The Smell of War

We know all about the fog of war, but what about its smells?

In newsrooms I’ve visited I usually offer a bounty to anyone who can locate a story with sensory details that require the nose. I’ve never had any takers.

But Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, must know their value. My nose for olfactory news sniffed out a pungent line in a story from Beirut, where a war between Israel and Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Islamic political and paramilitary group, had been sparked by the capture of two Israeli soldiers. Shadid quotes a Lebanese victim of an Israeli air strike:

“They don’t want to strike civilians? Then why are they doing it?” asked Mohammed Fathi, a 37-year-old resident of south Beirut. He stood outside Harkous Chicken, the restaurant where he works as a chef. The smell of peppers mixed with the reek of cordite, and workers swept shattered glass off the street near a bridge destroyed in a pre-dawn airstrike. The facades of nearby buildings were sheared off, and cars with broken windows sat parked along a street strewn with debris.

Not a pleasant combination — peppers and smokeless gunpowder — but coupled with visually vivid details, it helped Shadid put readers on the scene.

Our olfactory sense is arguably our most evocative even though it takes up a minuscule amount of space in our brains. For instance, I can’t catch of whiff of patchouli without being drawn back to 1974 when I was in Quebec, learning how to speak French in preparation for a Peace Corps assignment in French West Africa.

And why else would real estate agents advise sellers to have cookies baking when prospective buyers arrive, other than to evoke pleasant childhood memories? (Some have found that a couple of drops of vanilla on a burning light bulb will trigger the same memories.)

Yet newswriters rarely take advantage of this powerful sense.

“Smell is the stepchild of the senses, the one that many think they could do without,” writes Robin Marantz Henig in “Something’s Off,” a 2004 essay in The New York Times Magazine that eloquently chronicles two years of odorless life following a bad fall. “But when I couldn’t smell things, I couldn’t fully inhabit the world, and my movements in it were somehow, almost imperceptibly, more clumsy.”

For more on the subject, see my column “Writing with Your Nose,” featuring the olfactory writing of novelist Richard Price (Clockers, Freedomland), various ways to use smells in your writing and a brief explanation of how smells work.

For your next story, put your nose to your notebook, and to your keyboard. When you note how the scene looks, sounds and feels, keep your nostrils attuned for a detail that conveys what it smells like, too.

When Marantz Henig lost her sense of smell, she employed a “smell therapy” regimen suggested by a neuroscience-savvy colleague:

Her advice was to expose myself to strong, distinctive fragrances, asking the person I was with to tell me exactly what I was smelling even if I wasn’t conscious of smelling anything at all.

I began sticking my nose into everything that seemed likely to have a scent — the cumin in the spice cabinet, freshly ground coffee, red wine. I interrupted friends midsentence if we happened to be walking past a pizza place or a garbage truck and asked, stupidly, ”What are you smelling now?”

What smells trigger responses in your mind?

How have you used smells in your stories?

M&Ms are updated posts first published on “The Mechanic and the Muse,” a now-defunct blog I maintained from January 2006 to March 2007. I’ll post from the collection once a week.

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