This time around it hit me at a Starbucks in a mall in central London. I was sitting there with my grande latte, killing time before seeing Beowulf at the Odeon, watching the distracted shoppers, the couples holding hands, the harried parents with their grubby kids. For no apparent reason I almost started to cry.
Sure, who’s a badass war correspondent now?
I’m a few days out of Mogadishu, and bound for southern Iraq in a week. For three years it’s been like this: back and forth between places like the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, where people are free, children can be children and everyone – man or woman; black, white or brown; Christian, Muslim or nonbeliever – has a shot at working, getting educated, finding a mate and making something of themselves … and places like Somalia and Iraq and Lebanon and East Timor and Afghanistan: raw, sometimes beautiful places that teem with people and possibilities and places that, at the razor’s edge of conflict, sometimes seem more real than their secure opposites across the oceans. But for all their character and potential, these war-ravaged places still Suck Hard. And over time I’ve come to believe that the brutality they represent is, frankly, normal.
So when I see people getting along, when I see them enjoying mostly unfettered romance, commerce and art, sometimes it strikes me as nearly miraculous. And I’m almost weepingly grateful to God, the Universe or Whatever for granting this little miracle, however briefly, to at least these few.
Of course, I’m insane. War and conflict don’t have to be normal – and in most places they aren’t. I admit I’ve got a totally distorted model of the world inside my head, a model where the wars loom large, threatening to spread like carnivorous blobs to devour the tiny, helpless, peaceful little countries that naively believe they can just get along without killing off their neighbors or some subset of their own peoples. Gazing upon this mutated mental globe of mine, I want to scream to those peaceful countries: “Buy guns! Buy tanks! Buy Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor stealth fighters! Arm yourselves! For war is coming, and it will destroy your precious, happy, little society if you don’t appropriate 1 percent of your GDP for weapons procurement in FY09!”
Then I blink, and check myself. For that paranoid attitude is often what causes wars in the first place. Truth is, all the supposedly peaceful societies that occasionally make me all teary-eyed like a little girl are, in fact, societies at war. Those shoppers in that London mall pay taxes that sustain one of the world’s most sophisticated militaries, which deploys thousands of people all over the world with many of the most lethal weapons ever devised, sometimes to kill people who deserve to die, but other times to kill people who don’t deserve to die at all, but who just happened to run afoul of someone else’s foreign policy. Just because the free world looks idyllic doesn’t mean it’s not monstrous in its heart.
And just because I’m a sucker for peace doesn’t mean that deep down, I’m not totally addicted to war.
I swore before leaving for Somalia that this was the end of the line. I’m flat broke. I’m exhausted. My nerves are shot to Hell. I should quit war correspondence now, while my luck and my health (barely) holds.
But who am I kidding? I can’t quit. Not unless someone gift-wraps me a lobotomy for Christmas. For I think I know things now, things I can’t forget, things that make shopping, raising a family and going to the movies seem entirely hollow, and wicked.
Don’t you see? I have to go to war. It’s the only honest thing to do.