Friday, 3 February 2012

A Veterans Review: Chris Hedges 'War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning'

The Insanity of War, July 31 2004

By S. Freeman, Texas

Chris Hedges has written a deeply thoughtful and thought provoking book on the insanity of war. Myths are identified and exploded. Realities are presented, at times, in graphic detail.

Yet the book is an odd duck in some ways. Despite references to and quotations from the classics of literature, it is not an academic work; but neither is it a journalistic work. It is largely introspective; and in this sense, reminds me of the work of Joan Didion.

The title offends me as it asserts a truth I wish to deny. Yet, as combat veteran, having looked closely at the dead--of my brothers and of those we killed--having stared into vacant eyes looking off to some unseen horizon, I cannot deny the truth he asserts: War is a Force that gives us meaning. Fortunately, it is not the ONLY force, and needs not be THE force, as he makes clear toward the end. Indeed, a subtitle could be "Love is THE force which gives us true meaning.

I find the reviews of some of Hedges' critics rather amusing, and strongly suspect they have never worn the uniform, much less served in combat. If they did, they would realize some of their criticisms are, well, stupid.

This book, for example, is not anti-patriotic, though neither is it "patriotic", at least not in any usual sense of the word. Hedges' argument is our loyalties should not lie, at least not exclusively, not decisively, with any nation or government. Our patriotism should not be blind, nor should it be a means of manipulation. Rather, it should be grounded in love and understanding. Though Hedges does not say this specifically, I think he would agree that true patriotism entails both love of country AND love of humanity. To view our "enemies" as the epitome of evil, to present them as fanatics with no respect for human life, is to lower ourselves to the level we ascribe to them. Such false beliefs are inherently self defeating.

Cucolo does not seem to understand, as some great Americans have, that war is a narcotic, that patriotism often is used and abused by those who, themselves, have an inadequate understanding of humanity, and, therefore, inadequate respect for human life, who will sacrifice a nation's best for empire or to salve their own demented egos.

Having stood much closer to war than Cucolo probably sits to the screen showing John Wayne movies, Hemingway understood this: "There is noting sweet and fitting in dying for your country. You will die like a dog for no good reason."

John Quincy Adams also understood what Cucolo apparently does not: "And say not thou, `My country right or wrong'; nor shed thy blood for an unhallowed cause."

Real patriotism, true patriotism is far more than flying a flag outside one's home.

As Hedges argues, we are conditioned to believe war is some great cause, possessing some noble meaning that transcends us, that gives us some noble purpose in life which is far greater than anything we are likely to accomplish on our own, living our lives of anonymous insignificance, of "quiet desperation". War gives us the opportunity for heroics, to have our names, or at least the cause in which we served, inscribed in the annals (or should I say anals?) of history.

War summons up the courage ordinary men fear they lack. That "red badge of courage" shouts we ARE courageous, if not heroes. What else can we say of men willing to leave hearth and home, to kiss their loved ones good-bye, "leaving on a jet plane", not knowing if they will return again, even if in a box? What greater love is there, can there be than to lay down one's life for one's country? Certainly I understand this. Why else would I have marched off--as a volunteer--to fight in a war I actively opposed, and believed (then and now) to be an illegal, immoral, "unhallowed cause"?

In his last chapter, Hedges talks of how war is a false god. Life seems more "real" in combat. Things do get distilled down to very simple terms--life and death. Soldiers, especially those standing victorious on that day's battlefield, are as gods. As one of my brothers, imprisoned after the war because he had become too addicted to the violence of war, bringing that violence home where what he did in the Nam to great praise from his commanders was unacceptable, said: "We strode the earth as gods, dispensing life and death at will."

Hedges identifies three things which stand in contrast to the false meaning of life provided by war--meaning (purposefulness) of life, happiness and love.

To those whose souls are possessed by Thanatos--as Cucolo's may be--to talk of love is to talk of weakness: Love is the sentiment of weak women; war is what MEN do. They could not be more wrong as anyone who has served in combat knows. We LOVE our brothers, even if, as Hedges argues, it is not a complete love, for it is a love forged by a false god.

Major Michael O'Donnell, himself one of those "gentle heroes (we) left behind", clearly understood this as he wrote in his poem, "Vietnam":

"Be not ashamed to say

you loved them

though you may

or may not have always.

But anyone who has lain on a battlefield with bullets, mortars, rockets crashing around surely knows, we have never felt our love for our parents, our siblings, our girlfriends or wives--not before, nor since--so completely, so intensely as those moments when we faced death in battle.

Hedges has written a profound book, full of meaning and purpose, for anyone willing to open their minds to the possibility war is an inherently insane, inherently immoral narcotic. There are no winners in war, none, only savagery and inhumanity and destruction of the soul; and we need to know this without having to learn it first hand.

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