War is a Force that Gives us Meaning
When cultures of violence get mixed up with myths of war
Chris Hedges is a scholar of immense talents, who has “been there, done that;” (and bought the Tee shirt). He is as familiar with the art of war as is Sun Tzu, and arguably much smarter. Plus his sensibilities are different: keener, and in the right place — more refined and more severely tilted towards an instinct for building a better more humane world. With his own considerable experiences as a war correspondent as backdrop, Hedges uses his award-winning literary skills and his “over-sized” intellect to enlighten us about things that we already should know about: That war is hell; and that everything that glorifies it is a monumental but soothing lie!
Why should we already know this? Because all of the “true” soldiers, all of the “true” military patriots — from George Washington down to Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Wesley Clark — have told us that it is so. And yet, as this author's essay so aptly punctuates, we are all still intoxicated by war. It is a deadly insidious drug that we still just cannot give up. We readily “mainline it,” “we sample it,” “wallow in it,” tell lies about it, wish to be draped in its vicarious glory, and as a nation with an out of control military industrial complex, we have severely “OD-ed” on it.
It imputes meaning to our otherwise empty lives in exactly the same way that jihads imputed meaning to the lives of the ragtag group of radical Muslims that brought down the twin towers. We too, at the age of 19, and with only six weeks training in North Carolina, all are taught how to kill in cold blood; how to rationalize it; and then how to forget about it? We too, anxiously march off to battle under mythical assumptions of “protecting our freedom” and a bushel of lies about the meaning of the heroism of war.
Think about this: When prolific Mob hit man and serial killer, Frank Sheeran was 83, he was asked how he had learned to be a cold-blooded murderer without a conscience. He answered by relating an incident (that is also in his autobiography) that occurred at the “Battle of the Bulge,” in which as a young Buck Private he was ordered by his commanding officer to summarily execute roughly a dozen Nazi prisoners. After that experience, Sheeran said, “there was nothing to killing;” the only difference was that in the mob, I was under a different commanding officer.
Hedges did not have to tell us directly that America, the de-facto leader of the Western world, is also the unacknowledged commanding officer of the world's culture of violence; for a country does not get to be the nation involved in more wars than any nation in the history of the world, without being a violent nation. Whether in the home, on the inner city streets, or in “wars of choice;” with a gun for every man, woman and child in the nation, it is a culture build on, and sustained by the violence of the gun and of war. America is a culture of violence that is without a historical rival.
And although some reviewers claim the author to be angry, I believe it is the substance that is much angrier. The book is about horrors of war generally, not just about the culture of violence within the U.S., per se. However, if the shoe fits … well? This book makes that point indirectly, not “in our faces;” and does so in a number of thought-provoking ways that enlighten us about the history of war — all of which are sobering. The most stunning way in my view is where the author compares our own moral universe with that of the Al Qaeda suicide bombers.
Somehow, very much after the fact (and now for the second time in our history, the victims of international violence on our own homeland), we have told ourselves that it must be the case that we are of a different, higher species of human being than Al Qaeda. And thus, we must live in an entirely different moral universe than those rag-headed wanton suicide killers? But then, as Hedges shows here, that is only a self-fullfilling lie, because the suicide bombers are our moral brothers: They were schooled in the same self-righteous theology of violence that is virtually a writ of passage for every male in the U.S. — right down to the religious-like fervor of boot camps, to the Godzilla like Hollywood scene of carnage, and the high-fiving and uncontainable glee after the Twin Towers fell? Not only was Al Qaeda literally a U.S. creation, but as the multiple attacks on our homeland showed, it proved to be better at the culture of violence than we are. For I do not know many Americans in or out of the military who would commit mass suicide to save their “freedoms,” or to pay homage to the Christian God, do you? (Well, now that I think of it, there was the home-grown pseudo-religious group led by Jim Jones called the “People's Temple,” wasn't there …?)
The Myth of War
Shed of its ideological veneer, and pomposity, war is organized murder, full stop. It is a societal drama in which events are imbued with meanings they do not have, nor deserve. The goal of course is to show the community that all that they hold sacred is under threat by a mythical enemy — the ultimate “Other.” (Just coincidentally, this is the same goal as that of racism, is it not?) But in war, this is done through a campaign of propaganda called “patriotism,” a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship in which “we” are endowed with freedom-loving ideals of moral goodness and fairness; and “they” are the perfidious ones who “hate us” “because of our freedoms” and “our moral goodness.” Since our cause is “just,” communicating with “them” through violence is acceptable and condoned; the more violent, the better.
Hedges' other message is this: war has evolved. Unlike wars in the past, contemporary wars are not clashes of big ideas like ideology, culture or even ancient religious or ethnic hatreds. Today wars are born out of civil collapse, perpetuated by the chaos of fear, greed and paranoia, run by gangsters who rise up from the bottom of their own societies and terrorize all, including those they purport to protect; or by gangsters from the top who are equally ruthless, and who steal the symbols of society and uses them against the people. Today's world of war is the Hobbesian world personified.
But at the other end of this spectrum, it should be noted also that there are the wars for fun and profit, by the “war profiteers.” They are those who see military hardware as the proverbial hammer, and every “war of opportunity” as just another nail.
In order to justify “going on the war path” once again, they simply have to use our national symbols to paste together “rational imperatives for the next war.” They do this through manufactured intelligence data, by controlling an “obsequious” media and an equally obsequious “bought-and-paid-for Congress,” and then by whipping up fake war hysteria:” You are either “for us” or “against us,” … as the cadence of the military Bugle Corp marches on…
In war, where “mythic reality” trumps “sensory reality,” each side reduces the other side to “objects” — inexorably ending up as rotting corpses. Hedges' point here is that no matter where it occurs, war is a ritual that fills empty lives with a potent sense of meaning and purpose, which simply put, makes it a veritable refuge from the terrors of our own empty inner lives.