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NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript - Bill Moyers Talks with Chris Hedges

MOYERS: Some weeks ago we discussed on NOW the Pentagon's plan to attack Iraq with 'shock and awe.' That's the strategy first reported by CBS News of unleashing 3,000 precision bombs and cruise missiles in the first 48 hours after President Bush gives the order.

Now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has come forward with more details on how the strategy is expected to work. "The best way to get a short war", he says, "is to have such a shock on the system, that the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on, that the end was inevitable."

The General was admirably candid. Quote: "We need to condition people that this is war. People get the idea this is going to be antiseptic. Well, it's not going to be. People are going to die."

I read those words just after finishing this book, WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING. Its author, Chris Hedges, knows about war, knows about people dying from close up experience. As a foreign correspondent for the NEW YORK TIMES, Chris Hedges covered the Balkans, the Middle East, including the first Gulf War where he was captured by the Iraqis, and Central America.

Last year he was a member of the team of reporters that won the Pulitzer Prize for the NEW YORK TIMES coverage of global terrorism. Chris Hedges now writes the column, "Public Lives." He's also, by the way, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to NOW.

HEDGES: Thank you.

MOYERS: When you hear the General describe an attack of 3,000 missiles on Iraq, what comes through your mind?

HEDGES: Well not images of shock and awe. Images of large numbers of civilian dead. Destroyed buildings. Panic in the corridors of hospitals. Families that can't reach parts of a city that have been devastated and are desperate for news of their loved ones. All of the images of war that I've seen for most of the past two decades come to mind.

MOYERS: I heard a description of 'shock and awe' again on National Public Radio yesterday and then they came on with a report, a first-hand report from Kurds in Northern Iraq of how they had been tortured by Saddam Hussein. Cruelly, brutally, creatively tortured. Is there any kinship between what happens to civilians in a war like we're about to launch and what happens to them under the regime of a Saddam Hussein? And is there any moral relativism there?

HEDGES: Well, I don't think you can justify unleashing 3,000 precision-guided missiles in 48 hours because Saddam Hussein is a torturer, which he is. And I covered that whole withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from Northern Iraq. I was not only in the subterranean bowels of the Secret Police Headquarters where we found not only documentation but videotapes of executions. Horrible torture centers. People being— you know where the meat hooks were still sort of fastened into the ceiling of soundproofed rooms.

And then these mass graves. We were digging up as many as a thousand, 1,500 people. But that does not give you a moral justification to carry out what is, quite candidly, indiscriminate attack against civilians. That's what's going to happen when you drop this number of high explosive devices in an urban area.

MOYERS: Does the inevitability of civilian casualties make this war illegitimate?

HEDGES: Well, I think the war is illegitimate not because civilians will die. Civilians die in every conflict. It's illegitimate because the administration has not, to my mind, provided any evidence of any credible threat. And we can't go to war just because we think somebody might do something eventually.

There has to be hard intelligence. There has to be a real threat if we're going to ask our young men and women to die.

Because once you unleash the "dogs of war" and I know this from every war I've ever covered, war has a force of its own. It's not surgical. We talk about taking out Saddam Hussein. Once you use the blunt instrument of war, it has all sorts of consequences when you use violence on that scale that you can't anticipate. I'm not opposed to the use of force. But force is always has to be a last resort because those who wield force become tainted or contaminated by it. And one of the things that most frightens me about the moment our nation is in now, is that we've lost touch with the notion of what war is.

At the end of the Vietnam War, we became a better country in our defeat. We asked questions about ourselves that we had not asked before. We were humbled, maybe even humiliated. We were forced to step outside of ourselves and look at us as others saw us. And it wasn't a pretty sight.

But we became a better country for it. A much better country. Gradually war's good name if we can, between quotes, can say was resurrected. Certainly during the Reagan Era. Granada, Panama. Culminating with the Persian Gulf War, where a war — the very essence of war was hidden from us. And the essence of war is death. War is necrophilia. That's what it is.

MOYERS: Tell me, having covered the first Gulf War, what the men and women who are about to go into Iraq are going to experience.

HEDGES: Well, the ones who are up on the front line are — especially as they prepare to go into battle — are going to have to come face-to-face with the myth of war. The myth of heroism, the myth of patriotism. The myth of glory. All those myths that have the ability to arouse us when we're not in mortal danger.

And they're going to have to confront their own mortality. And at that moment some people will be crying, some people will be vomiting. People will not speak much. Everyone will realize that from here on out, at least until the fighting ends, it will be a constant minute-by-minute battle with fear. And that sometimes fear wins. And anybody who tells you differently has never been in a war.

MOYERS: And yet you say in your book that the first Gulf War, that we made war fun.

HEDGES: For those who weren't there. You know the — I was with the U.S. Marine Corps and they hated CNN. They hated that flag-waving jingoism that dominated the coverage on, or dominated so much of the coverage…all those abstract terms that create the excitement back home become obscene to those who are in combat.

MOYERS: You say also in the book that the first Gulf War made war more fashionable again.

HEDGES: Right.

MOYERS: What do you mean by that?

HEDGES: Well, it was, you know, so much of commercial news has now become an extension of the entertainment industry. And the war became entertainment. The Army had no more candor than they did in Vietnam. But what they perfected was the appearance of candor. Live press conferences. And well-packaged video clips of Sidewinder missiles hitting planes or going down chimneys. You know, this kind of stuff.

It's— and the fact that they covered up death. Not only the death of our own. But the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis who were killed. They were nameless, faceless phantoms. When we the victims, if you watch the news reports carefully, were our young men who were out in the desert having to sort of bathe out of a bucket and eat MRE's.

So it was completely mythic, or mendacious narrative that was presented to us. And I was a little delayed getting back to New York because I was a prisoner with the Iraqi Republican Guard. But I remember landing into New York and even then the mood was that we'd just won the Super Bowl.

And it frightened me and it disgusted me. And it wasn't because I didn't believe that we shouldn't have gone into Kuwait. I believe we had no choice. But I certainly understood that we, as a nation, had completely lost touch with what war is. And when we lose touch with what war is, when we believe that our technology makes us invulnerable. That we can wage war and others can die and we won't — then eventually, if history is any guide, we are going to stumble into a horrific swamp.

MOYERS: I read your book last night. One of the most chilling and haunting scenes in here is when, I think you were in El Salvador, and a young man was near you, calling out, "mama."

HEDGES: Yeah.

MOYERS: "Mama."

HEDGES: It's not uncommon when soldiers die that they call out for their mother. And that always seems to me to cut through the absurd posturing of soldiering.

MOYERS: Three times when you were in El Salvador you were threatened with death. You received death threats. The Embassy got you out.

HEDGES: That's right.

MOYERS: You went back.

HEDGES: Yes. Because I believe that it was better to live for one intense and overpowering moment, even if it meant my own death, rather than go back to the routine of life.

MOYERS: You're right, you know. War is an addiction, as you say. Let me read you this: "during a lull I dashed…" this is you.

HEDGES: Right.

MOYERS: Read this for me.

HEDGES: "During a lull I dashed across an empty square and found shelter behind a house. My heart was racing. Adrenaline coursed through my bloodstream. I was safe. I made it back to the capital. And like most war correspondents, I soon considered the experience a great cosmic joke. I drank away the fear and excitement in a seedy bar in downtown San Salvador. Most people, after such an experience, would learn to stay away. I was hooked. "

MOYERS: You were hooked on?

HEDGES: War. On the most powerful narcotic invented by humankind is war.

MOYERS: What is the narcotic? What is it that's the poisonous allure?

HEDGES: Well the Bible calls it, "The lust of the eye." And warns believers against it. It's that great landscape of the grotesque. It's that power to destroy.

I mean one of the most chilling things you learn in war is that human beings like to destroy. Not only other things but other human beings. And when unit discipline would break down or there was no unit discipline to begin with, you would go into a town and people's eyes were glazed over. They sputtered gibberish.

Houses were burning. They had that power to revoke the charter. That divine-like power, to revoke the charter of another human being's place on this planet. And they used it.

MOYERS: I would have thought that being captured and held by the Iraqis as you were, would have cured you of your addiction. But yet it didn't.

HEDGES: No.

MOYERS: So I still don't understand it. I have to be honest. I mean I just don't understand why you keep putting yourself back into that which you hate.

HEDGES: Well, because the experience itself, that adrenaline-driven rush of war. That sense that you know we have a vital mission that, as journalists, that we ennoble ourselves. I mean I think one of the things I tried very hard to do in the book was show the dark side of what we do.

I mean I admire the courage and the integrity of many of the men and women I worked with, but I do think there is a very dark side to what we do. And it becomes very hard to live outside of a war zone. It's why this small — my comrades, these groups of war correspondents and photographers — would leap from war-to-war.

It's no accident that I was covering the war in Kosovo with people I had covered the war with in El Salvador two decades earlier. You go out of Sarajevo and be in a hotel in Paris and would be pacing the halls because you couldn't adjust. When you stepped outside war it's literally as if you sort of see the world around you from the end of a long tunnel.

And I often would feel that I was physically here but I was really sort of four paces behind. You're incredibly disconnected from the world around you. And if you spend long enough in war, it's finally the only place that you can feel at home. And that's, of course, a sickness. But I had it.

MOYERS: But doesn't it also create a sense of camaraderie among men who are fighting it. What happens then?

HEDGES: Comradeship is something that's attainable. Everyone can attain in wartime. Once you have that external threat. I mean I think we felt this a little bit after 9-11. We no longer faced death alone. We faced death as a group.

And for that reason it becomes easier to bear.

MOYERS: How do you explain the phenomenon that while we venerate and mourn our own dead from say 9-11, we're curiously indifferent about those we're about to kill.

HEDGES: Because we dehumanize the Other. We fail to recognize the divinity of all human life. We— our own victims are the only victims that hold worth. The victims of the Other are sort of the regrettable cost of war. There is such a moral dichotomy in war. Such a frightening dichotomy that the world becomes a tableau of black and white, good and evil.

You see this in the rhetoric of the Bush Administration. They are the barbarians. I mean we begin to mirror them. You know for them we're the infidels and we call them the barbarians.

MOYERS: It happened in the Johnson Administration too. The President spoke of bringing the coonskin home.

HEDGES: Right. But that's because war is the same disease. And that's the point of the book is that it doesn't matter if I'm an Argentine or El Salvador or the occupied territories or Iraq. It's all the same sickness.

MOYERS: The world is sick too, this is a savage world, as we keep being reminded…

You do think that United States faces a threat? A threat from whatever we want to call it? That produced 9/11? You think we are at danger?

HEDGES: Yes. But not from Iraq.

MOYERS: So how do we, taking into account the moral issues that you raise…

HEDGES: Right.

MOYERS: How do we protect ourselves, defend our security, do the right thing and yet not be taken by surprise again?

HEDGES: By having the courage to be vulnerable. By not folding in on ourselves. By not becoming like those who are arrayed against us. By not using their rhetoric and not adopting their worldview.

What we did after 9/11 was glorify ourselves, denigrate the others. We're certainly, now at this moment, denigrating the French and the Germans who, after all, are our allies. And we created this global troika with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon.

One fifth of the world's population, most of whom are not Arabs, look at us through the prism of Chechnya and Palestine. And yes, we certainly have to hunt down Osama bin Laden. I would like to see those who carried out 9/11, in so far as it is possible, go on trial for the crimes against humanity that they committed. But we must also begin to address the roots of that legitimate rage and anger that is against us.

It has to be a twofold battle. We are not going to stop terrorism through violence. You see that in Israel. In some ways, the best friend Hamas has is Ariel Sharon, because every time the Israelis send warplanes to bomb a refugee camp or tanks into Ramallah, it weakens and destroys that moderate center within the Palestinian community.

And essentially creates two apocalyptic visions. One on the extreme right wing of Israeli politics. And certainly one on the extreme wing of the Palestinian community. And when these apocalyptic visionaries move to the center of society, then the world becomes exceedingly dangerous. And that's what I fear. And that's what— and, but that requires us not to resort, which is a natural kind of reaction, a kind of almost knee-jerk reaction, to the use of force when force is used against us.

MOYERS: So is it enough in this kind of world just to be good?

HEDGES: Well, nobody's good. I mean we're all sinners and God loves us anyway. That's the whole point. And we live in a fallen world and it's never between the choice is never between good and evil.

The choice… or moral and immoral, as Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us. The choice is always between immoral and more immoral. And I don't think…

MOYERS: I don't think Americans feel immoral about what happened to them on 9/11. Or…

HEDGES: Well, nor should they.

MOYERS: Nor when listening to the report of Saddam Hussein's torture of his own people. That I don't think they feel the same way as they think he feels.

HEDGES: Well, he's a tyrant. And you know we… 9/11 is not the issue. The issue is once we unleash force of that magnitude. And I think theologians like Niebuhr would argue that we must do so and ask for forgiveness.

That we, you know, when you make a choice in the world, and of course one always has to, one has to remember that there are consequences for that choice that create injustice and tragedy for others. And that's what is important to always remember and be aware of.

I think you go back and read Abraham Lincoln and he was very aware of this. And that's what made him a great leader. And in many ways a great moral philosopher.

MOYERS: Can people who plan wars, presidents and generals, afford to be influenced by people like you who abhor war? Who anguish over war?

HEDGES: Well, I think any soldier that's been through combat hates war in the way that only somebody who's seen war can. It's those that lose touch with war and find it euphoric that frighten me.

MOYERS: But doesn't power exercised with ruthlessness always win?

HEDGES: Power exercised with ruthlessness always is able to crush the gentle and the compassionate. But I don't believe it always wins. Thucydides wrote about the war with Sparta that, yes, raw Spartan militarism in the short-term could conquer Athens. But that beauty, art, knowledge, philosophy, would long outlive Sparta and Spartan militarism.

And he consoled himself with that. I think in the short-term, yes, violence and force can win. But in the long-term, it leaves nothing but hollowness, emptiness. It does nothing to enrich our lives or propel us forward as human beings.

MOYERS: What would you like most as — what would you most like us to be thinking about this weekend as it looks as if war is about to happen?

HEDGES: That this isn't just about the destruction of Iraq and the death of Iraqis. It's about self-destruction.

MOYERS: How so? What's happening to us?

HEDGES: Our whole civil society is being torn apart. Once again, as is true in every war, the media parrots back the clichés and jingos of the state. Imbibes and promotes the myth. In wartime, the press is always part of the problem.

And that we are about to engage in that ecstatic, exciting, narcotic that is war. And that if we don't get a grasp on the poison that war is, then that poison can ultimately kill us just as surely as the disease.

MOYERS: What have you learned as a journalist covering war that we ought to know on the eve of this attack on Iraq?

HEDGES: That everybody or every generation seems to have— seems not to listen to those who went through it before and bore witness to it. But falls again for the myth. And has to learn it through a tragedy inflicted upon their young.

That war is always about betrayal. It's about betrayal of soldiers by politicians. And it's about betrayal of the young by the old.

MOYERS: I believe that George W. Bush tonight as you and I talk is convinced he's about to do good. A necessary act that he thinks is making a moral claim on the world. Do you believe that?

HEDGES: I believe that he feels that. But I think anybody who believes that they understand the will of God and can act as an agent for God is dangerous.

MOYERS: If the NEW YORK TIMES asked you to go cover the war in the next month, would you go?

HEDGES: No. No, I'm finished.

MOYERS: The book is WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING, by Chris Hedges. Thank you for being with us.