Essence of War

Journalist and author Chris Hedges. (Credit:  Chris Hedges)

Journalist and author Chris Hedges. (Credit: Chris Hedges)

Perhaps war is made to seem unimportant by dissociating it from daily life. The physical devastation of war happens elsewhere, not at home. War is fought by volunteers, not conscripts. War is a distant abstraction for 95% of the US public.

Perhaps war is made to seem necessary or even inevitable by a nearly continuous history of warfare. Peace is an empty promise perpetually deferred. It is a word devoid of a concept for most people.

Perhaps war is made to seem right and moral by characterizing it as a heroic act to defeat an evil enemy. Americans, according to the national myth, are an exceptional people blessed by God, a virtuous people who have undertaken a sacred mission, an innocent people confronting a cruel and uncivilized world.

Perhaps war appeals to a deep desire (repressed or not) to kill—panders to a guilty pleasure—which is gratified vicariously for the nation at large by its professional soldiers.

Perhaps all of these factors that contribute to the establishment of war prevent a people from confronting their complicity in the sheer horror of war. The veteran’s lament is discredited and ignored when it calls upon the nation to acknowledge that war itself is evil no matter how or why it is rationalized.

Chris Hedges—a longtime war correspondent and an antiwar activist—was booed when he began his May 2003 commencement address at Rockford College by warning the Iraq War would damage not just US prestige, power, and security, but also the very soul of the nation. His microphone was shut off three minutes into his speech. He persisted. Audience members turned their backs on him. It did not matter to the audience that Hedges was a Pulitzer Prize winner, a journalist for the New York Times, and the author of the best-selling book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. What he said they did not want to hear.

Hedges criticizes war not just from the perspective of a journalist, author, and activist but also as a recently ordained Presbyterian minister who holds a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. War is sin, he argues, and veterans are prophets who know that moral truth better than anyone.

Those who experience war can learn something that is “often incomprehensible” to those who don’t. The experience of “war exposes the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves.” Americans are not virtuous or blessed above others; war is not noble; we Americans ascribe to others our own “capacity for evil.”

Veterans are prophets when they speak these painful truths, and like all prophets they are condemned and ignored by “a culture awash in lies.” What these prophets say is too difficult to digest. The nation prefers to hear itself exalted “by those who speak from the patriotic script.”

The public at home does not want to acknowledge that war up close is “a soulless void,” that it is “about barbarity, perversion and pain, an unchecked orgy of death,” that it crushes human decency, and that “the noise, the stench, the fear, the scenes of eviscerated bodies and bloated corpses, the cries of the wounded” constitute the “moral void” of combat.

Soldiers in combat confront war’s essence, which is death, but what implodes the myth of noble war for many soldiers remains unthinkable for most of us.



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