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TERENCE SMITH: The book is War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Its author is Chris Hedges, who, for over 15 years, covered conflicts from Central America, to the Balkans, to the Middle East and Persian Gulf. He was a reporter with the “Dallas Morning News,” the Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio. Since 1990 he’s been a correspondent for the New York Times, where he and a team won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting after the September 11 attacks. Chris Hedges, welcome.
CHRIS HEDGES: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: The title, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning — tell me what you mean by that.
CHRIS HEDGES: From every conflict I’ve covered, war as an enterprise is something that’s filled lives. It obliterates the alienation and distance we often feel, especially in modern society.
It gives us a sense of purpose, it ennobles us as a people, it allows us to jettison individual consciousness for a goal, a noble goal, and it… it allows us to suspend questioning, to stop questioning for the great enterprise in front of us. And unfortunately, that’s why war at its inception is often met with such exhilaration.
TERENCE SMITH: You also describe war as a narcotic to which people, you included, can and have become addicted.
CHRIS HEDGES: Yes, I… yeah, I think war is a drug, and maybe the supreme drug of human existence.
TERENCE SMITH: Explain that.
CHRIS HEDGES: It has a fantastic… a quality of the grotesque, a dark beauty; and the bible called it “the lust of the eye,” and warned believers against it. It creates a landscape that’s almost beyond the realm of imagination.
Of course you have the adrenaline rush, you have that exhilaration that comes with that constant flirtation with danger. And it becomes hard to live outside of its environment, often even for the victims.
I remember sitting after the war in Sarajevo with friends of mine, and while they didn’t wish back the suffering, they missed what war had brought, that sense of immediately… that sense of belonging.
I mean, you know, with everybody sort of under the threat of a death sentence, with everybody as a crowd together fighting an external enemy, that loneliness that we all feel in terms of having to face death alone is vanquished and somehow made easier by facing it as a group.
TERENCE SMITH: You also write about how war tends to destroy and distort reality, how we tend– anybody does– to demonize our enemies and then excuse our own excesses. Tell me about that.
CHRIS HEDGES: I think that’s always part of wartime. When you… you know, war always begins with the dehumanizing of the other through rhetoric, making the other… and I think that’s… the flip side of that, of course, is patriotism, which is very thinly veiled self- glorification. And as we glorify and raise ourselves in our own eyes, the natural consequence is that we belittle the other.
If you look at the language even now, since post 9/11, we call them “barbarians,” they call us “infidels.” We speak in wartime– and this is not unique to us, but I think in all wartime societies, you speak in the jingoism or the clichés that are handed to you by the state.
And that’s pounded to you, I mean, by… from everywhere, from… by the press, by the government, by even the entertainment industry. And it becomes very, very hard to think outside the box, to articulate whatever disquiet you feel. We saw this in Bosnia, for instance. And that is very much… that’s what makes it so hard to voice or articulate dissent in wartime.
TERENCE SMITH: Reading this book, I got the impression that you wrote it in a kind of a fury, and that the fury was maybe partly directed at yourself.
CHRIS HEDGES: Yes, a fury. It was a hard book to write. Parts of the book were very painful to write. If there was a fury, it was a fury at all the lies that are used to justify war, all the myths of war — all of the things we’re told about war that I had to find out the hard way and very painfully are not true. And if there’s a fury at that, it’s the mendacity of the entire enterprise.
TERENCE SMITH: There’s a passage which, if you would, read to us that sort of addresses this. You have it there.
CHRIS HEDGES: Yes. “We believe in the nobility and self-sacrifice demanded by war, especially when we are blinded by the narcotic of war. We discover in the communal struggle the shared sense of meaning and purpose, a cause. War fills our spiritual void. I do not miss war, but I miss what it brought. I can never say I was happy in the midst of the fighting in El Salvador or Bosnia or Kosovo, but I had a sense of purpose, of calling. And this is a quality war shares with love, for we are in love, also able to choose fealty and self-sacrifice over security.”
TERENCE SMITH: And security, is that what you have chosen now for yourself?
CHRIS HEDGES: I wouldn’t put it that way. I would say I’ve chosen not to engage in the necrophilia that is war, not to flirt with my own destruction anymore.
You know, the ancient Greeks and Romans… for the ancient Greeks and Romans, war was a god. And it began with the sacrifice of the other, but it always ended with self-sacrifice and self-annihilation. And I think when you don’t understand war, when you allow war to control you, that’s what war’s final cost entails: Self-obliteration.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, the book comes out and we’re having this conversation at a time when this country is anticipating, possibly moving towards war. Does the rhetoric today echo some of the themes in the book?
CHRIS HEDGES: Very much so. I mean, that… it is the same… it is the same poison, and we have ingested it along with everyone else.
I think one of the things that… and in the last chapter I talk about Freud from Civilization and Its Discontents, where he talks about Eros and Thanatos and that instinct to preserve and conserve, or love and Eros, always vying with the death instinct, the instinct to destroy — and that for Freud, both within individuals and society, one of these instincts was always ascendant.
I think after the Vietnam War we asked questions about ourselves and our nation that made us a better people. In that defeat we were humbled. And there has been a slow, but very steady rehabilitation of war, certainly through the Reagan years, culminating with the Persian Gulf War.We have come to believe, and I think even revel and exalt, in our military prowess, in our strength with the illusion that we can fight wars that are cost- free. Kosovo has done this to us; Bosnia has done this to us.
And if history is any guide, our technology will not save us. It did not save the European empires at the end of the 19th century, and it will not save us. And I think that if we steal a line from Freud, “Thanatos is ascendant.” We’ve forgotten what war is; the awful, awful cost that war can exact, and we revel in the death instinct– and that’s what frightens me. And it takes, unfortunately, a lot of bloodletting for societies to wake up.
TERENCE SMITH: So this talk which we hear today of a short war, one that will be over quickly, an illusion?
CHRIS HEDGES: It’s hard to say. I think we don’t really know what we’re getting into Iraq. We know that in the Persian Gulf War, he did want to use his biological and chemical weapons. He could not because he couldn’t get the orders down to the front line soldiers.
You know, in the Persian… I went into Kuwait with the Marines, and we clashed first with the reservists and the militias, all the good troops. The Republican Guard were up North. And the idea was that he was going to drop this stuff on his own — and of course us. So we know he can use it. And it doesn’t take much to take out a Marine Corps battalion.
Will we get in? Hopefully we will. I think that’s an unknown. But if we continue this open- ended war on terror, if we keep leapfrogging from conflict into conflict, we’re going to get burned eventually. And you have to remember that everybody signed up as fast as they could in 1914 because they thought the war would be over by Christmas.
It… once you engage in a war, especially when you engage in a war without the kind of intelligence that you should have, you don’t know what you’re going to fall into, and once you’re in there, it’s very hard to get out.
TERENCE SMITH: The book is War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Chris Hedges, thank you so much.
CHRIS HEDGES: Thank you.