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The fog of war envelops Fort Hood

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
  • Old definitions of theaters of war no longer necessarily apply, Bob Greene says
  • Troops sent back into the fog of war again and again, Greene says
  • Confusion of warfare multiplied by tragedy at Fort Hood, he says
  • Greene: We should say a quiet prayer for those headed overseas

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose new book is "Late Edition: A Love Story."

(CNN) -- It is a phrase that has for centuries been associated with human conflict:

"The fog of war."

It refers to the uncertainty and confusion that accompanies battle -- both the violent encounters themselves, and the planning that puts soldiers onto specific fields of combat.

The fog of war -- frustrating, endless, lethal -- can be haunting, an enemy in itself.

At Fort Hood in Texas this week, the fog was present. The November afternoon was clear and bright, yet the invisible fog covered everything.

From the first reports of gunfire at the Army base, to the contradictory accounts about where on the base the killing might be going on; from the frenzied uncertainty about how many assailants there could be, to the initial speculation that outsiders with deadly intent may have made their way onto the grounds; from the announcement that the suspected gunman was dead, to the revised statement hours later that he was still alive. ...

The fog of war -- frustrating, endless, lethal -- can be haunting, an enemy in itself.
--Bob Greene
  • Fort Hood
  • Shootings
  • Armed Forces

The ubiquity of the fog was understandable. Chaos does not adhere to a timetable; chaos does not follow orders.

But it was a sobering reminder that the old definitions of theaters of war -- bound geographically, determined by generals, kept at a safe distance from the people back at home -- no longer necessarily apply. A theater of war, it sometimes seems, can be as large as the world itself. The screaming of sirens, the announcements to take cover, the house-to-house searches: all of it inside a secured military base in the state of Texas.

We fool ourselves into believing that we can comprehend our world with digital precision; if a man is suspected of being the source of carnage and mayhem, we turn to surveillance-camera videos of him in the hours or minutes before the massacre, as if that will somehow lead us to some satisfactory answer -- all the while knowing that in anguished moments like these, no answer will ever bring solace.

We tell ourselves that the mysteries of warfare have been rendered less murky because we have diminished the concept of distance and isolation. When our parents and grandparents went off to Europe and the Pacific to fight the Second World War, sometimes many years passed before the people who loved them in their hometowns heard their voices again, saw their faces.

Now, with satellite communication and Web-based mail, our soldiers, we attest, can be here and there at the same time. We don't believe it, even as we're saying it; we try to assure ourselves, and the sons and daughters who fight our wars, that they are never far from home, but in the fog both they and we know that it's a well-intentioned lie.

Those soldiers, many of them so young, are sent back into the fog again and again. The fog of war becomes, by default, their oxygen. The repeated deployments, the promises of an end point somewhere up the road, the cacophony of voices back at home saying that what we are asking them to do is right, saying that what we are asking them to do is wrong. ...

And then comes a day like the day at Fort Hood this week, when nothing makes sense, when the people we ask to fight our wars for us are cut down inside the very encampment where they should have had the absolute right to feel protected.

We will hear, in the days ahead, about the lives of the people who were killed at Fort Hood. We will be told about their parents, about their childhoods, about their friends and schoolmates. We will be made to feel as if we know them.

And that is only right. That is how it should be. We will honor them by finding out, most of us for the first time, who they were.

But there are other young soldiers on that base, the ones we won't hear about because they had the good fortune not to be killed this week.

The ones who will soon enough be sent off to war zones.

If the awful confusion of warfare was a part of their lives already as this dreadful week began, the confusion has to have multiplied, as the week ends, because of what has transpired on the base where they live.

So, even as the ones they left behind at Fort Hood are laid to rest, we might do well to say a quiet prayer for those who are on their way overseas.

Into the war.

Into the fog.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.