The Common Good
January-February 2003

An Enticing Elixer

by Molly Marsh | January-February 2003

An interview with Chris Hedges on our love affair with war.

Chris Hedges has spent 15 years as a foreign correspondent, 10 of them with The New York Times, covering conflicts in Central America, the Middle East, and the Balkans. He spoke recently with Sojourners’ Molly Marsh about his new book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (PublicAffairs), which describes the myths of war and the destruction our enthusiasm for war brings to the world and to ourselves.

You state that you wrote your new book to understand war, not necessarily to dissuade us from it. What do you understand about war that you didn’t before?

Hedges: War as it’s presented in society is mythic. We don’t understand war. You have to be engaged in a war or caught up in a war to finally understand it. And perhaps it’s impossible for a state or an imperium to prosecute a war unless they nurture and sustain that myth. The myth is sustained by the state, the entertainment industry, the press—it’s that myth of glory, heroism, nobility, the myth that somehow you cannot finally test yourself unless you engage in or subject yourself to that kind of violence. The biggest thing I understood is that war as it’s portrayed in society is a lie.

You liken war to a drug, a drug you used for a long time. Did writing the book help you figure out your attraction to war?

Hedges: Anybody who gets caught up in combat, even noncombatants, can get addicted to that rush, that sense of purpose that allows you to step outside the small daily concerns of your life and live for a great cause, to endow yourself with a kind of nobility. War is a drug—perhaps the most potent narcotic known to humankind.

The seduction of war is insidious, because so much of what we’re told about war is true. It does create, like many drugs, a feeling of comradeship, unity, fellowship, even communion, and this has the ability to obliterate our own alienation and make many of us feel—perhaps for the only time in our lives—that we belong. But of course it’s as false a bond as that which drug addicts feel when they use drugs. Once the narcotic of war is taken away, all of those bonds dissipate.

I drifted from war zone to war zone. It was only when I stepped back and forced myself to break free, which was a long, difficult process, that I could recover. I woke up and realized this was a self-destructive way to live, and that if I kept flirting with violence and danger, I could end up dead, as many colleagues I’ve worked with over the years are dead.

You write about the "trappings" of war—the myths that the state issues about the "fight for freedom and democracy," the self-worship that is patriotism, the clichéd language about war—all of which is applicable to the current "war on terrorism" and the approaching war with Iraq.

Hedges: One of the things that always happens in wartime is that the state manufactures the language by which we can speak; the clichés, the jingoes—such as the "war on terror"—are lapped up by the press, and it becomes difficult to speak or think outside the box. We struggle to express ourselves, because it seems we can only express ourselves in the language we’re given, and those that offer us an alternative language in wartime are usually silenced. They’re branded as traitors or as unpatriotic.

So much of re-establishing peace within a society is built around re-creating a common language. You saw this in South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although the killers from the apartheid regime were given amnesty, they had to confess their crimes. It gave the victims and the victimizers a common language. That’s fundamental to healing and creating a society that can live in peace. If you look at Bosnia, that has not happened, and you don’t have peace in Bosnia: You have the absence of war. That corruption of language and that reclamation of language are fundamental in wartime and fundamental to bringing peace.

Patriotism is dangerous because it’s always a form of exultation of us as a nation and a people, and in that there is a demeaning of the other. Once you stop talking, and once you use language to dehumanize the other and exalt yourself, it becomes very hard to find peaceful solutions.

What do you mean when you write in the introduction that the book is a "call for repentance"?

Hedges: Sigmund Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, writes that all of life is a battle between the forces of love, or Eros, and the forces of death, Thanatos. At one time or another, one of these forces is always ascendant—not only within us, but within society. I believe that after our defeat in Vietnam, we became a better nation. We asked questions about ourselves as a people and a country that we hadn’t asked before. We were forced to look at ourselves in an unflattering light. We understood the cost and horror of war, and it was difficult for us, at least immediately after the Vietnam War, to exult in the myth. This was a moment when Eros was ascendant in our country.

Gradually this was eroded, especially during the Reagan years with the invasion of Grenada and Panama, and culminating with the Persian Gulf, where once again war became "fun." We looked at the Persian Gulf war as a vast video arcade game. We celebrated our own military prowess, ignoring the awful destruction that modern industrial warfare brings to innocents—and I mean Iraqi innocents. Since the Persian Gulf war, Thanatos has become ascendant. And that won’t go away until we stumble into a conflict, regrettably, where once again we have to pay the heavy cost and wake up and realize what war is, which is organized slaughter.

You write that you hope your children never do what you did. What do you most want to spare them from?

Hedges: Like anybody who’s seen that much violence and death and witnessed that kind of human cruelty and horror, I bear deep scars I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Like many combat veterans, I have to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression—what I bear within me is a heavy burden. I paid a terrible, terrible price for the knowledge I gained. I wouldn’t want to see my children have to pay that price.

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