War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

May 23, 2011

War is a narcotic for societies.

Chris Hedges was a war correspondent for twenty years before he started writing books. He covered the conflict in El Salvador, the siege of Sarajevo, and was captured by Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard during the first gulf war. He isn’t a pacifist–he knows that the evils of war are sometimes necessary to stop even greater evil–but as a journalist he’s seen firsthand the atrocities committed by forces who all naturally think they’re on the right side of that equation.

Hedges’ main point is that war is a narcotic. War has a power to give meaning and purpose to our lives; it makes us feel better, more righteous, than we deserve to feel; and it strengthens our ties to our neighbors. For those on the ground (as combatants or correspondents), Hedges admits that he has never felt so alive, has never seen colors so vivid, as when he was being shelled or shot at. Such is the euphoria of war. But the meaning and purpose war gives us makes it hard to give up, even as war inevitably kills innocents, psychologically devastates our servicemen and women, and destroys our economy at home. The self-righteousness war induces destroys our capacity for empathy–we become blind to the sometimes valid reasons why our enemies want to fight us, an ignorance that only hurts us and guarantees the continuation of war. And the stronger ties to our neighbors bolsters a dangerous us/them distinction that dehumanizes “them” and, as history has proven time and again, paves the way for everyday people to commit the most heinous atrocities.

Whether or not a particular war is justified, before engaging in it we need to understand how war in general changes us individually and as a society, so that we can be on guard against its effects both euphoric and toxic, and to prevent history’s most tragic passages from repeating themselves. In this sense, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning serves as a warning, an intention the author mentions in a 2003 interview with PBS:

Writing this book took on a kind of urgency after 9/11. I woke up and realized in New York that we’d all become Serbs, that all of that flag-waving, all of that jingoism, that mass suppression of individual conscience–which I had seen in countries in war around the globe–was now part of my own society, part of where I lived. And it frightened me.

The Illusions of War

Practically, war requires us to lie to ourselves in many ways. Hedges catalogues some of these illusions:

The Illusion that Conflicts are Inevitable

The ethnic conflicts and insurgencies of our time, whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsis, are not religious wars. They are not clashes between cultures or civilizations, nor are they the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. They are manufactured wars, born out of the collapse of civil societies, perpetuated by fear, greed, and paranoia, and they are run by gangsters, who rise up from the bottom of their own societies to terrorize all, including those they purport to protect.

So why do we portray these conflicts as ancient?

In part we do this to avoid intervention, to give this kind of slaughter an historical inevitability is does not have, but also because the media and most of the politicians often lack the perspective and analysis to debunk the myths served up by the opposing sides. (20)

So what should we do? Resist taking at face value the easy explanations of conflicts. Their convenience doesn’t make them false per se, but it does suggest that facile explanations serve the agenda of whoever we get them from.

The Illusion of Heroism

Hedges, who has been embedded with the military and has no shortage of respect for soldiers, questions whether our popular concept of heroism doesn’t do them a disservice. When our soldiers ship out, we tell them that they can be heroes, and when they come back we tell them that they are. But in between, we ask our soldiers to do terrible things for us: to kill enemy combatants without hesitation, but also to inevitably kill innocent civilians due to bad intel, and to abuse captured prisoners. In interviewing soldiers, Hedges points to the fact that many don’t feel like heroes, and their anguish is made worse by our society’s insistence that they are, and refusal to hear their stories to the contrary. Stereotyping someone in an impossibly ideal way can be just as indecent as the opposite, and until we let go of this there can be no healing:

The tensions between those who were there and those who were not, those who refuse to let go of the myth and those that know it to be a lie feed into the dislocation and malaise after war. In the end, neither side cares to speak to the other. The shame and alienation of combat soldiers, coupled with the indifference to the truth of war by those who were not there, reduces many societies to silence. (176)

The Illusion of Innocence

In war, each side emphasizes the crimes of the other as a way of whitewashing its own. But until all sides acknowledge their culpability (such as through a truth and reconciliation commission), there can never be healing and thus no lasting peace.

As long as we think abstractly, as long as we find in patriotism and the exuberance of war our fulfillment, we will never understand those who do battle against us, or how we are perceived by them, or finally those who do battle for us and how we should respond to it all. We will never discover who we are. We will fail to confront the capacity we all have for violence. And we will court our own extermination. By accepting the false cliche that the battle under way against terrorism is a battle against evil, by easily branding those who fight us as barbarians, we, like them, refuse to acknowledge our own culpability. We ignore real injustices that have led many of those arrayed against us to their rage and despair. (180)