War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning
Chris Hedges

…every recruit headed into war would be well-advised to read The Iliad, just as every soldier returning home would be served by reading The Odyssey.

Lawrence LeShan in The Psychology Of War differentiates between mythic reality and sensory reality in wartime. In sensory reality we see events for what they are…. But in mythic war we imbue events with meaning that they do not have. p. 21

…nearly every reporter has seen his or her mission as sustaining civilian and army morale. p. 22

The press usually does not lead. p. 22

War’s utter depravity was captured in Shakespeare’s play Troilus And Cressida, a work that as far is known was never performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, perhaps due to its savage indictment of war and human society. p. 25

I have heard Israeli settlers on the West Bank, for example, argue that Palestinian towns, towns that have been Muslim since the seventh century, belong to them because it says so in the Bible, a reminder that this sophistry extends beyond the Balkans. p. 27

A passage from the November 18, 1822 London Observer caught the aftermath of war:

It is estimated that more than a million bushels of human and inhuman bones were imported last year from the continent of Europe into the port of Hull. The neighborhood of Leipzig, Austerliz, Waterloo, and all the other places where during the late bloody war, the principal battles were fought, have been swept alike of the bones of the hero and the horse which he rode. Thus, collected from every quarter, they have been shipped to the port of Hull and thence to forwarded to Yorkshire bone grinders who have erected steam-engines and powerful machinery for the purpose of reducing them to a granular state. In this condition they are sold to the farmers to manure their lands. p. 30

The myth of war rarely endures for those who experience combat. War is messy, confusing, sullied by raw brutality and an elephantine fear that grabs us like a massive bouncer who comes up from behind. Soldiers in the moments before real battles weep, vomit, and write last letters home, although these are done more as a precaution than from belief. All are nearly paralyzed with fright. There is a morbid silence that grips a battlefield in the final moments before the shooting starts, one that sets the back of my own head pounding in pain, wipes away all appetites and makes my fingers tremble as I ready myself to go forward against logic. You do not think of home or family, for to do so is to be overcome by a wave of nostalgia and emotion that can impair you ability to survive. One thinks, so far as it is possible , of cleaning weapons, of readying for the business of killing. No one ever charges into battle for God and country.

“Just remember,” a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel told me as he strapped his pistol belt under his arm before he crossed in Kuwait, “that none of these boys is fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap the politicians feed the public. They are fighting for each other, just for each other.” p. 38

It taught me a crucial lesson that I would carry into every other conflict. Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including ours, is the passionate yearning for a nationalist cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone can deliver. p. 45

To speak of the Israeli war of independence with many Israelis, in which stateless European Jews established a country in a land that had been primarily Muslim since the seventh century, is to shout into a vast black hole. There is an emotional barrier, a desire not to tarnish the creation myth, which makes it difficult for many Israeli Jews, including some of the most liberal and progressive, acknowledge the profound injustice the creation of the state of Israel meant for Palestinians. p. 47

The prospect of war is exciting. Many young men, schooled in the notion that war is the ultimate definition of manhood, that only in war will they be tested and proven, that they can discover their worth as human beings in battle, willingly join the great enterprise. p. 84

Writers such as Joseph Roth or Ernst Jünger understood that we had entered into a new era, one in which we would always flirt with death and self-destruction on a hitherto unknown scale. p. 85

But even in this new age of warfare we cling to the outdated notion of the single hero able to carry out daring feats of courage on the battlefield. Such heroism is about as relevant as mounting bayonet or cavalry charges. p. 86

[Ka’Tzetnik’s sextet, House Of Dolls, was] reissued in 1994 and handed out by the Israeli Ministry of Education as recommended reading on the Holocaust in high schools.

Nothing could be a greater taboo than deriving sexual pleasure from the fact that the central sites for these actions were the concentration camps,” [Israeli historian Omer] Bartov writes. “Nothing could be a greater taboo than deriving sexual pleasure from pornography in the context of the Holocaust; hence nothing could be as exciting. That Israeli youth learned about sex and perversity and derived sexual gratification, from books describing the manner in which Nazis tortured Jews, is all the more disturbing, considering that we are speaking about a society who population consisted of a large proportion of Holocaust survivors and their offspring” p. 92

It was still. The camp waited, as if holding its breath. And then, out of the dry furnace air a disembodied voice crackled over a loudspeaker from the Israeli side of the camp’s perimeter fence.

“Come on dogs,” the voice boomed in Arabic. “Where are all the dogs of Khan Younis? Come! Come!”

I stood up and walked outside the hut. The invective spewed out in a bitter torrent. “Son of a bitch!” “Son of a whore!” “Your mother’s cunt!”

The boys darted in small packs up the sloping dunes to the electric fence that separated the camp from the Jewish settlement abutting it. They lobbed rocks towards a jeep, mounted with a loudspeaker and protected by bulletproof armor plates and metal grating, that sat parked on the top of a hill known as Gani Tal. The soldier inside the jeep ridiculed and derided them. Three ambulances — which had pulled up in anticipation of what was to come — lined the road below the dunes. p. 93

His mother, seated next to him and wearing a black headscarf, slowly shook her head.

“He goes every day,” she said softly. “I sent my older son to bring him home. And he was not home five minutes before he went back. I tell the boys it is useless, throwing stones and becoming a martyr will not make the Israelis leave. My sister has lost a son. My brother has lost a son. One of my uncles was killed and a cousin is dead. I tell them to look at the history of our struggle. All these deaths achieve nothing. pp. 97-8

“The war began with words,” said Seka Milanovik, sixty-eight, the other Bosnian Serb woman, “but none of us paid any attention. The extremist Serbs and Muslims were misfits, criminals and failures. But soon they held rallies and talked of racial purity, things like that.We dismissed them — until the violence began.” p. 110

“My daughter and two grandchildren fled with the crowds,” said [Burka] Bakovik. “I did not even have time to say goodbye. In a moment they were gone. Now I am alone and afraid. I do not want to be by myself in my apartment, so I stay here. We are all women; we all felt the same pangs of childbirth. We do not believe in war.” p. 111

The magnitude of the deaths and ultimate indifference [to the Armenian genocide] may have led Hitler, on the eve of the invasion of Poland, to remind his followers, “Who still speaks of the extermination of the Armenians?” p. 126

“And strange people from the outskirts of town seize our rooms, our blankets, our clothes. It must have been people like them who killed doctors in the time of Chlolera riots. And then there are people whose souls have just withered, people who are ready to go along with anything evil – anything so as not to be suspected of disagreeing with whoever”s in power.” p. 136

“Here is where we would come at night so we could pull oursleves up the walls to hear the sound of the dogs barking in the distance. To hear the dogs, this was everything for us.” p. 140

When I stepped off an Army C-130 military transport in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to cover the Person Gulf War, I was escorted to a room with several dozen other reporters and photographers. I was told to sign a paper that said I would abide by the severe restrictions placed on the press by the U.S. Military.

The restrictions authorized “pool reporters” to be escorted by the military on field trips. The rest of the press would sit in hotel rooms and rewrite the bland copy filed by the pool or use pool video and photos. This was an agreement I violated the next morning, when I went into the field without authorization.

The rest of the war, during which I spent more than half my time dodging military police and trying to talk my way into units, was a forlorn and lonely struggle against the heavy press control. p. 142

The images and stories were designed to make us feel good about our nation, about ourselves. The Iraqi families and soldiers being blown to bits by huge iron fragmentation bombs just over the border were faceless and nameless phantoms. p. 143

The notion that the press was used in the war is incorrect. The press wanted to be used. It saw itself as part of the war effort. Most reporters sent to cover a war don”t really want to go near the fighting. They do not tell this to their editors and indeed will moan and complain about restrictions. The handful who actually head out into the field have a bitter enmity with the hotel-room warriors.

But even those who do go out are guilty of distortion. For we not only believe the myth of war and feed recklessly off of the drug but also embrace the cause. We may do it with more skepticism. We certainly expose ore lies and misconceptions. But we believe.

We all believe. When you stop believing you stop going to war. p. 143

The Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr warned us that moral choice is not between the moral and the immoral, but between the immoral and the less immoral. p. 144

War finds its meaning in death. p. 144

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kurwait, it was widely disseminated that Iraqi soldiers removed hundreds of Kuwaiti babies from incubators and left them to die on hospital floors. The story, when we arrived in Kuwait and able to check with doctors at the hospitals, turned out to be false. p. 145

“It is impossible to overrate the part played by the first dead man in the kindling of wars. Rulers who want to unleash war know very well that they must procure or invent the first victim. It need not be anyone of particular importance, and can even be someone quite unknown.

Nothing matters except his death; and it must be believed that the enemy is responsible for this. Every possible cause of his death is suppressed except one: his membership of the group to which one belongs oneself.” p. 145

The cause, sanctified by the dead, cannot be questioned without dishonoring those who gave up their lives. We become enmeshed in the imposed language. When any contradiction is raised or there is a sense that the cause is not just an absolute sense, the doubts are attacked as apostasy. p. 145

The press, Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches, his book on the Vietnam War, “never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which of course was really what it was all about. The most repulsive, transparent gropes for sanctity in the midst of the killing received serious treatment in the papers and on the air. The jargon of the Process got blown into your head like bullets, and by the time you waded through all the Washington stories and all the Saigon stories, all the Other War stories and the corruption stories and the stories about brisk new gains in ARVN effectiveness, the suffering was somehow unimpressive.” p. 146

It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt. p. 146

…because we in modern society have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the state in times of war. p. 146

It was only after 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded that he was proven correct — the treaties did indeed exist. The war was a needless waste. But by then the myth of war was no longer needed, since the fighting had ended. p. 147

Dr. James Luther Adams, my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, used to tell us that we would end our careers fighting an ascendant fundamentalist movement, or, as he liked to say, “the Christian fascists.” p. 147

We did not fight the Persian Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, but to ensure that we would continue to have cheap oil. But oil is hardly a cause that will bring crowds into the street. p. 148

They saw the Persian Gulf War for what it was, a use of force by a country that consumed 25 percent of the world’s petrol to protect its access to cheap oil. The message that was sent to them was this: We have everything and if you try to take it away from us we will kill you. It was not a message I could dispute. p. 148

Just as there are some soldiers or war correspondents who seem to us immortal and whose loss comes as a sobering reminder that death has no favorites, there are also those in war who are locked in a grim embrace with death from which they cannot escape. p. 158

All human history, he argued is a tug-of-war between [Eros and Thantos.] p. 158

…this is a quality war shares with love, for we are, in love, able to choose fealty and self-sacrifice over security. p. 158

We are tempted to reduce life to a simple search for happinesss. Happiness, however, withers if there is no meaning. The other temptation is to disavow the search for happiness in order to be faithful to hat which provides meaning. But to live only for meaning — indifferent to all happiness — makes us fanatic, self-righteous and cold. p. 159

There are few sanctuaries in war. But one is provided by couples in love. They are not able to staunch the slaughter. They are often powerless and can themselves become victims. But it was with them, seated around a wood stov, usually over a simple meal, that I found sanity and was reminded of what it means to be human. Love kept them grounded. It was to such couples that I retreated during the wars in Central America, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Love, when it is deep and sustained by two individuals, includes self-giving — often self-sacrifice — as well as desire. For the covenant of love is such that it recognizes both the fragility adn the sanctity of the individual. It recognizes itself in the other. It alone can save us. p. 160-1

Aristotle said that only two living entities are capable of complete solitude and complete separateness: God and beast. Because of this the most acute form of suffering for human beings in loneliness. The isolate individual can never be adequately human. And many of war’s most fervent adherents are those atomized indivudals who, before the war came, were profoundly alone and unloved. They found fulfillment in war, perhaps because it was the closest they came to love. If we do not acknowledge such an attraction, which is, in some ways, so akin to love, we can never combat it. p. 161

A World War II study determined that after sixty days of continuous combat, 98 percent of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualities. They found that a common trait among the 2 percent who were able to endure sustained combat was a predisposition toward “aggressive psychopathic personalities.” p. 164

They called it ekpyrosis — to be consumed by a ball of fire. They used the word to describe heroes. p. 166

“I come here for the rites of your unworlding.” Catullus p. 170

“But there are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.

“Dead men by mass production — in one country after another — month after month, year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.

“Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.

“Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them. These are the things that you at homeneed not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.

“We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference.” Ernie Pyle p. 176-7

But rather than build a new generation of believers, the fundamentalist leaders created a generation of men who were alienated and infected with the hopeless dispair of war and violence. p. 178

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