Tuesday, May 10, 2011

This Book I Read

I recently finished War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges. Hedges, a former divinity student, went on to report from war zones in Central America, the Middle East, Sudan, the Punjab, and the Balkans. He's seen a lot of war, and wrote the book to demythologize it, to examine what attracts so many of us to war. It's a powerful, unsettling, and deeply-felt tome.

Hedges describes the attractions of war for nations, institutions, and individuals, most certainly not excluding himself. As a combat journalist, he got hooked on the adrenaline of danger, and the moral certitude of his profession's nobility. A line from the book opens the film The Hurt Locker: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years."

In a 2003 interview, Hedges told Bill Moyers:
I think one of the things I tried very hard to do in the book was show the dark side of what we do. 
I mean I admire the courage and the integrity of many of the men and women I worked with, but I do think there is a very dark side to what we do. And it becomes very hard to live outside of a war zone. It's why this small — my comrades, these groups of war correspondents and photographers — would leap from war-to-war. 
It's no accident that I was covering the war in Kosovo with people I had covered the war with in El Salvador two decades earlier. You go out of Sarajevo and be in a hotel in Paris and would be pacing the halls because you couldn't adjust. When you stepped outside war it's literally as if you sort of see the world around you from the end of a long tunnel.
He eventually realized he was suffering from PTSD, and spend several years detoxing: living the life of a "normal dad," shuttling his kids to Little League games, all the while immersed in Shakespeare, the Bible and the classics, trying to make sense of what he had seen.

This book (and a companion volume, What Every Person Should Know About War) was the result. Hedges talks not only about the myths of war, but about the Mythic War, the one that every society manages to convince itself it's entering into. The subversion of truth and history, from the Polish "invasion of Germany" to the incubator babies of Kuwait, grips the population, and truth-tellers become as despised as the enemy.

Writes Hedges, "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 reduces and at times erases the anxiety of individual consciousness. We abandon individual responsibility for a shared, unquestioned communal enterprise, however morally dubious."

And as Hedges told Sarah Ruth van Gelder of YES! Magazine, "I don't know that there's an organized force that can stand up to the allure of war, which gives us a sense of empowerment—allows us to be part of a cause, to ennoble ourselves, to rise above our small stations in life. The need to find meaning like that, I think, is an indication of the huge deficit of our emotional life."

He also tries to explain what war does to the people and the nations who indulge in it:
In wartime, perversion and hedonism spiral out of control. The comradeship of soldiering seeks to turn the very act of love into something akin to defecation. This is because the great “that which cannot be subsumed into communal life” is love. So much of the psychosis of war involves an active effort to destroy feelings of tenderness and compassionate love. 
In a wartime society, the moral order is flipped upside down; prostitution, rape, and abuse all rise as the levels of violence rises. That happened in every conflict I was in. In Serbia, for instance, as the violence proliferated you also had a proliferation of pornography and snuff films. It always goes hand in hand, because what you are destroying is the humanity of the other; you are turning the other into an object, which is precisely what torture or pornography does. 
So what we saw in Abu Ghraib was a window into the kind of perversion that is always the case in war. This flies in the face of the image that we are given of war by the entertainment industry, or even quasi-historians like Stephen Ambrose who want to ennoble war.
But in spite of all he's witnessed, Chris Hedges is not 100% pacifist. He says he recognizes that there are times when war is sadly necessary. He describes pacifism as a kind of dodge that allows one to avoid making moral distinctions. He explains this stance to Bethany Saltman of the magazine The Sun:
The world rarely offers us a choice between the moral and the immoral. It’s usually a choice between the immoral and the more immoral. That’s why moral decision making is so tough. Who was more moral in the Warsaw ghetto uprising during World War ii: those people who didn’t join the uprising, because they had children and feared for their safety, or those who led the suicidal fight against the Nazis? You can’t say one was more moral than the other. It depended on who you were.
Based on his experiences in the Balkans,  Hedges reluctantly supported intervention there to prevent even greater carnage, saying that at times there is a "moral imperative to use violence." But I argued just the other day that much of the warfare Hedges saw there might have been preventable, and I still feel that working to mediate conflicts peacefully is also a moral imperative.

I'm sympathetic to the argument that armies are sometimes necessary, just like police departments are. But I'm also cognizant of the notion that people who sleep with loaded guns on their bedside tables are more likely to use them.

Hedges raises questions worth grappling with, which is why the next book I read will be the 100% pacifist War is a Lie, by David Swanson. But I'll let Hedges have the last word here. "Love," he says, "is the only force that finally can counter the force of death -- the death instinct."
To survive as a human being is possible only through love. And when Thanatos is ascendent, the instinct must be to reach out to those we love, to see in them all the divinity, pity and pathos of the human. And to recognize love in the lives of others -- even those with whom we are in conflict -- love that is like our own. It does not mean we will avoid war or death. It does not mean that we as distinct individuals will survive. But love, in its mystery, has its own power. It alone gives us meaning that endures. It alone allows us to embrace and cherish life. Love has the power both to resist in our nature what we know we must resist, and to affirm what we know we must affirm. And love, as the poets remind us, is eternal.

Bonus: Talking Heads, "The Book I Read," live in 1978.

No comments:

Post a Comment