The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, ca 1500

War is hell and it was long before General Sherman figured that out. It helps to remember exactly what “hell” means. In 1741 the Protestant firebrand Jonathan Edwards gave a rather clear picture:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince…

Over five centuries ago, the painter Hieronymus Bosch gave an artistic rendering, as noted above. Had he known about poison gas, I suspect we would have seen a few canisters in his registers. In the hell that is war, a Dantean perspective would place the various poison gasses near the bottom level. It now seems that the United States is certain that Syria’s Assad has used poison gas, crossing the rhetorical line drawn by President Obama awhile ago. Foreign Policy is reporting new old evidence that our government is not so much concerned about the use of such poison gas as it is in who are the intended victims. We apparently knew in advance that Saddam would use such gas when we gave him logistical support to fight off the Iranians, whose country he had ruthlessly invaded. And, of course, we did nothing when he gassed the Kurds in Halabja.

The truth is that war has always been hell, since the first historical descriptions. In reality it is never the kind of supposedly heroic “give ‘m hell” bravado of John Wayne or Rambo. Gore trumps the vanity of glory. The problem is that hell is eternally present and not in some far-off ethereal realm. A further problem is that hell has no suitable escape hatch. Thus thousands have died in Syria and many more will be killed on all sides, no matter what the United States does next. The same goes for Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine and now, it seems, Egypt. Even those who think that by killing someone else because they are … (fill in the sectarian blank) they will go to an imagined heaven only deserve to end up in the hell they create for their victims.

Those of us far away from the fighting, only within Youtube range, may forget how close to hell we really are. The stench of dead bodies and the devastating odorless poison that snuffs out lives lightning quick are not part of the air we currently breathe, but we should not forget that hell is not a place but an attitude, an attitude that kills. It is also an attitude for which there is no real immunity in avoiding its reality. If only we could say “to hell with war,” but then that would be a tautology.