Thursday, June 24, 2004

War is a Force that Gives us Meaning

I've got a sort of campaign, to make a book a part of our culture. I want it to be the standard work on the subject of why wars happen. It's called War is a Force that Gives us Meaning by Christopher Hedges.

Here's an interview with him that effectively condenses the book. And here are the notes my friend Andy wrote on it.

What follows is the review I wrote about it when I first read it:


This is one of the most important books I have ever read. This book is medicine. It is an antidote for a poison which rots flesh, which leaves festering wounds, which ends in madness and death. It offers a little immunity, could slow the spread, if not cure us. It is bitter, but potent.

The poison is addictive, Christopher Hedges says. He compares war to a drug more than once, to heroin, eating away at victims who can't get enough of it. He was a war correspondent for fifteen years, he says, and he was an addict. He can explain how it happens. He knows, he's seen, how men become monsters, ordinary people cutting trophies from corpses, shooting children for sport, raping and multilating. The big secret, he reveals, is that it happens in every war, on every side. All those obscure conflicts in unpronouncable places, the places he lived, bring with them the same depths of inhumanity as a world war, and World War II, our quintessential "just war", shared the same depravities with Vietnam.

Here is how it can begin: "We discover in the communal struggle, the shared sense of meaning and purpose, a cause. War fills our spiritual void. I do not miss war, but I miss what it brought. I can never say I was happy in the midst of the fighting in El Salvador, or Bosnia, or Kosovo, but I had a sense of purpose, of calling. And this is a quality war shares with love, for we are also, in love, able to choose fealty and self-sacrifice over security." It is not just the adrenaline rush, he says, that brought him back after he was captured and freed, after all the near-deaths and the deaths of friends. It was the sense that everything mattered, in a way it never could in peacetime, all of the life and death decisions. And it was the moral clarity of having an enemy, the comradship of having a the same enemy as someone else, and it was the opportunity for courage, the sweetness of small kindnesses against the huge cruelties. It was the meaning.

But chapter titles count the costs. "The Destruction of Culture": war obliterates the kind of art and literature that is self-examining and replaces it with platitudes. We all learn to speak in the same cliches, so that we can't express doubt about our purpose, and we consume sentimental songs and movies that afterward will seem meaningless. "The Seduction of Battle and the Perversion of War": warzones have no rules, not even about death (especially not about death) and that is an attraction in itself. The people who prosper are the most ruthless, the most corrupt. "The Hijacking and Recovery of Memory": all warring powers try to rewrite history, until it becomes impossible for witnesses to trust even their own memories. Churches and cemetaries, monuments and cities, are destroyed by bombs and bulldozers so that the victors can claim they never existed.

The other chapters ennumerate the forces that open this abyss: "The Myth of War" in which we are all heroes, the patriotism which in extolling the virtues of our society becomes a kind of self-worship. "The Plague of Nationalism" which causes us to invent differences, to idolize cookies and cartoon characters and flags, any symbol of our separateness. "The Cause" which must be santified at all costs. The first thing to die for the cause is always the truth, which is why veterans so often come back silent--what can they say to the rest of us, who live in a different, a manufactured reality? And the final chapter, "Eros and Thanatos," the struggle between love and death and how easy it is to confuse one with the other. Both love and war offer us meaning. But we can't have both at once. War extinguishes love, he says. It encourages temporary connections, lends them the same importance which it lends to everything in life by contrast with death, but these connections are annonymous, whereas real love is inherently individual. "Happiness withers if there is no meaning. But to live only for meaning makes us fanatic, self-righteous, and cold." Love at its best offers both, but war is a fine substitute for those who have only ever known unhappiness.

Hedges holds a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University, which is not so much obvious from his writing as consistent with it. He is literate and humane. By "literate" I mean that he communicates the way people who love to read do, referring to the Iliad and to Orwell's essays, to Shakespeare and to Dante and to Hume, using book titles as a vocabularly, incorporating and encapsulating a whole spectrum of complex ideas by judicious reference. He is humane in his attention to the sufferings of real people, which are more important than the abstractions. He is compassionate, but part of his honesty is revealing the way fifteen years of war can deaden compassion. He has the courage to write in the first person, to confess to his own cowardice, boredom, and shame, from which no one is immune. It is hard to list the places he went, horrors he saw, and risks he took without making his experiences sound glamorous, which would defeat his purpose entirely. But because of them he is able to incorporate, along with his poetry quotations, first-hand descriptions of mass graves and ugly deaths, reducing the human body to meat and reducing the killers to less than beasts, laughing while they defile their victims. There is no conflict between the literary and the all too real: attempting to reconstruct the poetry he'd memorized is, he says, what kept him occupied when he was arrested in Iraq and his books were taken from him.

This was during the doomed Shiite uprising in Basra, and it was the
Republican Guard who arrested him, an incident which like most of his Gulf War and post Gulf War stories echoes today's headlines eerily, though the present war had not begun when the book was published last year. The "War on Terror" was, of course, already in progress, and it is somehow strange to be reminded of that unfinished (unfinishable) campaign, to read his words about Afghanistan and wonder, whatever happened to Afghanistan anyhow?

In the beginning the events he relates seem just as unreal as any newspaper account, distant, incomprehensible. In fact, he says, these atrocities seem just as incomprehensible to the witnesses. When we see women and children die, in spite of our myth, we refuse to believe our eyes. Nothing is believable in war. But at book length, with the author's role in the story exposed and fates put to names, the implicates of these descriptions start to sink in. One gets used to the idea of brutality as one reads the story of massacre after massacre. One can get used to seeing massacres or their results in person as well, he says, and then it is this life, the peacetime world, which begins to seem distant and "uncanny". This is how people can begin to think of the unthinkable, and then do it, and make the next stage of perversion more plausible.

For all of this, he admits reluctantly at the beginning, he is not a true pacificist. Like many reporters covering the conflict in the
former Yugoslavia, he prayed for American intervention. As someone who opposed that intervention, speculating cynically on our real reasons, I was taken aback by his approval of it, in this context which makes it clear that no one could despise war more legitimately. There is a blurb on the back of the book from general Wesley K. Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, and Hedges professes to admire him. He says that the first Gulf War was about oil, but he also argues the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime much more convincingly than the Bush administration has been able to, precisely because his point had nothing to do with justifying an invasion. It was about how regimes are able to disguise their crimes. He was with Kurdish diggers who uncovered the remains of 1,500 soldiers who had refused to fight in the war during the 1980s against Iran. He reports other mass graves, torture chambers, elaborate prison systems and secret police files, and between one and two hundred thousand Iraqi Kurds "vanished." I would like to know what he makes of our present "liberation". Even if we are doing it again for oil... He doesn't argue that war is ever moral, he simply argues, consistent with Christian theology, that it can be less immoral than the alternative. No one is moral.

In the end, he offers no easy solutions to anything. That is not the purpose of the book. He is trying to show us that war is sickening whether it is "just" or not. He is trying to expose its fatal allures, trying to innoculate us against "freedom fries" and nationalist archeology and the over-eager press the fanatical worship of the state and "the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro Patria mori." He's trying to stop people from confusing war with love, and that difference is the only redemption he can offer, the note of hope he strikes at the end of an unrelentingly bleak book. There is another source of meaning. Love, not in the pop song sense but in the religious sense, can restore sanity, can make us stop seeking death for its own sake. That's all the happy ending he can give us, the only promise he makes. It may be enough.

1 comment:

Ebsan said...

Great post man. I don't know if this novel is quite an "antidote", but it is definitely influential and requires a lot more limelight.