stopped to think, they might notice that they too — the citizens — are people. Just as their government’s victims are people.

Wait a minute. Are those victim-people somehow the same kind of thing as us citizen-people? Is it really a good idea kill them?

That’s why we have “casualties.” Casualty is less frightening than victim, less severe. Casualties don’t have to be dead: a person slightly injured in battle is a casualty. Business can be a casualty, as can prosperity or reputation or art. At its core is that easy-going word, “casual.” Casualties may be inconvenient, but they don’t really hurt anybody. Necessarily. Very much.

Still farther removed from human life is “collateral damage,” which sounds innocuous, or at most trivial. You know.

We destroyed the bridge. Unfortunately, we also loosened a few bricks in the chimney of a nearby home.

Look at the core of this phrase, however, and you find “collateral.” Co-lateral. Side by side. Co-incidental. Often as not, co-valent. A brick knocked loose from the chimney. A child knocked loose from life. Collateral damage. Not victims, though. Not victims.

But I was talking about truth. Let us reserve “victim” with its staccato consonants for the humans who perish. “Casualty” will do for abstractions, even so human an abstraction as truth. (A Google search for “truth as victim” returns about fifteen thousand hits. A search for “truth as casualty” returns nearly five times as many.)

If truth is the first casualty, what is the second? The second — and it may take a moment to make this clear — the second casualty of war is courage. Moral courage. Courage to say the king is naked, to say there’s a man behind the curtain, to say the President is lying, to say we need not to go to war. Difficult things to say, even if we do believe them, because the king, the President, the man behind the curtain will call us cowards. Will call us appeasers. Will call us traitors.

Our friends, who know as well as we do that the king is naked, our friends will not tell the king to put on some pants. They will play along with the fiction because they do not want to be called traitors.

And our politicians. Courage in public life? Look to see who among them actually spoke against the invasion of Iraq or, if they were in a position to, voted against it. See who among those who were deluded the first time around have repudiated their earlier support for the war, and now say it was a mistake.

See who among them is willing to say that a war now with Iran would be a mistake, that we should not and must not begin yet another murderous adventure in the Middle East. See who among them has courage.

My impression so far is that not very many have it. Courage, you see, is the second casualty of war.

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