on June 23, 2003
This book is provacative and disturbing in that it strips away the veneer of war by relating the author's eye witness accounts of the brutatily, fear, humiliation, destruction, physchological addiction and damage (and occasional acts of humanity) that war brings to those who participate in it or are simply caught up in it and unable to escape. The book is at its strongest in this regard.
The author does not attempt an analysis of the causes of war per se but does consitently attack the tenets of racism, nationalism and various ideologies used to promote and justify it and does a good job of exposing just who these promoters often are. He also includes a fair dose of self-criticism and angst concerning his own participation in covering war as a correspondent, and includes stories of other correspondents. He also touches upon the ways in which the media use and are used by war's promoters and participants.
The book is short, more of an extended essay, and not structured as an analysis or argument. The author strays in his philosphical take on issues of love versus war or friendship within war that I think distract from his essential point in writing the book --- exposing war for what it is. But again, this is an essay style book and not an historical or scientific analysis, so opine away he does and why not.
Perhaps some of the virulent criticism he has received emanates from his daring to lump America's own often-virulent nationalism and its own war promoters and war managers into the same basket as the more unsavory types inhabiting Central America or the Balkans. In so doing he insinuates that we Americans too are part and parcel of the horrors of war and not immune to its appeal. Poor fellow, in this post 9-11 world to question anything about 'us' is to invite rabid criticism.
I for one highly recommend this book. I found it to be at times insightful, at times disturbing, and always thought provoking. Why not an anti-war book? Everyone has a right to tell their story and give their opinion. For much more indepth historical and scientific analyses of the causes and lessons of war read anything by Hanson or Keegan -- but keep this little book in mind when you do.
on October 5, 2002
Chris Hedges was a war correspondent for many years, covering the various wars and insurgencies in Central America, North Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. This book is not so much a memoir (although Hedges draws deeply on his own experience) as it is a meditation on the effects of war and of the nationalist myths that often provide a basis for war -- how easy it is to be caught up by the myth of the hero, of noble sacrifice, of the utter depravity (inhumanity) of the enemy (the Other), and how difficult it is to recover from the inevitable disillusionment when the terror of war, the collapse of morality and the essential humanity of the Other is revealed. Hedges is at his best in discussing the aftermath of war -- the collective forgetting as history and memory are erased, lest the survivors be forced to face what they have done. Yet it is only by recovering the truth, acknowledging guilt and seeking reconciliation that society can begin to heal and move forward.
Hedges' message is an important one as we rush headlong into war, particularly for all who demonize the "axis of evil" without acknowledging the role we have played in creating the despair and rage that have turned men and women into terrorists. As Hedges shows, it is difficult for non-combatants to resist the national myth, to penetrate behind the approved rhetoric, to waver from the absolute, unquestioning patriotism demanded by the state. But some must do so if we are to keep our moral compass and begin to heal the world (i.e., to address the despair felt by both sides).
Although the message is strong, there are a few weaknesses in this book. Hedges tends to over-generalize based on his experiences in the Balkans, characterizing all war as though it involved marauding packs of criminals (otherwise known as militias). The Persian Gulf War, while certainly displaying many of the mythic elements necessary to any war, was either about freedom for the Kuwaitis or about access to oil -- and was certainly about power -- but in any event does not seem to have involved the kind of wanton depredation on the civilian population common to the Balkans and (to a more limited extent) the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Although the book is short, it does get repetitive after a while, as Hedges hammers home his points about what war does to (and for) us. We also lose contact to some extent with Hedges' personal experience, as he comes to focus more on the experiences of others as the book progresses, and the book loses some of the immediacy it had at the beginning.
Overall, a very worthwhile (and quick) read for anyone concerned about our future as we rush into the war on terror.
on January 3, 2004
This is powerful stuff. Whether you think yourself a hawk or a dove, you'll never feel the same about the fanfare of war. Forget about glory, heros, and pulse-pumping excitement, Chris Hedges will extinguish those cheap thrills forever. A seasoned war correspondent, Chris Hedges knows of what he writes. He's no pacifist and severely chids the Clinton administration's slow response in the Balkans. But he lets no warmongers off free. In strong, poetic language, Hedges forces the reader to face the costs and subterfuges of war: hyperbolic nation myths, manufactured heros, "demon" enemies. Violence intoxicates, leaving combatants spent, disgusted, and scarred. Mass amnesia and shameless revisionism allow each generation to re-embrace war ignorant of the deeds of their predecessors. I can't recommend this book strongly enough.
on March 28, 2003
Chris Hedges, the author of the book is a former war correspondent for The New York Times. He's seen war up close in Latin America, the Balkans and the Middle East. He looks back at those years as a time of his own intoxication with the great myth of war's appeal. Indeed, it seems to give people a noble cause and a purpose for living. Years after a war the participants often look back and remember never feeling so much alive as during those dangerous times, when their lives were one long adrenalin rush.
Nationalism is one of the plagues used by ruffian leaders to fire up the populace into hate. There's a bonding and a glory. The result is also devastating. Lives are lost, culture is destroyed and people are murdered and tortured. Yet, there is a seduction in the drum roll to this perverse conclusion. Later, memory is often distorted as its the winners who write history. There are psychological reasons too, a connection between romance and death. And it all happens again and again.
I was caught up the 185 pages of this well written book. But yet, after each of the seven chapters, I had to put the book down and do something else. I needed to get away from concepts that he was laying bare to the reader. I needed to move out of the world of horror he created. It's a complex book on many levels, because in spite of the many examples of unspeakable horrors, it seduces the reader too. By the time I finished it I understood what he meant.
Although Mr. Hedges is not a pacifist, he has exposed the myths and lets us look clearly at what war is. His perspective is fresh and clear and certainly made me think. It saddened me too. It's a universal truth that I wish wasn't so. The words are easy to read but their effects have a lingering and troubling effect. Not a pleasant read. But highly recommended.
on March 18, 2003
In this powerfully honest book by this Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times Journalist, we see through a glass darkly into war as necrophilia, war that in the beginning looks like love. Hedges, who has a Masters of Divinity from Harvard, speaks with brutal honesty of his own addiction to the adrenaline rush of war as he witnessed it in El Salvador, the Middle East and the Balkans. He writes about Thanatos, the death instinct in the human psyche in constant struggle with Eros, the impulse to love. He exposes what he calls the "god-like exhileration of destroying" that emotionally maimed veterans reflect on later as "nothing gallant or heroic, nothing redeeming." He shows us in graphic detail how he almost lost his soul, but was redeemed by love in partnership that recognizes both the fragility and sanctity of the individual. He warns us that this flirtation with weapons of mass destruction is a flirtation with our own obliteration, an embrace of Thanatos. With humility and grace, he reminds us that "love alone can save us." Hegdes' message is one that the world desperately needs to hear.
on May 23, 2004
There are many standard answers to the question, "why do people go to war": economics; ethnic/religious differences; conflicts between radically different secular ideologies or simply factions of the same ideology; political science theory; "Hegelian forces;" etc. These are all interesting, but ultimately unfulfilling on some level. The question still lingers, why do people have to actually GO TO WAR over land, or religion, or whatever? Why can't we work it out peacefully? Why can't we all just get along?
To all these questions, NY Times war correspondent Chris Hedges -- in his book, "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning" -- proposes some disturbing answers. To boil it down to its core argument, what Hedges is saying is that war is so common and durable across time, space, and dimension because, perversely, and in spite of its horrors, war actually can be highly addictive and alluring, at least as powerful as heroin or sex, but far more destructive.
According to Hedges, war appears to be almost hardwired into our species' DNA. Hedges particularly points to the force labeled by Sigmund Freud as "Thanatos," the urge to destroy, to kill, and to die. In addition to Thanatos, there's also that other powerful driving force for humans, what Freud calls "Eros" -- the urge to love, to fornicate, to procreate, to build. War, in Hedges' view, is exciting and alluring, bringing people of a particular nation together and uniting them in a heroic, mythical way that covers up differences and alone-ness. The combination of Eros and Thanatos results in what is, essentially, an addiction, a rush, an all-consuming high. War, like love (or sex), is a drug, and humans are most definitively addicted.
Hedges argues persuasively that war, "even with its destructiveness and carnage... can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living," has the power to obscure the "shallowness and vapidness of...our lives." Unfortunately, as Hedges points out, this "meaning" and "reason for living" come at the expense of a few many other important things -- individuality, truth, memory, and "honest inquiry," among others. And as if that's not bad enough, Hedges also notes (correctly) that war perverts language and culture, warps perception and social norms, and "breaks down long-established prohibitions against violence, destruction, and murder."
Sadly, despite all of its obvious flaws (as seen in the cold, dispassionate light of day), war -- not unlike a powerful narcotic such as heroin -- has amazing staying power. Hedges himself, a man who has seen more than his share of horrors, states that even now, ''There is a part of me -- maybe it is a part of many of us -- that decided at certain moments that I would rather die like this than go back to the routine of life."
How could ordinary life be so terrible, so dull, so empty, that war could seem a desirable alternative? Perhaps it has to do with another one of Hedges' main themes, that war -- as depicted in countless war movies -- is highly sexualized, even eroticized ("There is in wartime a nearly universal preoccupation with sexual liaisons"). Sex in war is not, however, a healthy expression of sexuality by any standards (recall the Rape of Nanking). In fact, Hedges views the combination of sex and war as nothing better than "necrophilia...[wiping] out all delicacy and tenderness" and leaving in its place "a frenetic lust that seeks...to replicate or augment the drug of war" (Abu Ghraib prison photos spring to mind).
This is all strong and depressing stuff, and Hedges offers only the barest glimmer of hope. Specifically, Hedges argues that when people actually EXPERIENCE war ("rotting flesh," "cries of agony," "froth-corrupted lungs," "blood and entrails seeping out of bodies") for long enough, they sometimes begin to realize that war isn't what it was cracked up to be. Eventually, there comes a point when all the killing and destruction becomes routine and boring, and then people sometimes tire of war. It is at that point that the chance exists for the myths to be exposed for the lies that they always were, after all.
Are there flaws in Hedges' otherwise excellent book? Well, sure, the evidence presented here is mainly anecdotal, based on Hedges' own particular experiences regarding war, and is by no means a systematic study of war across history and cultures. This raises the question: is it possible that Hedges' analysis is not applicable to all war, but just to certain types? This would harm the universality of Hedges' argument. A lesser critique is that Hedges doesn't offer us any practical advice stemming from his observations and analysis. Specifically, it would be helpful to hear from Hedges whether he is against any war at any time, or whether some wars (e.g., World War II) might be justified.
Despite its (minor) flaws, though, this is an excellent book which I highly and wholeheartedly recommend.