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War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself
    -John Stuart Mill

-ESSAY: The Press and the Myths of War (Chris Hedges, April 21, 2003, The Nation)
[W]ar, when we confront it truthfully, exposes the darkness within all of us. This darkness shatters the illusions many of us hold not only about the human race but about ourselves. Few of us confront our own capacity for evil, but this is especially true in wartime. And even those who engage in combat are afterward given cups from the River Lethe to forget. And with each swallow they imbibe the myth of war. For the myth makes war palatable. It gives war a logic and sanctity it does not possess. It saves us from peering into the darkest recesses of our own hearts. And this is why we like it. It is why we clamor for myth. The myth is enjoyable, and the press, as is true in every nation that goes to war, is only too happy to oblige. They dish it up and we ask for more.

War as myth begins with blind patriotism, which is always thinly veiled self-glorification. We exalt ourselves, our goodness, our decency, our humanity, and in that self-exaltation we denigrate the other. The flip side of nationalism is racism--look at the jokes we tell about the French. It feels great. War as myth allows us to suspend judgment and personal morality for the contagion of the crowd. War means we do not face death alone. We face it as a group. And death is easier to bear because of this. We jettison all the moral precepts we have about the murder of innocent civilians, including children, and dismiss atrocities of war as the regrettable cost of battle. As I write this article, hundreds of thousands of innocent people, including children and the elderly, are trapped inside the city of Basra in southern Iraq--a city I know well--without clean drinking water. Many will die. But we seem, because we imbibe the myth of war, unconcerned with the suffering of others.

Yet, at the same time, we hold up our own victims. These crowds of silent dead--our soldiers who made "the supreme sacrifice" and our innocents who were killed in the crimes against humanity that took place on 9/11--are trotted out to sanctify the cause and our employment of indiscriminate violence. To question the cause is to defile the dead. Our dead count. Their dead do not. We endow our victims, like our cause, with righteousness. And this righteousness gives us the moral justification to commit murder. It is an old story.

In wartime we feel a comradeship that, for many of us, makes us feel that for the first time we belong to the nation and the group. We are fooled into thinking that in wartime social inequalities have been obliterated. We are fooled into feeling that, because of the threat, we care about others and others care about us in new and powerful waves of emotion. We are giddy. We mistake this for friendship. It is not. Comradeship, the kind that comes to us in wartime, is about the suppression of self-awareness, self-possession. All is laid at the feet of the god of war. And the cost of this comradeship, certainly for soldiers, is self-sacrifice, self-annihilation. In wartime we become necrophiliacs.
As it happens, I've just finished reading Mr. Hedges' memoir, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, and it's very much of a piece with this, which is to say heartfelt, but overstated, particularly as regards his own country. Mr. Hedges spent fifteen years as a foreign correspondent, covering every war and genocide you can name, and many that few of us can. As just a reminder of these conflicts and of the victims thereof, it is worth reading. However, when he tries to draw broader conclusions he, perhaps understandably, overreacts. The truths that he speaks of above are not the only truths that war exposes, nor are they necessarily the primary truths. It's a truism that war is terrible, but it is just not the case, as even he ultimately must concede, that it is the most terrible thing.

It would be dishonest to argue that myth is not an important part of patriotism and the will to war, but consider how much here is not myth. The dead of 9-11 were in fact innocent victims. They went to work one fine morning in September and because of that they were murdered. No amount of scab-picking about past American policy in the Middle East can ever make it so that they deserved to die, can it? Likewise, those who perpetrated that heinous act, al Qaeda, and those who aided them, the Taliban, can not escape moral culpability, no matter what their grievances against the United States. It is an objective truth that at least these victims of ours were innocent and at least those enemies are not.

A somewhat better case can be made that the people of Iraq are innocent victims. However, they were victims of Saddam before we liberated them--Mr. Hedges might wince at the boastfulness of a term like liberation, but there is no reason for us to--and their lives are immeasurably better today for our having acted. Who cares more for the people of Basra, those content to stand idly by while Saddam oppressed them or those who've returned their freedom to them? Moreover, far from ignoring the suffering of potential innocents in this war, we took every reasonable (and some perhaps unreasonable) precaution to avoid civilian casualties. If the myths of which Mr. Hedges speaks were wholly true, it would have been simplicity itself to slaughter Iraqis indiscriminately, even to exterminate the population, yet this we did not do. Here is the inescapable problem for Mr. Hedges: give a Hitler, a Stalin, a Milosevic, a bin Laden, a whomever, nuclear weapons and there can be little doubt they'd use them to kill their enemies. Yet we have them and we do not use them (except the twice, sixty years ago). If we had truly become necrophiliac, as are our foes so often become, why would we not kill to out utmost capacity to do so? Indeed, who can look at these photos and responsibly say that we do not care about their (our) victims?:

Where then the truth of the myth?

In the book, Mr. Hedges writes:
The attacks on the World Trade Center illustrate that those who oppose us, rather than coming from another moral universe, have been schooled well in modern warfare. The dramatic explosions, the fireballs, the victims plummeting to their deaths, the collapse of the towers in Manhattan, were straight out of Hollywood. Where else, but from the industrialized world, did the suicide hijackers learn that huge explosions and death above a city skyline are a peculiar and effective form of communication? They have mastered the language. They understand that the use of disproportionate violence against innocents is a way to make a statement. We leave the same calling cards. Corpses in wartime often deliver messages. The death squads in El Salvador dumped three bodies in the parking lot of the Camino Real Hotel in San Salvador, where the journalists were based, early one morning. Death threats against us were stuffed in the mouths of the bodies.

And, on a larger scale, Washington uses murder and corpses to transmit its wrath. We delivered such incendiary messages in Vietnam, Iraq, Serbia, and Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden has learned to speak the language of modern industrial warfare. [...]

Organized killing is done best by a disciplined, professional army. But war also empowers those with a predilection for murder. Petty gangsters, reviled in pre-war Sarajevo, were transformed overnight at the start of the conflict into war heroes. What they did was no different. They still pillaged, looted, tortured, raped, and killed; only then they did it to Serbs, and with an ideological veneer. Slobodan Milosevic went one further. He opened up the country's prisons and armed his criminal class to fight in Bosnia.

Once we sign on for war's crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.

The eruption of conflict instantly reduces the headache and trivia of daily life. The communal march against an enemy generates a warm, unfamiliar bond with our neighbors, our community, our nation, wiping out unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation. War, in times of malaise and desperation, is a potent distraction.

George Orwell in "1984" wrote of the necessity of constant wars against the Other to forge a false unity among the proles: "War had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war.... The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil."

Patriotism, often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us. [...]

War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one. Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.
This is positively bizarre. One might imagine us to have been at war with the Arab world throughout the '90s, and Osama bin Laden to have just been responding to our constant attacks. In fact, the truth, as the analysts tell us, is the opposite. It was precisely because America was so reticent to respond to terror in any systematic way, so loathe to leave behind the roaring '90s and go to war, that al Qaeda became emboldened. In Mr. Hedges account we woke up one day, found our lives lacked meaning, and marched to war with an Islam we suddenly decided to portray as evil. In reality, we woke one day to find the World Trade Center and Pentagon in flames, decided that our lives had a meaning worth defending after all, and set out not to fight all Islam but those who have distorted it into something hateful. When in human history has a leader gone further out of his way--many would argue too far--to limit just who the enemy is, to limit the material destruction and civilian deaths, to get aid to the newly liberated peoples, etc. Whenever else has a military bombed countries with food and humanitarian supplies? No, to accept Mr. Hedges implicit argument that there is no difference between us and al Qaeda or between Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush is to abandon even the idea of morality. It is too deny that morality exists.

Mr. Hedges himself acknowledges this, if not directly, when he disavows pacifism:
The poison that is war does not free us from the ethics of responsibility. There are times when we must take this poison--just as a person with cancer accepts chemotherapy to live. We cannot succumb to despair. Force is and I suspect always will be part of the human condition. There are times when the force wielded by one immoral faction must be countered by a faction that, while never moral, is perhaps less immoral.
This is sheer nonsense. A doctor administers poison to the chemotherapy patient--has he not behaved morally? A bystander or a policeman uses force to stop a rape--have they not acted morally just because they used force, which, as Mr. Hedges says, "will always be part of the human condition"? One nation intervenes with force to stop a genocide or a megalomaniacal dictator--in what sense is this not a moral act?

He closes the chapter by saying: "This is not a call for inaction. It is a call for repentance." So we should not stand by and watch as one people slaughter another, but if we use force to stop it we must repent that use of force? What kind of morality is it that holds you guilty if you act and if you don't? The answer is: not a serious one. This is mere self-flagellation and pious posturing. Mr. Hedges provides us with a harrowing glimpse of modern war and a salutary warning about how the enthusiasms of war affect all us, but he goes way too far and lapses into absurdity when he demands that we treat all uses of force as immoral.


Grade: (C)


Chris Hedges Links:

    -BOOK SITE: War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Public Affairs Books)
    -EXCERPT: from War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
    -EXCERPT: War is a force that gives us meaning (Chris Hedges, Amnesty International NOW magazine, Winter 2002)
    -ESSAY: The Press and the Myths of War (Chris Hedges, April 21, 2003, The Nation)
    -ESSAY: Gaza Diary: Scenes froim the Palestinian Uprising (Chris Hedges, Harpers')
    -SERIES: Thou Shall Not (Chris Hedges, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: McGreevey's Chief of Staff Prefers Off-Stage Politics (CHRIS HEDGES, April 15, 2003, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: As U.N. Organizes, Rebels Are Taking Charge of Kosovo (CHRIS HEDGES, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE EAGLE'S SHADOW: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World By Mark Hertsgaard (Chris Hedges, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE ROCK: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem By Kanan Makiya (Chris Hedges, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of ODYSSEY By Homer Translated by Stanley Lombardo (Chris Hedges, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Battle for God By Karen Armstrong (Chris Hedges, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of TO END A WAR By Richard Holbrooke (Chris Hedges, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of AFTER SUCH KNOWLEDGE, WHAT FORGIVENESS?: My Encounters With Kurdistan by Jonathan C. Randal (Chris Hedges, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of YUGOSLAVIA Death of a Nation. By Laura Silber and Allan Little (Chris Hedges, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: New York Times reporter Chris Hedges (Fresh Air, March 18, 2003)
    -INTERVIEW: New York Times reporter Chris Hedges (Fresh Air, September 03, 2002)
    -INTERVIEW: New York Times reporter Chris Hedges (Fresh Air, October 30, 2001)
    -INTERVIEW: New York Times reporter Chris Hedges (Fresh Air, June 23, 1998)
    -INTERVIEW: New York Times reporter Chris Hedges (Fresh Air, November 12, 1997)
    -INTERVIEW: New York Times reporter Chris Hedges (Fresh Air, July 10, 1996)
    -INTERVIEW: New York Times reporter Chris Hedges (Fresh Air, December 13, 1995)
    -INTERVIEW: New York Times reporter Chris Hedges (Fresh Air, August 12, 1993)
    -INTERVIEW: New York Times reporter Chris Hedges (Fresh Air, January 05, 1993)
    -INTERVIEW: COVERING CONFLICT (Terence Smith, December 26, 2002, Online Newshour)
    -INTERVIEW: Chris Hedges on 'Distorted' War Coverage: TV News 'Looks Like a Giant Game of Risk' (Barbara Bedway, APRIL 02, 2003, Editor & Publisher)
    -INTERVIEW: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning: An Interview With Author Chris Hedges (Steven Rosenfeld,
    -INTERVIEW: The Costs of War (BOB ABERNETHY, Religion & Ethics)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: War as Addiction (The
    -INTERVIEW: War, Love and the Divine: A war correspondent with a divinity degree talks about the only force more powerful than war (BeliefNet)
    -INTERVIEW: war is a force that gives us meaning?: Bill Moyers Talks with Chris Hedges (Random Walks, March 19, 2003)
    -INTERVIEW: War is Hell (Brooke Gladstone, December 27, 2002, On the Media)
    -INTERVIEW: An Enticing Elixer: An interview with Chris Hedges on our love affair with war. (Molly Marsh, January-February 2003, Sojourners)
    -CHAT: with Chris Hedhes (Washington Post, 1/14/03)
    -PROFILE: The horrible fascination of war: New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges shares lessons from a life on the front lines (Harvard Gazette)
    -ARCHIVES: "Chris Hedges" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of War is a Force (Robert Mann, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of War is a Force (Abraham Verghese, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Christopher Caldwell, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Gary Kamiya, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (TOM ROBERTS, National Catholic Reporter)
    -REVIEW: of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Gary E. Frank, Colgate Scene)
    -REVIEW: of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Richard M. Ebeling, Future of Freedom Foundation)
    -REVIEW: of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Virginia Baron, Fellowship Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Elizabeth Kiern, Flak)
    -REVIEW: of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Doug Brown, Powell Books)
    -REVIEW: of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Timothy Harris,
    -REVIEW: of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (G. Richard Wheatcroft, Center for Progressive Christianity)
    -REVIEW: of War is a Force (Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Health)
    -REVIEW: of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. By Chris Hedges (David Gordon, The Mises Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    The Dick Staub Interview: War Is Not a Necessary Evil: The author of When God Says War Is Right says early Christians weren't pacifists but looked at the entire Bible for advice on war. (Christianity Today, 04/01/2003)
    -ESSAY: Maimonides on war: A religious tradition that President Bush might appreciate (David Klinghoffer, 3/28/03, National Review)


Orrin, I just finished reading Hedges's book. It seems you've missed the whole point of the book, which is to simply say that when anyone wields the tool of war it will result in immoral consequences, e.g. dead innocents, and that came therefore from immoral actions. I don't believe he is saying war is not sometimes necessary but that a people should be very conscious of its inherent tragedy - it is not a glorious thing. His book, as I read it, has absolutely nothing to do with saying whether we are justified or not for warring in Afghanistan or Iraq (he wrote the book before the Iraq war). Rather it is about the serious painting over of the realities of war by our government, by the press and by our own striving to believe in higher causes bought with the sacrifices of heroes. Whenever a reality is not acknowledged, it will somehow make itself known, either with defeat (Vietnam)or within the multitude of lives that are forever scarred from it. Opening yourself up to the notion that we Americans are capable of waging horrible war doesn't mean we have to be anti-American. Doing so will rather help us wage war,when we have to, "less immorally". And that would be a great thing. There's no gettin around "Thou Shall Not Kill".

- Tim

- Sep-27-2004, 19:25