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 Š 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.