They say that war is hell, and Chris Hedges shows us how and why. Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning painfully and profoundly illustrates how violent conflict destroys those it engulfs, not only in the sense of physical death but in terms of individual and collective spirit, culture and polity.
Hedges, a reporter for the New York Times, has produced an insightful, provocative and elegantly written work, one that is of a very different genre of war reporting than one typically finds. Instead of trying to explicate the politics behind, or to graphically recount the major events that compose a particular conflict, Hedges offers an analysis of war-making in general. He seeks to identify universal factors that drive people to engage in and, more important, to embrace and find virtue in war, despite the often devastating implications. A veteran journalist who has covered armed conflicts ranging from El Salvador’s civil war to the Gulf War to those in the former Yugoslavia, Hedges has closely observed and, more important, carefully reflected upon the hellacious effects of collective violence, while critically interrogating himself. Although he affords insufficient attention to power relations and seems to have an overly restricted conception of what constitutes mass violence, the result is an extremely powerful statement about the myriad dangers of engaging in war.
Hedges is not a pacifist. To the contrary, he insists that war is an almost inevitable part of the human condition and, at extremely rare times, a necessary evil, one he likens to a poisonous drug. There are times when we must–indeed, we have a responsibility to–wage wars for a greater good, “just as a person with cancer accepts chemotherapy to live.” Thus Hedges supported the poison that was the West’s intervention on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims as well as NATO’s Kosovo war.
Nevertheless, he does not celebrate such efforts. All wars, even those waged by sides he supports, are based on national myths, most of which are, at their core, racist, he contends. They are racist in that they assert the inherent goodness of “us” and the evil of “them.” This black-and-white thinking allows us to kill the enemy without conscience, while celebrating our success in slaying without mercy those who oppose us. “Thus killing is done in our name, killing that concerns us little, while those who kill our own are seen as having crawled out of the deepest recesses of the earth, lacking our own humanity and goodness.”
The myths of war are part of a larger ideological repertoire. All groups, especially nations, have them, often centered around their creation. We, too, in the United States struggle with such myths, says the author, only grudgingly admitting, for example, that the country’s “founding fathers” were slaveowners and that its territorial expanse entailed genocide against the native population.
There is a tendency among nationalists to see the world as we like–what Hedges, drawing on the work of Lawrence LeShan, calls “mythic reality”–as opposed to a “sensory reality” in which we perceive the world for what it actually is. It is a tendency that war increases manifold as it silences those on the political margins who think independently while destroying a society’s “authentic culture,” which permits us to examine ourselves and our society critically. In its stead, the state rushes to create a new culture, an unquestioning one infused with empty symbols, patriotic songs and sentimental drivel.