Chris Hedges discusses the all-encompassing meaning of war

June 18, 2012 | By | 2 Replies More

I just finished reading War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, a 2003 book by Chris Hedges. This is a deeply emotional book, but also a highly abstract treatise. Hedges has worked as a reporter in more than a few war zones, and he draws upon his many intense personal experiences to illustrate his analysis of the all-encompassing meaning of war.

This is an extremely well-written work that offers timeless observations. Hedges offers observations that are, in fact, desperately needed by Americans and their many politicians who, oftentimes unwittingly, mislead them. After reading Hedge’s work, I am more convinced than ever that, for many people, war is an almost irresistible intoxicant. As Hedges repeatedly points out, war intoxicates news reporters too, and this allows the vicious cycle to rev up to insane speeds.

I’d highly recommend reading Hedges’ entire book to anyone who wants to better understand warmongering, its cheerleaders and its victims. What follows is a set of some of my favorite passages from War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning:

The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war’s appeal.

Many of us, restless and unfulfilled, see no supreme worth in our lives. We want more out of life. And war, at least, gives a sense that we can rise above our smallness and divisiveness.

It is part of war’s perversity that we lionize those who make great warriors and excuse their excesses in the name of self-defense

As war gives meaning to sterile lives, it also promotes killers and racists.

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.

Photo by Erich Vieth

George Orwell in “1984″ wrote of the necessity of constant wars against the Other to forge a false unity among the proles: “War had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war…. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil.”

The poison that is war does not free us from the ethics of responsibility. There are times when we must take this poison-just as a person with cancer accepts chemotherapy to live. We can not 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.

I wrote this book not to dissuade us from war but to understand it.

Wars that lose their mythic stature for the public, such as Korea or Vietnam, are doomed to failure, for war is exposed for what it is-organized murder.

The chief institutions that disseminate the myth are the press and the state.

[N]early every reporter has seen his or her mission as sustaining civilian and army morale.

Most national myths, at their core, are racist. They are fed by ignorance. Those individuals who understand other cultures, speak other languages, and find richness in diversity are shunted aside. Science, history, and psychology are often twisted to serve myth. And many intellectuals are willing to champion and defend absurd theories for nationalist ends.

The Allied incendiary bombs that spread fires through Dresden and Tokyo left some i 50,ooo people dead.

The arguments and bloody disputes take place over tiny, almost imperceptible nuances within the society-what Sigmund Freud calls the “narcissism of minor differences.”12 In the Balkans, for example, there were heated debates over the origin of gingerbread hearts-cookies in the shape of hearts. The Croats insisted that the cookies were Croatian. The Serbs angrily countered that the cookies were Serbian

These myths give neighbors the justification to kill those they had gone to school and grown up with.

The myth of war rarely endures for those who experience combat.

none of these boys is fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap the politicians feed the public. They are fighting for each other, just for each other.”

When we return home we view the society around us from the end of a very long tunnel. There they still believe. In combat such belief is shattered, replaced not with a better understanding, but with a disconcerting confusion and a taste of war’s potent and addictive narcotic.

Intellectuals and social critics are as susceptible to the plague of nationalism as the masses.

This blanket amnesia is often part of the aftermath of war.

Nationalist triumphalism was shunned and discredited in America after Vietnam. We were forced to see ourselves as others saw us, and it was not always pleasant.

The first casualty when war comes is truth.

The songs, books, poems, and films that arouse us in war are awkward and embarrassing when the conflict ends, useful only to summon up the nostalgia of war’s comradeship.

Casual encounters are charged with a raw, high-voltage sexual energy that smacks of the self-destructive lust of war itself. The erotic in war is like the rush of battle. It overwhelms the participants. Women who might not otherwise be hailed as beauties are endowed with the charms of Helen. Men endowed with little more than the power to kill are lionized and desired.

Sex in war is another variant of the drug of war.

Gulf War made war fashionable again.

Television reporters happily disseminated the spoon-fed images that served the propaganda effort of the military and the state. These images did little to convey the reality of war. Pool reporters, those guided around in groups by the military, wrote about “our boys” eating packaged army food, practicing for chemical weapons attacks, and bathing out of buckets in the desert. It was war as spectacle, war as entertainment. The images and stories were designed to make us feel good about our nation, about ourselves.

It has been rare in every war I have covered to find a reporter who did not take sides.

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.

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.

There is a danger 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.

They saw the Persian Gulf War for what it was, a use of force by a country that consumed 25 percent of the world’s petrol to protect its access to cheap oil

All could match an atrocity carried out by our side with an atrocity carried out by the enemy. Atrocity canceled out atrocity. Hannah Arendt noted this attitude in Germany after World V ar II, calling it “nihilistic relativism.”

In the beginning war looks and feels like love. But unlike love it gives nothing in return but an ever-deepening dependence, like all narcotics, on the road to self-destruction.



Category: Military, Psychology Cognition, War, Warmongering

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Oscar Wilde on war : Dangerous Intersection | November 28, 2012
  1. Erich Vieth says:

    “Someday, the news media may get around to re-examining the assumption that killing foreigners in their own country is the best patriotic credential imaginable. A front-page New York Times story the other day referred to Sen. John McCain as “the most popular national political figure in the country.” McCain built his career in politics while news accounts routinely described him as a “war hero,” with frequent references to the captivity and torture that he withstood for years after a North Vietnamese missile brought him down from a plane he was piloting over Hanoi . Media outlets rarely put a fine point on the fact that McCain had been dropping bombs on civilians.” Norman Solomon, Beyond Hero-Worship,, August 27, 2004

    “I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all members of the military profession I never had an original thought until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of the higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.” Major General Smedley Butler, USMC

    “I hate it when they say, ‘He gave his life for his country.’ Nobody gives their life for anything. We steal the lives of these kids. We take it away from them. They don’t die for the honor and glory of their country. We kill them.” Admiral Gene LaRocque.

    “I hated my part in the charade of murder and horror. My efforts were contributing to the deaths, to the burning alive of children — especially the children. The photographs of young Vietnamese children burned by napalm destroyed me.” Ralph McGehee, former CIA intelligence analyst

    “He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, science for him the spinal cord would fully suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance, how violently I hate all this, how despicable an ignorable war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.” Albert Einstein

    “This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” President Eisenhower, from a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. April 16, 1953

    In 1961, at the end of his second term, in his farewell speech to his countrymen, President Eisenhower gave this advice:

    “…we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought of unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

    “They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.” Eugene Debs

    “A standing army is one of the greatest mischief that can possibly happen.” James Madison (1751-1836), US fourth president

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