War is a force that gives
by Chris Hedges
Amnesty International NOW
magazine, Winter 2002
War and conflict have marked most of my
adult life. I have been in ambushes on desolate stretches of Central
American roads, locked in unnerving firefights in the marshes
in southern Iraq, imprisoned in the Sudan, beaten by Saudi military
police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured and held for a
week by Iraqi Republican Guards, strafed by Russian Mig-21s in
central Bosnia, shot at by Serb snipers and shelled with deafening
rounds of artillery in Sarajevo that threw out thousands of deadly
bits of iron fragments. I have seen too much of violent death.
I have tasted too much of my own fear. I have painful memories
that lie buried most of the time. It is never easy when they surface.
And yet there is a part of me that remains
nostalgic for war's simplicity and high. The enduring attraction
of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it gives
us what we all long for in life. It gives us purpose, meaning,
a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict
does the shallowness and vapidness of our lives become apparent.
Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our news.
And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It
allows us to be noble. And those that have the least meaning in
their lives-the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised
North African immigrants in France, even the lost legions of youth
that live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized
world-are all susceptible to war's appeal.
WAR AS CULTURE
I learned early on that war forms its
own culture. The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction,
for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years. It is peddled
by myth makers -historians, war correspondents, filmmakers novelists
and the state-all of whom endow it with qualities it often does
possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our
small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that
has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts
memory, corrupts language and infects everything around it, even
humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of
smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness,
of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around
us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil
that lurks just below the surface within all of us.
And so it takes little in wartime to turn
ordinary men into killers. Most give themselves willingly to the
seduction of unlimited power to destroy, and all feel the peer
pressure. Few, once in bottle, can find the strength to resist.
The historian Christopher Browning noted
the willingness to kill in Ordinary Men, his study of Reserve
Police Battalion 101 in Poland during World War ll. On the morning
of July 12, 1942, the battalion was ordered to shoot 1800 Jews
in the village of Jozefow in a day-long action. The men in the
unit had to round up the Jews, march them into the forest and
one by one order them to lie down in a row. The victims, including
women, infants, children and the elderly, were shot dead at close
Battalion members were offered the option
to refuse, an option only about a dozen men took, although more
asked to be relieved once the killing began. Those who did not
want to continue, Browning says, were disgusted rather than plagued
by conscience. When the men returned to the barracks they "were
depressed, angered, embittered and shaken." They drank heavily.
They were told not to talk about the event, "but they needed
no encouragement in that direction."
WAR AS MYTH
The most recent U.S. conflicts have insulated
the public and U.S. troops from both the disgust and pangs of
conscience. The Gulf War-waged from bombers high above the fray
and reported by carefully controlled journalists-made war fashionable
again. It was a cause the nation willingly embraced. It exorcised
the ghosts of Vietnam. It gave us heroes and the heady belief
in our own military superiority and technology. It almost made
war fun. And the chief culprit was, as in many conflicts, not
the military but the press. Television reporters happily disseminated
the spoon-fed images that served the propaganda effort of the
military and the state. These images did little to convey the
reality of war. Pool reporters, those guided around in groups
by the military, wrote once again about "our boys" eating
packaged army food, practicing for chemical weapons attacks and
bathing out of buckets in the desert. It was war as spectacle,
war, if we are honest, as entertainment. The images and stories
were designed to make us feel good about our nation, about ourselves.
The families and soldiers being blown to bits by iron fragmentation
bombs just over the border in Iraq were faceless and nameless
The moment I stepped off an Army C-130
military transport in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to cover the Persian
Gulf War, I was escorted to a room with several dozen other reporters
and photographers. I was told to sign a paper that said I would
abide by the severe restrictions placed on the press. The restrictions
authorized "pool reporters" to be escorted by the military
on field trips. Most of the press sat in hotel rooms and rewrote
the bland copy filed by the pool or used the pool video and photos.
I violated this agreement the next morning when I went into the
field without authorization. The rest of the war, most of which
I spent dodging Military Police and trying to talk my way into
units, was a forlorn and lonely struggle against the heavy press
The notion that the press was used in
the war is incorrect. The press wanted to be used. It saw itself
as part of the war effort. Most reporters sent to cover a war
don't really want to go near the fighting. They do not tell this
to their editors and indeed will moan and complain about restrictions.
The handful who actually head out into the field have a bitter
enmity with the hotel room warriors. But even those who do go
out are guilty of distortion-maybe more so. For they not only
believe the myth, feed off of the drug, but also embrace the cause.
They may do it with more skepticism. They certainly expose more
lies and misconceptions. But they believe. We all believe. When
you stop believing you stop going to war.
I knew a Muslim soldier, a father, who
fought on the front lines around Sarajevo. His unit, in one of
the rare attempts to take back a few streets controlled by the
Serbs, pushed across Serb lines. They did not get very far. The
fighting was heavy. As he moved down the street, he heard a door
swing open and fired a burst from his AK-47 assault rifle. A 12-year-old
girl dropped dead. He saw in the body of the unknown girl Iying
prostrate in front of him the image of his own 1z-year-old daughter.
He broke down. He had to be helped back to the city. He was lost
for the rest of the war, shuttered inside his apartment, nervous,
morose and broken. This experience is far more typical of warfare
than the Rambo heroics we are fed by the state and the entertainment
industry. The cost of killing is all the more bitter because of
the deep disillusionment that war usually brings.
WAR AS CRUSADE
The disillusionment comes later. Each
generation again responds to war as innocents. Each generation
discovers its own disillusionment-often at a terrible price.
"We believed we were there for a
high moral purpose," wrote Philip Caputo in his book on Vietnam,
Rumor of War. "But somehow our idealism was lost, our morals
corrupted, and the purpose forgotten."
Once again the United States stands poised
on the threshold of war. "We go forward," President
George W. Bush assures us, "to defend freedom and all that
is good and just in the world." He is not shy about warning
other states that they either stand with us in the war on terrorism
or will be counted as aligned with those that defy us. This too
is a crusade.
But the war on terrorism is different
in that we Americans find ourselves in the dangerous position
of going to war not against a state but a phantom. The crusade
we have embarked upon in the war on terrorism is targeting an
elusive and protean enemy. The battle we have begun is never-ending.
But it may be too late to wind back the heady rhetoric. We have
embarked on a campaign as quixotic as the one mounted to destroy
us. As it continues, as terrorist attacks intrude on our lives,
as we feel less and less secure, the acceptance of all methods
to lash out at real and perceived enemies will distort and deform
And yet, the campaign's attraction seems
irresistible. War makes the world understandable, a black-and-white
tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical
thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one. Most of
us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief
system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher
good; for human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning.
And tragically, war is sometimes the most powerful way in human
society to achieve meaning.
Chris Hedges is a reporter with the New
York Times where he was part of the team that won the 2002 Pulitzer
Prize for reporting on global terrorism. He won Al's 2002 Global
Award for Human Rights Journalism. This article was adapted from
War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (Public Affairs, Perseus
War and Peace page