JR'S Free Thought Pages
War is a Force that gives us Meaning – by Chris Hedges
Book Review – a must read.
Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer prize winner and for two decades a foreign war correspondent for The New York Times, is the author of "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America." His column appears Mondays on Truthdig.
**Note: I urge you all to follow the link I have provided below to Google Video for an outstanding eloquent lecture delivered by Hedges based on the book. This most articulate man speaks from intelligence, knowledge and direct experience.
Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons – Bertrand Russell
Only the dead have seen the end of War – Plato
The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting - Milan Kundera
War is a racket. It always has been - Major General Smedley D. Butler (most decorated US soldier before the Second World War and Audie Murphy)
The first casualty of war is truth….
Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception...
Although I didn’t understand it as an anti-war story at the time, I recall as a child reading Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and then going to see the John Huston directed 1950 movie production starring Audie Murphy. The movie was on Turner Classic Movies a few months ago and I enjoyed watching it again after so many years. I can’t think of a movie directed by John Huston that I didn’t enjoy. The African Queen (1951) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) are two of my all-time favorites.
Since that time I’ve read many anti-war books and watched many anti-war movies, beginning with All Quiet on the Western Front and Catch 22 when I was a high school student. These two books have deeply influenced my views on war. Also shaping my views are the numerous exceptional antiwar movies such as Paths of Glory (1957) brilliantly produced and acted by Kirk Douglas, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Coming Home (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979) and many others - also add to the list the many vivid anti-war documentaries. Two that immediately come to my mind on the Vietnam War where over 3.5 million Vietnamese were pointlessly slaughtered by the US military are Hearts and Minds (1974) and The Fog of War (2004). In the past few years many very good documentaries such as No End in Sight (2007) have been produced on the loathsome American imperialistic War in Iraq where the death toll is now well over one million, mostly civilians, with millions more displaced, their lives destroyed. It’s difficult for me to understand how anyone who has read any of these books or watched the films can ever support war. War manifestly demonstrates the ultimate stupidity of the human race. As the anti-war folk song from the sixties tells us “when will we ever learn”? I can’t remember who first said this but I consider it a truism: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, then the world will know peace.” Chris Hedges “War is a Force That Gives us Meaning” ought to become a classic in the genre of anti-war polemics. It’s written by a man who has personally experienced its horrors and gross futility and folly first hand as a war correspondent for two decades.
Chris Hedges began his education in the classics, literature and religion, but became attracted to journalism and, as he readily admits in the book and the lecture below, eventually addicted to war itself. He has decades of experience closely following conflicts in El Salvador, the Balkans, Israel, Sudan, Iraq and elsewhere. Unlike many of today's "embedded" reporters who ride along with mechanized American divisions and see little of war except for the explosions in the sky and what the War department wants them to see and write what their corporate pimps want them to write, Hedges was continually risking his own life to be in close contact with the belligerents and victims of the conflicts, and this book details many of the gruesome scenes he witnessed.
This powerfully honest book is provocative and disturbing as it strips away the veneer of war by relating the author's eye witness accounts of the brutality, fear, humiliation, destruction, psychological addiction and damage that war brings to those who participate in it or are simply caught up in it and unable to escape. This is a must read, especially in these very difficult political and economic times. I read this in nearly one sitting, unable to put this wonderfully written insightful, yet disturbing, book down. Memo to the war mongering flag waving goose stepping chicken hawk wealthy Bush/Cheney crowd who inexorably start and profit from wars but never fight in them (as we’re told in the CCR song “Fortunate Son”): dare to read this book!
The author does not attempt any deep philosophical or psychological analysis of the causes of war (many have already done this) but does consistently attack the tenets of patriotism, racism, nationalism and various ideologies used to promote and justify war and does a good job of exposing just who these war mongering promoters and profiteers often are. Anyone who has read All Quiet on the Western Front or any of the other great anti-war novels will understand this book. Hedges includes a fair dose of self-criticism and angst concerning his own participation in covering war as a correspondent, and includes the often poignant stories of other correspondents. He also touches upon the ways in which the intellectually irresponsible and complicit cheer leading media are shamelessly brought into service by the promoters and initiators of war – the state.
**An outstanding lecture by Hedges based on the book can be viewed here:
Some quotes from the book:
“Once we sign on for war’s crusade 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.” (p. 9)
“We often become as deaf and dumb as those we condemn. We too have our terrorists. The Contras in Nicaragua carried out, with funding from Washington, some of the most egregious human rights violations in Central America, yet were lauded as "freedom fighters." Jonas Savimbi, the rebel leader the United States backed in Angola's civil war, murdered and tortured with a barbarity that far outstripped the Taliban. The rebellion Savimbi began in 1975 resulted in more than 500,000 dead. President Ronald Reagan called Savimbi the Abraham Lincoln of Angola, although he littered the country with land mines, once bombed a Red Cross—run factory making artificial legs for victims of those mines, and pummeled a rival’s wife and children to death. The mayhem and blood-letting we backed in Angola were copied in many parts of Africa, including Zaire and Liberia.” (p. 20-21)
“The myth of war rarely endures for those who experience combat. War is messy, confusing, sullied by raw brutality and an elephantine fear that grabs us like a massive bouncer who comes up from behind. Soldiers in the moments before real battles weep, vomit, and write last letters home, although these are done more as a precaution than from belief. All are nearly paralyzed with fright. There is a morbid silence that grips a battlefield in the final moments before the shooting starts, one that sets the back of my own head pounding in pain, wipes away all appetite, and makes my fingers tremble as I ready myself to go forward against logic. You do not think of home or family, for to do so is to be overcome by a wave of nostalgia and emotion that can impair your ability to survive. One thinks, so far as it is possible, of cleaning weapons, of readying for the business of killing. No one ever charges into battle for God and country.” (p. 38)
“The imagined heroism, the vision of a dash to rescue a wounded comrade, the clear lines we thought were drawn in battle, the images we have of our own reaction under gunfire, usually wilt in combat. This is a sober and unsettling realization. We may not be who we thought we would be. One of the most difficult realizations of war is how deeply we betray ourselves, how far we are from the image of gallantry and courage we desire, how instinctual and primordial fear is. We do not meditate on action. Our movements are usually motivated by a numbing and overpowering desire for safety. And yet there are heroes, those who somehow rise above it all, maybe only once, to expose themselves to risk to save their comrades. I have seen such soldiers. I nearly always found them afterward to be embarrassed about what they did, unable to explain it, reticent to talk. Many are not sure they could do it again.” (p. 39)
“It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort. The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting the cause. And some of the most important cheerleaders of the cause are the reporters. This is true in nearly every war. During the Gulf War, as in the weeks after the September attacks, communities gathered for vigils and worship services. The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura. We, even those in the press, spoke in the collective. And because we in modern society have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the state in times of war. The state and the institutions of state become, for many, the center of worship in wartime. To expose the holes in the myth is to court excommunication.
Edmund Dene Morel, the British crusader against Belgian atrocities in the Congo, denounced World War I as madness.3 He argued that through a series of treaties kept secret from Parliament and the public, Britain had become caught up in the senseless and tragic debacle. His fight against the war saw mobs break up his meetings with stink bombs and his banners ripped down. He finally could not rent a hall. His friends deserted him. Police raided his office and his home. The wartime censor banned some of his writings. He was flooded with hate mail. The government finally jailed him in 1917. It was only after 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded that he was proven correct—the treaties did indeed exist. The war indeed was a needless waste. But by then the myth of war was no longer needed, since the fighting had ended.
The moral certitude of the state in wartime is a kind of fundamentalism. And this dangerous messianic brand of religion, one where self-doubt is minimal, has come increasingly to color the modern world of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Dr. James Luther Adams, my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, used to tell us that we would end our careers fighting an ascendant fundamentalist movement, or, as he liked to say, "the Christian fascists." He was not a scholar to be disregarded, however implausible such a scenario seemed at the time. There is a clanger of a growing fusion between those in the state who wage war—both for and against modern states—and those who believe they understand and can act as agents for God.” (pp. 146-47)
“A World War II study determined that after 60 days of continuous combat, 98% of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties. They found that a common trait among the 2% who were able to endure sustained combat was a predisposition toward ‘aggressive psychopathic personalities.’” (p. 164)
“The military histories - which tell little of war's reality - crowd out the wrenching tales by the emotionally maimed. Each generation again responds to war as innocents. Each generation discovers its own disillusionment—often after a terrible price. The myth of war and the drug of war wait to be tasted. The mythical heroes of the past loom over us. 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.
To say the least, killing is nearly always a sordid affair. Those who carry such memories do so with difficulty, even when the cause seems just. Moreover, those who are killed do not die the clean death we see on television or film. They die messy, disturbing deaths that often plague the killers. And the bodies of the newly slain retain a disquieting power. The rows of impersonal dead, stacked like firewood one next to the other, draped on roadsides, twisted into strange, often grimly humorous shapes, speak. I have looked into the open eyes of dead men and wished them shut, for they seemed to beckon me into the underworld. You will be me, the eyes call out, see what you will become. Even hardened soldiers drape cloth over such faces or reach out and push the eyelids shut. The eyes of the dead are windows into a world we fear.
Goodbye Darkness, William Manchester's memoir of the Pacific war in World War II, has an unvarnished account of what it feels like to shoot another man. Nothing is more sickening in war than watching human lives get snuffed out. Nothing haunts you more. And it is never, as outsiders think, clean or easy or neat. Killing is a dirty business, more like butchering animals.
Manchester describes, in the opening pages of his memoir, the only time he shot a Japanese soldier he could see.
‘Not only was he the first Japanese soldier I had ever shot at; he was the only one I had seen at close quarters. He was a robin-fat, moon-faced, roly-poly litde man with his thick, stubby, trunk-like legs sheathed in faded khaki puttees and the rest of him squeezed into a uniform that was much too tight. Unlike me, he was wearing a tin hat, dressed to kill. But I was quite safe from him. His Arisaka rifle was strapped on in a sniper's harness, and though he had heard me, and was trying to turn toward me, the harness sling had him trapped. He couldn't disentangle himself from it. His eyes were rolling in panic. Realizing that he couldn't extricate his arms and defend himself, he was backing toward a corner with a curious, crablike motion.
My first shot had missed him, embedding itself in the straw wall, but the second caught him dead-on in the femoral artery. His left thigh blossomed, swiftly turning to mush. A wave of blood gushed from the wound; then another boiled out, sheeting across his legs, pooling on the earthen floor. Mutely he looked down at it. He dipped a hand in it and lisdessly smeared his cheek red. His shoulders gave a little spasmodic jerk, as though someone had whacked him on the back; then he emitted a tremendous, raspy fart, slumped down, and died. I kept firing, wasting government property.
Already I thought I detected the dark brown effluvium of the freshly slain, a sour, pervasive emanation which is different from anything you have known. Yet seeing death at this range, like smelling it, requires no previous experience. You instantly recognize the spastic convulsion and the rattle, which in his case was not loud, but deprecating and conciliatory, like the manners of civilian Japanese. He continued to sink until he reached the earthen floor. His eyes glazed over. Almost immediately a fly landed on his left eyeball. It was joined by another. I don't know how long I stood there staring. I knew from previous combat what lay ahead for the corpse. It would swell, then bloat, bursting out of the uniform. Then the face would turn from yellow to red, to purple, to green, to black. My father's account of the Argonne had omitted certain vital facts. A feeling of disgust and self-hatred clotted darkly in my throat, gagging me.
Jerking my head to shake off the stupor, I slipped a new, fully loaded magazine into the butt of my .45. Then I began to tremble, and next to shake, all over. I sobbed, in a voice still grainy with fear: "I'm sorry." Then I threw up all over myself. I recognized the half-digested C-ration beans dribbling down my front, smelled the vomit above the cordite. At the same time I noticed another odor; I had urinated in my skivvies. I pondered fleetly why our excretions become so loathsome the instant they leave the body. Then Barney burst in on me, his carbine at the ready, his face gray, as though he, not I, had just become a partner in the firm of death. He ran over to the Nip's body, grabbed its stacking swivel—its neck—and let go, satisfied that it was a cadaver. I marveled at his courage; I couldn't have taken a step toward that corner. He approached me and then backed away in revulsion, from my foul stench. He said: "Slim, you stink." I said nothing. I knew I had become a thing of tears and twitchings and dirtied pants. I remember wondering dumbly: Is that what they mean by "conspicuous gallantry’"? (pp. 172-76)