When we allow mythic reality to rule, as it almost always does in war, then there is only one solution — force. In mythic war we fight absolutes. We must vanquish darkness. It is imperative and inevitable for civilization, for the free world, that good triumph, just as Islamic militants see us as infidels whose existence corrupts the pure Islamic society they hope to build.
But the goal we seek when we embrace myth is impossible to achieve. War never creates the security or the harmony we desire, especially the harmony we briefly attain during wartime. And campaigns, such as the one in Afghanistan, become starting points for further conflicts, especially as we find that we are unable to root out terrorism or maintain the kind of solidarity that comes in the days just after a terrorist attack.
The chief institutions that disseminate the myth are the press and the state. The press has been culpable since the telegraph made possible the modern war correspondent. And starting with the Crimean War, when the first dispatches were fed by newly minted war correspondents in real time, nearly every reporter has seen his or her mission as sustaining civilian and army morale. The advent of photography and film did little to alter the incentive to boost morale, for the lie in war is almost always the lie of omission. The blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoner and innocents, and the horror of wounds are rarely disclosed, at least during a mythic war, to the public. Only when the myth is punctured, as it eventually was in Vietnam, does the press begin to report in a sensory rather than a mythic manner. But even then it is reacting to a public that has changed its perception of war. The press usually does not lead.
Mythic war reporting sells papers and boosts ratings. Real reporting, sensory reporting, does not, at least not in comparison with the boosterism we witnessed during the Persian Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan. The coverage in the Persian Gulf War was typical. The international press willingly administered a restrictive pool system on behalf of the military under which carefully controlled groups of reporters were guided around the front lines by officers. It could have never functioned without the cooperation of the press. The press was as eager to be of service to the state during the war as most everyone else.
Such docility on the part of the press made it easier to do what governments do in wartime, indeed what governments do much of the time, and that is lie. When Iraqi troops seized the Saudi border town of Khafji, sending Saudi troops fleeing in panic, the headlong retreat was never mentioned. Two French photographers and I watched as frantic Saudi soldiers raced away from the fighting, dozens crowded on a fire truck that tore down the road. U.S. Marines were called in to push the Iraqis back. We stood on rooftops with young Marine radio operators who called in air strikes as Marine units battled Iraqi troops in the streets.
Yet back in Riyadh and Dhahran military press officers spoke about our Saudi allies defending their homeland.
The potency of myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem and violent death. It gives a justification to what is often nothing more than gross human cruelty and stupidity. It allows us to believe we have achieved our place in human society because of a long chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept the sad reality that we stumble along a dimly lit corridor of disasters. It disguises our powerlessness. It hides from view our own impotence and the ordinariness of our own leaders. By turning history into myth we transform random events into a chain of events directed by a will greater than our own, one that is determined and preordained. We are elevated above the multitude. We march toward nobility. And no society is immune.
Chris Hedges was a graduate student in divinity at Harvard before he went to war. He spent fifteen years as a war correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times, reporting on conflicts in El Salvador, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq.