'War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning'
With Chris Hedges
Author and Journalist
Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2003; 2 p.m. ET
Anticipation is building as the U.S. prepares for war and sends forces to the Persian Gulf. Award winning journalist Chris Hedges illustrates the "complex dichotomy of war" in his book "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning."
Author and journalist Chris Hedges was online Tuesday, Jan. 14 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss his book and the meaning of war.
Hedges is an award winning journalist for the New York Times. He won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for the coverage of global terrorism, and he received the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. He joined the staff of The New York Times in 1990.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Chris Hedges: Welcome. I am happy to be here to discuss my book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning and what looks like the upcoming war with Iraq. The book was just picked by the National Book Critics Circle Award as a finalist. here we go.
Falls Church, Va.: In the Introduction to your books, you call patriotism "a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship" and say that in a war, one must hate the enemy. Yet Bush frequently describes his plans as a war against Saddam Hussein specifically, not against the Iraqi people. Obviously the people will bear the cost of such a war, but there is a dearth of talk about the Iraqis being barbarian or evil, because the humanitarian justification that liberals like Christopher Hitchens use requires that the Iraqis be decent humans needing our help, not wicked beings who deserve what their president does to them. I suspect a war in North Korea (but not Iran) would be similarly described.
Chris Hedges: Very fine question. yes, Bush does say this is a war against Saddam and not the Iraqi people, but while we say this we also demonize Islam and forget our own role in the Middle East supporting despotic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc. So while we pay lip service to the people we do not respect either the rights of these people nor their religion nor the legitimate anger over the way Israel, which we back and equip militarily, treats the Palestinians as an occupying power.
Falls Church, Va.: Do you think the American public would be willing to sustain an urban combat war in Iraq? You seem to focus on the realities of such a war, and how it is simultaneously terrifying and gives people in it a huge rush. But realistically, the wars we've been fighting have had as much horror, from our perspective, as a video game. Can wars like that still "give us meaning," and do we even want the kind of meaning drawn from combat?
Chris Hedges: There is a huge difference between those at home who support a war and those caught up in combat. The rush of war, which I write about, comes only when you are caught up in the fighting. War itself can never be mythic when you live it. It almost immediately becomes sensory, those that try and fight a war in mythic mode don't survive -- ie. the guts and glory kind of stuff. But when you are not in the war but supporting it it can remain mythic. This myth can be shattered by casualties and mounting dead, as we saw in Vietnam. But this takes time, especially since we have a mercenary army that is comprised of the poor and disenfranchised. Once middle class kids start to die -- or once a war goes bad and we have to resort to general conscription -- the video game, as you rightly point out, will not be so much fun. Sadly, we have come to believe we can fight a war cost free, that war is entertainment, and because of this we are all sitting around like sheep being led to the slaughter. Once in a conflict it is very hard to get out. Finally, on the issue of meaning yes, war, even when it is costly does give us meaning for it forms us into a crowd and gives us a herd mentality. (read Elias Canetti on this.)
New York, N.Y.: Where did you get the title of your book? Were you a reporter during the first Gulf War?
Chris Hedges: The title of the book was part of a heading in the proposal I wrote for the publisher Peter Osnos. It was written swiftly with no real thought. I was just trying to set down ideas. Peter looked at it, looked at the eight or nine pages before that heading, and said that the front part could be tossed in the trash. "Here is where your book begins," he said. "And this is your title." I was a reporter in the first Persian Gulf War, in fact I was captured in Basra during the Shiite uprising after the war and held prisoner for a week by the Iraqi Republican Guard.
Frederick, Md.: In "The Things They Carried," Tim O'Brien argues that it's impossible to tell a "true war story.
Basically, O'Brien suggests that while a writer could relate the FACTS of an incident or battle, he can never quite tell the TRUTH: there are always emotional, personal and mythical elements that overlay the experience.
Have you discovered this to be true, either from your own experience or from your research?
Chris Hedges: You quote from a great book about a great truth. Yes, ultimately it is probably impossible, in the same way that a survivor from one of the death camps feels it is impossible to relate the experience. But this does not mean we should not write about it and try to think about the experience. It is possible -- look at Freud or Shakespeare -- to understand war without being in it. But in an ultimate sense what you point out is correct.
Falls Church, Va.: How do you and other correspondents deal with your work life and your personal life? Can you talk to your families and friends about what you're seeing? Do people express interest? and of what kind? bloodlust, horrified curiosity, ethical concern?
Chris Hedges: Someone asked me if writing the book was cathartic. It was not. Therapy is only done with a person. It was hard, bitter and painful. And here we get to your question. I do not like to speak about it, indeed often will try and shut down a conversation. As for family, my failure to speak about it with my son, who knew I was in danger in Bosnia and Kosovo, was a big mistake. He had nightmares that I lost my legs in mine blasts. He developed, when he was about 7, a nervous twitch. We went to a psychologist who met with him and then met with me. Then she called both of us together. "Is there a question you would like to ask your Dad?" she asked him. "Yes," he said, "Daddy were you ever in a war?" It broke my heart. I then took him -- once th peace agreement was in place -- to Sarajevo. I showed him the Holiday Inn, its front all smashed in, where I lived. I showed him Sniper Alley. I gave him a tour of what were the front lines around the Jewish cemetery. And I promised him I would not cover anymore wars.
Arlington, Va.: I read somewhere a quip that, in the West's international affairs division-of-labor, "The Americans and British are the warriors, the French, Germans, and Italians are the policemen, and the Scandinavians and Swiss are the humanitarian workers."
Do you see truth to this observation? If so, why is it so? Clearly, the US has a massive military budget, but is there something about the political or cultural nature of each group that leads it to its particular role?
Chris Hedges: As a Swiss citizen I have to confess that the Swiss are warriors, indeed the society is far more militaristic than in the US. The Swiss were some of the best mercenaries in Europe. Western industrial nations, as a whole, have produced the best killers on the planet. This is why we are so rich. I am not sure I would try and break it down too much, especially when you look at how the French behaved in Algeria. It is true that at the moment these are roles countries have assumed, but this does not in the end say anything about national characteristics.
Virginia: How come people can protest the war in the U.S. while those who are pro-U.S. in Iraq will be shot and killed?
Chris Hedges: because Iraq is a horrible dictatorship and we live in a democracy.
Germantown, Md.: As you noted, the Bush Administration has tried to draw a distinction between fighting Saddam and going to war against the Iraqi people. And indeed, the lack of overt propaganda vilifying the Iqaqis makes this a very different conflict than WWII..or even Vietnam.
My question, I guess, is this: can a war succeed without a clear-cut villain? Americans may be willing to fight a short war to remove the guy from power...but I question whether there is much support, absent of a deep grudge against Iraqis as a whole, to fight a protracted war.
Chris Hedges: I agree, but let's say that large numbers of US troops get killed with a dirty bomb or gas. Then the picture of the Iraqi people will change. If it is a cakewalk, if we go in and they do not fight, it will be easy to love them all. If we start taking huge hits then the Iraqi people will get vilified like all enemies in wartime.
New York, NY: As a reporter during Gulf War I, how did you deal with the Pentagon's iron-fisted control of information? It seems the Pentagon is not going to change its behavior in future wars. How should or could journalists break free from their control?
Chris Hedges: I refused to join the pool -- administered by the way by the press. I shaved off all my hair, got a uniform, helmet, etc. and lived in the dessert with Marine Corps units who saw the army administered pool system -- like everything the army does -- as a vast conspiracy against the Marine Corps. I don't do pools or press buses. At that point I go home.
Falls Church, Va.: Do you experience different treatment in other countries depending on whether you present yourself as a Swiss citizen or as working for an American paper?
Chris Hedges: I always say I am from the Times. The only time I use the Swiss passport is when I need to get into a country where as a Swiss I do not need a visa or with a hostile group -- such as armed militants in Gaza -- where I think being Swiss will make my situation safer.
Falls Church, Va.: It's mentioned that you went to seminary. A lot of American religious groups have come out against war in Iraq, as has the Pope, but Bush's base -- Southern Baptists and Protestant fundamentalists -- hasn't.
There is a part in C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity where he says that young men in a righteous war should not feel sadness or guilt, but should have something like joie de guerre. Do soldiers -- men and women -- have that quality now? Does the military encourage a cheerful attitude about killing people? Is there support for people who become depressed by this job?
Chris Hedges: I have to disagree with C.S Lewis. He confuses faith with patriotism. They are not the same. There are no righteous wars. They do not exist. There are inevitable wars, but there are no good wars. War is always tragic, always a poison. Just as a cancer patient must at times ingest poison to fight off a disease we must at times go to war. But if we forget that war, like any poison, can also kill us we are doomed. Many go into war with this joie de guerre (Celine writes of this in Journey to the end of the Night) but this is because they believe the myth, the lie told by the state, the press, the entertainment industry and myth makers like Stephen Ambroise. The military knows this is the card to use to recruit young men and women. But veterans, those that have been in a war, all know the lie. And no, there is almost no support for those who become depressed, emotionally and even physically maimed by war. We shunt them aside and ignore them. The Vietnam vets have a lot to tell us -- we have not turned their war into myth -- but no one listens at the moment.
Rockville, Md.: President Bush has done little to alter the perception that an American war in Iraq would be brief and successful.
Do you think he's playing a dangerous game here? If things go badly - the war takes longer than expected and results in thousands of US Casualties - couldn't his whole presidency be on the line?
Chris Hedges: The war could go badly. We are not prepared for this. Most wars that tear apart a nation are seen, at first, as brief encounters. Young men rushed to sign up when WW I started because they all thought it would be over by Christmas. It will take a lot to put his Presidency on he line because if the war intensifies criticism will be labeled as unpatriotic. Anti-war movements take a long time to gather steam and force. So he will be safe for a while.
Rockville, Md.: Some historians would argue that, when a nation-state loses its will to wage war, it loses control of its own destiny. They would point: Athens after the Peloponesian Wars; Rome after it began relying on mercenary armies; Aztecs during Montezuma; China in 19th c.; Germany in 1918; Soviet Union in 1989.
Others would argue that, when a nation-state becomes too militaristic, bad things happen: Sparta, Napoleon, Hitler, Saddam.
Historically, what checks-and-balances have you seen in a nation's politics that help it maintain national firmness, without slipping into brittle rigidity?
Chris Hedges: Great question. I can not do this justice here, but will try. When a nation-state loses its will to war -- indeed loses its belief in the myth of war -- it becomes hard to get young people to fight a war and citizens to support a war. The consequence, look at Britain, is a decline in influence and power and certainly empire. So yes, you do lose control of your own destiny because you do not have as much power. But at the same time when a nation-state becomes too militaristic, when it neglects education, health care, social services, etc. because it fuels its unproductive military machine it can also become weak and even lead to self-destruction. The checks and balances are those built into a democracy. These save us. We have a right as citizens who live in a democracy to be told by the government what evidence they have that shows Saddam Hussein is a threat to our national security. The Bush administration has refused to share this information -- largely because I suspect it does not exist. The government , without sharing this, has not right I believe to wage war. These should be the checks and balances but we are all being sheared like sheep.
New York, NY: I work with veterans, some of whom have survived the very worst war has to offer. One of my colleagues, a decorated Marine, now in a wheelchair, is quiet about war generally, but he has expressed, on numerous occasions, that he is glad for the renewed patriotism in the US since 9-11. I get the sense that he believes in the military solutions the Bush administration constantly proposes for political problems. Does this surprise you, that one who seems to have lost so much in war still has faith in it as a solution for ostensibly intractable problems?
Chris Hedges: No. It is the reason WW II vets, who did as many horrible things in Vietnam as Vietnam vets, keep quiet when they hear all this garbage about the greatest generation. What is hard for Vietnam vets is that, although we as a nation sent them to fight, we blame them for the defeat. We refuse to make their defeat into myth. And living with the myth, with the praise of the nation, with the images of glory and heroism, is so much easier than living with the truth of war. Your friend probably knows the truth, but such truth is hard for anyone to bear.
Somerville, Mass.: Isn't President Bush risking even more by starting a war that has so little support at home? The most favorable polls on war with Iraq only show somewhere around 55% support for the war effort, and those numbers drop well below 50% if you ask if people support a war without an UN Mandate, or one that goes on for months or years. Since at best, the USA will have to occupy Iraq for years, isn't this effort doomed to failure? Has support for a war ever gone up after the body bags start coming home?
Chris Hedges: I think the risks are tremendous. But remember why this war is being fought. It is not being fought to eradicate terror or because Iraq is about to invade or drop a nuclear bomb on New York. It is being fought for oil. The Bush White House is filled with oil men who want to get their hands on he second largest oil reserves in the world -- part of their rather open plan for world domination militarily. So if a few thousand poor American kids get killed in the process the huge profits, quite literally, will be worth it. If the war goes on and on, or if the casualties become too costly, it will turn against Bush. But remember that at the inception of a war the tendancy is to rally around the flag and the President.
Dover, Del.: Do you think it would be unfair to view President Bush's Iraq policy as being motivated primarily by a desire to resurrect his father's image?
Chris Hedges: I can not say what his motives are. Frankly, I think he probably does what he is told. Oil, as I said before, is what I think this war is really about.
Falls Church, Va.: What do you think fuels John McCain's enthusiasm for war with Iraq? As a POW Vietnam vet, he presumably has seen some of the worst war has to offer.
Chris Hedges: I wish I knew. He certainly gets campaign finance.
Baltimore, Md.: I'm interested in the comment you made earlier about the press-administered Gulf War I pool. As a journalist, what is your take on this sort of complicity? Do you see it as pervasive, or as intermittently cropping up during nationalist hysterias, e.g. wars?
Chris Hedges: In wartime the press is always part of the problem and has been since the invention of the modern war correspondent in the Crimean War. The press is part of the myth-making machinery. It sees itself as part of the effort to sustain morale, to boost the resolve of the nation. This is nothing new. And those that speak out -- Morel in Britain in WW I or I F STone -- are ignored not only by the public but their own, ie. the press. Look at all those little flag pins in the lapels of news anchors. That should worry you.
New York, N.Y.: What is your opinion of Rep. Rangel's draft proposal? I am of the left, I happen to live in Rangel's district, and I admire his audacity in proposing the draft. I buy his central arguments about class and race, but I am also persuaded by the idea that a draft brings home the consequences of the politicians' decisions to have war. If only volunteers enlist in our armed services, war, for the vast majority of us, becomes something other people do. It may be said to be waged on our behalf, but we have no connection to the consequences. In a democracy, it seems to me, it ought to be the people who ultimately give their blessing to war. Without a draft, too often the people's approval is taken for granted or ignored.
Chris Hedges: I support Rangel's decision for two reasons. One, it is harder to fight a war when those in power, those with money, have sons and daughters in the military. But even more importantly it prevents the creation of a warrior caste of professional soldiers who can distort and even destroy a democracy.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Being unaware of your writings, what do you suggest are the spiritual and emotional costs of war? Similarly, what are the spiritual and emotional costs of negotiated peace?
Chris Hedges: The spiritual and emotional costs of war are terrible, for war in its essence is about betrayal. It is the betrayal of the young by the old, betrayal of soldiers by politicians and betrayal of idealists by cynical and powerful interests that think only in terms of profit. War is in the end death. This is what war is and when you embrace it too long it destroys you. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew that war was a god. The god of war began by calling for the destruction of the other but war always, when pushed to the end, (read The Iliad) ended in self-destruction. But pacifism, like cynicism, can be a way to avoid the ethics of responsibility. This is the hard part. I am not a pacifist. I supported the intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia. We failed as a nation by not stopped the genoice in Rwanda -- for if the Holocaust taught us anything it must be that when you have the capacity to stop genoice and you do not you too have blood on your hands. So I am all for peace, but not always for pacifism.
Alexandria, Va.: Do you think that the mutual hostility between America and segments of the Muslim world could go on for decades?
How relevant is the concept of jihad or Islamic holy war to this mutual hostility? Can Americans learn to live in a cold war with much of the Moslem world?
Chris Hedges: The hostility could go on for decades if we do not wake up to the fact that Islam, like Christianity, is a religion with wide diversity. For example, there are mosques in India where men and women pray side-by-side. What we do not want to do -- and what the apocalyptic forces on all sides want us to do -- is to turn this into a war of civilizations. We speak about Islam with little real knowledge and these stereotypes rightly anger Muslims. Islam is not the only religion to have the concept of holy war. As a former seminarian much of my study of church history was organized slaughter in the name of God. This concept of holy war is endemic to all religions, it is a matter of interpretation. To most Muslims -- and I speak Arabic and lived in the Middle east for seven years -- the notion of Jihad is about self-purification, about the inner struggle or war to be a better person. It what the prophet Mohammed speaks after a battle to his followers about the actual fighting being the lesser Jihad and the greater Jihad being what will come when they try to live righteous lives in peacetime. If this becomes a war of civilizations it will be a result of our own stupidity.
Seattle, Wash.: What do you think ordinary citizens should do to oppose this war?
Chris Hedges: My father, a WW II veteran and Presbyterian minister, told me when I was 12 that if the Vietnam war was still going on when I was 18 he would go to prison with me. I believe, like Martin Luther King, that in a democracy we have the ability to call our country to account. The genius of Dr. King was that he made America live up to its own stated principles. And this is what makes us a great country, as long as this is possible. So I would support any kind of non-violent civil disobedience. There is a march next week in Washington. This is a good way to start.
Ocean City, Md.: Why is it that the UN wishes to create a 22nd Arab state within Israel as a means to solve the arab-Israeli conflict but the UN has no desire to create states in the Middle East for Kurds, Copts, Berbers, Sudanese and other people who live under brutal arab occupation? It really appears as though the Palestinians are the only concern of the UN.
Chris Hedges: The Palestinian question is different from the Kurds or the Berbers or the Copts. From the 7th century until 1948 the land of Palestine was Muslim. It did not have a Jewish majority. Then after the crimes of Nazi Germany, when millions of Jews were made stateless the western nations gave them land in Palestine. The Palestinian Muslims were then made stateless. The decision to repay the Jews by making Palestinians stateless was first of all unfair, but also short sighted for it led quite understandably to constant warfare and conflict. Hannah Arendt wrote quite thoughtfully about this in Origins of Totalitarianism. So if any people, in my mind, deserve their own state it is the Palestinians. And anyway, they will get one because at this point too many are ready to die since the repression meted out by Israel has made life too hard to bear.
Annandale, Va.: I have not yet read your book but look forward to it.
I am wondering whether you address the "chicken-hawk" debate and what it means for civilian control of the military. In many ways, the current debate about Iraq seems to follow a pattern established in 1989 -- Powell and other career military officers are much more reluctant than civilians who never served in the military (like Cheney) to pursue the military option or to use the military in a larger role. In 1989-90, Cheney as Secretary of Defense made it clear to Powell as Joint Chief's Chairman that these were political considerations for the civilian leadership to decide. This is undoubtedly true as a matter of basic constitutional structure, but it seems like many civilian politicians are too quick to dismiss the counsel of the senior military officers, and, in the case of Powell, he seems to be portrayed as somehow tainted by his military background even though he is now one of the civilian political leaders who should be making these decisions.
Chris Hedges: I do not address this debate. My book is a meditation about war, maybe even a sermon. I seek to explain how war infects individuals and societies and ultimately destroys civil society as well as those who do not escape war's embrace. But I think the point you raise is a good one. Those that have been in war -- like the Secretary of State -- are more reluctant to wage war because they know it. And those that thirst for power and domination of the world's resources often only see the military as a tool towards that end.
Falls Church, Va.: During your time as a prisoner of war, did you get the impression that the Iraqis did not want the Gulf War and had been forced into it by Hussein? This is the description often given by Americans who are optimistic about our ability to rebuild Iraq as a non- aggressive democracy; i.e., Hussein has been entirely responsible for Iraq's wars and the people want no part of them.
Chris Hedges: This is a hard question to answer. Remember that there is a lot of hostility toward the United States. Many people in the Middle East hate us and have good reason to hate us. So while there is no great love for Saddam Hussein this does not translate into an embrace of American imperialism. Also, Iraq is composed of three warring factions -- Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. When Iranian-backed Shiite rebels attacked Republic Guard units in southern Iraq after the Gulf War many commanders, who may have hated Saddam knew that if the Shiite won they would sink as Sunnis along with Saddam. Better, they thought, to stay with the devil they knew. I think this is why many fought. And however much they hate Saddam they may like us less.
Orono, Maine: I just finished reading Cornelius Ryan's excellent "A Bridge Too Far," and one of the things that struck me is how nothing in operation Market Garden seemed to go as planned - with tragic results.
It seems like an important lesson. But it's one that seems to be lost in all of the bravado about the coming war in Iraq.
My question, I guess, is why those involved in fighting wars seem to make the same mistakes - underestimating the opposition, etc. - over and over again.
Chris Hedges: I think you are very correct. I read the book -- although now see Ryan as part of the myth making machine -- and indeed most wars do not go as planned. Those that have fought in wars do know this, indeed many of my friends in the military have expressed to me deep concerns about this war. But they do not call the shots. Those leading us into this war, if we exclude Powell, were never in a war.
Chris Hedges: I have really enjoyed this. I thought the questions were very thoughtful. Thank you so much for having me. Yours, Chris Hedges
washingtonpost.com: That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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