Book review: 'War Is a Force ...'

By SHIRLEY SAAD   |   June 24, 2003 at 7:00 AM
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SAN DIEGO, June 24 (UPI) -- The contents of Chris Hedges' "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" are both terrifying and deeply saddening. He brings us face to face with our ignorance, our deepest prejudices, and our weaknesses.

In his introduction, he writes, "I wrote this book not to dissuade us from war but to understand it. It is especially important that we, who wield such massive force across the globe, see within ourselves the seeds of our own obliteration. We must guard against the myth of war and the drugs of war that can, together, render us blind and callous as some of those we battle."

A most admirable sentiment to be sure, but how are we ever to achieve this understanding, when Hedges himself, a college graduate and the son of a minister, was hooked by the drug of war?

"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 took years of work as a foreign correspondent, seeing the ravages of war with his own eyes before Hedges finally began to comprehend its futility and insanity.

Most people who buy into the rhetoric of war as propagated by the state and the media are average people who do not bother to think for themselves. They swallow everything they hear or see on television and rarely read past the lurid headlines of their daily paper.

This is especially true in times of economic hardship, when the nation needs something to pull it together.

"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."

The world has always been at war. According to historian Will Durant, in all of human history the world has not been at war, somewhere on the planet, a total of twenty-nine years. A frightening statistic, but not half as chilling as the litany of horrors Hedges witnessed in his years as a war correspondent for The New York Times.

One gets the feeling that Hedges needs to list all the dead and wounded, all the rape and pillage he saw to get it all out of his system. As he points out, "Those who can tell us the truth are silenced or prefer to forget. The state needs the myth, as much as it needs its soldiers and its machines of war, to survive." But he, like Wilfred Owen and other World War I poets, cannot forget. The horrors they saw marked them forever.

But we are fed a sanitized version of the war, in a willing conspiracy between the state and the media. That is why there are many more pictures and stories in the Arab and French press about the civilian victims of the war in Iraq than there are in the American press. "Wars that lose their mythic stature for the public, such as Korea and Vietnam, are doomed to failure, for war is exposed for what it is -- organized murder." That is why stories out of Vietnam like that of the massacre at My Lai are so shocking.

Hedges describes the myth of war: courage, heroism, patriotism, dying for a just cause. "It may be that Falstaff, rather than Henry V, is a much more accurate picture of the common soldier...". The overpowering feeling in combat, according to Hedges is fear, and although acts of heroism do occur, the "heroes" are, in retrospect, embarassed by their acts of heroism and would rather not discuss them.

People seek happiness in life, but happiness without meaning is, well, meaningless. And as, Hedges points out, "And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning."

Sigmund Freud divided the forces in human nature between Eros and Thanatos, love and death. According to the famous psychoanalyst, these forces are in eternal conflict, in a constant tug-of-war. The Greeks, on the other hand, linked the two: Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and her lover Ares, the god of war. Hades honored Ares because of all the young men he sent him, all the young men slain in war.

Sex is another aspect of the drug of war, which is why there are so many abandoned "war brides," and so much rape, too. It should not be mistaken for love, because as Hedges points out, "love itself in wartime is hard to sustain or establish."

"War breaks down long-established prohibitions against violence, destruction and murder." It also breaks down other moral prohibitions and so rape, mutilation, abuse and looting become common too. There were rape camps in Serbia where captured women were repeatedly tortured and raped, and the same thing happened in Argentina during what became known as the Dirty War -- a war which was conveniently forgotten when the nation united against the British for the Falklands war.

Ares has been busy lately, and Hades must be very grateful. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Cyprus, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan: these are only a few of the more recent conflicts, many of them internecine, that have plagued our planet. In all of these conflicts some of the victims have been journalists and cameramen, who died because of their addiction to war.

Hedges himself was hooked. In El Salvador, he witnessed a battle in which he was pinned down by gunfire. He felt powerless, weak and humiliated. He saw men all around him shooting and dying. He swore that if he survived he would never go to war again. But after finally dashing to safety, he drank away the fear and excitement in a bar, where his experience became "a war story," one of countless tales told by journalists all over the world. At least by those who survive. Hedges survived and went back for more.

Hedges quotes the Christian ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr who "warned us that moral choice is not between the moral and the immoral, but between the immoral and the less immoral." That seems to be a fitting description of our last two desert wars: fighting Saddam Hussein, a tyrant and mass murderer, under the pretense of saving Kuwait or the Iraqi people. "We did not fight the Persian Gulf war to liberate Kuwait, but to ensure that we would continue to have cheap oil." Because Saddam was immoral does not make our actions moral, just less immoral.

But the state asserts, and the people prefer to believe, that we fought with higher motives, otherwise all the senseless killings would be unbearable, those of our own soldiers as well as those of all the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. As Hedges notes, "But oil is hardly a cause that will bring crowds into the street." But fighting terrorism might, especially in the aftermath of September 11. As President Bush so aptly put it, although he was widely criticized for it, war is a crusade.

Hedges calls our present war on terrorism a jihad, a quixotic effort against an "elusive and protean enemy."

We also need to remember that today's enemy may be tomorrow's friend, just as yesterday's enemies are today's friends and allies. So when we unite to battle "evil" feeling so self-righteous because we are fighting, as George Bush told us, "to defend freedom and all that is good and just in the world," we need to pull back and do a little critical thinking.

Hedges draws on the literature of combat, from Greek antiquity to modern times, and quotes Shakespeare several times. Good old Shakespeare, who understood human nature so well. Coriolanus, Anthony, Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, were all victims of their thirst for power. "Shakespeare reminds us that though we may not do what we want, we are responsible for our lives. It does not matter what has been made of us; what matters is what we ourselves make of what has been done to us."

What war does is make veterans feel guilty, depressed and unable to adapt to their old life. Most of the damage is psychological, and in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, a war that lasted just a few weeks, a third of the Israeli casualties were due to psychiatric causes. A Salvadoran army sergeant became blind after his unit walked into an ambush and most of his comrades were killed or wounded. He regained his sight at the hospital, insisting that he had shrapnel in his head while his doctors said he had no head wounds.

Hedges tries to end on a positive note, saying that love is the only thing that can save us and "love, as the poets remind us, is eternal." He quotes Viktor Frankl, an inmate of Auschwitz: "The salvation of man is through love and in love."

We need to recognize that our enemies can love too, the same love we have for our families and friends. As Sting sang in his beautiful song, "Russians,"

How can I save my little boy

From Oppenheimer's deadly toy?

There is no monopoly on common sense

On either side of the political fence

There is no historical precedent to put

Words in the mouth of the president

There's no such thing as a winnable war

It's a lie we don't believe anymore

What might save us, me and you

Is if the Russians love their children too

But Hedges is quick to point out that it does not mean that we will avoid war or death, just maybe achieve individual salvation.

("War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" by Chris Hedges, Anchor Books, $12.95, 199 pages.)

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