War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
by Chris Hedges, Public Affairs, New York, 2002, 211pp.
A Review by G. Richard Wheatcroft
This review appeared on the website of The Center for Progressive Christianity at http://www.tcpc.org
For fifteen years, most of his adult life, Chris Hedges has been a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. [a detailed listing of his postings then follow - ed].
Out of the crucible of his experience, he wrote his book "not to dissuade us from war, but to understand it." For he writes, "It is especially important that we, who wield such massive force across the globe, see within ourselves the seeds of our own obliteration."
Each of the seven chapters of the book is composed not only of his message, which draws on the literature of war, from Homer and Shakespeare to Peter Caputo and Anthony Lloyd, but also of harrowing and haunting stories from his life on battlefields.
In this statement Hedges gives us the heart of his book. "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. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives becomes apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble."
Pursuing this statement, Hedges uses a distinction made by Lawrence LeShan in The Psychology of War, between "sensory reality" and "mythic reality" in the time of war. Sensory reality describes "seeing events for what they are." Mythic reality refers to imbuing "events with meanings they do not have."
When we allow the myth of war, promoted by the state and media, to rule, we view our nation and ourselves [as] the embodiment of goodness and [we] demonize our enemies [as] the source of all evil Then, he writes, "Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects -- eventually in the form of corpses."
Hedges calls one dimension of the myth of war, the "plague of nationalism." A nationalist regards his/her own nation as the supreme value and even the source of life's meaning. He writes, "Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including ours, is the passionate yearning for a nationalist cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone is able to deliver. It reduces, and at times erases, the anxiety of individual consciousness. We abandon individual responsibility for a shared, unquestioned communal enterprise, however morally dubious." Nationalism, which often begins and always fuels war, is expressed as patriotism, which is commonly understood as an appreciation and love of one's country, but can also be seen as a sign pointing to the idolization of the nation.
One of the results of war is that the culture of the nation involved is destroyed and replaced by a "warped version of reality." Hedges reminds us that a nation at war "seeks to destroy its own culture." It does this by silencing its own "authentic and humane culture" which "allows us to question and examine ourselves and our society." Moreover, the enemy state is "dehumanized" by starkly dividing the universe between the forces of good and evil. He describes how this has occurred in many countries, including our own today.
Hedges reminds us that while the "myth of war entices us with the allure of heroism," it leaves out "the one essential element of war — fear." He writes, "The prospect of war is exciting. Many young men, schooled in the notion that war is the ultimate definition of manhood, that only in war will they be tested and proven, that they can discover their worth as human beings in battle, willingly join the great enterprise." But he finds it "startling that such a fantasy is believed, given the impersonal slaughter of modern industrial warfare."
Sigmund Freud said that human history was a struggle between the instinct of life, he called Eros, "which propels us to become close to others, to preserve and conserve" and the instinct for death, he called Thantos, "the impulse that works toward the annihilation of all living things, including ourselves." Hedges believes that "Love alone can fight the impulse that lures us toward self-destruction." Concluding his book, he writes, "To survive as a human being is possible only through love. And, when Thantos is ascendant, the instinct must be to reach out to those we love, to see in them all the divinity, pity, and pathos of the human. And to recognize love in the lives of others — even those with whom we are in conflict — love that is like our own. It does not mean that we will avoid war or death. It does not mean that we as distinct individuals will survive. But love, in its mystery, has it own power. It alone gives us meaning that endures. It alone allows us to embrace and cherish life. Love has power both to resist in our nature what we know we must resist, and to affirm what we know we must affirm. And love, as the poets remind us, is eternal."
This timely, brilliant, heart wrenching, heart warming book is a gift of love to everyone with the courage to read it.