In the face – often literally so – of attempts to render later modern war as somehow bodiless, a project that contorts itself into grotesque formations around the spectacularly contradictory vocabulary of ‘surgical strikes’ against the cancerous cells of insurgency and terrorism, I continue to be drawn to attempts to convey the corporeality of its violence. I started down this road in ‘The natures of war‘ and continue it in my attempts to think about what I call ‘corpographies‘ (see DOWNLOADS tab for both, and also here, here and here), and it is a constant concern in my current work on casualty evacuation from war zones.
So I was taken with a short extract from Janine di Giovanni‘s The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria (2016) that appears in Harper‘s. It’s called ‘The Sense of War‘ (in another register so often another oxymoron):
What does war sound like? The whistling sound of the bombs falling can only be heard seconds before impact—enough time to know that you are about to die, but not enough time to flee.
What does the war in Aleppo smell of? It smells of carbine, of wood smoke, of unwashed bodies, of rubbish rotting, of . . . fear. The rubble on the street—the broken glass, the splintered wood that was once somebody’s home. On every corner there is a destroyed building that may or may not have bodies still buried underneath. Your old school is gone; so are the mosque, your grandmother’s house and your office. Your memories are smashed…
War is empty shell casings on the street, smoke from bombs rising up in mushroom clouds, and learning to determine which thud means what kind of bomb. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t.
War is the destruction, the skeleton and the bare bones of someone else’s life.
Anand Gopal thinks her prose is ‘overwrought’, though I don’t think that’s entirely surprising, and when Sebastian Junger says that she ‘has described war in a way that almost makes me think it never needs to be described again’, even in this short passage you can see – feel – what he means. You can find other reviews here and here.