“Through these fields of destruction
Baptisms of fire
I’ve witnessed your suffering
As the battle raged higher
And though they did hurt me so bad
In the fear and alarm
You did not desert me
My brothers in arms”
-Dire Straights, “Brothers in Arms”
I decided I disliked Chris Hedges almost immediately after discovering his work. Granted I’d heard the name before in various discourses from left-leaning peers, but I’d failed to explore the individual or the positions so obliquely referenced. It wasn’t until a friend of mine (whom I respect greatly) recommended Hedges’ book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, that I became eager to discover who the man was. War, after all, is a topic I’m fascinated by, and one of the few that I’m familiar enough with (in the academic sense) to engage with.
My background research into Hedges wasn’t promising.* The man is a professional wolf-crier who flails away with absolutes like he’s the prophet Isaiah reincarnated, and (perhaps also Isaiah-like) sees the end of the world around every corner. The capitalist west is the perpetual enemy, with tentacles that permeate every conceivable institution and create every possible negative consequence. This isn’t to say that I don’t agree with Hedges on many issues (I’m especially impressed with his ideas on pornography, prostitution, and terrorism), just that he presents, in many respects, as the ideal leader of an ivy-league doomsday cult.
Still, Hedges has impressive credentials, and a lifetime of experience in some of the world’s most dangerous places. He’s worked as a war correspondent in Bosnia, El Salvador, Palestine, and Kuwait, is a former bureau chief for The New York Times, and has a Masters Degree in Theology from Harvard. When he wants to be, Hedges is a beautiful writer with decades of engaging and gripping stories from the front lines of a dozen conflicts. He can neither be dismissed nor ignored, and therefore he represents a complexity that defies easy dissection. I began to read War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning while feeling rather ambivalent about the author, and I can’t say that after finishing the text I’ve changed my mind.
The book itself is a philosophical (and perhaps theological) analysis of war through a sociological, rather than historical, lens, and makes the case that war is a darkly compelling and addictive experience for both individual and society. It is most profound when Hedges mines truth from his own experiences, but suffers from the flaws that undermine much of sociology as a discipline. By distilling history into general statements that read as poetic rather than analytical, Hedges creates a work of great force and power, but not great accuracy. One cannot mix theology, history, philosophy, and sociology into a single approach without sacrificing the purity of the more empirical disciplines to their subjective cousins.
Not that Hedges is without a sense of pragmatism. “I wrote this book not to dissuade us from war but to understand it,” he writes to his (presumably) Western audience. “It is especially important that we, who wield such massive force across the globe, see within ourselves the seeds of our own destruction. We must guard against the myth of war and the drug of war that can, together, render us as blind and callous as some of those we battle” (17).
“This book is not a call for inaction,” he continues on the same page. “It is a call for repentance.”
As a Christian from a pacifist tradition, I find Hedges’ implicit assumption that we can both direct and restrain the dogs of war to be uncharacteristically naïve. The rest of the book is devoted to the uncountable ways in which war seduces, and then wreaks destruction upon the human soul, framed as the inevitable consequences of violent conflict. The beasts Hedges describes cannot be caged or mastered, no matter how much “repentance” takes place. To suggest otherwise, even superficially, is to engage in doublethink.
I suspect Hedges isn’t unaware of this contradiction, and his hesitation to explore it is shown by the absence of any further discussion on the topic. Instead he delves into subjects he is more confident in exploring, from the importance of language purity and rhetoric in times of war, to the unifying ideology of conflict. He describes his experience in Bosnia in the early 90’s, during which he witnessed the Croats, Serbs, and Balkan Muslims take a mutual language and shatter it into three distinct pieces (dialects that were immediately used to evidence each group’s historical and territorial claims). He talks about the solidification of each group’s identity into distinct and deeply antagonist camps (despite being nearly indistinguishable in the former Yugoslavia), and the creation of a conflict mythos that resulted in five years of bloody civil war.
Hedges compares war to a drug, a powerful mythology, a Grecian god (Thanatos), and even a religion. He jumps to a dozen conclusions that, while poetic, are analyzed more concretely in other works. Some of his pithiness is brutally accurate (“The cultivation of victimhood is essential fodder for any conflict” ), and some forces us to look our own ethnocentrisms in the eye.** After all, western civilization is built and perpetuated on war, just like any other empire in the history of humanity.
What seems to have really impressed Hedges during his years in conflict zones around the world is the importance of ‘othering’ and alienating the opponent prior to the outbreak of significant hostilities. Differences must be championed, victims (of unreasonable aggression) must be found and lionized, and the official rhetoric must be purified and instilled with the proper patriotic ideology.
Since war is a ‘drug’, the people become easy victims of its seduction. “Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including ours,” says Hedges (in one of many reiterations of the book’s title), “is the passionate yearning for a nationalist cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone is able to deliver. It reduces and at times erases the anxiety of individual consciousness. We abandon individual responsibility for a shared, unquestioned communal enterprise, however morally dubious” (45).
All the social institutions are harnessed in the creation of a binary in which ‘we’ are the victims, and ‘they’ are the oppressors. ‘We’ must defend ourselves from the imminent danger of ‘they,’ and ‘we’ (because of the past atrocities of ‘they’) are released from the normal restraints of civilized interaction. This leads to war societies operating under a “new moral code” that encourages members to “accept, if not condone, the maiming and killing of others as the regrettable cost of war” (35).
As a journalist, Hedges is struck by the fact that truth seems to have no place in war, although that is a sad reality as old as conflict. We have had the luxury in the west, since the end of the Cold War, of being reasonably certain the end outcome of our ‘recreational’ wars will favour us. This allows a certain amount of journalistic freedom not possible in wars that directly threaten western dominance of the global hierarchy. Hedges also laments that religious leaders in the Balkans helped foster the violence rather than condemn it,° before reminiscing about a Harvard professor who had once prophesied that the intellectuals of Hedges’ generation would end their careers combating “Christian fascism” in America.ˆ Hedges views both the press and the church as willing accomplices in the creation and protection of war ideology.
Hedges seems to agree with the prophetic vision of his professor about American Christianity, and in doing so adds a twist of irony to his analysis of war’s cause. To paint (as he does) a grim future in which America’s reasonable and righteous must combat the perils of Christian fascists is to take the first steps down the road to war, first by creating a binary which distances and simplifies an opponent into an enemy, and second by creating immediate victimhood via a fabricated threat. It is easy to infer a certain amount of hubris in Hedges from comments of this nature. Already implying faith in the rational elements of humanity to harness the war-beast, he seems blind to how easily he himself begins to foster elements of conflict. The seeds present in War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, germinate in his other works, and occasionally ring similar to the propaganda he derides. Hedges is good at finding targets to focus his reader’s ire, and his language is unusually militant when discussing even abstract forces. For a man who preaches repentance, he uses many of the same techniques to create fear and action that he so criticizes in others.
But Hedges cannot be dismissed easily. His insights in other areas are indeed beautiful, and he cuts to the soul of humanity with his comparisons of the two great forces of the human soul: love and hate. Recognizing that both war and love muster absolute passions, Hedges is at his best contrasting their disparate conclusions. “In the beginning war looks and feels like love,” he says. “But unlike love it gives nothing in return but an ever-deepening dependence, like all narcotics on the road to self-destruction. It does not affirm but places upon us greater and greater demands. It destroys the outside world until it is hard to live outside war’s grip” (162).
War is the ultimate human conflict, just as love is the ultimate union. War strips away the banality of routine and bares the raw nerve of mortality, just as love irrevocably transforms the human experience. War and love are both forces that give us meaning, although only one provides us with a future.
I would recommend Hedge’s book as a survey text, or an interesting read to begin a conversation. It lacks the depths of historiography, and suffers from the license of sociology (and overblown hyperbole), but it is still the sum of many beautiful parts.
**“Here there was no pillage, no warlords, no collapse of unit discipline, but the cold and brutal efficiency of industrial warfare waged by well-trained and highly organized professional soldiers, It was a potent reminder why most European states and America live in such opulence and determine the fate of so many others. We equip and train the most efficient killers on the planet.” (85)°“The principal religious institutions–the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Croatia–were willing accomplices. They were national churches and worked as propagandists for the state. The clerics, on all three sides, were a disgrace. U.N. mediators in Sarajevo wearily complained that it was easier to get Serb and Muslim commanders to the table for talks than opposing clerics.” (46)
ˆ“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.” … There is a danger of a growing fusion between those in the state who wage war–both for and against modern states–and those who believe they understand and can act as agents for God.” (147)
“Once we sign on for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.” (9)