Thursday, September 26, 2013

Wired for War

It is doubtless hard for most Americans, and for most people who have not had extended experience of war, to fathom the experience, values, motives and emotions of a lethal and brutally effective military leader like Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran's Quds Force, profiled in this week's New Yorker by Dexter Filkins. The Quds force spearheads Iran's overseas military adventures, and Suleimani helped build up Hezbollah, choreographed and equipped Shiite militias' killings of Americans in Iraq, probably helped orchestrate Hezbollah's terrorist bombings of Jews in Argentina, and is directing Iran's military intervention on behalf of Assad in Syria. He cut his teeth in eight years of brutal combat in the Iran-Iraq war.

Filkins cites Ryan Crocker asserting that Suleimani is not motivated primarily by religion: "Religion doesn’t drive him. Nationalism drives him, and the love of the fight.”  But Suleimani has a certain mysticism of his own.  "When I see the children of the martyrs, I want to smell that scent, and I lose myself," he recently said in an interview in Iran. Stranger yet is his response to eight years of World War I-like horror in the Iran-Iraq war:

In March, 2009, on the eve of the Iranian New Year, Suleimani led a group of Iran-Iraq War veterans to the Paa-Alam Heights, a barren, rocky promontory on the Iraqi border. In 1986, Paa-Alam was the scene of one of the terrible battles over the Faw Peninsula, where tens of thousands of men died while hardly advancing a step. A video recording from the visit shows Suleimani standing on a mountaintop, recounting the battle to his old comrades. In a gentle voice, he speaks over a soundtrack of music and prayers.

“This is the Dasht-e-Abbas Road,” Suleimani says, pointing into the valley below. “This area stood between us and the enemy.” Later, Suleimani and the group stand on the banks of a creek, where he reads aloud the names of fallen Iranian soldiers, his voice trembling with emotion. During a break, he speaks with an interviewer, and describes the fighting in near-mystical terms. “The battlefield is mankind’s lost paradise—the paradise in which morality and human conduct are at their highest,” he says. “One type of paradise that men imagine is about streams, beautiful maidens, and lush landscape. But there is another kind of paradise—the battlefield.”
Again, that is not garden variety religious fanaticism. Rather, I think it's the genuine response of that small subset of humanity that is truly wired for war, as Suleimani apparently is:
Reuel Marc Gerecht was a young C.I.A. officer posted to Istanbul, where he recruited from the thousands of Iranian soldiers who went there to recuperate. “You’d get a whole variety of guardsmen,” Gerecht, who has written extensively on Iran, told me. “You’d get clerics, you’d get people who came to breathe and whore and drink.” Gerecht divided the veterans into two groups. “There were the broken and the burned out, the hollow-eyed—the guys who had been destroyed,” he said. “And then there were the bright-eyed guys who just couldn’t wait to get back to the front. I’d put Suleimani in the latter category.”
That strange assertion of the paradise of the battlefield reminded me of a passage in Steven Pressfield's Tides of War, a novel of the Peloponnesian War. The narrator, an Athenian soldier, who endures one hell after another, begins his account of the naval battles in the disastrous Sicilian expedition with this:
It has been my experience that in certain instances of battle or other moments of extreme peril, reality as it is normally experienced becomes supplanted by a dreamlike state in which events seem to unfold with a stately deliberateness, a retardation almost leisurely, and we ourselves stand apart as if observers of our own peril. A sense of wonder pervades all; one becomes vividly, preternaturally aware, not alone of danger but of beauty as well. He sees, and keenly appreciates, such subtleties as the play of light upon water, even such surface incarnadined with the blood of comrades dearly loved, or his own. One is able to observe to himself, “I am going to die now,” and absorb this with equanimity (Locations 2441-2446).
There's a difference. Anyone subjected to extended combat might experience the "dreamlike state" Pressfield describes.  That state, if survived, might become addictive, as a follow-on passage makes it possible to imagine:
My brother was fascinated by this phenomenon of dislocation. Its stem, he maintained, was fear. Fear so overpowering that it drives the animating spirit from the flesh, as in death. In those moments, Lion believed, we actually were dead. The element of soul had fled; it must find its vessel of flesh and reinhabit it. Sometimes, Lion professed, the soul did not wish to. It was happier whereto it had vacated. This was battle madness, mania maches; the lost soul, the “thousand-yard stare” (Locations 2446-2449).

Suleimani has doubtless committed a variety of war crimes. By his own lights, though, he is just as surely a patriot, defending Iran, and Shiites generally, from a host of aggressors. In so doing, he is apparently also, to appropriate a cliche that seems as garishly inappropriate as it is accurate, "doing what he loves."

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