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.
While the focus of Hedges’s concern is nationalism and its adherents, he implicitly understands nationalism in a much broader manner than is conventional, similar to that famously expressed by George Orwell in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism.” The concern is with a form of unquestioning groupthink, identity and practice that perceives the world as divided between good and evil and sees one’s ultimate duty to promote the interests of one’s own (always “good”) group. To that end, the nationalist, says Orwell, thinks exclusively or mostly in terms of gaining advantage over others, a thinking clouded by a hunger for power and a concomitant self-deception. Thus, he included movements and tendencies ranging from Communism to political Catholicism under the broad category of nationalism. Hedges is less explicit than Orwell, but he, too, refuses to limit nationalist-like thinking to nation-states and their flag-waving citizenries. It’s symptomatic of all causes informed by messianic visions of the power of the collective and its mission, especially in times of war.
Hedges’s intended readership is clearly an American one. In this regard, he equates patriotism with nationalism, the former of which he characterizes as “often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship [that] celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us.” Never mind, he says, that we have aided and abetted murder and repression carried out by surrogates like the Shah of Iran and the former Zaire’s Mobutu. Such facts do not register prominently in the national memory as we edit out unpleasantries in constructing our self-definition. We thus “often become as deaf and dumb as those we condemn,” even though we have our own terrorists–such as the Nicaraguan contras and the late Jonas Savimbi, whom Ronald Reagan referred to as the Abraham Lincoln of Angola.
The use of national myths ranges from the relatively benign to the malignant. At times, they can help ignite wars and justify mass slaughter. Hedges sees the US war in Vietnam as an example. In the aftermath, however, “nationalist triumphalism was shunned and discredited in America…. We were forced to see ourselves as others saw us, and it was not always pleasant. We understood, at least for a moment, the lie.” The Reagan years, he contends, helped to resurrect this “plague of nationalism.”
But as H. Bruce Franklin has documented–most recently in his Vietnam and Other American Fantasies–this shift has deeper roots. Well before the war ended, the Nixon Administration began constructing an image of American victimhood and its attendant moral superiority in the form of the POW/MIA campaign–resulting in a powerful and enduring myth that Vietnam held US soldiers after the war’s end, despite the absence of any credible evidence.
Reagan’s immediate predecessor as President, Jimmy Carter, also helped to construct this image of victimhood. Stating that he would not support the provision of funds to Vietnam for purposes of post-war reconstruction–something Washington had promised to do in a secret protocol to the 1973 Paris peace treaty–Carter said that there was no need to do so or even to apologize, as “the destruction was mutual.” As the future Nobel Peace Prize laureate explained, “We went to Vietnam without any desire to capture territory, or to impose American will on other people. We went there to defend the freedom of the South Vietnamese.”
Nevertheless, Hedges’s larger point–that there has been a weakening of the national humility brought about by the horrors of Vietnam in the form of anti-interventionism–seems accurate. As a result, “the infection of nationalism now lies unchecked and blindly accepted in the march we make as a nation towards another war,” that being the one threatened against Iraq, which Hedges perceives as highly ill conceived.
Even many of those critical of the would-be war fall into the nationalist, myth-making trap. In early September, for example, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat, spoke out against the threatened war against Iraq, suggesting that a pre-emptive strike would be un-American. “America has never been an aggressor nation unless attacked, as we were at Pearl Harbor and on September 11,” the former Stanford history major informed her Senate colleagues. The only other times the United States attacked other countries, she explained in a creative twist, was when “our interests and our allies were attacked,” thus facilitating justification for almost any act of American belligerence, given the country’s global reach. (Feinstein ended up voting in favor of the resolution authorizing a pre-emptive strike against Iraq.)
All are susceptible to such intellectual acrobatics, including those on the political margins, Hedges argues. The political left in the United States and Europe, for example, has disposed at times of its moral precepts and critical faculties in supporting anti-status quo forces. “Many were rarely content with simply denouncing American foreign policy in places like Central America or the Middle East–a stance for which I have some sympathy,” Hedges writes, “but had to embrace opposition forces with stunning incredulity…. These groups…swallowed whole the utopian vision of opposition or revolutionary movements, ignoring the messier realities of internal repression and war crimes.”
I can empathize with Hedges’s words, as I was one such “political pilgrim,” in Nicaragua in the late 1980s. Outraged by Washington’s proxy war aimed at returning the Somoza regime to power and inspired by the Sandinistas’ efforts to build a socialist society, I traveled to and lived for several months in the war-torn country to learn from, bear witness to and support the struggle. In retrospect, I, along with many internacionalistas who shared my sympathies, perceived the Sandinistas and their practices through rose-colored glasses, apologizing, at times, for their sins and shortcomings and undermining a fuller understanding of the complex dynamics of Nicaraguan society.
That said, the good that others and I saw was not a mere fantasy, as Hedges verges on implying. He recounts stories of Potemkin-like manipulation by the Sandinistas of political tourists in search of nirvana in Nicaragua during the 1980s. And he caricatures some of the participants in the weekly protest by US citizens at the American Embassy in Managua (which I attended on numerous occasions), almost presenting them as blind true-believers. In putting forth such depictions–and nothing more–Hedges seems to suggest that those inspired by the real gains made in Nicaragua in areas like healthcare, literacy, women’s rights and agrarian reform were dupes. Yes, there was political repression and other human rights violations, but for a society under siege by the world’s most powerful country, Nicaragua was very open, with a vibrant debate evident across the society. Finding dissent and, indeed, vociferous critics of the Sandinista government was not difficult.
Hedges’s brief discussion of Nicaragua is a manifestation of his occasional tendency to generalize about entire groups of people unflatteringly. Referring to the Palestinians, for example, Hedges writes at one point that they “have been nurtured on bitter accounts of abuse, despair, and injustice. Families tell and retell stories of being thrown off their land and of relatives killed or exiled. All can tick off the names of martyrs within their own clan who died for the elusive Palestinian state.” Palestinians, then, from the time of infancy, “are inculcated with myopic nationalism and the burden of revenge.” Hedges proceeds to describe how the greatest wish of families in Gaza is that their children become martyrs in the fight against Israeli occupation.
When such articles, presenting an undifferentiated Palestinian mass and providing no sociohistorical context, appear in the New York Times–as one by Hedges did and upon which he drew for this section–they serve to construct and reinforce racist depictions of the Palestinians as sub-human. On balance, though, throughout War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Hedges presents a far more complex view of the groups he critiques, including the Palestinians and their plight–one with which he seems to sympathize.
In words one would be hard pressed to find in the pages of any major American newspaper, Hedges writes of “the profound injustice the creation of the state of Israel meant for Palestinians.” And he speaks of “Palestinian villages in Israel that have been razed in [a] process of state-sponsored forgetting.” Later, he provides an eyewitness account of Israeli troops’ provoking Palestinian kids in Gaza to throw rocks and then shooting and killing them in cold blood. Never in more than fifteen years of covering war across the world, he reports, had he “watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.” He also endeavors to humanize the Palestinians by recounting his encounter with a Palestinian mother who sees no value in martyrdom and tries to prevent her son from confronting Israel’s brutality for fear that the soldiers will kill him.
The complexity of Hedges’s representation of the Palestinians gives weight to one of his principal concerns: that war corrupts and deforms–morally, spiritually and sociopolitically–all whom it involves. During violent conflict, we dispose of deeply held moral precepts, while accepting and frequently condoning the commission of atrocities, seeing them as a cost of conflict. And once we have dismantled our moral universe for the cause of war, it is almost impossible to rebuild it. In times of war, death becomes a way of life; it provides meaning. Thus both Palestinians and Israelis, for example, have come to embrace death, seeing themselves as victims who kill for righteous reasons.
All groups involved in war do so, to varying degrees. In destroying social barriers that prohibit killing, destruction and other forms of mass violence, war infects society’s private sphere, a “natural outcome,” in Hedges’s words, being widespread rape, theft and mutilation away from the battlefield.
Similar to his distinction between “authentic” culture and state culture–a division that ignores the nonmonolithic nature of culture and its dialectical relationship with the state–his differentiation between wartime and peacetime behavior is too simple. While violence against women, for example, is epidemic in many wars, there is nothing “natural” about it. It emerges from a context of patriarchy and militarism more broadly, phenomena strengthened by war. In this regard, violence, of which large-scale war is the most apparent manifestation, is reflective and constitutive of culture, not something outside it. Hedges’s failure to discuss such matters is symptomatic of the insufficient consideration he affords to social power in trying to understand how and why war and its various manifestations occur.
At the same time, Hedges limits his concern to conventional notions of what constitutes mass violence. Suffering and death on the scale of war are not limited to military-like conflict. They also result from structural violence–institutionalized injustices (for example, massive economic inequality, racism, colonialism, occupation, dispossession) that can and do cause great harm on a large scale, and sometimes give rise to war. Despite their profound relevance to matters of peace and conflict, in addition to their many detrimental and often deadly effects, Hedges does not discuss such matters.
Much of Chris Hedges’s analysis is socio-psychological. Drawing on Freud, he sees life as consumed in an eternal battle between the human instinct to give care, preserve and conserve, and that which seeks to annihilate life, including our own. For this reason, Freud was pessimistic about the possibility of ending all war. Hedges appears to share that pessimism, but he does not see any particular war as inevitable. Rather, it is manufactured.
From this perspective, the absence of social power in his analysis is hardly total. Hedges emphasizes the role of the state (or those seeking state power) and the media in trying to understand the origins of war. In the case of the Gulf War, for instance, he castigates the American mainstream media for serving Washington’s agenda, helping to make war fashionable once again, even fun. He rejects the claim that the Pentagon used the press. Instead, he asserts, the press saw itself as part of the nationalist team, and willingly and enthusiastically served the war cause.
Like the state, the media invoke the language of moral certitude, presenting the state’s mission in almost sacred terms–for Hedges, a type of fundamentalism. The author sees the tendency within modern society to turn away from institutions outside the state for moral and spiritual guidance as facilitating “the cause.” Instead, we increasingly and dangerously turn to the state and its institutions during war, with many effectively worshiping them.
This book does not offer any concrete prescription for those struggling for a better world, one without the horrors of war its author so compellingly describes. In this regard, it seems symptomatic of the “end of utopia” thinking decried by Russell Jacoby in his important book of that title. Hedges seems wary of, though certainly not opposed to, any collectivity; but he has seen too much ugliness in the name of the greater good to eagerly embrace utopian agendas. Drawing on Western classics throughout his book, Hedges finds wisdom from which we all can benefit. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning calls upon the reader to reflect upon such wisdom, not out of a simplistic glorification of ancient texts but because the “classics offer a continuum with Western literature, architecture, art and political systems” and thus offer insights into our present predicaments.
Hedges explains that he is not calling for inaction but rather for repentance. Part of that repentance involves the struggle to bring the truth of the past to light. “In order to escape the miasma of war there must be some partial rehabilitation, some recognition of the denial and perversion, some new way given to speak that lays bare the myth as fantasy and the cause as bankrupt.” For Hedges, recognizing our role in tragedy is the only way to begin the process of personal and social healing.
War is not, to this author, a fight between the forces of good and bad. We all have the capacity for great evil, a capacity that war helps to realize. Like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Hedges contends that the choices we must make in life are not between the moral and the immoral but between the immoral and the less immoral. Because “we are all failures, all sinners, all in need of forgiveness,” he implores us to be humble and compassionate–“the only antidote to ward off self-destruction and the indiscriminate use of force.” And when we are compelled to act in a forceful manner, we must seek contrition for the sins we will inevitably commit in the process. At the end of his book, Hedges asserts that humanity’s only hope for survival is a world of love, one in which we “recognize love in the lives of others–even those with whom we are in conflict–love that is like our own.”
In this sense, Chris Hedges ultimately does put forth a radical utopian vision–or at least the beginnings of one–especially if we understand, and thus contest, mass violence in all its roots and manifestations.