For Americans, War Has Always Been a Spectator Sport
Sometimes war sounds like the harsh crack of gunfire and sometimes like the whisper of the wind. This early morning—in al-Yarmouk on the southern edge of Libya’s capital, Tripoli—it was a mix of both.
All around, shops were shuttered and homes emptied, except for those in the hands of the militiamen who make up the army of the Government of National Accord (GNA), the UN-backed, internationally recognized government of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. The war had slept in this morning and all was quiet until the rattle of a machine gun suddenly broke the calm.
A day earlier, I had spent hours on the roof of my hotel, listening to the basso profundo echo of artillery as dark torrents of smoke rose from explosions in this and several other outlying neighborhoods. The GNA was doing battle with the self-styled Libyan National Army of warlord Khalifa Haftar, a US citizen, former CIA asset, and longtime resident of Virginia, who was lauded by President Donald Trump in an April phone call. Watching the war from this perch brought me back to another time in my life when I wrote about war from a far greater distance—of both time and space—a war I covered decades after the fact, the one that Americans still call “Vietnam” but the Vietnamese know as “the American War.”
During the early years of US involvement there, watching the war from the hotels of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was a rite of passage for American journalists and the signature line of unfortunate articles that often said far more about the state of war reporting than the state of the war. “On clear days patrons lunching in the ninth-floor restaurant in the Caravelle Hotel can watch Government planes dropping napalm on guerrillas across the Saigon River,” Hedrick Smith wrote in a December 1963 New York Times article.
As that war ground on, the pastime of hotel war-watching never seemed to end, despite a recognition of the practice for what it was. Musing about the spring of 1968 in his fever dream memoir, Dispatches, Esquire’s correspondent in Vietnam, Michael Herr, wrote:
“In the early evenings we’d do exactly what the correspondents did in those terrible stories that would circulate in 1964 and 1965, we’d stand on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel having drinks and watch the airstrikes across the river, so close that a good telephoto lens would pick up the markings on the planes. There were dozens of us up there, like aristocrats viewing Borodino from the heights, at least as detached about it as that even though many of us had been caught under those things from time to time.”
“It Has Been Said That There Was a Woman Killed There by Our Guns”
Today, few know much about Borodino—unless they remember it as the white-hot heart of the war sections of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace—a Napoleonic victory that proved so pyrrhic it would have been regarded as the French Emperor’s Waterloo, if the actual battle of that name hadn’t finally felled him. Still, even for those who don’t know Borodino from Bora Bora, Herr’s passage points to a grand tradition of detached war-watching. (Or, in the case of Ernest Hemingway’s famed Spanish Civil War coverage, war-listening: “The window of the hotel is open and, as you lie in bed, you hear the firing in the front line seventeen blocks away.”)
In fact, the classic American instance of war-as-spectator-sport occurred in 1861 in the initial major land battle of the Civil War, Bull Run (or, for those reading this below the Mason-Dixon line, the first battle of Manassas). “On the hill beside me there was a crowd of civilians on horseback, and in all sorts of vehicles, with a few of the fairer, if not gentler sex,” wrote William Howard Russell who covered the battle for the London Times. “The spectators were all excited, and a lady with opera glasses who was near me was quite beside herself when an unusually heavy discharge roused the current of her blood—‘That is splendid, Oh my! Is not that first rate? I guess we will be in Richmond tomorrow.’”
That woman would be sorely disappointed. US forces not only failed to defeat their Confederate foes and press on toward the capital of the secessionist South but fled, pell-mell, in ignominious retreat toward Washington. It was a rout of the first order. Still, not one of the many spectators on the scene, including Congressman Alfred Ely of New York, taken prisoner by the 8th South Carolina Infantry, was killed.
But that isn’t to say that there were no civilian casualties at Bull Run.
Judith Carter Henry was as old as the imperiled republic at the time of the battle. Born in 1776, the widow of a US Navy officer, she was an invalid, confined to her bed, living with her daughter, Ellen, and a leased, enslaved woman named Lucy Griffith when Confederate snipers stormed her hilltop home and took up positions on the second floor.
“We ascended the hill near the Henry house, which was at that time filled with sharpshooters. I had scarcely gotten to the battery before I saw some of my horses fall and some of my men wounded by sharpshooters,” Captain James Ricketts, commander of Battery 1, First US Artillery, wrote in his official report. “I turned my guns on that house and literally riddled it. It has been said that there was a woman killed there by our guns.” Indeed, a 10-pound shell crashed through Judith Henry’s bedroom and tore off her foot. She died later that day, the first civilian death of America’s Civil War.
No one knows how many civilians died in the war between the states. No one thought to count. Maybe 50,000, including those who died from war-related disease, starvation, crossfire, riots, and other mishaps. By comparison, around 620,000 to 750,000 American soldiers died in the conflict—close to 1,000 of them at that initial battle at Bull Run.
“What You Saw Was Them Shelling My Home.”
A century later, US troops had traded their blue coats for olive fatigues and the wartime death tolls were inverted. More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam. Estimates of the Vietnamese civilian toll, on the other hand, hover around two million. Of course, we’ll never know the actual number, just as we’ll never know how many died in air strikes as reporters watched from the rooftop bar of Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel, just as I’ll never know how many—if any—lives were snuffed out as I scanned the southern edge of Tripoli and watched smoke from artillery shells and rockets billow into the sky.
That same afternoon in Libya’s capital, while taking a break from war watching, I met Salah Isaid and his two children. They were, like me, guests at the Victoria Hotel, although we were lodged there for very different reasons. When I mentioned having spent the previous hour on the roof as a suburb was being shelled hard, a glimmer of recognition flashed across Isaid’s face. “That’s Khalat Furjan,” he replied with a sad smile. “What you saw was them shelling my home.”
Isaid, his wife, and his two boys had found it difficult to escape the war zone, but finally made it to the safer north side of Tripoli, to this very hotel, in fact, a few weeks earlier. Worried that his house had been looted or destroyed, he tried several times to investigate only to be turned away at militia checkpoints. Now, he was homeless, jobless, and—even with the hotel’s special displaced-persons’ rate—rapidly burning through his savings. “I sold real estate, but who wants to buy a house in a war zone?” Isaid asked me with a wry smile that faded into a grimace.
My own experience as a reporter, in country after country, has more than confirmed his assessment. The “real estate” I saw in Tripoli’s war-ravaged suburbs was spectral, the civilian population having fled. Other than a car that had been hit by an air strike, the only vehicles were tanks or “technicals”—pickup trucks with machine guns or anti-aircraft weapons mounted in their beds. Many buildings had been peppered with machine-gun fire or battered by heavier ordnance. The sole residents now were GNA militiamen who had appropriated homes and shops as barracks and command posts.
Real estate, as Isaid well knows, is a losing proposition on a battlefront. After Judith Carter Henry’s hilltop home in Manassas Junction, Virginia, was blasted by artillery, its remains were either demolished by Confederate soldiers or burned down during the Second Battle of Bull Run, another staggering US defeat with even heavier casualties in August 1862. A photograph of Henry’s home, possibly taken in March 1862, months before that battle, already shows the house to be a crumpled ruin. (It wouldn’t be rebuilt until 1870.) Judith Henry was buried in a small plot next to her devastated home. “The Grave of Our Dear Mother Judith Henry” reads the tombstone there, which notes that she was 85 years old when “the explosion of shells in her dwelling” killed her.
One hundred and fifty years after Henry became the first civilian casualty of the Civil War, Libyans began dying in their own civil strife as revolutionaries, backed by US and NATO airpower, ended the 42-year rule of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Before the year was out, that war had already cost an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 lives. And the killing never ended as the country slid into permanent near-failed-state status. The current conflict, raging on Tripoli’s doorstep since April, has left more than 4,700 people dead or wounded, including at least 176 confirmed civilian casualties (which experts believe to be lower than the actual figure). All told, according to the United Nations, around 1.5 million people—roughly 24 percent of the country’s population—have been affected by the almost three-month-old conflict.
“Heavy shelling and airstrikes have become all too common since early April,” said Danielle Hannon-Burt, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s office in Tripoli. “Fierce fighting in parts of Tripoli includes direct or indiscriminate attacks against civilians and their property. It also includes attacks against key electricity, water, and medical infrastructure essential for the survival of the civilian population, potentially putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk.”
In this century, it’s a story that has occurred repeatedly, each time with its own individual horrors, as the American war on terror spread from Afghanistan to Iraq and then on to other countries; as Russia fought in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere; as bloodlettings have bloomed from the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Sudan, from Myanmar to Kashmir. War watchers like me and like those reporters atop the Caravelle decades ago are, of course, the lucky ones. We can sit on the rooftops of hotels and listen to the low rumble of homes being chewed up by artillery. We can make targeted runs into no-go zones to glimpse the destruction. We can visit schools transformed into shelters. We can speak to real estate agents who have morphed into war victims. Some of us, like Hedrick Smith, Michael Herr, or me, will then write about it—often from a safe distance and with the knowledge that, unlike Salah Isaid and most other civilian victims of such wars, we can always find an even safer place.
War has an all-consuming quality to it, which is at least part of what can make it so addictive for those blessed with the ability to escape it and so devastating to those trapped in it. A month of war had clearly worn Isaid down. He was slowly being crushed by it.
In the middle of our conversation, he pulled me aside and whispered so his boys couldn’t hear him, “When I go to bed at night, all I can think is ‘What is going on? What does war have to do with me?’” He shook his head disbelievingly. Some days, he told me, he gets into his car and weaves his way through the traffic on the side of the capital untouched by shelling but increasingly affected by the war. “I drive by myself. I don’t know where I’m going and don’t have any place to go. My life has stopped. This is the only way to keep moving, but I’m not going anywhere.”
I kept moving and left, of course. Isaid and his family remain in Tripoli—homeless, their lives upended, their futures uncertain—pinned under the heavy weight of war.