e-mail us

Cover story

Seeing through the lie that is war


Within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center, amid the grief and mourning and confusion, the flags began to appear. Before long, the country was awash in war rhetoric and wrapped in red, white and blue bunting. Bald eagles soared into World Series stadiums and fighter jets roared overhead at all manner of public gatherings.

High school ROTC units marched with greater pride and a more determined step before sporting events, and the recording industry began to pump out new collections of patriotic songs.

Everyone was extolling the newfound virtue of patriotism, and President George W. Bush was affirming that we would be “plenty tough” in hunting down “the evildoers.”

Some would even venture to say we were on our way to healing the doubts that had crept into the national psyche during the Vietnam era.

Chris Hedges would issue a stern warning: “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.” Self-worship requires that we turn a blind eye on “the murder and repression done in our name.” It means that we dismiss how others might see us and perceive our actions in the world. “We define ourselves. All other definitions do not count.”

It is the beginning of the myth and the lie that must exist for wars to be prosecuted, Hedges writes in his searing indictment of international violence, WAR Is the Force that Gives Us Meaning (PublicAffairs, $23).

This is no pacifist tract. Hedges, 46, a war correspondent for 15 years and currently a New York Times reporter, went to the battlefield, first in El Salvador in 1982 (where he free-lanced for National Catholic Reporter) out of Harvard Divinity School. “I am not a pacifist,” he said in an interview from his home in New Jersey. “I wish I was but I am a reporter. I have to see the world as it is, not as I want it to be.”

Though an unrelenting critic of war, he sees some as necessary, an ethical responsibility that he compares to taking poison, “just as a person with cancer accepts chemotherapy to live,” he writes. “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.”

Yet even within that acceptance -- and this apparent paradox raises some perplexity -- his critique of war is so total that it is difficult to see how any might be legitimate. Though despairing that those who oppose war and who dare to puncture the war myths will ever win over those intent on making war, Hedges urges vigilance. “Reinhold Niebuhr aptly reminded us that we must all act and then ask for forgiveness. This book is not a call for inaction. It is a call for repentance.”

Repentance seems an especially out-of-place admonition by the time Hedges finishes his account, laced through with references that ground his observations in the wisdom of the classics as well as modern psychology. For what makes this more than just another treatise on the futility of war is the personal witness Hedges brings to the subject. He has seen an indescribable amount of grotesque death and human suffering. He was a self-described addict whose drug of choicewas the battlefield, and he has seen them in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Algeria, the West Bank, Gaza, the Sudan, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Persian Gulf and Turkey. During the Shiite uprising in Southern Iraq following the Gulf War, Hedges was captured by the Iraqi Republican Guard and held for a week. He has broken the addiction -- he is done with war reporting. But it is not a profession from which one easily walks away. He has, he says, paid dearly for seeing such a great amount of violence and death the world over.

At one point in Kosovo in 1998, he was with a group of mourners in a small Albanian village waiting for an eerie cargo delivery.

When the truck pulled into the yard I climbed into the back. Before each corpse, wrapped in bloodstained blankets and rugs, was lifted out for washing and burial I checked to see if the body was mutilated. I pulled back the cloth to uncover the faces. The gouged-out eyes, the shattered skulls, the gaping rows of broken teeth, and the sinewy strands of flayed flesh greeted me. When I could not see clearly in the fading light I flicked on my Maglite. I jotted each disfigurement in my notebook.

The bodies were passed silently out of the truck. They were laid on crude wooden coffin lids placed on the floor of the shed. The corpses were wound in white shrouds by a Muslim cleric in a red turban. The shed was lit by a lone kerosene lamp. It threw out a ghastly, uneven, yellowish light, In the hasty effort to confer some dignity on the dead, family members, often weeping, tried to wash away the bloodstains from the faces. Most could not do it and had to be helped away.

It was not an uncommon event for me. I have seen many such dead. Several weeks later it would be worse. I would be in a warehouse with 51 bodies, including children, even infants, women and the elderly from the town of Prekaz. I had spent time with many of them. I stared into their lifeless faces. I was again in the twilight zone of war. I could not wholly believe what I saw in front of me.

War twists and distorts a culture and requires “a new, artificial reality.” Traditional morality is abandoned. “We accept, if not condone, the maiming and killing of others as the regrettable cost of war. We operate under a new moral code.”

None is immune from war’s perversities, he argues. During the Central America conflicts of the 1980s, he said, those who decried American foreign policy in the region, a stance that actually propelled Hedges into his first stints as a war correspondent, often took up with equal ardor the cause of opposition forces and the utopian visions of opposition movements guilty of their own violence and human rights abuses.

All war, in his view, involves the creation of a war myth -- the belief that one is superior and the demonizing of an opponent -- as well as lies and the need to keep the reality of the battlefield at a distance from those consuming the war myth at home.

In modern warfare, Hedges writes, the press has been a willing partner in creating and sustaining the war myth. The one time that myth was deflated was toward the end of the Vietnam War, when the reality and futility of that conflict began to intrude on the normal routine of U.S. life via television and newspaper reports. Hedges believed that ushered in a period of national health.

“National triumphalism was shunned and discredited in America after Vietnam,” he writes. “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. But the plague of nationalism was resurrected during the Reagan years. It became ascendant with the Persian Gulf War, when we embraced the mythic and unachievable goal of a ‘New World Order.’ The infection of nationalism now lies unchecked and blindly accepted in the march we make as a nation toward another war, one as ill-conceived as the war we lost in Southeast Asia.”

Using Freud’s division, Hedges sees two impulses at tension: Eros, that “propels us to become close to others, to preserve and conserve, and the Thanatos, or death instinct, the impulse that works towards the annihilation of all living things, including ourselves.” If Eros was the overriding impulse of the culture following the Vietnam War, he believes Thanatos has taken over. We have lost our revulsion to war and now celebrate it.

Hedges makes observations and asks questions that few would dare to speak publicly. “Where else, but from the industrialized world, did the suicide highjackers 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.”

Recalling the devastation inflicted on hapless Iraqi troops by the most sophisticated war machinery on earth, he writes: “Here there was no pillage, no warlords, no collapse of unit discipline, but the cold and brutal efficiency of industrial warfare waged by well-trained and highly organized professional soldiers. It was a potent reminder why most European states and America live in such opulence and determine the fate of so many others. We equip and train the most efficient killers on the planet.”

If there was little of that kind of reportage, particularly on television, it was not because the press was used during the Gulf War, it was because the press “wanted to be used. It saw itself as part of the war effort.” If Hedges is unsparing in his criticism of the media, which provided “war as spectacle, war as entertainment” as well as coverage “designed to make us feel good about our nation, about ourselves,” he did not spare himself either.

Hedges signed one of the restrictive agreements required of all covering the Gulf War. The agreement would authorize “pool reporters” to be accompanied by military guides on “field trips.” Hedges signed the agreement and the next day headed into the field without authorization and negotiated his way to the front lines.

“But even those who do go out are guilty of distortion. For we not only believe the myth of war and feed recklessly off of the drug but also embrace the cause. We may do it with more skepticism. We certainly expose more lies and misconceptions. But we believe. We all believe. When you stop believing you stop going to war.”

Tom Roberts is editor of NCR. His e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002