War is a force that gives us meaning – Chris Hedges (review)

War is a force that gives us meaning is an extraordinary book. While simply told, it is a complex and deep meditation on the nature of war and humanity. I have never read anything remotely like it, and it feels important. It is all signal, no noise. Ultimately it is a plea to engage with and understand war and what it does to us.

Pulitzer prize winning journalist Chris Hedges spent 20 years reporting from war zones in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Europe (including 15 years working for the New York Times, which he was fired from for speaking out against the war in Iraq). He has a Masters in Divinity, and brings an unflinching moral gaze. He has seen much of the worst of humanity.

Perhaps most shockingly, he is not anti-war. War may sometimes be necessary, but war does not absolve us of responsibility for our acts.

Easy takeaways: the myths we are told of war are lies. The representations in film are lies. The version of war we get in the media is a lie, one which the media is complicit in, caught up in the madness, willingly servicing the myth. Hedges describes the working and importance of those myths, about war, sacrifice and glory, and about nations; how authentic culture is destroyed and replaced by myths, the destruction of memory and reality to allow war to flourish; how those lonely voice that speak out will be ostracised and suffer for it.

The experience of war is both hideous and an ongoing peak experience, for combatants and victims alike. Facing ourselves through the experience of fear and horror reveals how little we are and grants life intensity and meaning. A madness descends as the moral norms of reality are lifted. He writes of the will to die, of reconciling oneself to a senseless death, and the struggle to operate in the normal world afterwards. This is why so many returned soldiers kill themselves. This is why so many war reporters keep going back to war, chasing their own death.

Those who rise to prominence in war are the thugs, criminals and psychos, let loose in the name of a myth, who inevitably turn from the ideal and abuse their power in the most heinous ways.

In particular he confronts that this is in all of us. That when the event descends, those with the moral character to resist are very few and far between. Normal people do unspeakable things, but the aftermath for many is being psychologically and spiritually broken. The worst crimes are often committed by the militias rather than the trained soldiers.

The sheer number and nature of the examples which casually illustrate the book is where much of the force comes in. It is genuinely disturbing. We have an educated guide through hell, who quotes the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare as readily as those who have filled mass graves.

He also speaks of how we come to terms with war and heal from it; how we wake from the madness and resume normality. The process of confronting the past, and memory, and what really happened, and digging up the mass graves which reveal the atrocities we committed. In his experience, nearly everyone in wartime is complicit.

He speaks of the way we project meaning onto conflict, pick sides, and ascribe the side we support our own image and qualities, regardless of the truth of it. He speaks of the frenetic empty sex.

The only solution, of course, is love, the dance between eros and thanatos; but most crucially, to see love in our enemy, and recognise it as the same as the love in ourselves.

Incredible, complex, powerful. A deep meditation on humanity, life, and the capacity for horror in all of us. He speaks of so much more than I have covered here.

This is a book we should all be aware of, and I suspect from this review you will know if you need to read it. If you feel the call, I recommend it extremely highly.

Hedges wrote this book in response to 9-11, a warning to his nation as it entered the madness of war. He has gone on over the last decade to write a whole bunch of really right-on seeming books dealing with the contemporary issues that need to be addressed yet which rarely are spoken of at all. Check him out.




4 Responses to “War is a force that gives us meaning – Chris Hedges (review)”

  1.   Bruce
    September 25th, 2012 | 4:10 pm

    >We have an educated guide through hell, who quotes the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare as readily as those who have filled mass graves.

    Thanks for bringing this one up. I started the audiobook a month ago and then quit because I try to avoid depressing stuff that I feel like I mostly know about already.

    But as you say above the way he weaves cross the cultural and panhistorical together to demonstrate his themes is really valuable, and in the end I am glad I listened to it.

    In the imaginary world where people who advocate for nationalism and war can be told to go read something, this stands out as the top pick for me now.

    I like that I feel like I can confidently say to someone advocating jingoistic nationalism, you and your family WILL NOT benefit from this.

  2.   billy
    October 2nd, 2012 | 10:55 pm

    Yay. Glad someone went there and found the value 🙂

  3.   Bruce
    October 3rd, 2012 | 1:28 pm

    My friend wants me to put the audiobook on disc so he can give it to a sergeant friend in the military. We’ll see how that goes… Said sergeant has some interesting scuttlebutt. Apparently all branches of armed services are heavily recruiting right now, at same time that USA has allowed NZ ships into USA harbors for the first time in decades and there are more joint manuevers going on. Also other stuff like NZ SAS going back to Afghanistan for “revenge” for NZ solidiers killed there. Implication is to expect increased military exposure for NZ in partnership with US. One worries about the Iran situation…

    PS it would be cool if there was some kind of notification possible to my email if there is a reply on a comment thread I have posted on? Don’t make a lot of work for yourself though.

  4.   billy
    October 3rd, 2012 | 2:22 pm

    I think it should be required education for anyone in the military.

    Re comments, about all I can think of is that there is an RSS feed for comments, http://undulatingungulate.com/comments/feed/, which would in theory inform you of all comments; but since you are the most frequent commenter by far, that would probably serve. Other than that I don’t know how exactly to go about it.