National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 6, 2003


Jane Addams’ college has failed as commencement audience shouts down reporter’s words on reality of war

Chris Hedges on assignment in Punjab, India, for the Dallas Morning News in 1989.
-- KRT/Ken Geiger


Just when The New York Times seems, by its own admission, caught in a moment of embarrassment over its prevaricating reporter, one of its other reporters has received an honor the Times is either too humble or too nervous to acknowledge.

We’ve read about it in the tabloids and on the Internet, and heard the story on Public Radio, but not in the pages of his own paper.

Chris Hedges, a 20-year war correspondent, author of War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (Free Press) and the forthcoming What Every Person Should Know about War (Free Press) on May 17 actually delivered a commencement address that made his listeners think.

And the students, parents and faculty of little Rockford College in Illinois exploded in anger and drove him from the stage.

The planned 18-minute address -- cut shorter by thugs who twice pulled the plug on his microphone, by faculty, guests, and students who shouted him down from the floor, and a flummoxed new college president who told him, after consultation, to wrap it up -- was partly a critical analysis of the Iraq war just ended.

But it has not ended, he told them: It has become “a war now of liberation by Iraqis from American occupation.” We have become, he said, like Ariel Sharon and Vladimir Putin, who carry out their senseless and ultimately self-defeating acts of gratuitous violence in Palestine and Chechnya.

Hedges’ words came also from the pages of his book, which had earned him the invitation in the first place.

Hedges is not a pacifist. He believes that sometimes, as in Yugoslavia, we must intervene with force to protect basic human rights. But he is a realist about wars.

He has witnessed them all since El Salvador, including the Sudan, Bosnia and Kosovo, and the first Gulf War, where, frustrated by the controls of the Pentagon “pool” system, he broke away from his minders and was captured by the Iraqi Republican Guard.

As a result of his experience, he hates the romantic myth of war, the distorted nationalism by which leaders for selfish purposes drum and bugle their people into living hells, which leave above all the very old, poor, defenseless and young who fight the war ruined for life.

The first interruptions popped when Hedges was 600 words into his text. He had just criticized the “Christian Evangelical groups who had been allowed to follow on the heels of the occupying troops to try to teach Muslims about Jesus.” Since Hedges is Harvard Divinity school grad and son of a Presbyterian minister, who had fought in World War II and had become a pacifist on Vietnam, Hedges was speaking with some authority on Jesus as well as on war.

Rockford College, founded in 1847, has Christian Evangelical roots; but, like many once-religious colleges, it does not trumpet a Christian identity on its Web site. Rather, it takes pride in its recent PR image projection, in its “best known alumnae [sic], Jane Addams (class of 1881),” founder of the Chicago settlement house movement and a pacifist, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. The college’s vision: “to be Jane Addams’ college in the 21st century.” Its new motto: “Think. Act. Give a Damn.”

In the spirit of Jane Addams, the new president, Paul Pribbenow, who had invited Hedges, took the microphone to plead for academic freedom. He suggested they protest in silence. He was answered by cheers and a foghorn blast.

Quoting Yeats, Sophocles, Thucydides and the Bible, Hedges warned his audience that we have lost touch with the essence of war: Death is hidden from public view.

A man stood up to interrupt. The microphones broke off. The crowd booed.

Hedges’ conclusion -- on the distinction between comradeship and friendship and how friendship, which is love, is the potent enemy of war -- was lost to their ears and minds. Lost in a cacophony of jeers, cheers, foghorns and shouts.

As the students paraded across the stage to pick up their diplomas, campus security hustled Hedges out the gate.

~ ~ ~

How do your teach values, particularly the value of human life, to young men and women so saturated in the culture of distraction that they can’t think beyond next Friday night?

We can sympathize with the president of Rockford, with its 864 students plus many adults, from 10 states and 27 countries, of whom 62 percent are women and 38 percent men. It is not an intellectual powerhouse if only 70 percent its faculty have terminal degrees.

The local Rockford Register Star calls the graduation “One Big Boo,” and blames the president for inviting the wrong speaker and the graduates for not letting him speak. Commencement, says the Register Star, is “time for comforting words.”

Says who? I’ve sat through 35 commencement addresses -- some solemn, some silly -- since I began college teaching. In many places the addresses have degenerated into clichés from crowd-pleasing celebrities, comedians or TV anchors who make the graduates feel good about seeing “someone famous on their big day.” I’ve heard Alan Alda, Captain Kangaroo, Cokie Roberts and Kurt Waldheim. I remember only two as eloquent -- Mario Cuomo and Mary Higgins Clark.

A commencement should show a college at its best. The guest speaker should briefly (15 minutes max) both challenge and inspire. If the graduates cannot be dignified and civil and cannot deal with a complex idea for less than 20 minutes after four years of liberal education, the school has failed.

Although Rockford has resolved to have school-wide discussion on all this in the fall, it’s not clear whether the college will learn from its debacle. A meeting of students asked the administration to apologize for inviting Hedges.

The 40-plus messages posted on the Register Star Web site after two days shift between hope and despair.

One compares Rockford’s shout-down to the students and faculty of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia who walked out on Sen. Rick Santorum not because of what he said to them but because of his previously published remarks on the death penalty, the war in Iraq, social welfare and finally criticizing homosexuality (see story).

Another message says someone “relevant,” like a business leader, should have given the address. A writer in North Carolina, where North Carolina State University students did the same to Phil Donohue, thanks Rockford for demonstrating that stupidity flourishes in the Midwest as well as in the South.

Some criticize Hedges for not rendering his audience benevolent by congratulating them and then moving gently into his topic. One member of the audience says he could see the faces of the crowd change from joy to sadness -- some to tears -- with each sentence. Another says most graduates and members of the audience were struggling to hear what they perceived to be a thoughtful speech, but the rudest parents and guests made it impossible.

One message said: “The audience had FOGHORNS? No graduation I have ever been to would have allowed that!”

~ ~ ~

Let us grant that Hedges, who had been imprisoned in the Sudan, beaten by Saudi police, and shelled in Sarajevo did not know how to come on nice to a commencement audience.

Does this real or imagined slight justify shutting him up?

The president not only apologized, he went belly up. In the Register Star he insisted the students had been well trained. He distanced himself from Hedges’ ideas, but granted that war is a timely subject.

In an “I am very sorry” letter to the graduates (May 21), he blamed the speaker’s style and personality. “Our speaker presented his ideas in a style that suggested the day was about him and not about you.”

A warning to anyone else tempted to speak at Rockford.

~ ~ ~

If graduation is too late to get young people to think seriously about war, teachers will have to try harder to reach them earlier.

The singular contribution in Hedges’ books is to de-romanticize a phenomenon most young Americans have experienced only through comic books, movies, TV and video games. And even there the impact of the image can be ambiguous.

The lopped-off heads and arms, the ripped- out guts and bunged-out eyeballs on the MTV animated “Celebrity Deathmatch” show, for example, are considered “funny.” But the image of severed hands still clinging to the barbed wire fence as the smoke clears in the 1930 film of All Quiet on the Western Front comes as a salutary shock.

Jane Addams was a turn-of-the century Chicago combo of Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Day. When she went to Rockford it was a women’s seminary just becoming a college. Its moral training prepared some graduates for missionary work.

But, she tells us in Twenty Years at Hull House, her real moral awakening did not come until, traveling in Europe, she was stunned to realize that at a bloody bullfight she had seen five bulls and many more horses killed. This made her previous education seem like wasted time, the “snare of preparation” that shielded her from real experience. When she opposed entering World War I, “Saint Jane” became the “most dangerous woman in America.” Theodore Roosevelt called her “poor bleeding Jane,” and conservatives labeled her a “Red.”

Could today’s Rockford ever invite this embarrassing woman to speak?

~ ~ ~

Does it take real blood to get an idea across?

One of my student friends recently enjoyed a visit to an Army camp where he got to play soldier -- running through mud and scaling walls -- with the troops; and now he thinks that, rather than get a Ph.D., he might join the Army.

I had two years in the artillery in Germany, my father fought in World War I, and my brother was a Marine. A military career can be an honorable one. But with our new foreign policy of bullying weaker nations for their own good, my student may have to go to war. First he should read Hedges’ What Every Person Should Know about War. It will tell him this:

  • At least 108 million people have been killed in war in the 20th century. At this moment about 30 wars are going on around the world. Many observers regard wars as noble, like a contest, a chance to compete and win.
  • Wars make some people rich. America, the largest arms manufacturer, makes half the arms sold on the world market. War also kills many more civilians than soldiers -- in the 1990s, civilians were 75-90 percent of all war deaths. Two million of these were children.
  • The average recruit is a 21-year-old single white male with 12 years of education. After six weeks of boot camp you will march six miles a day with helmet, weapon and a 20-pound pack. In the infantry you are 10 times more likely to be killed. You will move at least every two years. If married you will be more likely to divorce and abuse your spouse. You will have comrades but few friends.
  • You will share a latrine with 40 men, shower about once a week. You will become more religious, more superstitious, more preoccupied with sex and more promiscuous.
  • During combat you will get skin infections and diarrhea, sleep about four hours, and carry 88- to 101-pound packs. Your chances of being wounded or killed are one in five.
  • If wounded, chances are one in five that you will die -- most often from bullets or artillery shells. Keep out of sight. A sniper can get you from over a mile away. A helicopter crash may break your back or legs or sever your spinal cord. If a medic has to operate in the field he may or may not use anesthesia.
  • Most likely your first performance in combat will be poor. But, because your training has simulated real combat, you will improve. When you first kill someone you might freeze, then feel exhilarated, then feel remorse. You may vomit and cry. But it gets easier. You may enjoy it. You will be trained in hatred, to not see the target as a human being.
  • One in three suffer combat stress, also known as battle fatigue. You may mutilate enemy dead, torture or rape prisoners, kill animals or fight with your comrades. If you have a “combat high” you will want to kill and kill -- an addiction that will surely get you killed.
  • If captured you may be tortured -- electric shocks, long beatings on the genitals and feet, and emersion in excrement; and you will most likely talk.
  • If you die it will be from loss of blood. You will probably not know you are dying. The light will gradually disappear, like a match dying out. Your last gasp will be a cry for your mother, spouse or girlfriend.
  • The enemies you have killed will cry for the same things.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit Community Professor in Humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 2003

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