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Oh the Irony
on April 3, 2003
Chris Hedges definitely knows war, and not in a good way. He has spent his working life reporting from a variety of war zones, and has seen the worst in death, destruction, and human suffering. He has strong and hard-earned opinions on what happens to people and cultures in relation to war. The title of this book may fool you, because he is being ironic. War really is a force that gives us meaning, but usually not in a good way. So don't think this book is a slavish endorsement of war just because of the title. Hedges examines how the idea and possibility of war can turn normally peaceful and rational people into unthinking warmongers with a hatred for the enemy, who is often ill-defined. From the earliest societies, politicians have used war to detract from domestic problems and to turn local critics into unthinking followers. Right-wingers who usually distrust the state suddenly think it can do no wrong and believe every bit of propaganda it spits out; while left-wingers who usually have total faith in the state suddenly become its harshest critics. The war issue turns the world into a stark black-and-white dichotomy, with an us-and-them outlook on the world. We're seeing a classic example of that right now with the nonsensical "you agree with the war or you don't support the troops" refrain. Meanwhile the enemy (plus its civilians) is demonized to the point of inhumanity, while everyone on our side is perfectly good and can do no wrong.
This is what Chris Hedges examines in this book, and his indictment of civilized society in times of war is not too pretty. That makes this an extremely relevant book for our time. Sadly, the book is not written very well. Hedges has a very repetitive writing style in which he makes the same points repeatedly in slightly different forms, while other important points appear briefly but are not examined, indicating that his thesis would be better presented in an essay or article. In a few places he really stretches his analysis into territory that is difficult to take seriously, such as his connections between war and sexuality in chapter 4, and war and religion in chapter 6. Much of the book becomes repetitive moralizing or complaints about military operations that Hedges disagrees with. Hedges is really onto something here and his subject matter is very important, but it needs more focus plus deeper sociology and psychology to be totally effective.