War is Boring

Posted by on July 8th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

David Axe, writer,  and Matt Bors, artist; New American Library; 125 pp., $12.95; Softcover, B&W; ISBN: 978-0-451-23011-9

David Axe, a correspondent for The Washington Times, C-SPAN and the BBC, has made a career of following wars—from arms-dealer trade shows, to refugee camps, to the actual battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, East Timor and Somalia.

But the story, in his confessional memoir, War is Boring, is less about what happens in those places and more about what war does to one man who witnesses it repeatedly.  Axe finds himself increasingly detached, unfeeling and listless.

War is boring, as the title states, and it is boring in several respects.  In his professional role, Axe spends a lot of time waiting, and a lot of time trying to get to places that are particularly hard to get to.  He navigates bureaucracies, suffers through official displays of propaganda, and interviews people who just aren’t very helpful.  He doesn’t bother us with the minutiae and the routine, but we can see that it’s boring for him — so much so, that we can imagine how it must almost come as a relief when the fighting finally starts.

But the boredom of war is infectious.  The experience of war pollutes everything and, stranger still, it becomes a kind of addiction.  Axe can’t stop himself from returning to war zones, even as he sees its distorting — or is it clarifying? — effect on his life, his values, his very character.  After Afghanistan, he returns home to Washington D.C. and reflects: “I should have been happy.  After all I’d seen  and done, I should have treasured every friendship, relished every beer and reveled in every moment I wasn’t getting shot at, blown up or mortared.

“But every beer tasted stale, every conversation a lie.

“I still found war tedious.  I still found peace worse.”

War is banal, like evil is banal; but peace seems cheap and phony in the same way that goodness does when innocence and virtue become complacency and hypocrisy.  Peace seems like a con game, a con in which the marks are also complicit.  Everyone is lying; they’re either lying to exploit other people, or lying to themselves to avoid facing the truth.  Sometimes both.

What David Axe finally encounters, less in the combat zones than in his return to the safe and sheltered United States, is not really boredom, but nihilism.

He goes out to dinner with his parents, and, without realizing how it will sound, he tells them:

I look around this restaurant, at these people, and I know, deep in my soul, that I’m the scariest thing here.  And I don’t even believe in the soul.  Hell, I don’t think I believe in anything. . . . The world is shit.  Before, I only suspected.  Now I know it.  Do you have any idea how powerful that is — to know that nothing you do will ever make the world any less wicked?  When it doesn’t matter, you’re free.

Axe is ambivalent about his new wisdom — sometimes euphoric, sometimes despairing. He struggles to attain it, and then he struggles against it.  He succumbs to it, repeatedly, and he tries to reject it.  He finally accepts it, and then he tries to overcome it.  It is this struggle that structures his story, and if the book ended a few pages earlier we might think that he had succeeded.  Instead, the cartoon narrative leaves us in a moment of unresolved danger, and the prose Afterword plunges us straight back into the depths. The Afterword is an anti-climax.  There is no resolution, and no redemption, only repetition.

Axe takes another assignment, this time to Chad — “Because Chad matters.” — and he goes with the feeling that his motives are pure.  “There, for the very first time, I put others’ needs ahead of my own.”  But good intentions aren’t enough.  And maybe, in this case, his pure motives are just the bait for the trap, an entry into the same cycle of addiction — an excuse for the death wish that he openly admits to. He finds the atrocities of Chad to be just as disillusioning — as boring — as any other massacre in any other sad, poor country.

Axe tries to feel, to care, to connect, to sacrifice, to regain his humanity — and he fails.  But maybe he fails because he just keeps on doing what he had always been doing.  He goes back to the war zones, trying to regain his sense of humanity in the same way he lost it in the first place.

The moral of this story is, there is no moral.  There is only survival, for a while, and eventually, death.  “Everything falls apart,” Axe writes, “Everyone dies in time.  In the great slow reduction of our lives and history, the things we can believe in shrink into a space smaller than our own bodies.  To preserve them, as long as you might, arm yourself, and be afraid.”

David Axe chronicles his decline without sentimentalism or melodrama.  He tells us that he is lost, and he also tells us that we are lost.  He is right.  But doesn’t his story also suggest, in its very logic of negation, the existence of some other set of values?  If nothing else, Axe still values the truth; there’s no point in telling the story otherwise.  And his sense of loss — the feeling that accompanies his growing numbness — suggests that he still values that which has been lost.

The tragedy of his story is that he came to value these things too late.  His decline is not one from idealism to cynicism, but from cynicism to nihilism” “I don’t feel much anymore. What pleasure I used to take in every day things was replaced with a constant, low-grade anger. . . .  Mostly anger at myself for thinking that going off to war would make me smarter, sexier and happier.”

We are fortunate as readers.  We can accept David Axe’s experience as authentic, we can see how the lessons he draws are valid in the context of that experience.  We can gain from reading his story, but his story does not have to be our story.  We can draw different lessons, we can make different choices.  We cannot turn away from the view of the world that Axe shows us, but we also do not have to accept that world as it is.

In the mid-20 century, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, having witnessed the growth of totalitarianism, and having lived under occupation, Albert Camus offered a kind of prophecy, and a challenge for civilization:  “History. . . ,” he wrote, “is only an opportunity that must be rendered fruitful by a vigilant rebellion. . . .  All of us, among the ruins, are preparing a renaissance beyond the limits of nihilism.  But few of us know it.”

all images ©2010 their respective copyright holders

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