AJDABIYA, Libya, April 12, 2011 -- In Libya, war isn't just hell. War is purgatory, too.
There is surely the savagery and relentless brutality of combat here, the human capacity for killing and mayhem that General Sherman saw straight and called hell. If you want to see that, one place to go is Ajdabiya.
It's a dusty city on the desert road about 90 miles from Benghazi, the country's second largest city and the main stronghold of the Libyan rebels -- or freedom fighters, or opposition, however you like. (Unlike many, I don't find the term "rebel" pejorative; George Washington was a rebel.)
There have been several battles over the control of Ajdabiya in the last few weeks, the most recent was last weekend. My crew and I were there.
In a field hospital outside of town, a fighter was rushed in with a bullet wound in his hip. He was bleeding, conscious, and praying as the doctors worked on him. Outside, his friend and comrade -- who had brought him to the hospital in his own car, the backseat now soaked in blood -- told us what happened.
He said the young man was from Zintan, far away from this city. He had just joined the uprising, rushing to the front with no orders, no training, no coordination, no equipment aside from the gun he'd gotten somewhere in the chaos of this conflict.
He was like so many of the shabab, the Arabic term for all the high-spirited young men who make up so much of the rebel forces, racing around in their pick-up trucks or old sedans, game for battle.
This young man wanted to fight, to free his country from the tyranny of Gadhafi. And now he had a hole in him the size of a baseball, a doctor said.
It was a quiet scene. The doctors worked calmly with the rapidity and focused tenderness of emergency physicians. The young fighter held his pain.
There was no shelling or gunfire around us at that time, but the hell of war was there on the table. Not in the blood, though there was plenty of that. Not in the torn skin and broken bone. It was in the face of his friend--slender, dark-skinned, soft-featured, with close-cropped curly black hair, light brown eyes, and a long face that tapered to the chin of a child.
'Think of Their Sweethearts'
He wasn't much more than a boy, not 20 years old, I'd say. Think of the college students you saw play in the NCAA basketball tournament a couple of weeks ago. Think of the parents who dropped them off at school. Think of their sweethearts. Think of their lives, so full of bright promise and romance and the utterly pointless goofing off that youth is entitled to enjoy always and everywhere.
Now see this young man, in Ajdabiya, with me. It was as if something had torn off the very skin from his face and revealed the animal fear underneath, the ghost locked deep inside each one of us, the ghost of the knowledge that we will die.
The knowledge that we can be killed, ripped open and bled out, blown away. He was too young for this knowledge to be driven into him so completely. He did not want it. And so what I saw in his face was far worse, far more disgusting than anything a bullet can do to a body.
What I saw was youth itself bleeding out and dying in front of me. I was watching the moment of the death of all that bright promise. For this one young man. My brother. Yours, too.
And, yes, that is hell.
And there is plenty of it here, as there is every time we human beings do this thing called war to each other.
There is a special purgatory for the Libyans, though, in this war. It consists of the waiting, the suspension of the whole people -- the free Libyans and those still locked in Gadhafi's surreal prison -- all of them hanging fire of uncertainty and evasions of the no-fly zone.
They cannot free themselves.
They cannot defeat Gadhafi's mercenary troops with their pickup trucks and jerry-built rocket launchers and high-spirited shabab racing toward the gunfire.
But they cannot go back. They have reached a point of no return.
In the roar of NATO jets far overhead, in the thunderous air strikes, and especially in the statements of President Obama and other Western leaders, they hear a promise: We will help you get rid of Gadhafi, they hear. We will help you win this war.
In The 'Purgatory of the No-Fly Zone'
Now, that is not exactly what NATO is saying, is it?
NATO claims to be bombing this country only to protect civilians, in keeping with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the no-fly zone.
Always with an eye to making sure Gadhafi can't win; but so far, not with sufficient force to defeat Gadhafi's tyranny. It's a militarily awkward and deeply conflicted approach to the hell of war.
President Obama has been very specific in his pronouncements. "It's time for Gadhafi to go," he has said. And: "Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to rule and should leave power."
Those are very carefully worded statements. Read them closely. They actually express only a sentiment, an opinion, not a firm policy commitment. To many Libyan ears, however, it almost sounds as if President Obama will use the full resources and power of the United States to free the Libyan people.
That is highly unlikely to happen, given the politics in Washington, the position of the Pentagon, and the mood of the American people. But the Libyans don't know that.
I'm not saying the U.S. should topple Gadhafi. I'm not saying we shouldn't. I am reporting from the ground here that the president's statements and (some of) NATO's actions have raised hopes sky-high among ordinary Libyans.
And so they wait. In the purgatory of the no-fly zone.
And the young men throw themselves into battle, and the hell of war feeds on their beautiful youth.