Understanding Horror

guernicaGuernica, Pablo Picasso

I’ve tried to understand this war, and failed.

It’s made me feel rather stupid – this inability to wrap my head around 30 years of horror, why it all started and who is to blame. Everyone seems to talk about it with such ease – like it’s the simplest thing to understand. As if it’s effortless to take one particular view and stick to it. I listen to the sophisticated talk of politicians, of family, of friends and marvel at the sureness of their convictions with frustrated envy.

It could be my limited understanding of politics and history that’s to blame. I have tried to remedy this over the past year or so, and despite accusations to the contrary, I hope I am making some headway. The more I learn, though, the more that yawning chasm of untapped knowledge stretches. I wonder if I will ever conquer it. And if I do, I wonder what that will mean.

Because, when you think about it, is there any such thing as understandingthe war? Is there any way to rationalize what happened? Every gun shot, every limb torn away, every life snuffed out, every radicalized mind, every spirit shattered – how can we justify those things? How can we say, “it had to happen”? How can we blame it on a few people, sit back and feel better about ourselves?

Politics has never been my strong suit because it simply doesn’t interest me very much. There. I said it. In my younger days, Sri Lankan politics meant a bunch of men drinking together and talking about how they would run the country if they were in charge. Whenever we had dinner parties, the men would invariably drift together and my mother would roll her eyes, look at me and whisper “there they go again, armchair governing” and I would giggle and understand. Today, politics to me hasn’t changed all that much – a bunch of important people (mostly men) talking about important things but never getting terribly far with it in the end.

I’ve heard hundreds of opinions about the war. Each one is like a thumbprint – somehow unique to the individual espousing that view, born of their personal experience and learning of the conflict and also their own conceptualization of right and wrong.

Right. Wrong. It sounds black and white but in reality its layer upon layer and shade upon shade of grey. A story doesn’t just have two sides; it is kaleidoscopic.

A soldier in the thick of battle affects, in some way, the entire course of the conflict – in life and in death. The same can be said for the child combatant, the suicide bomber, the politician, the average civilian. We have all shaped and destroyed our country in some way. A harsh word backed by racial hatred, a casual, stereotyping joke, could take a worse toll on the country in the long term than a murderous gunshot.

This leaves me with a dilemma I can’t seem to shake.

I cannot tell who is right and wrong when it comes to this war. I cannot call one side my own and label the other ‘enemy’. I cannot condemn violence by some but defensively justify violence perpetrated by others. My sorrow is as piercing whether I am looking at a soldier or a combatant or a civilian caught in between. My anger is just as strong and indignant towards those who placed them in those roles: out there on that battlefield, fighting to kill, fighting to survive.

But against whom can I direct this anger? Aren’t we all even a little to blame? What use is blame anyway, now that the war is over? And what use is the end of the war when we’re still indulging in the politics of blame and personal gain?


I have tried to understand this war, and largely failed. But here’s what I’ve got so far:

Death is horror.

Killing is horror.

A life ruined – no matter whose it is – is horror.

Maybe that is as a good a start as any.


Originally published on Groundviews.

Published by


The real truth is, I probably don't want to be too happy or content. Because, then what? I actually like the quest, the search. That's the fun. The more lost you are, the more you have to look forward to. What do you know? I'm having a great time and I don't even know it. - Ally McBeal

13 thoughts on “Understanding Horror”

  1. I think, if more people displayed honesty like this instead of claiming to know all the answers, the world would be a bit better.

  2. I was not born in this country when the war began, but my parents had to leave the country in fear of their lives.

    From what i’ve seen in the past 15 yrs i’ve been in this country, the war has only changed from FREEDOM FIGHTING to POLITICAL & PERSONAL GAIN on both sides. Its the common man who has suffered, rise in taxes in the name of war, soaring inflation justified by the government as support to war, list goes on. but who am i to say anything?

  3. Guernica. one of my favourite paintings. ;)

    “I’ve heard hundreds of opinions about the war. Each one is like a thumbprint – somehow unique to the individual…” So true, couldn’t have said it any better. I sincerely hope for peace and harmony that prevails in our land…

  4. Understanding war is easy.

    Understanding who is to blame is easy.

    Understanding what would bring peace is always easy.

    Except if one is the oppressor.

  5. Thanks, all, for the comments.

    Palmyrah – I don’t agree at all. By your logic, we either all miraculously have the answers and don’t know it yet, or we are all oppressors. Which one?

  6. The thing is, while war as a soldier/combatant can be pant-wettingly frightening, and the aftermath often sad and bitter, fighting, killing, and war can also be the most incredibly exciting things you can ever experience. A high that’ll exceed six lines of coke and leave you more emotionally drained than your first sex. If you’ve ever driven a very fast car to the limits of its performance, skied downhill, bungee jumped, skydived, hunted big cats on foot, or boxed for the world title at Madison Square Garden, then you’ve got an idea of what combat is like.

    You remember all the old books on how thrilling and glorious battle is? Well, it wasn’t a complete lie.

    When Tim Page, one of the best British war photographers around, wounded twice in Vietnam, received a letter from a publisher asking him to compile a book that would “take the glamour out of war”, he turned to American war correspondent Michael Herr and said:

    “Take the glamour out of war?! I mean, how the bloody hell can you do THAT? Go and take the glamour out of a Huey [helicopter], go take the glamour out of a Sheridan [tank]… Can YOU take the glamour out of a Cobra [gunship] or getting stoned at China Beach? It’s like trying to take the glamour out of an M79 [grenade launcher], taking the glamour out of Flynn… Ohhh, war is GOOD for you, you can’t take the glamour out of that. It’s like trying to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones… I mean, you KNOW that, it just CAN’T BE DONE…! The very IDEA! Ohhh, what a laugh! Take the bloody GLAMOUR out of bloody WAR!”

    And he’s right, ‘cos if he wasn’t, there would be no wars anymore. But humanity increasingly rejects this view of war, in favour of a more politically correct “absolute evil” label. If you cannot understand the desease, you cannot cure it.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  7. David – Thanks for comment, it was interesting, and I get what you mean. But while war can be glamorous and exciting – that doesn’t subtract from what I was talking about earlier – the lives lost and shattered. Nor does it make those things any more palatable. Does it?

  8. I am not at all trying to make war palatable. Simply because I don’t think it is. It is basically to make that point that I wrote the post to begin with! Your comment offered an interesting perspective (esp considering your own background as ex-army), but I’m just questioning what your overall point was?

  9. My point is that as long as war remains possibly one of the most exciting adventures/careers you can ever experience, it will remain as integral to human civilization as the need to find expression. And contrary to popular belief, the more civilized, ordered and unexciting our world becomes, the more attractive war will become.

    To end war you must understand what it is, not just what repels us, but what attracts us. Just saying “drugs are bad” does nothing to prevent drug trafficking and addiction, no? You gotta understand the attraction of drugs too if you wanna prevent its abuse — an attraction that goes beyond simple chemical addiction.

    We’ve known war is bad for centuries — from Grant to Picasso to CNN, they tell us every day as they have told us for generations. But still we fight. You can’t kill something attractive, however bad it is.

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