RogerBW's Blog

War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges 29 November 2017

2002 non-fiction: an experienced foreign reporter gives his views on the fundamental psychological brokenness of war.

Hedges had been in El Salvador, ex-Yugoslavia and Kosovo, and to some extent this feels like a piece of therapy, getting out of his system all the things he'd swallowed as necessary when on the front lines. Nobody comes off well here, though his ire is resolved primarily for the killers themselves and for their cheerleaders who bend the national discourse towards war in the first place. The Serbian/Croatian/Muslim fighting is his primary model here, and while it sometimes breaks down it seems like a reasonable starting point.

There's a certain amount that will be familiar to readers of Fred Clark, particularly the way that a large-scale war (or a moral crusade) lets even the people not directly involved with it feel that their actions and lives are now important:

To those who swallow the nationalist myth, life is transformed. The collective glorification permits people to abandon their usual preoccupation with the petty concerns of daily life. They can abandon even self-preservation in the desire to see themselves as players in a momentous historical drama.

There's not much structure here: although chapters have broadly different themes, and Hedges has that journalistic style that warns you a page in advance that the end of a chapter is coming, most of the book is isolated incidents, from Hedges' own experience or from sources he regards as trustworthy about earlier wars. This isn't a book that makes its case; rather it advances arguments repetitively, and brings anecdotes to support them, but never becomes systematic.

I think that to me, and to most of the people I know, little of the thesis will come as any surprise, though the details in the incidents are still worth having. For someone who'd been brought up on Hollywood-war I'd call this vital reading.

The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years.

And yes, there's still no recapturing that first glorious high. Hedges comes over as remarkably like one of those recovering addicts to whom the idea of not-being-addicted has replaced the drug itself as a thing round which they can build the rest of their lives.

All of which makes it rather ironic that, as this book was being written, Hedges was being fooled by Iraqi "defectors" into publishing false stories about Iraq's supposed training of Islamic fundamentalists, just the same sort of unverified and obviously propagandistic lies that he excoriates other journalists for passing on.

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