Q&A: A Rehabbed War Junkie

bookNear the end of his run as a war correspondent for the New York Times in the killing fields of El Salvador, Chris Hedges found himself jumping over the KLM counter to attack an airline clerk who had, he thought, insulted him. The clerk stuck a pen through his cheek, and Hedges flew all the way to Madrid with dried blood on his face that he refused to wipe off. He wanted to remember the event. The psychopathology of war, as he puts it, had come home.

That was in 1988. Chris Hedges spent several more years in and close to war -- in Bosnia, the civil wars in the Sudan, Algeria and Yemen, the West Bank and Gaza and the Persian Gulf War, among others. He was held captive in Iraq by Republican Guard, sniped at by both Serbian and Israeli soldiers, and kept awake by heavy artillery in Sarajevo. In his recently published book, "War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning," Hedges gives an accounting of his 15-year battle with what he now calls the addiction and myth of war.

War is about overpowering an enemy, to be sure, but in Hedge's account war is attractive, ennobling, consuming, and ultimately corrupting for everyone who breaths its vapors. War can give people, a nation, tribes, soldiers and reporters a sense of purpose, a reason for living, and that is its wonderful trick -- one gets high, vision distorts, and handling the world becomes simple . . . for a time. The "moral certitude of the state in wartime," Hedges writes, banishes self-doubt, and the media, in the main, go along for the ride.

Having been raised by a pacifist and Presbyterian minister father and a mother who also studied theology, Hedges followed their steps into Harvard Divinity School at a time when he sought both religious wisdom and an epic battle -- a powerful tension in the history of most religious traditions. He found his own Spanish Civil War in the Central America of the 1980s. Last week he spoke about his experience, the war in Iraq -- where more than a dozen journalists have already died -- the wars that transformed him, and the scars he still bears.

Alternet: You've written that the press is often complicit in keeping the myth of war alive and healthy. Have you seen this mythmaking in the reporting of the War in Iraq?

Hedges: Yes, I think it very much characterizes the reporting of the war. This is a war, perhaps even more than the Persian Gulf war, that fuses entertainment with news, with graphics, the big maps, the live footage that are given to us without context. It's an alluring package that allows people to have the false perception that they understand war or have a sense of war. The commentators, the retired military people who talk endlessly about the prowess and power of our military and especially our weapons system, contribute to this notion of war as spectator sport or war as a vast video arcade game. This, of course, has nothing to do with the reality of war.

The language itself, as is true of every war, smacks of that kind of partisanship. It includes terms meant to dehumanize Iraqis, calling these small guerilla bands that are, whatever you think of Saddam Hussein, nevertheless fighting an invading force, calling them terrorist death squads. There is a complete corruption of language, a lack of context for the information we have, and a disturbing, ecstatic response to the power of our own weapons.

Alternet: Doesn't sound like you're very impressed with the embedded reporters.

Hedges: I don't have any problem with embedding journalists. That's a part of covering a war. My problem is when they have a lock on our perception of the war, we're going to get a very distorted picture of the war. You need good independent reporting, free of military control. The problem with the embedded is that not only do they rely on all of there logistics from the military, including their transportation, their food, a place to sleep, and most importantly their safety, but there is a natural identification with the unit they're with, so you are going to get a distorted sense of the war if that's all you see, and that is essentially all we see.

And when things go horribly wrong, the military is not going to be driving the reporters up to take pictures of it. A fundamental component of war is propaganda. This war has been a tremendous success for the military in that sense, and unfortunately a terrible failure for American journalism.

Alternet: What about journalists not with the troops, those reporting from Baghdad?

Hedges: You can't report from Baghdad. I've worked in Iraq, and the fact is it's very hard to move in Baghdad. You're not getting unfettered reporting from Baghdad because the Iraqis very tightly control what people see and where they can go. It's important that some of those reporters get into the hospitals and other areas. Nevertheless, the notion that the Iraqis are allowing reporters to do what they please is mistaken.

There are several reporters in Iraq today who have this, if you will excuse the expression, shock and awe about what they are seeing. They are, in a very real sense, thrilled with the war. This reminded my of a couple of your major themes in "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," namely, the myths of war and the addiction of war. What are those myths, and what is the addiction of war?

Hedges: Right. War is an addiction. Having been a war correspondent for many years, I know war is addictive, and that's why many war correspondents go from war to war to war, and barely function in between. In the same way that soldiers get off on a combat high, journalists get off on an adrenalin rush and that high voltage, high octane life that comes with war. And it's a very unhealthy way to live.

But it's not uncommon to firefighters, police, soldiers or war correspondents. It's a very similar phenomenon.

Alternet: What are the qualities of that existence that make it so inviting?

Hedges: Look, some of the things they tell you about war are true. The colors are brighter, the mind races ahead of itself, you are awake, aware in a way that you have never been before. War is Zen. And that's true. It is an incredibly, at once, horrifying and exhilarating experience.

Alternet: If war is an addiction, how does a person or a culture beat that addiction?

Hedges: The only antidote is love. It's the only force that can overpower you to such an extent that you can no longer go to war. Of those people who I have seen who were most able to resist the intoxification of war, most were couples who had good, powerful, loving relationships. They didn't fall for the nationalist rhetoric or the drumbeat of war. And that's why, as in Bosnia or in World War II France, the people who rescued persecuted minorities were almost always couples. And those that thrill and find the greatest attraction to war are mostly atomized or lonely individuals.

Alternet: Is there a gendered aspect to the attraction of war?
Hedges: I think that in general women are more sensitive to that maternal instinct, the loss of innocence, or the maiming and killing of children. All that said, women can kill just as assiduously as men. We saw that clearly in Rwanda.

Alternet: In your book you don't mind speaking in a biblical language, about redemption, grace and forgiveness. How does that kind of language fit with your experience and the reality of war?
Hedges: I went to seminary. My father was a minister, my mother was a seminary graduate, and I grew up in the church, so it's a language that I'm comfortable with. I was trained to think theologically and I think I still do. I try to keep that language to a minimum, but it's a very important component of how I look and the world and how I look at life.

Alternet: George Bush uses Biblical language and imagery as well, especially in his now famous "Axis of Evil" speech. How do you understand his use of the theologically inflected language?
Hedges: When George Bush uses Biblical language it frightens me. I believe that anyone who feels that they understand the will of God, and can act as an agent for God, is dangerous. This is why those arrayed against us are so dangerous. So when people employ Biblical or religious language to sanctify war, or sanctify human action, then I'm frightened.

Alternet: Recently two marines from southern California were awarded citizenship posthumously. Is this the stuff of mythmaking as well, a way to sanctify war?

Hedges: I think what awarding citizenship posthumously points out is that those who are fighting and dying on the banks of the Euphrates are primarily the underclass, the disenfranchised, minorities, emigrants. The sons and daughters of the middle class are not, by and large, in the armed forces. We have, in essence, a mercenary army. And these people don't have much of a voice politically, and which is, frankly, why they are seen as expendable. The motive for most people to join the military, in most cases, is it's the only way they could get a decent job and health insurance.

I support the draft. The creation of the army, essentially composed of the poor, is one that makes it easier to wage war. If we would had a draft, people would have asked a lot of questions about this conflict and exerted a lot of pressure probably to stop it.

Alternet: One part of the conventional wisdom that came out of the Vietnam War was that the American people will not accept a high number of casualties. This is, perhaps, politically wise, but do you think it is morally wise if it leads to an emphasis on a high-tech war of annihilation from the sky?

Hedges: Of course, if you use your military technology to wage lopsided wars, then people stop questioning whether those wars should be waged, and what's being done in their name. And that is part of the problem. We have sold the American public this notion of virtual war. We will pay for that if history is any guide. Our weapons do not make us invulnerable. And we may see that in Baghdad. If there's resistance -- we certainly saw this in Mogadishu -- all the cruise missiles don't help you when you are trying to take a city block.

No matter how powerful your military, when you occupy a country or a people that don't want you, they will certainly suffer more casualties than you do. Their deaths will be disproportionate, as was true in Vietnam, but they'll bleed you dry. That's certainly what's happening to the Israelis, and I think that is possibly what could happen to us in Iraq if we become a colonizing power, which it appears we are about ready to become.

Alternet: That gets us to what's next. You spent a lot of time in the Middle East, you know the countries and the people. What is likely to happen in post-war Iraq?

Hedges: It depends on how we handle Iraq. If we look at Iraq as an American protectorate; if we set up a client state that dances to our tune and does not represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people; if we refuse to create an open system, then sooner or later we're going to be in big trouble. I fear for the future, and I feel it could be a messy and very dangerous situation if we're not out of there very quickly.

Alternet: One final question. What did you do to beat the addiction of war?

Hedges: It was very hard because my identity was wrapped up in it. My cache at the newspaper came from that. I got off from that kind of life style. It became harder and harder to be in war. Like any addiction, the drug starts to destroy you and kill you, and I'd been around too much violent death. I was crumbling. I was crumbling emotionally, I was crumbling physically, and I had to stop.

I realized that the choice was finally breaking free of that kind of life style or having it consume me, which war finally always does. All that said, it took me a long time to do it, and it wasn't easy. It was a very exhilarating way to live. I had a certain degree of importance as a New York Times correspondence in Sarajevo. People look to you, and they believe in what you're doing. And I still believe in it. I think that what war correspondents do is important, and I admire their courage and their honesty, the good ones. At the same time it does have a very dark side to it, and one has to guard against that dark side. And frankly, I just came to a point where I had done it too long and I had to force myself to stop. And I did.

Alternet: So no desire to head to Iraq?
Hedges: Absolutely not.

Kerry Candaele is a historian, writer and musician. His most recent book is "Bound for Glory: African Americans from the Great Migration to the Harlem Renaissance." He is at work on a book entitled "Small Town Sixties: Rebellion and Transformation in Backwater America." He lives in Venice, California.

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