Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Chris Hedges.  War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.  New York: Perseus, 2002.  ISBN: 1586480499.

This is a sobering book, packed with insightful observations of the human condition at its worst.  Hedges writes from the perspective of a seasoned war journalist, well aware of all that his job entails (especially the evil).  Here are several passages that really struck me.  Even though the first is quite long, an extended reflection on war built around anecdotes from modern conflicts (especially the Persian Gulf War), it is worth quoting entire (pp. 146-150).
It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort. The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting the cause. And some of the most important cheerleaders of the cause are the reporters. This is true in nearly every war. During the Gulf War, as in the weeks after the September attacks, communities gathered for vigils and worship services. The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura. We, even those in the press, spoke in the collective. And because we in modern society have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the state in times of war. The state and the institutions of state become, for many, the center of worship in wartime. To expose the holes in the myth is to court excommunication.

Edmund Dene Morel, the British crusader against Belgian atrocities in the Congo, denounced World War I as madness. He argued that through a series of treaties kept secret from Parliament and the public, Britain had become caught up in the senseless and tragic debacle. His fight against the war saw mobs break up his meetings with stink bombs and his banners ripped down. He finally could not rent a hall. His friends deserted him. Police raided his office and his home. The wartime censor banned some of his writings. He was flooded with hate mail. The government finally jailed him in 1917. It was only after 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded that he was proven correct--the treaties did indeed exist. The war was a needless waste. But by then the myth of the war was no longer needed, since the fighting had ended.

The moral certitude of the state in wartime is a kind of fundamentalism. And this dangerous messianic brand of religion, one where self-doubt is minimal, has come increasingly to color the modern world of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Dr. James Luther Adams, my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, used to tell us that we would end our careers fighting an ascendant fundamentalist movement, or as he liked to say, "the Christian fascists." He was not a scholar to be disregarded, however implausible such a scenario seemed at the time. There is a danger of a growing fusion between those in the state who wage war--both for and against modern states--and those who believe they understand and can act as agents for God.

History is awash with beleaguered revolutionaries and lunatic extremists who were endowed with enough luck and enough ruthlessness to fill power vacuums. The danger is not that fundamentalism will grow so much as that modern, secular society will wither. Already mainstream Christianity, Judaism, and Islam lie defeated and emasculated by the very forces that ironically turned them into tolerant, open institutions. In the event of massive and repeated terrorist strikes or an environmental catastrophe, an authoritarian state church could rise ascendant within American democracy. The current battle between us and our Islamic radical foes can only increase the reach of these groups.

But whether the impetus is ostensibly secular or religious, the adoption of the cause means adoption of the language of the cause. When we speak within the confines of this language we give up our linguistic capacity to question and make moral choices.

The cause is unassailable, wrapped in the mystery reserved for the divine. Those who attempt to expose the fabrications and to unwrap the contradictions of the cause are left isolated and reviled. We did not fight the Persian Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, but to ensure that we would continue to have cheap oil. But oil is hardly a cause that will bring crowds into the street.

I was with young Islamic militants in a Cairo slum a few weeks after the war. They no longer attended the state school because their families did not have the money to hire teachers to tutor them. The teachers, desperate for a decent income, would not let students pass unless they paid. These militants spent their days at the mosque. They saw the Persian Gulf War for what it was, a use of force by a country that consumed 25 percent of the world's petrol to protect its access to cheap oil. The message to them was this: We have everything and if you try to take it away from us we will kill you. It was not a message I could dispute.
We allied ourselves with some of the most despotic regimes in the region during the war, including the Syrians, who sponsor an array of terrorist groups. Damascus demanded $3 billion as the price for sending its troops to support the war effort. The morning the invasion began, I traveled with a Marine detachment past the Syrian soldiers. They were drinking tea. They waved us forward. None of them ever saw any fighting. We did not see Syrian soldiers again until they were passed through our lines after the combat was over so they, and our other Arab allies, could "liberate" Kuwait City. The ecological devastation to the region, the fact that Saddam Hussein remained in power to slaughter thousands of Shiites who rebelled with our encouragement against his regime and then were abandoned by us to their fate, the gross corruption and despotism of the Kuwaiti rulers, who did not move back to Kuwait City until their opulent palaces were refurbished, were minor footnotes to a stage-managed tale of triumph. As in most conflicts, the war, as presented to the public, was fantasy.

When those who commit crimes do so in the name of a cause, they often come to terms with the crimes through an ersatz moral relativism. Facts are trimmed, used, and become as interchangeable as opinions. The Muslims may say the Serbs shelled the marketplace in Sarajevo while the Serbs may say that the Muslims fired shells on their own citizens there to garner international support. Both opinions, if one sits in a cafe in Belgrade, may be valid. Both the facts and the opinions become a celebration of ignorance, and more ominously, a refusal to discredit the cause that has eaten away at one's moral conscience.

Destruction of honest inquiry, the notion that one fact is as good as the next, is one of the most disturbing consequences of war. The prosecution of war entails lying, often on a massive scale--something most governments engage in but especially when under the duress of war. The Serbs who were eventually able to admit that atrocities were carried out in their name explained away the crimes by saying that everyone did this in war. The same was true among the elite and the military in El Salvador. All could match an atrocity carried out by our side with an atrocity carried out by the enemy. Atrocity canceled out atrocity.

Hannah Arendt noted this attitude in Germany after World War II, calling it "nihilistic relativism." She believed it was a legacy of Nazi propaganda, which, unlike that of non-totalitarian states, was based on the concept that all facts could and would be altered and all Nazi lies should be made to appear true. Reality became a conglomerate of changing circumstances and slogans that could be true one day and false the next.

Illusions punctuate our lives, blinding us to our own inconsistencies and repeated moral failings. But in wartime these illusions are compounded. The cause, the protection of the nation, the fight to "liberate Kuwait" or wage "a war on terrorism," justifies the means. We dismantle our moral universe to serve the cause of war. And once it is dismantled it is nearly impossible to put it back together. It is very hard for most of us to see the justice of the other side, to admit that we too bear guilt. When we are asked to choose between truth and contentment, most of us pick contentment.
In these pages, I feel that Hedges touches all the problems that define my personal struggle to exist in society as a moral individual, somebody with real moral integrity.  His rhetoric comes from physical battlefields, where people kill and dismember each other in the flesh, but it applies also to metaphorical battlefields, where fanatics wage "culture wars" to kill and dismember the souls of people whose existence makes them uncomfortable (for reasons that are usually specious).  I grew up rather close to the Christian fascism that Hedges mentions, hearing a lot of talk as a youth about my duty to wage war with the devil--and "the world" (meaning people with no affinity for the particular brand of fascism I was meant to identify with the will and cause of God).  I was told that the devil would use "the world" to destroy me, that I had to band together with God's faithful to resist him--with money, labor, votes, whatever God's generals wanted.

As a trusting kid, I gave those generals everything they asked.  I took my marching orders, and I went to the battlefront (or "the mission field," as it is also called).  There I saw everything Hedges describes--less immediately and awfully revolting, but revolting nonetheless.  I saw that "the world" were mostly just people like me--fools following orders, idiots trying their best to make sense of the mess that is human society, and (yes) a few malicious criminals playing the fools against the idiots to get power and swag. I saw people condemned to hell-on-earth by God.  I saw them redeemed by the devil (and "the world").  I saw families ruined by specious "defenses of marriage" (which somehow required me to attack all the intimate human relationships that God's generals disliked, for reasons that amount to nothing objectively defensible: I know this because I tried to defend them--to good people, to myself, with words and deeds of integrity, words and deeds I could not and cannot find).  The immediate outcome of this experience was that I became alienated from Christian fanaticism.  The long-term outcome is that I am permanently alienated from human society on the large scale.  I mistrust all institutions too big to treat me, and individual people like me, as having more than statistical significance.

My experiences with religion led me to disaffiliate with organized churches on the large scale.  I can join small groups of people doing work I believe in.  I cannot and will not join a world-wide church (or movement).  I do not believe in world-wide movements as offering on balance more reward than risk, more good than evil.  I also disaffiliate with political movements on the large scale.  I will support politicians to whom I might matter as an individual.  I will not support factions (Left or Right, Republican or Democrat, communist or fascist).  There is a certain amount of calm that comes with this resolution of mine, a resolution that has some integrity.  But that calm is undercut by the realization that worldwide movements exist and use me, even when I wish to depart from them permanently and absolutely.  I am too weak still to take the road trodden by Diogenes of Sinope, and others whose attitude toward society (in the collective) I admire.  I aspire to be a good person--not a good Mormon, or a good Christian, or a good American, or a good capitalist, or a good global citizen (unless that is something I do by refusing to recognize any meaningful collective as acting for all people everywhere).

To the extent that I do participate still in society at large, I recognize that I am complicit in all kinds of political crime (that Hedges writes about in his book) and religious thuggery (that I write about on this blog).  I don't believe there is any way to exist in society at large without leaving a messy footprint, unfortunately.  I try to balance the evil I cause (when I must rely on large corporations in society) with good (that I do with small groups of people close to me), but I fear it is not enough (and never will be).  I have at last come to the place where the lines of the lyric poet Theognis (425-8 Gerber; Bible-readers should compare this with Ecclesiastes 4:3) make sense to me--become something I might think, feel, and say for myself:
Πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον
    μηδ᾽ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου,
φύντα δ᾽ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι
    καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.
This brings me to my other citations from Hedges:
It has been rare in every war I have covered to find a reporter who did not take sides. I believed--and still do--that in Bosnia and El Salvador, there were victims and oppressors in the conflict. But along with this acknowledgement comes for many a disturbing need to portray the side they back in their own self-image. The leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the rebels in El Salvador, the African National Congress, the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo, or the opposition in Serbia were all endowed with the qualities they did not possess. The Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr warned us that moral choice is not between the moral and the immoral, but between the immoral and the less immoral (p. 144).

"I, too, belong to this species," J. Glenn Gray wrote. "I am ashamed not only of my own deeds, not only of my nation's deeds, but of human deeds as well. I am ashamed to be a man" (p. 176).

To be a human being, it seems to me, is to be a dangerous animal. We need certain things in order to live.  To put it simply, we need death. Something must always die so that we may live, and the inevitable outcome of that reality is that we create evil. We embody evil. It is not something separable from our entity. It is precisely the same, in purely material terms, as the good we embody. If I am not careful, my love (of humanity, of God, of justice, of family and friends) becomes hatred (of humans unlike me, of others' gods or the devil, of injustice, of my tribe's enemies).  Even if I am impassive, resisting the transformation of love into hatred, others must still die so that I (or the collective I associate with) may live.  Plants, animals, bugs, ecosystems, and other people.  They will all die to support me, sooner or later, until it is my turn to die for them.  That is Nature's way (or God's or the devil's or whatever: they are all the same to me).

The moral dilemma in all this mess, as Niebuhr recognizes, is not to find good and maximize it.  It is to find evil and make it as small as possible--without eliminating it entirely, because that would destroy humanity.  God and the devil are really the same, it turns out.  We cannot have one without the other.  Love implies--creates, demands, is even--hatred, or at least indifference.  This remains true even when we deliberately set out to love all things.  "I love all things, including all those things that just died because I wanted to go on living."  We might feel justified in such love.  It might improve our quality of life.  But it does not change the reality that that life is built from death, death in which we remain complicit as long as we live.

If you are not the sort of person to care about this kind of thing, on an emotional level anyway, that is fine.  I have always felt somewhat guilty for existing, I confess.  I was inclined to read Theognis, even before I had learned to feel the pessimism and cynicism he expresses so eloquently.  I felt the evil of man early in my heart, and my experience in the world has confirmed my fear that human good is also evil.  I still love humanity--and myself, too.  I just cannot join the choruses of people working to fight terror (politically), to defend marriage (socially and religiously), to educate us all in the one true path to virtue, etc.  I believe that all such endeavors are fundamentally evil, and that that evil compounds awfully as movements gain traction in society--spreading from small groups to large factions like a deadly plague.  I hate it when people find me with some cause, political or economic or social or religious (they are all the same), and invite me to join the mob.  "Solidarity!" They cry.  "Let's all get in this together!"  My soul abhors this, the wild abandon with which we throw ourselves into the latest lemming charge--as though the past never happened, as though we know nothing of our condition as social animals (and indeed, many of us are clueless, naive in a way that is cute when we aren't heavily armed and full of deadly moral conviction).

"What keeps this misanthrope in society?" the reader might legitimately wonder.  "Is he a hypocrite as well as a miserable wretch?"  I stay for many reasons.  My family.  My friends.  Inertia.  My aptitudes and frailty (I have no love for death, no Stoic conviction as strong as that of Cato the Younger, and I lack the means to survive without civilization).  There is also art:
All great works of art find their full force in those moments when the conventions of the world are stripped away and we confront our weakness, vulnerability, and mortality. For learning, in the end, meant little to writers like Shakespeare unless it translated into human experience.

"As long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling-places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary," Proust wrote. "It becomes dangerous, on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place" (p. 91).

I love life, even though it is sometimes an awful thing.  I love it, though its fabric is woven with death.  I do not desire life without end, life without death, heaven without hell, etc., for I know now that such a thing is impossible (for gods as well as men: I speak here of the life and death known to men, of course, not some life and death too remote from our experience to mean anything to us).  I desire merely to paint the best little portrait I can with the life I have, a life made of death, a life that some will legitimately hate or ignore, though I love it.  I desire to make my life and death a work of art, something that points to realities beyond me that I will never fully comprehend (realities that we point to vaguely with words like love, virtue, integrity, health, work, and even divinity or justice).  I don't want to force others to live my life.  I don't want the death that builds my life to arise in conditions where it is unwanted (though I know beings have died unwilling to keep me alive thus far, and they will do so again: still I will that my life be built of willing deaths, and I will that my own death find me eager for it; I want to give myself back to the world as ransom for all that I have taken from it). So I remain a man among men, an active participant in society, even though I can never again embrace any society (anytime, anywhere) as purely good (or just or fair or divine, etc.).

I love the process of making mistakes, even though these are sometimes catastrophic, and then struggling to overcome them.  I love combining the thoughts of other writers with my own personal experience, and then seeing what comes out--even when that is not always what I want or expect.  I love striving for virtue, even when I fail to achieve it, sometimes even when I see good reason to deem it unachievable (in certain domains).  I see how this love of mine is similar to the alcoholic's love of whiskey.  Let him die of his poison, and I will die of mine.  I wish us both happy, but not so bent on happiness that we die killing one another.  Better to die doing what we love than to waste time trying to convince the other to be like us.  He isn't, and he never will be.  Let him be, and make art of your own life, not his.  Muérete jodido, como quieras, sin joder al mundo entero, como haría un santo o un demonio.


  1. A practical heuristic that I derive from thoughts like those in this post.

    If the only thing that can be said for a course of action is that it serves national interest, then I suspect that action to be immoral.

    "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Yes. The unfortunate utterance of John F. Kennedy ("ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country") needs to be scrapped. The unfortunate truth is that your country does whatever it does (mostly kill and imprison) by committing crimes. Ask neither what you can do for it, nor what it can do for you, but how you can make it do as little for anyone (yourself included) as possible.

  2. Another brief way of summing up this post.

    If God exists and is good, then he has no cause (no agenda, no plan, no purpose that requires humans to agitate and do stuff--i.e. kill one another).