In This Episode << SLIDE LEFT TO SEE ADDITIONAL SEGMENTS
Read more of Bob Abernethy’s interview with NEW YORK TIMES reporter Chris Hedges, author of WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING:
Q: Your father was a Presbyterian minister and you studied at the Harvard Divinity School. What were your ideas about war before you saw it for yourself?
A: My father, who had fought in World War II, essentially became a pacifist after the war. He was a very early opponent of the Vietnam War and took us as children to antiwar demonstrations. He told me when I was about 12 that, if the war was still going when I was 18 and I was drafted, he would go to prison with me. If we visited museums, he would never allow us to see the displays of weapons and guns. He couldn’t stand the VFW hall, partly because they drank so much there. And, of course, I grew up in a manse, where there was no alcohol. I remember one July Fourth parade when I was about ten, and these guys were going by in their caps. And he said, “Never forget. Most of those guys were in the back, fixing the trucks.” So I grew up in a home where war was seen for the abomination that it was.
On the other hand, I also grew up in a home with parents who were social activists, so my entire childhood was colored by the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement. When my father died in 1995, he was very involved in the gay rights movement. And I learned, because we lived in a small town in upstate New York, the cost of taking a moral stand — that it was unpopular. I mean, Martin Luther King, in the early days of the civil rights movement, was one of the hated men in America. I felt the sting of what it meant to stand up for what you believe in or to support a cause that was just and, certainly at its inception, how difficult that was.
That developed, I think, a lot of anger in me — anger at seeing my father, whom I admired, belittled by people in our town. I also read a lot as a teenager about the Holocaust and the Spanish Civil War, and I very much wanted that epic battle to define my own life. I used to regret as a teenager that I had not been of age in the thirties, that I couldn’t go fight fascism like my hero George Orwell. By the time I was a divinity student, the military dictatorships in Latin America were carrying out horrendous crimes — the “dirty war” in Argentina, Pinochet in Chile, the civil war in El Salvador. When I got to El Salvador, the death squads were killing 800 to 1,000 people a month, and I felt that, as a young man, this was as close as my generation was going to come to fighting fascism. And that is what propelled me toward war — not because I was any kind of a gun nut, not because I came as a voyeur — which some people do — but out of a sense of justice, out of a sense of idealism.
Q: That’s why you became a war correspondent — you wanted to do justice?
A: Yes, although I would temper that by saying that because of studying Christian ethics, because of [reading] Reinhold Niebuhr, I was never a utopian. I never believed that human institutions could create perfect societies, or perhaps even just societies. I always had a very skeptical view; I always distrusted power, no matter whose hands power was in. And I always felt that my role was to be an outsider, to stand with the victim — whether that was in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas, or in El Salvador against the military. So I never embraced liberation theology. I was always very guarded about [it]. I mean, obviously, there were some aspects of it that we needed to hear. But I approached it with a great deal of skepticism.
Q: Would you sum up the wars you covered, the places you were, what happened to you?
A: I started with the war in El Salvador. I was there for five years. I covered the conflict in Nicaragua as well. After leaving Central America, I went to the Middle East. I took a sabbatical to study Arabic. I went to Jerusalem just in time for the first intifadah. I covered the civil war in the Sudan — I traveled in from Kenya with the SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army] guerrillas. I covered the civil war in Algeria, the civil war in Yemen. I worked in the Punjab during the height of the Sikh separatist movement — I was there for six weeks.
I covered the Persian Gulf War. I made two incursions into the marshes [in southeast Iraq], when Saddam Hussein was draining them, with Shiite guerrillas in small boats from Iran. I spent weeks with Kurdish fighters in the north on the front lines, where there was sporadic fire between Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish guerrillas. I should add also [that] at the end of the Persian Gulf War, I was in Basra with the Shiite rebels when I was captured and held prisoner by the Iraqi Republican Guard [and] eventually released.
In 1995, I went to Sarajevo, and that summer was one of the worst of the war. I covered the implementation of the Dayton peace agreement and then the war in Kosovo. War has marked most of my 15 years abroad. I’ve been in ambushes. I’ve been strafed by MIGs, pounded by very heavy artillery in Sarajevo — 155 Howitzers, 90-millimeter tank rounds. I was shot at by Serb snipers, shot at by Israeli snipers. I’ve seen far too much of violent death.
Q: So now you’ve written about what war is. What’s your conclusion?
A: The goal of the book was to portray the disease that war is and how that disease in wartime infects and destroys individuals and societies. I had started writing at Harvard on a Nieman fellowship after I left the war in Kosovo, but it took on a kind of urgency after 9/11. I woke up and realized in New York that we’d all become Serbs, that all of that flag-waving, all of that jingoism, that mass suppression of individual conscience — which I had seen in countries in war around the globe Ð was now part of my own society, part of where I lived. And it frightened me.
I’m not a pacifist. Wars are always tragic, but probably inevitable; I would think they are inevitable. I supported the intervention in Bosnia. I supported the intervention in Kosovo. I feel that we failed as a nation by not intervening in Rwanda. If we’ve learned anything from the Holocaust, it is that when you have the capacity to stop genocide and you do not, you are culpable. You have blood on your hands, and we do for Rwanda.
But I also understand what war can do, especially when you fall into the dark intoxication that war brings. That process of dehumanizing the other, that ecstatic euphoria in wartime, that use of patriotism as a form of self-glorification, that worshiping of the capacity to inflict violence — especially in a society that possesses a military as advanced as ours — all of those things I wanted to expose in the book, so that people would at least understand war for the poison that it is.
Q: You call it an addiction.
A: Yes. I think for those who are in combat, it very swiftly can become an addiction. War is its own subculture. It can create a landscape of the grotesque that is, perhaps, unlike anything else created by human beings. There is that rush of war. In an ambush, when danger is that present, there is no past. There is no future. You are thrust into the present in a way that is like a drug. I mean, even colors are brighter. War is Zen, and that becomes a very heady way to live. We ennoble ourselves in war, especially those of us who leap from conflict to conflict.
In Sarajevo, for instance — when you left, you would be sitting in Paris for four or five days [and] all you did was hunger to go back. The culture [of war] took you over. I remember stepping outside of war zones in El Salvador or the Balkans into peaceful environments, and the familiar had a quality of what Freud calls “the uncanny.” Everything that was familiar seemed strange, because everything that was strange had become familiar.
I would be in a hotel in Paris or London, and it was as if I was there physically; but, really, I was four paces back. You fly and, in a matter of hours, you’re outside a war zone. I remember it was as if I looked at things through a tunnel. That culture takes over; you don’t function outside of it.
War is like a poison. And just as a cancer patient must at times ingest a poison to fight off a disease, so there are times in a society when we must ingest the poison of war to survive. But what we must understand is that just as the disease can kill us, so can the poison. If we don’t understand what war is, how it perverts us, how it corrupts us, how it dehumanizes us, how it ultimately invites us to our own self-annihilation, then we can become the victim of war itself.
War is one of the most heady and intoxicating, addictive enterprises ever created by humankind. It has an allure, a fascination, a draw that sweeps across national lines, ethnicity, race, religion. It has perverted, corrupted, and ultimately destroyed societies and nations across the globe. The only way to guard against it is finally to understand what it does and how pernicious it is and the myths and lies that we use to cover up the fact that, at its core, war is death.
In every conflict I’ve covered, you reach a point — and I think I reached this point certainly in El Salvador — where you feel that it’s better to live for one intoxicating, empowering moment than ever to go back to that dull routine of daily life, and if your own death is the cost of that, then that’s a cost you’re willing to accept.
That comes right out of THE ILIAD. It comes right out of Achilles. There’s a vase in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it shows a scene from the Trojan War where Achilles is thrusting his spear into the chest of the Queen of the Amazons, Penthesilea. The legend is that as Achilles killed her, their eyes met, and he fell in love with her. What he was doing, of course, was killing love. And once love was dead, there was no hope of going back.
In THE ODYSSEY, which is really a story about recovery from war, Odysseus goes down to the Underworld and meets Achilles and says, “You are the greatest of the Achaeans,” the hero of the Achaeans, and Achilles says, “I’d rather be up there as a slave, as a serf hacking at clods of earth than down here.” There was an understanding in Homer that all of the myth and the glory that was so much a part of THE ILIAD was, in fact, after the war was over, bankrupt and empty. It’s why so much of the bombastic rhetoric, so much of the way culture is infected and destroyed — in wartime, we always destroy our own culture first before we go off and destroy the culture of the other — is so forgettable and perhaps even embarrassing once the conflict is over.
War is like imbibing a drug. Once that drug is kicked, once that war is over, many decisions that are made in warfare, not only what we do to others but also what we do to ourselves, are exposed for being not only wrong, but stupid.
Q: Does what you call “industrialized war” change any of this? What happens when you can’t see the enemy and you’re using weapons of mass destruction?
A: Since the First World War and modern, industrial slaughter, the importance of the myth [of war] has only grown, because the myth was always a lie, anyway. But it’s even more of a lie now, where there is a very impersonal quality to war.
In the narratives that we spin out, we create heroes in every conflict we cover. There is a need, a yearning for glory and heroism. So much of it is manufactured, as any combat veteran will tell you. Heroism at that particular moment never feels or looks quite like heroism. It certainly never looks like it’s portrayed in the myth that’s spun out afterwards.
Q: Give me some examples of what happens to you or others you’ve seen, as a result of addiction to war.
A: Well, ultimately, what happens is that you embrace death, because that’s what war is. War, at its most fundamental level, is death. It is necrophilia. It is the love of death. When war begins, it looks and feels like love. It isn’t love. That’s the chief emotion war destroys.
When you look at the beginning of the conflict in the Balkans, people were ecstatic. They were in the street. They were waving their nationalist flags. A kind of euphoria often grips a country in wartime. And war is, of course, the very opposite of that. It is a bit like the beautiful nymph in the fairy tale who seduces you, and then when you kiss it, it exhales the vapors of the Underworld. War has an attraction to humankind. But once you’re in it, it very soon takes you over like a drug. War always creates a kind of moral perversion, and that’s why you see sexual perversion so interrelated with war.
Routine death becomes boring. It’s why you would go into central Bosnia and see bodies crucified on the sides of barns, or why in El Salvador genitals were stuffed in people’s faces — mutilation, you know, the body as sort of trophy, the body as a kind of performance art. This is an inevitable consequence of war. As you fall deeper and deeper into that culture, and as it becomes harder and harder to exist outside of it, what you do is finally embrace your own annihilation, because like any addiction, it creates a kind of self-destruction. There is a search for that constant first high of war that you can never re-create in any other war.
It becomes a kind of suicide. I had a very close friend, [Reuters correspondent] Kurt Schork, who ended up in Sierra Leone in May of 2000. He was ambushed with another friend of mine, [Spanish cameraman] Miguel Gil Morano, and it’s because they couldn’t let go. They couldn’t let go, and they died because of it. And they’re not alone. That was a big moment for me. Kurt is irreplaceable. He was a remarkable man. I realized I had to stop. I had to get out.
Q: You showed us some pictures of you at various war places. You look happy.
A: “Happy” is not a word I would use to describe it. But I had a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning. I had a sense of ennoblement. I think we ennoble ourselves in war. There is a rush in war. And it’s probably very hard, if not impossible, to re-create in anything else.
I was a professional. I did it well. I learned how to do it well over many years, and I took a great deal of pride in it. I have a lot of respect for those people who do it even while I also recognize the very self-destructive quality. But I think, ultimately, being in a war, while it can give you meaning, it’s probably meaning that is devoid of happiness. Real happiness only comes through love — not through war. And in wartime there’s hardly any love at all.
Q: Talk about the myths we tell ourselves to support war.
A: Well, that’s how we understand war — through the myth itself. Every once in a while, that myth is punctured. Freud, in CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS, writes about the forces of love, of Eros — those forces to preserve, to conserve — and the forces of death, of Thanatos, that aggressive instinct to destroy, even to destroy ourselves. For Freud, these two things are in constant tension, which is why Freud says war is inevitable. He doesn’t believe that war will be eradicated. One [of these forces] is always ascendant. There’s a constant tug-of-war between [them].
After the Vietnam War, we asked questions about ourselves and our nation. It made us a better people. We were forced to step outside ourselves. We were forced to accept our own capacity for evil, for atrocity. We struggled, perhaps for the first time in a long time, to see ourselves as the outsider saw us. I think this was Eros. I think Eros was ascendant at the end of the Vietnam War.
But gradually, Thanatos or death, that love of power and that glorification, that myth of war, rose during the Reagan years, culminating in the Persian Gulf War, where war became not only respectable, but enjoyable — war as entertainment. We believed that we, a powerful nation, could wage war and it could be cost-free. We reveled in the prowess of our military and our weapons. Ever since the Persian Gulf War, it’s death that’s been ascendant. That’s what frightens me so much now.
Q: You write about war and the corruption of values — that what’s normally bad becomes good.
A: Right. Well, you know, part of the myth of war is that war ennobles us, and that’s the lie that’s sold to young people, that they must be tested in war.
It’s very hard to make antiwar films or write antiwar books, because even if you look at a movie like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, you may recognize how horrible war is, but at the same time, you yearn for that kind of comradeship, which is not friendship. It’s very different. You yearn to be tested like that. That’s part of the way the myth is sold to us, that we’re not finally complete human beings (of course, this is often directed at men) until we’ve been through the experience of war, the maw of war.
You see that now with the way we mythologize the Second World War and forget the reality of the war. One of my uncles was destroyed by the war in the South Pacific and died as an alcoholic in a trailer. My family carried his burden from the end of the war until his death. And I don’t think my family was alone. But that’s not the kind of stuff we’re reading about or hearing about now.
Q: Talk a little more about the making of the myths and the need to make them, on the part of the government and the press.
A: The press is always part of the problem and always has been since the creation of the modern war correspondent in the Crimean War. There probably is a need for myth because modern war itself is such industrial slaughter. It is so horrible and so hard to get your head around; these massive weapons systems can wipe out whole battalions that never even see their attacker. There’s a very impersonal quality to modern war which makes a mockery of the notion of individual heroism.
It’s important for the nation and the state to spin out the myth of war, because it’s very hard to get a nation to back war unless they believe in these myths of glory [and] heroism. The self-exaltation that is part of the patriotic fervor of war includes a denigration of the other. Very swiftly the language mirrors that of your enemy. For those who are arrayed against us, we are “the infidels.” We call them “the barbarians.”
What’s particularly disturbing in the modern age is that the weapons we have, and that they may soon have, are essentially apocalyptic. We have the capacity now to destroy each other in a way that is new. We had the tension of the Cold War, with a kind of balance. But when rogue elements start getting these apocalyptic elements, and then we start talking about limited use of nuclear devices — this apocalyptic vision is part of that rhetoric between good and evil.
One of the things that is important to remember about the rhetoric is that there is this quality of cleansing to it, this notion that if we go to war and kill all the terrorists, what we’re really doing is cleansing. We’re getting rid of evil. And that’s exceedingly dangerous because, of course, it can never be achieved. This open-ended notion that somehow we can create a sanitized world — that’s very similar to those who are arrayed against us. They look at us as a corrupting influence. It isn’t a war in any conventional sense between nation-states; victory is ultimately defined in a way that can never be achieved.
Q: What’s your assessment of the possibility of war against Iraq? You say you’re not a pacifist.
A: Right. When you ask a democracy to go to war, the state is required to give evidence to the citizens that there is a credible and real threat against them, and that, therefore, their sons and daughters should be put in a situation in which they could be killed. I think that is a minimum in a democracy.
In the Persian Gulf War, you had an aggressive act by an outlaw state — Iraq. There’s pretty strong evidence that they were massing on the Saudi border and, knowing Saddam Hussein, he certainly would have taken Saudi Arabia if he thought he could get it. We had no choice but to fight the first Persian Gulf War.
This war is different. While they speak about a preemptive strike, you can’t carry out a preemptive strike if there’s no evidence that Saddam Hussein is planning to attack us. And if there is evidence, we have not been shown it. Nor have our allies.
Not all wars are about economic interest. I don’t think the intervention in the Balkans had anything to do with economic interests. But you can’t ignore the fact that Iraq sits on the second-largest oil reserves in the world, and we will control and determine how those resources are used once we occupy the country.
I think the other thing that bothers me about Iraq is that once you get into urban warfare, which I’ve seen close up, all of the cruise missiles in the world don’t help you. It really goes back to nineteenth-century fighting, as we saw in Mogadishu. Given a small but determined hostile force in the streets of Baghdad, things can get very messy, very quickly.
Because the Pentagon — with the connivance of the press — has sold us this bill of goods (that we can wage war and it won’t cost us anything), I don’t think we’re prepared at all as a nation for the kinds of casualties that potentially could take place. Even one dirty bomb exploded next to a marine tank battalion — that tank battalion isn’t going to exist anymore in a matter of seconds.
Let’s hope that things go well, if they go to war. But I think potentially it couldn’t. I don’t see that in a democratic state the case has been made by which our young men and women should go into a situation where they could be killed. Everybody talks about the low casualties in the Persian Gulf War. Well, there were still a few hundred families who will never be the same again, ever. They will bear the burden of the death of their child until the day they die.
One of the things that has disturbed me so much about the coverage of that war and since is that we ignore, in essence, what that cost. It’s why [the government] wouldn’t allow the press to cover the bodies returning to Dover [air force base], because somehow war is about death. War is a vast video arcade game about Sidewinder missiles always hitting evil Iraqi planes, and that is a very pernicious and dangerous lie.
Q: Why do you think the press is so complicit in that?
A: Because that mythic narrative boosts ratings and sells newspapers. That’s how William Randolph Hearst built his empire. Look at CNN. Every time there’s a war, suddenly everybody starts watching CNN. But would they watch CNN if it was a realistic portrayal of war? I don’t think so. In the Persian Gulf War, we in the press knew how to create a narrative. We had to find a hero. Who was our hero? General Schwartzkopf. It really didn’t matter who was the general commanding our army. We would have turned him into a hero.
In wartime, the press always views the conflict through that mythic lens. When I reported the war in Bosnia, without that intrusion of myth, you saw the war for the slaughter that it was. It was very unpalatable and horrible. But if I was a Serb reporting on that conflict, or a Croat, or a Muslim, everything that I reported would’ve been reported differently. I would’ve created a different narrative. I would’ve sought out heroes. I would’ve found situations that showed courage and glory and sacrifice. And then, of course, I would’ve sought out the victims that were my own, because in wartime we don’t have much pity for the other — we don’t have any pity for the other. And those victims — our own dead — are constantly held up as a kind of icon. They make it impossible for us to question the cause, because questioning the cause, we are told, is a sacrilege against our innocent dead.
The nationalist press in any country that covers a conflict very rarely reports that conflict honestly. I think Vietnam was different in the sense that, while it began as a mythic enterprise, as the public turned against it the press was freed to report it in a sensory manner — to report war for what it was. And then, of course, it became impossible to sustain. But since the Crimean War, the press has always embraced this myth, because it’s what people want to hear. Those who don’t write it are always shunted to the margins; they are ignored not only by the public, but by their own — the press.
Q: You mentioned the Vietnam War, and you speak often about the importance of getting the memory right. I’m thinking about the Vietnam Memorial.
A: It’s important to remember that the Vietnam Memorial was not an enterprise carried out by the government. It was carried out by veterans. Our country has a terrible problem with Vietnam because, of course, it was a defeat. It has been very hard for us to create a mythic narrative around the Vietnam War. So what we choose to do is to ignore it. That was very much behind what led Vietnam veterans to create the memorial. They raised the money themselves, chose the design themselves. In many ways, it’s an antimemorial. I find it a very powerful and moving monument.
Q: And it’s a memorial to each individual, not to the war as a whole.
A: That’s right. It’s not some statue of the generic, helmeted soldier gazing off into the sky. It individualizes the losses. It’s not like any memorial I’ve ever seen to war, and for that reason, I find it so powerful and so effective.
Q: I want to ask you about the role of religion and war. It’s often blamed for war. What did you find?
A: In wartime, religious institutions are usually the worst offenders. For instance, in Bosnia the UN could get Serb, Muslim, and Croat commanders together for a civil discussion far more easily than they could get the religious leaders [together] — imams and Serbian Orthodox clerics and Catholic priests.
Religion lends itself to that kind of triumphalism, that notion of the crusade, the purging of evil, the sanitation of dark forces by the forces of light. Certainly within the mosque, the church, you had individuals who stood up, but they very much ran against the institution. Many times these institutions are called upon by the state to sanctify the cause, and they usually are more than willing to do so.
Q: I took it that in your book you were saying that religion was not the underlying cause of the war, but was used by those who were fighting the war to justify what they were doing for other reasons.
A: In the war in the former Yugoslavia, religion was not the cause of the war. First of all, most Yugoslavs had very little religious education. I remember sitting around with a bunch of Muslim troops from the Fifth Corps. Not only was I the only one among the group who spoke Arabic; I soon realized I was the only one who’d ever read the Qur’an. The notion that they were fighting for religious identity was absurd. It was part of the myth of war.
What happened in the former Yugoslavia, and what happens in all fratricides, is what Freud calls the “narcissism of minor difference,” where you seize on absurd differences — you know, dialectic differences. And, of course, religion becomes the way by which you differentiate yourself from the other, and you suddenly say, “Serbs, or Muslims — these are not characteristics that they have; these are vices and we can never deal with these vices until we purge them from our society.” They don’t commit crimes; they have things inherently built into their character. I mean, it’s very much like anti-Semitism. And the only way to get rid of it is to eradicate it, because to be a Jew, to be a Serb, to be a Muslim is to have these qualities that destroy our civilization, and we must, therefore, destroy them.
Once you get into that situation, which the worst kind of [situation that] religion can back up, then you move very swiftly from the language of violence, the language of dehumanization of the other, toward the actual destruction of the other. We turn them into an object linguistically, and then we turn them into an object quite literally — a corpse.
In Bosnia, religion did not cause that war. It was warlords who often came out of the Communist Party and the breakup of Yugoslavia, who overnight became nationalists, who appropriated religion and used religion as a way to prosecute the war and denigrate the other. In every case, I think religion was used. I don’t think religion was a cause.
Religion is used for differentiating warring populations the same way ethnicity is, race is. It’s one of the tools those who want to manufacture a war use — a very effective one. Unfortunately, within the institutional church or the synagogue or the mosque, there are religious leaders who are willing to go along with that enterprise.
Q: You’ve warned of dangers within this country that could come from religious fundamentalism.
A: I had a great ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, James Luther Adams. When I was a student, he was in his seventies. He told us that when we were his age, we’d all be fighting the Christian fascists, which we thought was rather silly then, but probably not so silly now.
Fundamentalism lends itself completely to war, because it has a dichotomy between “us” and “them.” There is a notion that the only way to salvation is through whatever religion we happen to be, and in the fervor of that kind of fundamentalism, we refuse to acknowledge that salvation is possible through any other route. In a time of national distress, people always look for those who promise what appear to be black-and-white answers, or clear-cut solutions to the confusion around them.
One of the most important things to remember about war is that it entails a loss of control. Suddenly, you can’t control your environment. You search for those forces that you think can help you regain control, and fundamentalists promise the direct and divine intervention of God — whatever god that happens to be — on behalf of his chosen people — whatever chosen people that happens to be.
There is an appeal to fanaticism or fundamentalism in times of war. We certainly see this among the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the rise of the fundamentalist Jewish element within Israel and certainly the rise of fundamentalist Muslims among the Palestinians. I think that’s normal in wartime. You reach out to that kind of fundamentalism.
Q: When you were covering war, you found that the effects on you were such that you sought out the company of people who were in love. Would you talk about that a little bit?
A: We used to call it the “Linda Blair effect” in Bosnia. You think you’ve suddenly found the one, normal person that you can have a rational conversation with, and then after 15 minutes their head starts to spin around. It’s just amazing how almost everyone becomes infected with the rhetoric of wartime, and they just parrot back the clichŽs they’re handed. Whatever disquiet they feel, it’s as if they can’t express it. They’re robbed of language.
In every conflict I’ve been in, the only antidote is people who find their fulfillment, their sense of being, in love. In the Balkans, these were often couples who had mixed marriages and, therefore, they were immune from the rhetoric; to paint all Serbs as evil, or all Muslims as evil, or all Croats as evil was to denigrate the spouse, to dehumanize the spouse — which they couldn’t do. These [relationships] are always sanctuaries — sanctuaries that I went to in the war in Salvador. And this is something that I’ve thought about years later.
It doesn’t mean that they didn’t become victims. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t eventually wiped out. But it provided a small circle of sanity in the midst of the insanity, where all of that rhetoric, all of that drive for the ruthless annihilation of the other was held at bay, always by couples, which is why, usually, when you look at people who intervene in a town or a village to help a minority under threat, it’s usually couples — one of whom has that kind of moral quality and knows they have to take a moral stance, and the other who has that kind of compassion and caring that the daily maintenance of taking care of another requires.
Q: What do you think the costs were to you of all that you saw?
A: The costs were tremendous. These are images, memories that I’ll have to carry with me for the rest of my life. There are days when they’re very, very hard to bear. I have a very hard time connecting sometimes within the society in which I live. I certainly am ultrasensitive to the notion of violence as entertainment. I took my son to see the LORD OF THE RINGS movie, and I had to walk out. I couldn’t watch it.
I did it far too long. I struggle with that kind of trauma and keep it wrapped in protective wool, but it’s there. And it’s hard when it surfaces.
Q: Do you miss war?
A: I’m like my friends in Sarajevo. They all sat around at the end of the war, and they didn’t miss the suffering and the death; but they also realized that this was probably the fullest moment in their life. There was a kind of nostalgia for that, a sense of that comradeship, a sense of that excitement. Yet that kind of lifestyle or that kind of rush can probably never be re-created.
But, at the same time, I have no desire to go to Iraq. I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t feel the pull of it anymore.
Q: You write that your book is, among other things, a call to repentance. By whom and for what?
A: By us, as a nation. I feel that sense of repentance, that understanding that we are all in need of forgiveness (which was very much our experience after the Vietnam War) has been lost. It’s very dangerous to wage war when you don’t have that.
A call for repentance does not free us from the ethics of responsibility. I look at pacifism in the same way, often, that I look at cynicism. There’s a way of not making moral choice, a way of running away from moral choice. But what I worry now about the nation is that we’ve lost touch completely. There’s a danger that our own hubris is pushing us into adventurism and the use of violence on a wide scale without that sense of tragedy, without understanding that we too are sinful.
Q: You say what’s going on now perhaps has in it the seeds of our own obliteration. What do you mean?
A: The ancient Greeks and Romans understood that war is a god, and that war always begins by calling for the annihilation of the other. But left unexamined or unchecked, war always ends in self-annihilation. And in an age of apocalyptic weapons, of course, we flirt with our own destruction, especially when those arrayed against us have their hands on apocalyptic weapons.
To engage in conflicts like the one in Iraq, without careful and measured study, without a clear and imminent threat, is to flirt with our own destruction. All sorts of things could go horribly wrong with that war. Not only could it get messy on the ground, it could bring in Israel. It could accelerate the drive by these groups to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and use them, and [it could] certainly accelerate the process by which Saddam Hussein — who we know has them — would give them to these groups.
The scenarios that could spin out of this conflict could ultimately be self-destructive. As a nation, our reaction after 9/11 was to look inward rather than outward. We folded in on ourselves. We built an alliance with Sharon, with Putin, and these are very controversial figures in the world.
We had an opportunity to reach out, and we did not. Folding inward like that, not examining how others view us and why, not understanding our role in the world and then engaging in these military adventures is a combination that could be very self-destructive.
Q: Your whole book is an effort to face the truth about war. And you recommend again and again that we do that in this country. In the present climate, I suspect many Americans would find your book filled with very troubling judgments about the United States.
A: I was very conscious as I wrote the book not to denigrate the profession of soldiering. A friend of mine, Jack Wheeler, who graduated from West Point and was one of the forces behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, an officer in Vietnam, read it through for that reason. And he pushed me hard. In the introduction, where I talk about how I admire the qualities of the professional soldier, he said, “You have to name two.” He was right, and that was hard. I named Ulysses S. Grant for holding the Union together and General Wesley Clark, who was, within the military, one of the driving forces behind the intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia. Both [are] military leaders I respect.
I gave a talk at West Point, and I certainly found an understanding among the older officers who teach there, many of whom had been through Vietnam. Just because you’re a professional soldier doesn’t mean you like war. In many ways, those who have been through war hate it in a way that only those who have been through war can hate it. Yet they know that they have a job to do.
This isn’t a book that is going to be used in peace studies programs, necessarily. It certainly exposes the evil of war, the poison of war; it says not only that there are nevertheless times we have to wage war, but also that it is morally imperative for us to use violence — certainly in the cases of Kosovo, Sarajevo, Rwanda.
Q: And now in Iraq — can you imagine things that would come to light, reasons for going to war that would, in your opinion, justify it?
A: There’s only one reason that would justify a war with Iraq, and that is if there is evidence of a real threat against us by the Iraqis. If, for instance, Saddam Hussein was building an intercontinental ballistic missile, if he was planning to drop a crude nuclear device on New York, then we’d have no choice. But we can only go to war when we have no choice. And at least up until now, that evidence has not been presented to anyone by the Bush administration.
Q: When you came back from Kosovo, you spent a year reading the classics. What were you trying to understand?
A: I did that on the advice of James Freedman, the former president of Dartmouth, and it was one of the smartest things I did because, of course, Thucydides, Cicero, Virgil — all of these great writers dealt with the same issues. Virgil and Cicero came out of a very bloody civil war that ended with the reign of Augustus.
I was freed from the cant of my own society and allowed to grapple with those issues in a way that brought them into clearer focus. I saw, for instance, in writers such as Aristotle how great minds in societies are limited. Even though Aristotle opposed slavery, he believed that slavery would never be eradicated. It allowed me to come back and look at our own society and my own life in a way that I hadn’t before. And then, quite frankly, I found that a lot of the writing of Catullus, this great lyric Roman poet, just spoke to me over hundreds of years in a very powerful and moving way. I memorized a lot of Catullus’s poems. And when I went to visit Kurt Schork’s grave in Sarajevo, I stood over it and recited the poem that Catullus had written to his own brother who died near Troy. It gave me a kind of continuity, a clearer understanding of who I was and the age in which I live:
By strangers’ coasts and waters, many days at sea,
I came here for the rites of your unworlding,
Bringing for you, the dead, these last gifts of the living
And my words — vain sounds for the man of dust.
Alas, my brother,
You have been taken from me. You have been taken from me
And by cold hands turned to shadow and my pain.
Here are the foods of the old ceremony appointed
Long ago for the starvelings under the earth.
Take them. Your brother’s tears have made them wet. And take
Into eternity my hail and my farewell.
Q: You think that war is hardwired into the human condition, that we are people who inevitably and forever will go to war against each other. But we’ve had serious problems in this country and in all countries. And we have figured out a way through law and have enforced law at least to minimize those problems. Can’t we do the same thing with war?
A: I think that’s true within our incredibly wealthy and privileged society and within the industrialized societies in Europe. But most of the world doesn’t live like we do. At least half of the globe lives on less than two dollars a day. And there will always be rogue states. Eventually, a rogue state will have the ability to use a nuclear weapon against us. And what do we do then? How do you negotiate with North Korea? How do you negotiate with an Iraq? You can’t. There are people you can’t negotiate with. There are people that, finally, you must stand up against. It’s na•ve to say, “We can do this within our own society; therefore, we can do this in the world,” because most of the world doesn’t live like we do.
Q: What’s your prescription for what we in this country should do to minimize all the terrible things that you saw?
A: We have to change the role that we have in the world. We complain about the Taliban, and then we all ignore the fact that we supported [rebel leader Jonas] Savimbi in Angola for years — a man who was responsible for 500,000 dead, who bombed Red Cross hospitals. We have to stand back and understand how others — especially the poor of the world — view us, and why.
There are things that we do, there are governments and regimes we support that carry out horrific injustices. We can try and stomp out terrorists, but we will not stomp out the causes of terrorism simply through the use of force, or by dropping iron fragmentation bombs all over Afghanistan.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t go after Osama bin Laden. Of course, we should. But that alone, in and of itself, is not going to solve our problem. If that’s all we do, it may, in fact, make it worse.
We live in a society whose opulence is staggering. I remember after the Gulf War sitting with a bunch of poor kids in a slum in Ababa, in Cairo. They were all Islamists. They couldn’t go to school anymore, because in the Egyptian school system, if you don’t have the money to pay the teacher what is, in essence, a bribe for tutoring you, you’re not advanced. The only dignity these people had they found in the mosque.
How did they look at the Persian Gulf War, these kids who had nothing? They saw us, who consume 25 percent of the world’s petrol, fight a war to ensure our right to continue to consume this resource at very cheap prices. The message that the Gulf War sent to them was, “We have everything. And if you try and take it away from us, we’ll kill you.”
And I think they were right. We have to begin to sit on the steps of those mosques and acknowledge the truth and the justice of some of these statements and change the way we behave in the world. That doesn’t mean we won’t always have to fight rogue elements and terrorists, but it will keep them as a minority. If we continue with this very ham-fisted and self-righteous imperialism, we’re just not going to have many friends out there at all. One fifth of the world’s population, most of whom are not Arabs, looks at us as a nation through the prism of Chechnya, Palestine. And we just don’t look very good.
Q: What do we need to do?
A: In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we need to put a brake on the Israelis. It’s not in Israel’s interest to accelerate this conflict, and it’s certainly not in ours. The Europeans are better on this. I just don’t think we acknowledge the horrific suffering the Palestinians are going through. We minimize it. We don’t understand that for many of these young kids, the only way they have left to affirm themselves is through death, through suicide.
We have to give them other ways to affirm themselves. Until that happens, this conflict isn’t going to end. We have the power to go in there and change things. But because everything has become subordinated to the war on terror, we’re not doing so.
Q: At the end of your book, after you have described the poison of war and the myths around it, you come back to a very, very personal and very traditional recommendation — love.
A: Love is the only force that finally can counter the force of death — the death instinct. When shells would come into Sarajevo and at the most horrific moment of death, when people were literally lying in pools of their own blood dying, family members, friends, brothers, sisters, spouses would claw through the crowds looking for their loved ones. Just as death seemed to radiate out from that point, at the same time love radiated out. You can’t go through an experience like that and not understand the palpable power of love, the power of that one act of reconciliation and forgiveness — the Muslim farmer who gives milk to the Serb baby for 200-plus days, and the way he was reviled by his neighbors. Yet, when I interviewed the Serb couple whose baby had been saved, they could never denigrate Muslims the way their Serb neighbors could because of that act.
What appear to be small acts of love — in those acts are seeds of hope. That little child may grow up in the Serb part of Bosnia, where to this day there’s terribly racist rhetoric against Muslims. And that child must know that she is alive because of a poor Muslim farmer whom she may never meet.
We cannot underestimate these acts that often seem minimal and small in the face of war, but which I’ve come to understand are immensely powerful and give us hope.
Q: I want to invite you to read the last paragraph from your book.
A: “To survive as a human being is possible only through love. And when Thanatos is ascendent, the instinct must be to reach out to those we love, to see in them all the divinity, pity and pathos of the human. And to recognize love in the lives of others — even those with whom we are in conflict — love that is like our own. It does not mean we will avoid war or death. It does not mean that we as distinct individuals will survive. But love, in its mystery, has its own power. It alone gives us meaning that endures. It alone allows us to embrace and cherish life. Love has the power both to resist in our nature what we know we must resist, and to affirm what we know we must affirm. And love, as the poets remind us, is eternal.”