Chris Hedges at Lannan

In case your early a.m. paper-reading isn’t chilling enough, The Lannan Foundation’s rich and generous web site – as well as its no-cost podcast subscription – offers this ’Reading & Conversation’ with veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges. The author of What Every Person Should Know About War and War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Hedges speaks from an almost insane amount of (voluntary) experience. He spent two decades covering conflicts in Central America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Here’s just a brief passage from Hedge’s very long and very bleak address:

War is the pornography of violence. It has a dark beauty filled with the monstrous and the grotesque. The Bible calls it the ‘lust of the eye’ and warns believers against it. War gives us a distorted sense of self. It gives us meaning. It creates a feeling of comradeship that obliterates our alienation and makes us feel, for perhaps the first time in our lives, that we belong. War allows us to rise above our small stations in life. We find nobility in the cause, feelings of selflessness, even bliss. Once in a conflict, the shallowness of much of our lives becomes apparent, the fruitless search to find fulfillment in the acquisition of things and wealth and power is laid bare. The trivia that dominates our airwaves is exposed as empty chatter. War allows us to engage in lust and passions we keep hidden in the deepest, most private interiors of our fantasy life. It allows us to destroy not only things, but human beings. In that moment of wholesale destruction, we wield the power of the divine: the power to revoke another person’s charter to live on this earth. The frenzy of this destruction – and when unit discipline breaks down or there was no unit discipline to begin with, 'frenzy’ is the right word – sees armed bands crazed by the poisonous elixir our power to bring about the obliteration of others delivers. All things, including human beings, become objects – objects to either gratify or destroy or both. Almost no one is immune. The contagion of the crowd sees to that. 'Force,’ Simone Weil writes, 'is as pitiless to the man who possesses it or thinks he does as it to its victims. The second it crushes; the first it intoxicates.’ And those who have the least meaning in their lives – the impoverished Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of youth in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world are all susceptible to war’s appeal. I do not miss war. But I miss what it brought. I could never say I was happy in the fighting in El Salvador or Bosnia or Kosovo, but I had a sense of purpose. This is a quality war shares with love, for we are also able to choose fealty and self-sacrifice or security for those we love. This is why war, at its inception, always looks and feels like love – the chief emotion war destroys.

I’ve just noticed that Hedges has given this address a few other places, one of which offers a transcript of its version. As I can now cut-and-paste, rather than transcribe, I’ll highlight one additional passage that I thought hit its mark.

War has found me, found us out again. We have blundered into nations we know little about, caught between bitter rivalry as between competing ethnic and religious groups and we have embarked on an occupation in Iraq that is as damaging to our souls as it is to our prestige and power and security. We have become tyrants to others weaker than ourselves and we believe falsely that because we have the capacity to wage war we have the right to wage war. Once you master a people by force you depend on force for control. Isolation always impairs judgment and we are very isolated now.              

In Antigone, the king imposes his will without listening to those he rules and dooms himself. Thucydideswrote of Athens’ expanding empire and how this empire led it to become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. The tyranny Athens imposed on others, it finally imposed on itself. The lust for war, the desire for profits led the Athenians to lose sight of democratic ideals, ideals that are their legacy to us and should be our legacy to others. We are fed images and slogans that perpetuate fantasies about our own invulnerability, our own might, our own goodness, and these illusions blind us. We cannot see ourselves as others see us. We have fed the heart on fantasies. William Butler Yeates wrote, “The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”