Sometimes you come across a book that really matters. I’d like to thank Chris Hedges for writing one of those books, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Hardly new anymore, but perhaps more timely than ever.
Hedge’s thesis here is that there is in human nature a void, a need for meaning and purpose. This need can be, and too often is, filled by what he frankly describes as the excitement and illusory heroism of war—“war usually starts with a collective euphoria”. His work, I think, helps us link the personal with the political, the micro with the macro. In the natural human longing to matter, the lure of war can be irresistible and here is the power of war lords and ethnic cleansers. Especially in the chaos of major political or economic upheaval, many people experience themselves as powerless and seek war as a way to feel secure or powerful. This is possible because, Hedges argues, of the “collective amnesia” which national myths “ignite” in a society during a conflict.
This amnesia is facilitated, sometimes even engineered, by State destruction of both its own culture (which of course includes human, tolerant and free values in some aspect) and that of the enemy. This is the first step of the dehumanization of the enemy which HAS to precede the destruction of the enemy. Otherwise the safeguards and civilized behaviors that make society work cannot be overcome. This is why such wide spread abuse, to include torture and rape, even perpetrated by “peace keepers”, is so common. Once the mores of civilization are degraded, what’s unleashed is nearly impossible to control. Hedges notes, for example, that porn is sometimes used as a way to begin stripping away social taboos and/or to “divert a society that was collapsing”, as in former Yugoslavia. Once this dynamic is in motion, the worst aspects of human nature are exposed, rendering us nearly incapable of talking about what happened to understand it or heal.
Belying the notion that “ancient ethnic hatreds” are natural, Hedges documents the labor that must go into deconstructing and reconstructing national/ethno-national identities. He describes destruction of old monuments (for example) which might contradict the new desired state narrative, co-opting of art and culture, targeting of artists and intellectuals who do not “read from the script”, targeting of anyone else who does not “read from the script”, rewriting of school curriculum, forced migration, mandated apartment swaps to ensure ethnic cleansing, and years of radio and TV broadcasts deploying state propaganda to foment ethnic hatred. (I’m especially struck that it apparently took Milosevic four years of propaganda to finally foment the violence he needed to accomplish ethnic cleansing.) This selective, rewriting of history, as well as direct propaganda, helps to heighten the “narcissism of small differences” (32) that Freud spoke of. The myth, usually but not always nationalist, masks the lies and contradictions that would probably in peace time be obvious to most citizens. Writes Hedges, “War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially critical thought” (10).
He notes that language itself is “drafted” into the Total War effort, in a very Orwellian sense (34). War becomes peace. Language becomes reduced to a national (or religious or ethnic) script—the “reduction of language to code” (72); if you are not reading from that script, you are a dangerous dissident. Wars, he writes, “feed off martyrs”, whose memory “shuts all arguments for compromise or tolerance…It is the dead who rule. They speak from beyond the grave urging a nation onward to revenge” (94).
I would also observe that Hedges’ work helps us connect, from an interdisciplinary perspective, the humanities with the social and political sciences. He reminds us that the realm of myth, the emotional and super-rational, are as important to understanding human behavior as economic data or public opinion surveys. Men (and it is usually, though not always, men) who fight war do so for reasons they at least tell themselves are eternal. This is why the destruction of real art and culture are so important to war-making; the humanities do indeed humanize.
More than anything else, he argues, as one who has observed war after war firsthand that
1. Wars are fought based on illusion and the actual experience is horrific in a manner only comprehended by those who have experienced it. The experience of war, he argues, exposes the lie of what especially soldiers were told it would be.
2. War is fought essentially based on myths and lies that many willingly believe.
3. Secretly and often with guilt, some who have experienced or participated in war long for the intensity it offered. (See The Hurt Locker.)
4. Nearly every group in history involved in perpetuating violence has believed itself to be a victim, in fact THE victim, and this plants the seeds of what I call “war thinking”—that we are not just good but Goodness and they are not just bad but Evil. This is what makes patriotism “a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship” (10). Hence the enemy’s destruction is holy. As Hedges notes, echoing others, this “makes communication impossible” (69). I would extend this to add that such communication is, of course, central to ending, as well as mitigating and preventing, wars. Violence itself becomes the language through which societies communicate (ala McNamara).
5. He emphasizes the role of fear, guilt (since at heart and soul we know we’re buying lies, hence the extreme defensiveness) and extension of COMPLICITY to all citizens involved. This extension of complicity is a key social mechanism in perpetuating the war and its underlying myth since the shared complicity keeps everyone in guilty silence.
6. He also emphasizes the role of industrial and post-industrial technology in war which makes mass killing so much easier, less personal, more efficient; “men in modern warfare are in service to technology.” Of course this makes understanding war, and how to prevent it, more urgent than ever.