"War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning&qu

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Posted by andreas from dtm2-t9-1.mcbone.net ( on Saturday, December 28, 2002 at 10:04AM :

TomPaine.com Common Sense

War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning

An Interview With Author Chris Hedges

Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer for TomPaine.com.

Chris Hedges has been a war reporter for the past 15 years, most recently for The New York Times. His book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, is one of the most striking analyses and critiques of what happens to people and societies as they go to war to be published in many years.

Writing with a clarity and tone reminiscent of Albert Camus, Hedges unravels the myths and dysfunctional nationalism that grip nations heading to war; the intoxicating effect of these causes and rhetoric; and the terrible costs that soldiers, victims and societies pay -- when the realities of war -- not the rhetoric -- are experienced. He spoke to TomPaine.com's Steven Rosenfeld. The first segment of a two-part interview follows.

TomPaine.com: When a country prepares for war and goes to war, there are changes in that countryís politics and culture. You write that a myth emerges -- a seductive myth as leaders spin out a cause. You write that a patriotism, a "thinly veiled form of self-worship appears." What do you mean by this myth, this cause, this patriotism and what you then say is an intoxicating result?

Chris Hedges: Well myth is always part of the way we understand war within a society. Itís always there. But I think in a peacetime society we are at least open to other ways of looking at war. Just as patriotism is always part of the society. In wartime, the myth becomes ascendant.

Patriotism, national self-glorification infects everything, including culture. Thatís why you would go to symphony events and people wave flags and play the "Star Spangled Banner." In essence, itís the destruction of culture, which is always a prerequisite in wartime. Wartime always begins with the destruction of your own culture.

Once you enter a conflict, or at the inception of a conflict, you are given a language by which you speak. The state gives you a language to speak and you canít speak outside that language or it becomes very difficult. There is no communication outside of the clichťs and the jingos, "The War on Terror," "Showdown With Iraq," "The Axis of Evil," all of this stuff.

So that whatever disquiet we feel, we no longer have the words in which to express it. The myth predominates. The myth, which is a lie, of course, built around glory, heroism, heroic self-sacrifice, the nobility of the nation. And it is a kind of intoxication. People lose individual conscience for this huge communal enterprise.

TP.c: You write there are different war myths -- myths that fuel conflicts. What type of myth do you see animating the discussion today in the United States as it looks at Iraq?

Hedges: Well I think the myth is remarkably similar from war zone to war zone. At least, as it pertains to how the nation that prosecutes a war looks at itself.

We become the embodiment of light and goodness. We become the defenders of civilization, of all that is decent. We are more noble than others. We are braver than others. We are kinder and more compassionate than others -- that the enemy at our gate is perfidious, dark, somewhat inhuman. We turn them into two-dimensional figures. I think thatís part of the process of linguistically dehumanizing them. And in wartime, we always turn the other into an object, and often, quite literally, in the form of a corpse.

TP.c: Where are we in the United States, now, in this progression?

Hedges: Well, weíve come frightenly far in this process. And this has been a long progression. It began at the end of the Vietnam war.

The defeat in Vietnam made us a better nation and a better people. We were forced to step outside our own borders and see how other people saw us. We were forced to accept very unpleasant truths about ourselves -- our own capacity for evil. I think that that process, especially during the Reagan years, or at least that state, began to disintegrate. War once again became fun: Grenada; Panama, culminating in the Persian Gulf War.

So that weíre now at a process -- Freud argues that all of life, both for the individual and within human society, is a battle between Eros, or love, and Thanatos, or the death instinct. And that one of these instincts is always ascendant, at one time or another.

I think after the Vietnam war, because of the terrible costs that we paid, because of the tragedy that Vietnam was, Eros was ascendant. I think after the Persian Gulf war, where we fell in love with war -- and what is war, war is death -- Thanatos is ascendant. It will, unfortunately, take that grim harvest of dead, that ultimately those that are intoxicated with war must always swallow, for us to wake up again.

TP.c: When you say the rush to war is like a drug, how is it addictive? What void does it fill? What needs are fulfilled by this kind of rhetoric and this kind of myth-making, and this kind of political discourse, that are not otherwise accomplished in a peacetime political environment?

Hedges: Well, I think war is probably the supreme drug. War -- first of all, it is a narcotic. You can easily become addicted to it. And thatís why itís often so hard for people who spend prolonged times in combat to return to peacetime society. Thereís a huge alienation, a huge disconnection, often a longing to go back to the subculture of war.

War has a very dark beauty, a kind of fascination with the grotesque. The Bible called it "the lust of the eye" and warned believers against it. War has a rush. It has a hallucinogenic quality. It has that sort of stoned-out sense of -- that zombie-like quality that comes with not enough sleep, sort of being shelled too long. I think, in many ways, there is no drug, or there are no combination of drugs that are as potent as war, and one could argue as addictive. It certainly is as addictive as any narcotic.

Chris Hedges has been a war reporter for the past 15 years, most recently for The New York Times. His book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, is one of the most striking analyses and critiques of what happens to people and societies as they go to war to be published in many years.

In this second segment of a two-part interview with TomPaine.comís Steven Rosenfeld, he describes his experience covering war; how he was drawn to covering war by his own myths and misconceptions about war; and what the role of the press should be during wartime -- a standard practiced in few media organizations today.

Click Here for part one of this interview.

TomPaine.com: For people who havenít read your reports in The New York Times, or donít know what actually goes behind the reporting thatís gone into them, where have you been that has brought you on this course to write about this topic?

Chris Hedges: Well, I went to Seminary -- I didnít go to journalism school. So this stretches way back to my own education, my own theological education, my study of ethics.

I went to war, not because I was a gun nut, or wanted adventure, although to be honest, that was part of it. I did have a longing for that kind of epic battle that could define my life. I grew up reading everything on the Holocaust and on the Spanish Civil War, but I went as an idealist. I went to Latin America in the early Ď80s when most of these countries were ruled by pretty heinous military dictatorships. And I thought this was as close as I was going to come in my lifetime to fighting fascism. I wanted that.

Unfortunately, I didnít understand what war was. And I got caught up in the subculture, and to be honest, the addiction that war was. And I ended up over the next 15 years traveling from war zone to war zone to war zone with that fraternity of dysfunctional war correspondents who became my friends -- some of whom were killed, including my closest friend who was killed in Sierra Leone in May of 2000. So I got sucked into the kind of whirlpool that war is -- into the death instinct.

TP.c: For people here, in the states, who have never been in a war zone, can you just talk about some of the situations you put yourself into and what you saw about war that is completely counterpoint to the rhetoric about the cause.

Hedges: Well, the cause is... is always a lie. If people understood, or individuals or societies understood in sensory way what war was, theyíd never do it. War is organized industrial slaughter.

The good example is the Vietnam War. It began as a mythic war against communism and this kind of stuff, and -- especially when the middle class began finding their sons coming home in body bags -- people began to look at war in a very different light. It no longer was mythic. It became sensory war, i.e. we began to see war without that film, that mythic film that I think colors our vision of all violent conflicts. And then the war became impossible to prosecute.

So the cause, the myth, the notion of glory -- those are lies. Theyíre always lies. And nations need them. Emperiums need them especially in order to get a populace to support a war. But theyíre untrue.

TP.c: So, youíd be sent into the field to cover different conflicts, what would you see that would be fundamentally at odds with this -- what youíre describing as the lie?

Hedges: Well, it takes anyone in combat about 30 seconds to realize that theyíve been lied to. War, combat is nothing like itís presented -- not only by the entertainment industry, by Hollywood, but by the press, by writers such as Cornelius Ryan or Stephen Ambrose, who just died. These are myth-makers.The press is guilty of this. The press in wartime is always part of the problem.

But when you get into combat, itís venal. Itís dirty. Itís confusing. Itís humiliating, because you feel powerless. The noise is deafening. But, most importantly, you feel fear in a way that youíve probably never felt fear before. And anyone who spends a lot of time in combat struggles always with this terrible, terrible fear -- this deep, instinctual desire for self-preservation. And there are always times when fear rules you.

In wartime, you learn youíre not the person you want to be -- or think you were. You donít dash out under fire to save your wounded comrade. Occasionally, this happens, but most of the time youíre terrified. And thatís very, very sobering. And itís a huge wake-up call. It shows you that the images that youíve been fed, both about war, and that you have created for yourself, are wrong.

TP.c: Well, what do you think reporters can or should be doing thatís different?

Hedges: Well, I think the big thing is you canít accept the language the state gives you. I mean, this is not a war in any conventional sense -- Iím talking about the "War on Terror" -- nor is it a war on terror. I think we have to dissect the clichťs. Clichťs are the enemy of bad writing, but also the enemy of clear thought, as George Orwell wrote.

I think thatís the first thing, we have to not speak in the language in which the state gives us. Secondly, I think we have to ask the hard questions. And I think The New York Times hasnít been bad on this. I think the Times has been pretty good, by looking at "what is it?" There was an editorial, I think in yesterdayís Times, that said, "You know, there is no hard intelligence that he [Saddam Hussein] has anything that heís going to use against us, and before we go to war you have to show us." That is the proper response, and I laud the paper for printing that editorial.

TP.c: Whatís so interesting is, it doesnít get much stronger than that. Yet, on the other hand, what you write about in the book, is that a lot of people in the country who arenít privy to details at that level, or arenít as politically tuned in -- they want to believe that this cause is good. They trust what the president says. And thereís an appeal, as you say, in societyís march toward war that fills certain needs.

Hedges: Well, I think thatís the problem. Thereís a lot that we just donít really feel like seeing because weíre having too much fun exulting in our own military prowess and our ability to mold and shape the world in ways that we want.

There is a kind of suspension of self-criticism, both as a nation and as a person that takes place in wartime. And thatís part of what removes the anxiety of normal daily living. Weíre no longer required to make moral choice. Moral choice has been made for us by the state. And to question the decisions of the state is to be branded, not only a traitor, but to be pushed outside that kind of communal entity within a society that war always creates. And thatís a very difficult, lonely and painful experience.

So most people, not necessarily because theyíre bad people in any way, but most people find it emotionally far more convenient, but also far more pleasurable just to go along. The problem is, under poor leadership, or wandering into a war where we shouldnít be, we can find ourselves in heaps of trouble.

(Chris Hedges has been a foreign correspondent for 15 years. He joined the staff of The New York Times in 1990 and previously worked for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. His book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, is published by Public Affairs.)

-- andreas
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