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Book Review
Last Updated: 04/14/2003
War is a Force that Gives us Meaning

Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, Public Affairs, pp 192. ISBN 1586480499

At present it's difficult to turn on the TV and not be confronted with the war of liberation in Iraq. We are bombarded with a daily diet of its progress and an endless stream of analysis and opinion about what a post war Iraq may look like. Throughout the campaign, though Iraqi forces have put up sterner opposition than expected, the result has never been in doubt. Of equal certainty has been the attempt, by the governments executing the conflict, to strenuously fashion public opinion that this conflict is, beyond doubt, necessary: one of those good wars, like the one our grandfathers fought. Though people may disagree with the wisdom or morality of the war, it's hard to take umbrage at the attitude of the so-called Coalition of like minded militarists, no other stance from them would make sense. However this should not blind people to the other dimension of combat that demands our recognition - that war is a bestial thing and that the first casualty of war after truth is perspective.

Chris Hedges, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, has covered some of the most hellish conflicts of the last twenty years. His recently released book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning is not the usual combat memoir, rather it is a dissection of war's unique culture and its power to corrupt humanity's civilizing instincts. At the crux of his argument are the assertions that war is a drug and that it relies on its own mythology for sustenance.

    "I learned early on that war forms its own culture. The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I digested for many years. It is peddled by myth makers - historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists and the state - all of whom it endow it with quantities it does posses: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty."
Like many survivors of a destructive addiction, Hedges brings back from the edge a fascinating philosophical view on his addiction; the seductive lure of war, life at its fullest and most desperate.

The enduring attraction of war is this: even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.

However War is a Force that Gives us Meaning could never be mistaken as a book which apologies for the cruel facts of war by maintaining its unfortunate necessity, though Hedges doesn't shy away from admitting that such a thing as a necessary war exists. Instead his book is an eloquent rebuttal of any view that argues the sanity of war and an indictment of romanticizing warfare, a process that is never far from the battleground. The author began his career as a war correspondent reporting on the brutal insurgencies in Central America during the early 80s, moving on to covering the intifada in the West Bank, bloody civil wars in Yemen, Algeria and the Sudan, the first Gulf war and subsequent Kurdish uprising and then onto Bosnia and the conflagration that was Kosovo. It's a litany of the worst battles of the last two decades and Hedges is frank about the psychological scars he bears. Although much of the book is an attempt to make sense of the cruelty and the waste he willingly witnessed, the eruditeness of his mediations transcend any whiff of catharsis. It does however occasionally read like a homily. The authors always impressive theorizing takes centre stage over his own experiences. He often mentions in passing the close scrapes he's endured in the course of his job and there's no denying it would be interesting reading to hear about being ambushed on desolate Central American roads, being imprisoned in Sudan, beaten by police in Saudi Arabia, deported from Libya, shot at in the Marshes in Iraq and besieged in Sarajevo. Instead all of this is dealt with in less than a page. Hedges does spend some space about being captured and held for a week by Iraqi Republican Guards fleeing the Shi'ite rebellion after the Gulf War, but even here the reader is not informed how he gained his liberation. Perhaps he does not want to distract from his message with what could be construed as gung ho tales of his own adventures.

Hedges is especially persuasive when discussing the lengths leaders go to when selling war to their public. Whether that is concocting fatuous myths of national identity, such as in the Balkans or the rhetoric currently employed in the war against terrorism which simplifies the act of going to war down to a question of 'doing the right thing', and 'with us or against us'. Complicit in this sanitizing process are media who do not properly report on the 'sensory reality of war', the murdered civilians and wrecked societies - what Hedges calls the 'lie of omission'. All of these attitudes, Hedges argues, condescend to whip up righteousness and patriotism to makes war palatable, even edifying, to the public.

Thus killing is done in our name, killing that concerns us little, while those who kill our own are seen as having crawled out of the deepest recesses of the earth, lacking our own humanity and goodness. Our dead. Their dead. They are not the same. Our dead matter, theirs do not.

Written at the end of last year he doesn't shrink from commenting on the current situation. Hedges quotes President Bush prior to the war in Afghanistan, "We go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in the world", in his introduction to warn about the quixotic futility of any war waged as a crusade.

The book is most interesting when illustrating wars fundamental nature by drawing on the literature of combat to make its point. Having graduated with degree in literature and a masters in divinity from Harvard the author chooses brilliantly from a wide selection: Homer, Shakespeare, Auden and Michael Herr, among others are used to explode the myth of war, its noble and glorious ideal exposed to its more realistic flip side: a vainglorious activity of carnage. Given the current global situation, though when hasn't that phrase been relevant, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning is a powerful and timely book. It reminds us that there is no such thing as a good war, and that war is its own vacuum, sucking in all nuances and goodness, creating a void where humanity, society and morality once were, allowing only the culture of war to thrive. A culture that, as we sit at home impressed by the pictures sent back by embedded reporters of ever smarter bombs and inter operable troops, illustrates again what Einstein was talking about when he said "Perfection of means and confusion of ends seem, in my opinion, to characterize our age".