War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

by Chris Hedges

ISBN: 1400034639

What do you suppose war correspondents see and think that never make it into mainstream newspapers?

The answer is the kind of thing Hedges talks about in this book — not so much the relentless gore (though he doesn’t ignore it) but the relentless spin, the crushing of every day lives by lies and mortar fire, and the way war can be an addiction just the way a narcotic drug can.

Hedges has been a war correspondent in Central America, the Balkans, and the Middle East; before that he was a divinity student. He draws on literature to amplify his points, often using Shakespeare to make it clear his point is not uniquely modern, but one as old as human nature. He lays out his argument in seven lucid chapters that balance pragmatism and philosophy. (The book also includes an introduction, notes, a bibliography, and acknowledgements.)

“The Myth of War” is the first chapter, which Hedges uses to examine how mythic war functions:

But in mythic war we imbue events with meanings they do not have. We see defeats as signposts on the road to ultimate victory. We demonize the enemy so that our opponent is no longer human. We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects — eventually in the form of corpses. (p.21)

The next two chapters “The Plague of Nationalism” and “The Destruction of Culture” are an attempt to explain what I have often thought of as unexplainable: how people become convinced of things that aren’t true, things that propel them to violence, and how the truth becomes denied and erased.

He talks about the situation in Argentina leading up to and through the Falkland Islands war with Britain, and the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia (among others) to show how the populace is manipulated. Speaking about waking up in Argentina after the invasion of the Falklands, feeling like Kafka’s insect, he writes:

It taught me a crucial lesson I would carry into every other conflict. Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including ours, is the passionate yearning for a nationalist cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone is able to deliver. It reduces and at times erases the anxiety of individual consciousness. We abandon individual responsibility for a shared, unquestioned communal enterprise, however morally dubious.” (p.45)

In other words, I found that this book helped me to feel less crazy about events in the U.S. after September 11th, in a “so that is how it works, I’m not reallly crazy” kind of way.

“The Seduction of Battle and the Perversion of War” and “The Hijacking and Recovery of Memory” deal with war and its aftermath for “real people” — the civilians, the weak who are just trying to survive the end of hostilities, and how they can begin to heal or not in communities.

In “The Cause” Hedges looks at why we go to war, and how we sustain war:

War finds its meaning in death. The cause is built on the backs of victims, portrayed as always innocent. Indeed, most conflicts are ignited with martyrs, whether real or created. The death of an innocent, one who is perceived as emblematic of the nation or group under attack, becomes the initial rallying point for war. These dead become the standard-bearers of the cause and all causes feed off a steady supply of corpses. (p.144)

Finally, in “Eros and Thanatos” Hedges spends time looking at the attraction of war — to correspondents who don’t have to be there, but willingly travel to war zones — as well as to other players in the violent drama, and the pitfalls we need to confront:

…as long as we find in patriotism and the exuberance of war our fulfillment, we will never understand those who do battle against us, or how we are perceived by them, or finally those who do battle for us and how we should respond to it all. We will never discover who we are. We will fail to confront the capacity we all have for violence. And we will court our own extermination. By accepting the facile cliche that the battle underway against terrorism is a battle against evil, by easily branding those who fight us as the barbarians, we, like them, refuse to acknowledge our own culpability. We ignore real injustices that have led many of those arrayed against us to their rage and despair. (p.180)

In the end, what Hedges has done is offered the reader his insights into why we go to war and how war works — not from a battlefield commander’s perspective, but the perpective of one who goes to war for the purpose of being a witness to the unwitnessable. And it is this perspective that has more to teach us, I think. Important, and highly recommended.

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