war is a force that gives us meaning, by chris hedges

wrote this awhile ago but it's (infortunately) still relevant:

At the 2002 Academy Awards when Michael Moore won in the documentary category for Bowling for Columbine, his speech was quickly drowned out by the audiences’ jeers and the peppy music escalating from the orchestra pit. The reason for this uproar? That Moore used the word “fictitious” to describe the unfolding war in Iraq. In a similar episode a couple months later, Chris Hedges had to be escorted of the campus of Rockford College in Illinois by security guards after giving a provocative commencement speech about the ongoing war. These incidents illustrate the public fury that meets those who question war and patriotic rhetoric during armed conflict. In his book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges explores the horrific phenomenon of war from the unique perspective of a former seminarian who became a war correspondent. The combination of Hedges’ years of firsthand experience in war zones and his capacity to grapple with the philosophical and cultural implications of war makes for a bold and cathartic book—one that challenges the reader to understand that whatever truth can be excavated from the mythological grandeur of war is truth that is painful, ugly, and far removed from conventional propaganda.

Hedges stresses in the introduction that he is not immune to the intoxicating power of war. Rather, he writes from a position of repentance and even self-antipathy, likening his relationship with war to that of an addict to her preferred drug. He writes, “… There is a part of me that remains nostalgic for war’s simplicity and high, even as I cope with the scars it has left behind, mourn the deaths of those I worked with, and struggle with the bestiality I would have been better off not witnessing.” Hedges’ pain is evident throughout the book, and occasionally elevates the prose to the level of diatribe. Yet Hedges’ honesty about his susceptibility to war’s grasp is fundamental to the book’s success. By refusing to blame systems without blaming self, Hedges establishes a humble credibility. The reader is more likely to trust this flawed writer—trust both his firsthand accounts and the meaning he makes of them. Hedges’ credibility is essential, as the majority of the book’s references are literary.

Hedges primary motivation is to expose the disconnection between the reality and mythology of war. Culling from the war literature of such writers as Homer and Shakespeare, Hedges argues that war mythology “… can be formed only by denying the reality of war, by turning the lies, the manipulation, the inhumanness of war into the heroic ideal.” As a war correspondent, Hedges has a great deal of primary experience of war. Yet he exposes the media’s complicity in perpetuating war mythology, arguing that “The blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoners and innocents, and the horror of wounds are rarely disclosed, at least during a mythic war, to the public.” Hedges thus effectively demonstrates how perfectly sealed and protected the truth behind war can be. This element of Hedges’ argument is further substantiated in the chapter titled “The Destruction of Culture.” Culture is easily corrupted to accommodate both the war myth and the need to forget the war reality, as demonstrated by Hedges’ assessment of post-war Germany, where it was “as if the war was just some bad, horrible dream from which everyone had just awoken and no one wanted to discuss.” The distortion of reality is welcome to those affected by war, for as long as one is protected from truth, one is protected from further pain.

The climax of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is Hedges’ philosophical appraisal of the reasons behind our collective thirst for war. Borrowing from Freud’s psychological explanation of human nature, Hedges underscores the opposing forces that drive humanity: the calling to create and the drive to destroy, the inclination to love and the proclivity to kill. In effect, Hedges offers to the reader the double-edged sword of realism, in which love is redemptive but war is inevitable. That Hedges quotes Reinhold Neibuhr in more than one instance in the book is telling. Hedges does not equate war’s inevitability with its morality; the culpability Hedges advocates is the culpability of varying shades of immorality.

The difficulty with a book like Chris Hedges’ is its capacity to alienate those who most need to hear its message. Hedges is careful to differentiate soldiers fighting in mythic wars from the political authorities who sponsor mythic wars. Yet the public generally does not make this distinction, so the dismantling of patriotic propaganda could easily be likened to a lack of support for armed forces. The book could also easily be usurped by those on the progressive left. Hedges is quite apolitical in his critique; perhaps the greatest strength of the book is Hedges’ conviction that everyone—left or right, Serb or Croat, American or Afghani— participates in war mythology. “When you stop believing you stop going to war," Hedges states confidently. The first step in the process of ceasing to believe in the myth is to understand the myth. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a book that makes evident that one man’s truth is more compelling than fifteen years’ worth of war’s myth.

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