After graduating from Harvard Divinity School in the early 1980s, Chris Hedges began his career as a war correspondent that took him to El Salvador, Sudan, Iraq, Israel, Bosnia and other places where armed conflict has defined recent history. His first book, "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," is less a memoir of his 15 years at the front than a meditation on how war affects those who fight. Calling battle a lethal addiction and nationalism a plague, Hedges writes about how myths drives nations into war and sustain soldiers in combat. Beliefnet's Paul O'Donnell talked to him recently about America's response to 9/11, "the fog of war" and the future of Iraq.

You call Bush's with-us-or-against-us stance a jihad. What do you mean by that?
We use overtly religious language. It's the same language the Islamic radicals use, both to sanctify the cause and demonize the enemy. That's not uncommon. In war, we raise the conflict to a battle between light and dark. That's part of endowing the conflict with the mythic quality it requires to propel it forward.

What religious language have you heard Bush use?
The speech he gave at Ellis Island, the last line was taken directly from the gospel of John. Probably much more than the public realizes, he has repeatedly used biblical language and metaphors to explain the event. And of course this is very dangerous.

Dangerous how?
Dangerous because we believe we can carry out the will of God. That's a step away from viewing ourselves as God. That puts you in the same class as those arrayed against us. You fail to see the divinity in the other. You fail to recognize your own sinfulness, your own cupability. Rheinhold Niebuhr said we must always act and then ask for forgiveness.

As [St.] Paul pointed out, we look through a glass darkly-it's not in our power as human beings to fully understand God's will, and how God works on Earth. We lose our humility. In a broader sense, we fail to understand how others see us because we've exalted ourselves, and in that exaltation have pushed the other down.

By speaking about the conflict this way, we rob ourselves of the ability to critique what we're doing. Everyone speaks in cliches handed to them by the state. You can see it in "the war on terror." It's not a war, and we're not fighting terror--you can't fight an idea. It's only when we can recover a common language with those who oppose us that we can talk of peace.

Is war ever a moral option?
If you look at modern industrial conflicts, it hard to endow them with moral qualities. War can become inescapable, or inevitable, but it is still a disease. Sometimes you have to ingest that disease to save the corporate body of the nation, the way a cancer patient accepts poison into their body. But if you're not aware of how dangerous it is, and what the essence of the substance is, it can kill you. War begins with the annihilation of the other, but very easily it can end with self-annihilation.

Don't we sometimes simply need these myths as anesthesia, to get us through the disease?
It's the nature of all states, in peacetime and wartime, to lie. If you look at the reasons LBJ gave for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, they were lies. The same was true in the First World War. So yes, myth is necessary to make society and soldiers go into the war. But we have to be extremely vigilant, because those lies can thrust us into unnecessary wars.

The current debate is about whether Saddam is a threat, and if we invade, can we build a new Iraqi state. Those seem to be fairly realistic points. What myths do you see in play here?
If there's a credible threat from Baghdad, we, like any nation, will protect ourselves. But there is no threat. It's pre-emptive: "We have to do this before something happens." Saddam has some bad stuff. When I went in with the Marines after the war, I watched them blow up dumps of chemical and biological weapons. If he feels he's going down, he might use what he has to strike back. So we may become less secure, not more secure.

We've folded in ourselves since 9/11. We've created alliance, this troika with Sharon and Putin and us. This has colored how we're viewed in the rest of the world, especially the Muslim world. Because of the mythmaking, we have no concept of how we're looked at, and, with a great deal of justification, we're really detested.

How do we avoid war?
I agree with Freud. I don't think war will be eradicated. There are periods when eros [the life instinct] is ascendant and when thanatos [the death instinct] is ascendant. At the end of the Vietnam War, we were chastened as a people and a nation, and we began to ask questions about ourselves. We began to accept responsibility for things we had done. We became a better nation because of our defeat. But during with the invasion of Grenada during the Reagan administration, war became popular again. Then we had the Gulf War, and war became fun. Until we're bloodied and humbled, the death instinct will rule.

In Pakistan, Islamic militants have recently attacked Christian sites. Is this a change from the battle between Islam and western society generally to a more sectarian one?
That's longstanding in the Middle East. Christians are seen by many Muslims as representing the ideology of the west. So while the attacks are new, the enmity isn't new.

But as we saw in Bosnia, you need that religious language to give these rapacious killing sprees theological justification. I remember sitting around with Bosnian Muslim soldiers in the fall campaign of '95, and realizing I was the only one in the room who had read the Koran. Yet it was portrayed that they were fighting for Islam. We've do the same thing, as in Bush's religious language. Lincoln did it too. Stalin resurrected the church during World War II for Old Mother Russia. And it worked.

What if George W. Bush got up and said, "There are many reasons for what happened on Sept. 11, and we're partly culpable. But what they did was wrong and we have to fight back"? Would that be a better stance?
Well, the question is, what did the bombing of Afghanistan really do? Al-Qaeda is not crushed. Since it looks like we're not going to put the resources into rebuilding Afghanistan, just like last time, we may find ourselves with a messy problem on our hands. What would happen if a politician got up and told the truth? Well, people who get up in the middle of national euphoria are very lonely figures. People don't' want to ask those questions because they are having too much fun.

What would you have someone stand up and say?
That we're not who we portray ourselves to be. We're not who we think we are. We must have pity on those whom we kill, not just our own. And until we see that spark of divinity in the other, we're doomed to be the mirror image of those we fight against.

You say that the first act of a country at war is to destroy its own culture. Do you mean impinging on civil rights, that kind of thing?
Yeah, but beyond that, infusing art with patriotic symbols. Waving American flags at the symphony, playing "God Bless America" instead of Beethoven. Everything is destroyed by the patriotic myth. What sells is kitsch, doggerel, jingoism--cultural garbage. Quasi historical novels and sappy sentimental poems about soldiers and heroes--it's all myth. These people were just as frightened, and the moral ambiguity was just as rich as it is now. But all that is ignored. The myth dominates every aspect of culture. It's a terrible kind of contagion. It becomes very hard to think independently.

We inherited this phrase, "the fog of war," from Bob Kerry's revelations last year about a massacre he was involved in in Vietnam. Is there such a thing, or is that myth too?
The unfortunate thing about the Kerry incident is that that's the rule, not the exception. What his unit did is what, if you stay in combat long enough, most soldiers do. That's what we couldn't accept as a nation. We had to look at it as an aberration. It wasn't an aberration, and Kerry knows that. Nor are his feelings of guilt or remorse an aberration. Soldiers carry those. So that's what's disturbing. We didn't want to see that about war.

The fog of war-look, if you're flipped out on the drug of war, you don't think a lot. You've got adrenaline coursing through your blood and fear, and you've got this god-like power to destroy everything around you. It's a kind of drug frenzy. In the midst of it, you can't talk to soldiers. They speak gibberish. Their eyes are glazed. I've seen it in every conflict I've covered. It's probably the closest human beings come to the divine, where they have, within seconds, the power to revoke another person's charter to live on this Earth. And they do.

Having seen as much fighting as you have, what does it make you believe about the existence of God?
You understand the power of love. It's not a term St. Paul would like, but let's use Freud's term, eros. The only sane people in times of conflict are couples who are truly in love. They find they have the completeness that they don't need the state. They don't need the myth. In Bosnia, they were often mixed couples. They were by nature excluded from this ethnic triumphalism. It's usually couples who rescue an individual life. They have the moral rigidity on one hand and the compassion on the other to take care of someone hiding in their basement for three years.

So you see the power of love, and to the extent that that is the divine, you see that it is an undeniable force in human existence, and the only force finally that can confront thanatos.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad