War is a force that gives us Meaning
By Chris Hedges (hardback, PublicAffairs; paperback publishes June 10, Anchor Books)
War is brutally physical. It is the wholesale acceptance of the devastation of property, industry, life and limb by violence and might. It's a force, all right. A force that gives us meaning, says Chris Hedges, who has spent 15 years trying to extract some sense from war for those of us who aren't there, who don't know, who haven't been moved and who could use a dose of meaning.
Putting aside the strangely unmoving effect of the title (and the accompanying photo on the book's jacket which shows a group of puckered Americans holding flags and candles in front of the lower Manhattan skyline), Hedge's book is hugely affective. A relentless litany of war's physicality, "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" looks hard at the nonphysical engines of conflict and war's psychological detritus.
Firstly, war is a rush, says Hedges, who has covered wars in Central America, Iraq, Israel and Yugoslavia. Why else would he and hundreds other journalists head into the fray time and again, knowing what they will see and what they will write?
"I was hooked," he says, of his first encounter with combat, and he frequently revisits the topic of war addiction. It is a jarring admission, one that raises its incongruous head from the rubble of senseless demolition and mass graves. Bravado from a war-weary journalist is often offensive, and Hedges is no less unsympathetic when he describes a day in Kosovo as "usual, a perilous game of cat-and-mouse, one I had played for five years with the military in El Salvador."
Such jaded posturing is at first unsettling, because Hedges and his peers choose the game; terrorized civilians who play cat-and-mouse for five years just to bring drinking water home to their family do not. But that is his point. War, with its depravation, solidarity, adrenaline and risk, attracts a larger contingency than the merely militant.
The war correspondent's enthusiasm is rooted in the same bloodlust that creates and nourishes war in the first place. So when he belittles the "hotel-room journalists" and thumps his chest as a reporter who heads for the frontlines, it is meant as evidence:
"For we not only believe in the myth of war and feed recklessly off the drug but also embrace the cause. We may do it with more skepticism. We certainly expose more lies and misconceptions. But we believe. We all believe. When you stop believing you stop going to war," he writes.
Stranger than his own nostalgia for conflict zones, is the wistfulness of war victims acclimating to peace. When the siege of Sarajevo is lifted, many of his acquaintances seem to transfer their mourning and bereavement to the passing of hostilities.
"I will never again be able to live such a strong, horrible, and wonderful life," he quotes one of them as saying about dark days of companionship in bombed-out apartments. "It is as if I see life through pieces of a mirror that lie in fragments."
The graphic artist journalist Joe Sacco recorded the same plaintive despair when peace came to Gorazde, another Bosnian town that lived for years on the brink of annihilation. People, even those who have paid the most for it, become invested in war.
Hedges -- a divinity student before the insurgency in El Salvador seduced him into a life as a war correspondent -- practices a refined style of journalism; it is emotive, intelligent and tinged with a spiritual curiosity. His testimonies from the displaced and dismayed are a springboard for his own self-examination, which in turn fuel scholarly analysis.
Schooled in the literature of war, his journalism is studded with allusions to classical texts. To him, nationalist rhetoric sounds like the sputtering of a wrathful Othello, "Goats and monkeys!" Shakespeare proves useful again when Hedges notes the first televised broadcasts of violence and mutilations in Yugoslavia aired simultaneously with the first pornography broadcast in the collapsed authoritarian state.
"War and sex were the stimulants to divert a society that was collapsing," he writes, and then, from Troilus and Cressida, "Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery, nothing else holds fashion."
Early in "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," we are told that historians calculate that in the whole of human history, 29 years can be considered to have been years of global peace. By the end of the book, we are surprised that we have eked out even that relatively short lull. For when war is accepted by so many as a force that brings out the best in man -- valor, camaraderie, self-sacrifice, bravery -- it's a sure ticket that the monster in us will follow.(This story was originally published in Flak Magazine, www.flakmag.com)