Saturday, August 02, 2003

Hedges, Chris. War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Public Affairs, 2002, bibliography, index, 211 p.

This book was recommended to me by a friend at the recent American Library Association conference in Toronto. And it is terrific. It is a heartfelt and devastating portrait of war, penned by a New York Times journalist who has been in many of the world's hot spots over the last 20 years. Hedges has seen some horrific scenes and talked to victims and victors from El Salvador, to Israel, to the former Yugoslavia. It is this latter conflict that provides Hedges with the fuel for his antiwar fire. What Hedges wants to do is strip war of its romance and justifications, which he does by closely looking at the language used by soldiers, generals, and politicians. And he succeeds brilliantly.

In seven chapters, Hedges looks at battlefield action, the addiction many develop to battle, the language of nationalism, and the close relationship of fear and death to love and sex. It is his examination of nationalism and its perversion to justify war that gives the book its greatest power. He says, "To those who swallow the nationalist myth, life is transformed. The collective glorification permits people to abandon their usual preoccupation with the petty concerns of daily life. They can abandon even self-preservation in the desire to see themselves as players in a momentous historical drama...Leaders, against the backdrop of war, look heroic, noble." (p. 54) Isn't this what they all want? How often has it been said that presidents like Carter and Clinton rued the fact that they didn't have a chance to go to war? Who are often cited as America's greatest presidents: Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. And what is usually cited to justify their greatness is their leadership in war. Never mind that FDR might have been able to avoid much of the horror of World War II if he had been paying more attention to the predations Japan was taking against much of southeast Asia in the 30s or the progroms that Hitler was starting as early as 1933. Rather he is celebrated for leading the country into war and eventually to victory. None of this is to say the war didn't need to be fought once events had gone to the point they did in 1941. Hedges would say the same thing, I think. But to glorify WWII and the men who fought it as the "greatest generation" misses the point that war, even justified wars, are dirty, ugly, degrading experiences. Experiences that pervert everyone they touch. In Hedges view, it is the nationalist impulse, which leads to the demonization of the "enemy' that creates the fertile ground for war to sprout.

Sometimes the reality of war is allowed to intrude into public awareness. Hedges notes that it happened after Vietnam. Suddenly Americans saw that confict for what it truly was. And we were chastened by it. It looks like we've forgotten those lessons. "The question is whether America now courts death. We no longer seem chastened by war as we were in the years after the Viewnam War. The Bush administration has revised its "Nuclear Posture Review" to give us "more flexible nuclear strike capabilities." Washington wants "more options" with which to confront contingencies "immediate, ptential and unexpected," for smaller but more effective mega-tonnages to be deployed. This flirtation with weapons of mass destruction is a flirtation with our own obliteration, an embrace again of Thanatos." (p. 160)

Placing war in the never-ending tug-of-war between Eros and Thanatos, Hedges closely examines the relationship between war and sex. It's a disturbing portrait. But it leads Hedges to his only hope for avoiding future conflicts: "In the wake of catastrophe, including the attacks of September 11, 2002, there is a desperate longing by all those affected to be inthe physical prsence of those they love...This love, like death, radiates outwards. It battles Thanatos at the very moment of death's sting. These two fundamental human impulses crash like breakers into each other. And however much beyond reason, there is always a feeling that love is not powerless or impotent as we had believed a few seconds before. Love alone fuses happiness and meaning. Love alone can fight the impulse that lures us toward self-destruction." (p. 160)

It is writers like Hedges that bring us back to our senses when our leaders fail us and lead the country into dangerous and ill-advised follies like the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. We need these writers to tell us honestly about the action and not give us the nightly entertainment on CNN that usually passes for journalism. It's a great book. One that every policy maker ought to read.