Chris Hedges spent 15 years covering El Salvador, the Middle East including the Gulf War, and the Balkans, witnessing more war than many generals do. When he took a breather as a Nieman Fellow in 1998-99, he read Latin classics and tried to make sense of what he had seen, including why he’d chosen to spend so much of his life witnessing horror. Why, he wanted to know, do human beings fight wars? The book he has written in answer, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” is presented as “a call for repentance.”
Despite its personal genesis, the book is not a memoir. Most of its evidence consists of Hedges’ recollections, but he shapes the chapters around broad, universal categories such as nationalism, memory and the seduction of battle. He ranges across time and space, jumping from Kuwait to World War I, to Bosnia and ancient Rome, within a few pages. His excellence as a journalist is both his strength and weakness here. He tells evocative stories, but draws no conclusions. The book raises a multitude of worthwhile questions, but misses both the systematic analysis of the best history books and the introspective persistence of the finest memoirs. Rather, it provides a window into the understandably troubled mind of an outstanding war correspondent.
Very briefly in his opening and closing chapters, Hedges offers a view of war as a narcotic whose properties provide the antidote to modern boredom and placidity. In what will surely be a widely quoted sentence, he offers, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years.” War gives people something important to do: It places them on the knife-edge between love and death or, as Freud defined the fundamental struggle and meaning of life, between Eros and Thanatos.
This is a worthy and provocative perspective, yet it is clearly that of an educated Westerner. The “shallowness,” “vapidness” and “trivia” that Hedges claims dominate our lives and “increasingly our airwaves” is experienced by those of us who live in privileged and industrialized nations. He writes about the “attraction” of war, but this can only refer to feelings of those who independently choose to be part of war, such as correspondents. Nowhere does Hedges distinguish between why people start and fight wars and why correspondents feel drawn to witness and write about them. They all might partake of the adrenaline rush of survival and moral clarity, but there are crucial differences between the leaders who start wars, the citizens whose homelands erupt in violence, and those who rush to bear witness. The average Bosnian soldier, or Palestinian teenager, or Salvadoran militiaman might understand that war offered a chance for glory, but not because there was nothing on cable. No pacifist, Hedges believes that armed action is sometimes just, as chemotherapy is sometimes required to arrest cancer, but he finds few causes that are both heroic and violent.
Instead, he concludes, human beings have a base tendency to express themselves through violent force. People go to war because of an intrinsic human urge to subsume our consciousness in a grand shared enterprise that exalts a national “us” above an unworthier “them.” He writes that the nationalist myths needed to legitimize slaughter are usually racist and opportunistic, and women subscribe just as willingly as men do. And, he asserts, the press bears responsibility for spreading and reinforcing these narratives. The one instance Hedges cites when a people shook off such a tale of superiority was the American experience in Vietnam. Momentarily, we escaped our triumphal nationalism and drank a draught of humility. But then Ronald Reagan’s brand of patriotism and the Persian Gulf War made bloodlust fashionable again in the United States, with the press once again the primary culprit in spreading the fervor.
Hedges’ violent view of human nature has long roots and important repercussions in fields of inquiry from biology to theology and equally long counter-traditions, none of which Hedges addresses directly. While he earned a divinity degree 20 years ago and esteems academic discourse, Hedges does not connect his observations to 2000 years of reflection on humanity’s darker side. Those who reach page 150 will read, “Illusions punctuate our lives, blinding us to our own inconsistencies and repeated moral failings.” It is a worthy discovery, but Hedges might have acknowledged that his readers have likely encountered this thought before.
Despite the centrality of nationalist cant to war, Hedges reports that the myths vaporize in the face of actual battle. A Marine Corps lieutenant colonel strapping on his pistol belt just before crossing into Kuwait told him, “[N]one of these boys is fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap that the politicians feed the public. They are fighting for each other, just for each other.” An enormous literature on the psychology of combat trauma reveals this point. The close fraternity of soldiers (and, one assumes, correspondents) sharing the transformative battlefield experience is the community crucial to one’s physical survival; ongoing contact within this community is key to psychological recovery. This may account for Hedges’ overwhelming sadness. Some of his best friends have been killed, and many of the rest are still in war’s addictive thrall.
Yet the book leaves reason for gratitude. The author, a tough reporter who refused to participate in the Pentagon’s Gulf War pools, ably identified and sorted through the myths he encountered. For his principles, he found himself a prisoner of the Iraqi Republican Guard, who confiscated his M-65 jacket with the copies of “Antony and Cleopatra,” “The Iliad,” and Conrad’s “An Outcast of the Islands” in its pockets. You couldn’t invent a more cultured, conscientious war correspondent. The book makes one grateful that Hedges was the eyes and ears of his readers in the war zones of the late 20th century. One can regret his current pain and still praise his reporting career as the highest public service.
There is poetry as well as wisdom in the title, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” We can hope that Hedges will continue trying to answer more thoroughly the questions he has poignantly raised.
Nancy Bernhard is author of “U.S. Television News and Cold War Propaganda, 1947-1960” (Cambridge University Press, 1999). She teaches “Reporting From the Front” in the Expository Writing Program at Harvard University.