Chris Hedges, a 1995 Nieman Fellow, reporter for The New York Times, and author of “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” gave the 22nd annual Joe Alex Morris, Jr. Memorial Lecture on March 13, 2003, at Harvard University. Here are some excerpts from that address.

As I speak to you today, our nation prepares for war. Within a short time, young Americans and Iraqis will begin to die …. I come to you tonight to warn you that once the dogs of war are unleashed, we will not control them. War has a force and power of its own. It is a Pandora’s box. Once this box is opened, we become pawns. Events we do not expect or anticipate spiral out of control. …

War, we have come to believe, is a spectator sport. The military and the press—and remember, in wartime the press is almost always a part of the problem—have turned war into a vast video-arcade game. Its very essence, death, is hidden from public view. … But in the age of live feeds and satellite television, the state and the military have affected the appearance of candor. Because we no longer understand war, no longer understand that it all can go horribly wrong. … The chief institutions that peddle war are the state and the press. Nearly every war correspondent has seen his or her mission as sustaining civilian and army morale. The advent of photography and film did little to alter the incentive to boost morale, for the lie in war is almost always the lie of a mission.

Cartoon by Alejandro Rodriguez Gonzales, Mexico City, Mexico. Reprinted by permission of Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate/

Mythic War Reporting

The blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the ruthless murder of prisoners and innocents, and the horror of wounds are rarely disclosed, at least during a mythic war, to the public. Only when the myth is punctured, as it was in Vietnam, does the media begin to report in a sensory rather than a mythic manner. It simply reacts to a public that has changed its perception of war. Newspaper and television station owners have always found that mythic war reporting sells papers and boosts ratings—look at CNN. Real reporting does not. The coverage in the Persian Gulf War was typical. …

“The first casualty, when war comes,” wrote [U.S.] Senator Hiram Johnson [R-Calif.] in 1917, “is truth.” When Iraqi troops seized the Saudi border town of Khafji, sending Saudi soldiers fleeing out in a panic, the flight was covered up. Two French photographers and I watched as frantic Saudi soldiers raced away from the fighting. Dozens crowded on a fire truck that tore down the road. U.S. Marines were called in to push the Iraqis back. We stood on rooftops with young Marine radio operators who called in air strikes as units fought their way through the streets under heavy fire. Yet back in Riyadh and Tehran, the world was told of our gallant Saudi allies who were defending their homeland. The press bus stopped a few miles down the road, allowed the pool television reporters to do standups with the distant sound of artillery and smoke as a backdrop for the lie the Pentagon wanted told. …

“The Safety of Journalists Who Cover Wars”
The first time I was in an ambush was in the Salvadoran town of Suchitoto. It was a dreary peasant outpost made up of stucco and mud-walled huts off the main road. The town was surrounded by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels who, when I arrived in El Salvador in 1983, were winning the war. The government forces kept a small garrison in the town, although its relief columns were regularly ambushed as they ambled down the small strip of asphalt surrounded by high grass. It was one of the most dangerous spots in El Salvador.

The rebels launched an attack to take the town. A convoy of reporters in cars marked with “TV” in masking tape on the windshields hightailed it to the small bridge that led to the lonely stretch of road into Suchitoto. … [W]e moved slowly down the road, the odd round fired ahead or behind us. We made it to the edge of town, where we ran into rebel units, now accustomed to the follies of the press. On foot we moved through the deserted streets. The firing from the garrison became louder as we weaved our way with rebel units to the siege that had been set up. Then, as I rounded a corner, several full bursts of automatic fire rent the air. Bullets hit the mud wall behind me. We dove into the dirt. …

The firefight seemed to go on for an eternity. I cannot say how long I lay there. It could have been a few minutes. It could have been an hour. Here was war—real war, sensory war, not the war of the movie and novels I had consumed in my youth. It was horrifying, confusing, numbing and nothing like the myth I had been peddled. I realized at once that it controlled me. I would never control it. …

Most people, after such an experience, would learn to stay away. I was hooked. Drawn into the world of war, it becomes hard to escape. It perverts and destroys you. It pushes you closer and closer to your own annihilation—spiritual, emotional and finally physical. I covered the war in El Salvador from 1983 to 1988. By the end, I had a nervous twitch in my face. I was evacuated three times by the U.S. Embassy because of tips that the death squads planned to kill me. Yet, each time, I came back. I accepted with a grim fatalism that I would be killed in El Salvador. I could not articulate why I accepted my own destruction and cannot now. There came to be a part of me, maybe it is a part of all of us, which decided I would rather die like this than go back to the dull routine. …

War’s sickness had become mine.

What follows is an edited question and answer session that began after Chris Hedges’ speech.

Natalie Pawelski, Nieman Fellow: You mentioned that too often in war the media become part of the problem. Can you tell us times when you became part of the problem—or were tempted to?

Hedges: When I reported the war in Bosnia, I reported in a sensory [way]— I’m stealing a term from [Lawrence] LeShan, but I think he got it [right]. I would go into a town, and there were bodies laid out in a square and houses on fire. It was venal and dirty, and you wrote the story. If you were a Muslim or a Croat or a Serb going into a town that your forces had just taken, you always searched for a narrative: You found the hometown hero. You found the refugees from your ethnic groups who had been liberated or had been cruelly treated. You documented the perfidious crimes of the enemy. You gave it a structure and a narrative that war often doesn’t have—a kind of coherency. You made it mythic. The best book on this is Philip Knightley’s “The First Casualty,” where he goes from the Crimean War all the way up through Vietnam, and I think [makes] a pretty damning case to show that the press considers itself part of the war effort. You certainly see this now with the flag lapel pins of the news announcers and this gushing kind of excitement that you see on CNN.

It’s important to remember that one of the first things that’s taken from us in wartime is language. The state hijacks language. We speak in the clichés and aphorisms and the jingoism that’s handed to us by the state. We’re doing that now: “The War on Terror.” “Showdown With Iraq.” “Countdown.” Once they take from you the ability to speak, they make it very difficult for you to think and express whatever disquiet it is that you feel.

Often in Bosnia, in Mostar, the trench lines between the Muslims and the Croats were [only] a few yards [apart]. They would talk to each other at night. They’d grown up together. They’d gone to school together. They played together. They’d gone to each other’s weddings. Yet they were killing each other all day long. It had a kind of absurdity to it. When you asked soldiers there to try and express it, you could sense the disquiet. But they didn’t have the vocabulary by which to speak.

The fact is, mythic war [reporting] sells newspapers—that’s how William Randolph Hearst built his empire— and it boosts ratings. Real-world reporting doesn’t. In the end, it’s about a business, especially when we see the complete, almost total corruption, in my mind, of commercial broadcast media. Although I was not part of the pool system and was out on my own—which perhaps allowed me to write articles that were somewhat more critical—I still tended to write stories that fit that kind of narrative.

Firefights are very confusing. Most of the time you don’t know what’s going on. You try, once it’s over, to make it a story in your head—How am I going to explain it?—because it doesn’t really have any coherency. That is the very moment of the creation of myth. … When you go back and read what Martha Gellhorn did in the Spanish Civil War, what many reporters did in most conflicts is they ignored what was convenient to ignore. In almost every war, the press is part of the problem.

Another question was asked about the embedding of reporters into military units.

Hedges: News organizations should embed. I just don’t have the constitution for it. I don’t like press buses. I don’t like being driven around. I couldn’t do it, personally. But I think that it should be done. The problem is that, from everything I can tell from the coverage in Afghanistan, if you’re a good little boy and girl, and you go out and do what you’re told, you’re okay. But the moment you get out and do independent reporting, you pay a heavy price. My colleague, Doug Struck of The Washington Post, was investigating a bombing raid outside of Kandahar that had killed apparently a large number of civilians. He was stopped by U.S. soldiers, had a gun pointed to his head, was made to lie down on the ground, and was told that if he went any further, he would be shot. This administration has made it clear they cannot guarantee the safety of reporters and tell us the El Rashid Hotel in Baghdad where reporters stay is a legitimate target. A friend of mine works for the BBC. I spoke with her on Sunday. She’s leaving very soon. She said that the BBC was told by the Pentagon that, if they uplinked to their satellite from Baghdad, they would be considered by the U.S. military a target ….

You have to remember that, in the Persian Gulf War, there were only 80 journalists in the pool system. When the military went back and did a study of how they handled the press, one of the main critiques they made of themselves was that they failed to get out the message they wanted. Now, you have supposedly 500 reporters embedded. They’re going through these Boy Scout Jamboree sessions, you know, where they get to play soldier for a week and sort of bond with the unit. Of course, everybody has to do a story about it, which is great press for the military. They’re so dependent on the military. When you read the rules, it’s pretty clear that if they don’t like you, you’re out. If things go horribly wrong—I know from the Persian Gulf War—they’re not going to be driving you in a Humvee to see it. It’s just not going to happen.

So we’re going to get a completely sanitized version of the war. It’s going to be packaged and presented. When things go wrong, we’re not going to see it. Independent reporters, who always constitute about 10 percent of the reporting group, are going to have a really tough time. …

Louise Nissen, Nieman Fellow: Having experienced all the atrocities you describe in your book and having analyzed how many of your colleague journalists and photographers were addicted to war, what kept you going back? What were you trying to accomplish or prove?

Hedges: I don’t [keep going back]. I went to Gaza, and I stopped. I mean that was it. I realized I had to stop. It’s not easy to stop because that was my identity: I was a war correspondent. I was a good war correspondent. It gave me my cachet. It was an adrenaline rush. I know people in Kosovo I covered the war with in El Salvador. I don’t see them anymore. It was a very difficult transition, not made any easier by the institution I work for. It was painful and hard and humbling. In the end, it made me a better person and a healthier person. But it was a conscious decision. We live in war, and it’s all about speed. I was on a platform the other day and watched the Acela [train] go by. I felt that sort of catch inside. I almost had to stop myself from wanting to live at that kind of pace again. I think it’s always there. But in the end it’s a very unhealthy way to live. …

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