(Originally published in Arthur No. 5/July 2003)
“When You Understand War, You Fear It.”
Jonathan Shainin speaks with Pultizer Prize-winning New York Times war correspondent and author CHRIS HEDGES about the horrors of war–and its packaging as entertainment.
Chris Hedges has been to war. He has seen killing and dying up close in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq and Kuwait, Sudan, Algeria, Yemen, Bosnia and Kosovo. He has memories no one should have, and a thousand stories like these:
I have been in ambushes on desolate stretches of Central American roads, shot at in the marshes of southern Iraq, imprisoned in Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured and held prisoner for a week by the Iraqi Republican Guard during the Shi’ite rebellion following the Gulf War, strafed by MIG-21s in Bosnia, fired upon by Serb snipers and shelled for days in Sarajevo with deafening rounds of heavy artillery that threw out thousands of deadly bits of iron fragments.
And now he has come back. He is here to tell us that war is still hell, no matter how awesome it looks on television. Hedges’ lessons from a life reporting war, which comprise the brilliant War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, published last fall, are not new, but they are increasingly necessary. In Empire America, where ends justify any means, war is increasingly seen as a bloodless policy instrument with which to reshape the world in our image. The costs to both sides are rarely part of the picture.
For these costs, as Hedges amply demonstrates with examples gathered in nearly 20 years of covering carnage, are rarely confined to the losing side. Societies at war traverse a long path of moral degradation, their cultures irrevocably damaged, hate for the other and disregard for the lessons of the past strewn like rubble in their collective memories. “In wartime,” Hedges writes,
the state seeks to destroy its own culture…. In times of conflict, authentic culture is subversive. As the cause championed by the state comes to define national identity, as the myth of war entices a nation to glory and sacrifice, those who question the value of the cause and the veracity of the myth are branded internal enemies.
War, to Hedges, is a kind of drug, a powerful and addictive substance that lends meaning and purpose to our often-trivial lives, producing a cause behind which to rally and a sharp division between good and evil. This seductive kernel of truth lies at the center of the heroic myth of war, the myth that is peddled so effectively by states at war, by the press, and by novelists and filmmakers who glory in war’s noble sacrifice.
Works of fiction, on screen or on paper-even those with an ostensibly “antiwar” message-rarely succeed in demythologizing war itself; they are too easily seduced by its overwhelming power. Hedges’ forthcoming book, What Every Person Should Know About War, is his attempt at countering the myth head-on. A dispassionate manual of war with “no rhetoric” and “very few adjectives,” its question-and-answer format (“What will a bullet do to my body?” “What does it feel like to kill someone?” “Will the enemy mutilate my dead body?”) shines an unusually harsh light on the true human costs and consequences of our often reckless turn to war.
Currently with The New York Times–where he was part of a reporting team that won the Pulitzer Prize–Hedges has now quit war reporting for good. Arthur spoke with him from his home in New Jersey about the war just completed and how to put a stop to those not yet underway.
Arthur: What was it like to watch a war from the sidelines?
Hedges: Disturbing. It’s not the first time I’ve done it.
Arthur: But now you’ve quit for good.
I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to do that any more. But it’s disturbing. It’s a little close to home: I spent seven years in the Middle East. I know Basra pretty well; I certainly know the Kurds very well. I was probably a little obsessive about it.
Arthur: What strikes you when you read reports of the fighting?
Look, thousands of Iraqis died. It’s terrible, it’s always terrible.
Arthur: You weren’t in favor of the war.
No, not at all. I just don’t think you can wage war unless there’s a good cause. You don’t go to war unless your nation or your interests are credibly threatened. There was no such threat.
Arthur: You couldn’t apply those standards to intervention in Yugoslavia, though, and that was something you favored. Is it a slippery slope?
Well, I favor the use of force to stop genocide. If you stop the killing in Kosovo or Bosnia, or in Rwanda, where we should have stopped the killing, that’s not the same as occupying another country. I don’t see this as a legitimate war. I see intervention to stop genocide as legitimate. That’s not quite the same as a war, though.
Arthur: Does the war in Iraq fail this test because there was no massacre underway?
Well, there were massacres. Certainly, in Anfal [the Kurdish genocide], more than 180,000 Kurds were killed; after the Persian Gulf war, tens of thousands of Shi’ites were killed. I made two trips into the marshes of Southern Iraq, because I felt that there should have been some kind of intervention. But now the people are all dead. So to somehow use that as an excuse…that he “kills his own people.” When he was killing his own people, we could have done something about it, and we didn’t.
Arthur: You write about the hijacking of memory, the abuse of the memory of massacres past. Is this an example?
This is just propaganda. The sanctification of victims and the demonization of enemies by victims is a little different. Here, they were looking for any justification to go in, and they threw this one out. In this case, it’s more the crudity of power, and the mendaciousness of those who hold it.
Arthur: You describe at great length the intoxicating and narcotic effects of war making, whether that’s for soldiers or for journalists who are on the front lines. Can we deduce a similar intoxication for the men who plan and execute wars?
That narcotic of war is something very specific to those who live through it. Those who wage war usually do so for hard, concrete, and often very cynical reasons. I’m not sure they’re caught up in the drug of war.
Arthur: Do you see, though, in the architects of war in the current administration, some kind of elation at their power to remake the world? It strikes me that there’s a frightening degree of credulity there-they don’t seem like cynics, to say the least.
I think they’re very cynical. Most people in power are. They have no intention of bringing democracy to Iraq. The things they put out for public dissemination and the things they say privately are very different.
Arthur: Is it possible to learn lessons from a war like this?
Most generations have to learn it the hard way, through a lot of blood. We learned it after Vietnam, and now we’ve forgotten it.
Arthur: What happened after Vietnam? How did we learn?
We became a better country because of the defeat. We were humbled, and probably even humiliated. We asked questions about ourselves we didn’t ask before, and in that, we gained a kind of wisdom. So many kids died in Vietnam, we were forced to confront the reality of war.
Arthur: You open one chapter with a quote from Hiram Johnson: “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” In other words, the state and the press collude to cover over what truly happens on the front lines.
It’s not so much that they cover over. The lie at war is always the lie of omission; it’s what they don’t tell you. They have the capacity, in real time, to let us watch a nineteen-year-old kid bleed to death after stepping on an anti-tank mine. But you can be pretty sure those images are not shown.
Arthur: Will the truth at war always be the subject of endless contestation? Is it an illusion to think that we can get to the bottom of things?
No, no. Because the problem is that war is packaged and given a kind of coherency and heroism it doesn’t have. If Fox News set up and spent 20 minutes showing you a kid dying in the sand, it would be so horrifying, people would begin to have a sense of what war is. But they’re not going to show you that. Everything is sanitized. And they’re not going to show it to you because mythic war, this mythic war narrative, is very good for their business. We don’t show anybody getting killed. We don’t show the reality of war. Nobody saw war on these broadcasts. I know, I’ve been to war; this had nothing to do with war. This was entertainment.
Arthur: How did war become entertainment?
It’s always been entertainment, since the creation of the modern war correspondent. It’s always been the same.
Arthur: Since the Crimean war…
Right. It’s not any different. The press is always part of the problem in wartime. Always has been. They buy into the cause, and more importantly, they disseminate the myth. That’s what they’re good at.
Arthur: Judging by what I read on Romenesko every day, a lot of people seem to think that the coverage of this war was terrific, from a professional standpoint.
Well, I don’t. [laughs] There’s been some decent reporting from the print people. Let’s be clear, there is still integrity in print media. There isn’t any in commercial broadcast media. I’m really going after commercial broadcast media. There have been some good stories in the New York Times, but the fact is, the overall presentation of the war has not come close to striking at what war actually is.
Arthur: Is this a lost cause? The kind of coverage you’re advocating–even you seem to believe no one would ever show it.
It is very rarely conveyed. It is conveyed when you’re not involved. The war reporting we did out of Bosnia was like that. But when your own country is involved, you believe that your job is to support and boost morale, to support the cause.
Arthur: You quote Randolph Bourne, who wrote that “War is the Health of the State,” at the opening of a chapter called “The Plague of Nationalism.” Are people unwilling to hear the truth about war, because they’re co-opted into the national cause?
This is what people clamor for, it’s what they want. They want the myth, they don’t want the reality. And there are plenty of people out there willing to feed it to them. It’s more than co-opted; they enjoy it. It’s a kind of empowerment. You saw it with the way that we sat around and worshipped all of our own weapons in this conflict. It’s more than just being co-opted. We’re part of the problem.
Arthur: What should we do to not be part of the problem? Or is that a naïve approach?
Well, I guess I have to answer that personally. That’s why I wrote the book, that’s why I speak the way I speak. I think that it’s hard to face the reality of war, because along with that comes a kind of recognition of our own capacity for evil, for atrocity. And that’s what’s so hard to confront, and it’s what is so hard for those of us who’ve spent a lot of time in war to bring back, and to deal with.
Arthur: And that’s what no one wants to hear.
It’s not pleasant.
Arthur: Anthony Loyd has a striking passage in My War Gone By, I Miss it So, his book on Yugoslavia, on the sight of the dead. He says he is unable “to connect the thought of a living, breathing person with the discarded husk death leaves, even when I have seen the whole transition from life to death…when I look at a corpse it always seems as if there is more than simply life missing.”
Those are burdens you bear, like anybody who lives around violent death for that long. You tend, in the process, or the moment, to be very clinical about it. But it begins to haunt you afterwards. It’s certainly a burden, it’s something you have to carry, and that’s hard. It’s not something I try to think about very much.
Arthur: What lessons can we take from the book?
It’s a pretty savage critique of the culture of war. I’m not trying to list conclusions, I’m really just trying to explicate the disease that war is. That’s really what I set out to do. I wasn’t trying to write a book about how not to go to war. That was never the point. I just wanted to explain what war did to you, and what war did to societies, both the immediate and the long term effects. I think the more you’re aware of this, the more you can guard against it. When you understand the disease, and what it’s doing to you, you can hopefully take remedial measures to protect yourself.
Arthur: But you’re not a pacifist. You’re not opposed to war.
No, I am opposed to war. But at times I recognize that it’s inevitable. I don’t believe in just wars. I believe some wars have to be fought. But the notion of ‘just war’ I find difficult to swallow.
Arthur: You write that war has been sanitized. We’re at this point today where there seems to be societal picture, especially after this war, that war can be a bloodless policy instrument.
Well, that’s the lie we’ve been sold.
Arthur: What can be done about it?
Not to use the language, not to dehumanize the other, and turn them into objects, not to fall for that kind of euphoria, to be wary of the narcotic of war. Not to become intoxicated with self-exaltation.
Arthur: What signposts do you see that indicate that we’re a culture in trouble?
We denigrate those who oppose us, and we exalt ourselves. Reporting becomes cheerleading, and the state takes upon itself all sorts of powers we would never give it in peacetime. War is the same disease no matter where you are. I think we’ve folded in ourselves since 9/11 completely. We’ve squandered all of the empathy that we had following September 11.
Arthur: Are you angry about the war in Iraq?
Sad is probably a better word. It’s tragic. Tragic is the word I’d use.
Arthur: What can be done? Do we embrace, and come to terms with, the tragic?
I think that to the extent that we can see war for what it is, and war for what it does, both to those arrayed against us and to ourselves, that becomes the best antidote to war. When you understand it, you fear it.