“I wrote this book not to dissuade us from war but to understand it. It is especially important that we, who wield such massive force across the globe, see within ourselves the seeds of our own obliteration. We must guard against the myth of war and the drug of war that can, together, rend us blind and callous as some of those we battle.”
– Chris Hedges, “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning”
War is pervasive in our culture – it’s in our movies and our literature, or it’s broken down to soundbites and video clips on the nightly news.
But despite how well war sells, the way its portrayed – as many of our armed service members and vets will tell you – is grossly inaccurate, from laughable to obscene.
“War is A Force that Gives Us Meaning,” is unlike any other book on war I’ve ever read.
Chris Hedges is best known for his 15-plus years of war corresponding, his 2002 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of global terrorism, and his 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for his Human Rights journalism.
In short, Hedges knows war.
This book is about war, but also not about war.
He doesn’t write about the definition of war, which is simple; it’s conflict, whether the sides are armed with weapons or words.
And while he touches on what war does, how it creates mass misery and inequality, and brings displacement and death, that’s not what he is really writing about, either.
Hedges even boils down the causes of war – resources, religion, philosophy or racial superiority – down to a simpler cause; that war, all wars, start with the collapse of civil society and the rising tide of fear, anger and paranoia directed at “the other.”
What Hedges is really writing about, what he picks apart with scientific precision, is what happens to us when we go to war – how you and I and our neighbors and families can change when our nation goes to war.
War changes us, Hedges writes. It can warp us to our very core.
Hedges has traveled to numerous countries that have plunged headlong into war, and describes how the people – as clear-minded and compassionate as any during peacetime – have become corrupted by nationalism and their hatred of “the other,” which is perpetuated by the state and media, but carried by individuals just like us.
In many ways, war doesn’t start with bloodshed or a battle. War starts in people’s minds long before the first bullet is shot.
To successfully wage war, a country must somehow make its people blind to anything that isn’t a part of their national culture, because it is difficult for the state to convince its people to go to war if their minds are not just open, but empathetic, to other countries and points of view.
One way to achieve this, Hedges writes, is by making people blindly believe in a national myth.
“Every society, ethnic group or religion nurtures certain myths, often centered around the creation of the nation or the movement itself. These myths often lie unseen beneath the surface, waiting for the moment to rise ascendant, to define and glorify followers or members in times of crisis,” Hedges writes. “These myths are the kindling nationalists use to light a conflict.”
America certainly has its own nationalistic myths, brought up year after year and election after election.
The Founding Fathers (look, we even capitalize the f’s) are one of our biggest myths.
These men were certainly geniuses in their own right. But we often portray them as perfect and always in agreement with each other, whereas reality is always more complicated than that.
They fought against tyranny and for freedom, but some owned slaves and perpetuated genocide. America became more like “the land of the free” they were aiming for long after they passed.
But reality sometimes has little effect on our perceptions of the world. A perfect example is our presidential election, because, as you may have noticed, nationalism seems rampant more in this election than can be remembered in the recent past.
The rallying cries of “Make America Great Again” and “Put America First” beacon people to return to the myth and to put out of mind that the world is more than the United States of America and forget the all-important struggles we’ve gone through to make this a more perfect union.
But to wage war, the state has to do more than bring up its country – others, especially “the other”, has to be put down.
“By destroying authentic culture – that which allows us to question and examine ourselves and our society – the state erodes the moral fabric,” writes Hedges. “It is replaced with a warped version of reality. The enemy is dehumanized; the universe starkly divided between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.”
The wars Hedges writes about are almost Orwellian in this way; radicals bombing monuments that marked a time when the two warring counties once worked together, or states whose people share nearly identical languages begin to create (or resurrect) words to manufacture differences between these warring societies.
Our presidential election is also a prime example of how we dehumanize others. Republican nominee Donald Trump has said that illegal Mexicans “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.” He’s also called for a ban on immigration “from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism.”
Once you start to go down that road, it’s easy to translate everything your side does as righteous, and everything the other side does as evil. It’s not hard to hate someone who is evil. It’s not hard to kill someone who’s evil.
We’ve seen this before. Our nation, reeling from the worst terrorist attack in our country, was quick to go to war against a country we embodied with everything we stood against; tyranny, persecution and terror.
The Senate unanimously approved military intervention in Afghanistan three days after 9/11. There was one dissenting voice in the House.
“‘As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore,'” former Senator Barbara Lee said, quoting Reverend Nathan Baxter, who led the National Prayer Service on Sept. 14, 2001.
That, in a nutshell, is the message Hedges wants us to understand. Because as we give in to the drug of war, we forget that the people we are fighting are just the same as us – they have fears and family, dreams and desires beyond what we assign them.
“War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” is not anti-war. It’s a mirror. It’s a singular opportunity to examine, through the eyes of a haunted man, the countless wars that have been waged across the planet, and then examine yourself through those same eyes.
Chances are, you won’t like what you see. Because when you read about the people Hedges has come across in war-torn countries, you’ll see a little bit of yourself in them, and how we all, explicitly or implicitly, perpetuate hate, war and death.
The problem isn’t war. The problem is that we who’ve never seen war think we know it.
We think we know the glory. We think the cause is just. We think that we’re invincible.
We are wrong.
“The only antidote to ward off self-destruction and the indiscriminate use of force is humility and, ultimately, compassion,” Hedges writes. “This book is not a call for inaction. It is a call for repentance.”