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When the terror of battle gives way to the love of combat

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, PublicAffairs: 212 pp., $23

October 13, 2002|Joanna Bourke | Joanna Bourke is the author of "An Intimate History of Killing" and "The Second World War: A People's History."

Chris Hedges never flinches when describing the complex reality of contemporary armed conflicts. As a veteran war reporter from the killing fields of El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, the West Bank, Gaza, the Sudan, Yemen, Algeria, the Punjab, Romania, the Persian Gulf, Turkey, northern Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, Hedges bellows out a reminder that war is ugly and morally perverse yet also profoundly alluring. Combat is a drug that is polluting and addictive. War fulfills many of humanity's fantasies, giving meaning to our lives by drawing attention to the trivia of placid domesticity.

On the front lines, Hedges (a reporter formerly for the Christian Science Monitor, among others, and now for the New York Times) spoke with many ordinary men and women who said they derived pleasure out of acts of extreme violence against others. Combatants are often unabashed about their eagerness to kill. As American forces have learned since the Vietnam War, when fear is eliminated from combat, many other restraints to violence are also removed. War photographer Tim Page, when asked to compile a photographic book that would "take the glamour out of war for good," responded: "Take the glamour out of war! I mean, how the bloody hell can you do that? ... It's like trying to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones .... It just can't be done."

War's dark charm must be resisted, however. Without exception, war brutalizes. Few war journalists are as sensitive as Hedges to the humiliation that pervades war culture. During the Persian Gulf War, Hedges observed the monstrous ease with which American explosives transformed battalions of young Iraqis into dismembered carcasses. He writes with passion about the "cold and brutal efficiency of industrial warfare."

Honor and courage crumble and, as Hedges shamefacedly admits, even journalists like himself ended up using their friends as shields against bullets. Indeed, this entire book is a powerful indictment of the role played by war journalists. The willingness, even eagerness, of large sections of the media to assume responsibility for maintaining the morale of service members and civilians is dangerous. Their willingness (during the Gulf War, for instance) to cooperate with strict censorship constraints was scandalous. By ensuring that the victims remained "faceless and nameless phantoms" within entertaining tales of daring deeds, the media abnegated their responsibilities. War journalists and photographers "wanted to be used." They were seduced by the glamour of war and knew they were an integral part of the war effort.

Hedges is man enough to include himself in his unflattering assessment of the press corps. After all, he also felt immense relief when tons of explosives decimated his country's enemies. Hedges' tortured complicity in the violence of war makes for uneasy reading, but his keen sense of empathy never abandons him. The weak cries of a dying El Salvadoran rebel in 1982, crooning a final "sad cadence" for his mother, cut through "the absurd posturing of soldiering." Survivors are left with the memory of such pitiful cries. In the words of a British soldier writing to his mother after the Battle of the Somme in 1916: "I have witnessed a terrible sight that I shall never forget as long as I live... they had no feeling whatever for us poor chaps." War stories are composed out of such gut-wrenching encounters between terrified individuals.

For those people on the front lines, the terror of battle makes slipping into barbarity easier. Individuals suddenly find themselves consumed with bloodlust. Respect for strangers vanishes. The enemy is dehumanized--warriors become "rodent exterminators," as American troops in the Pacific during World War II styled themselves. When enemy soldiers are classified as inhuman, they all became fair game.

Such notions tie into ideas in common circulation about humans and warfare: It is in man's instincts to kill. There is no point in feeling guilty for what is inherent in human nature. Even decent warriors find themselves collecting ghoulish mementos from the corpses of their enemy. For instance, Hedges described the way Iraqi officials during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s squatted "like big game hunters" over the bodies of slain men, reveling in their prowess as martial heroes.

Hedges has no illusions about the capabilities of Americans to act in a similar fashion. Carnevalesque rituals help making war bearable: They forge an individual's identity as a "warrior" engaged in a life-or-death struggle. Gruesome rites also cement group bonds and comradeship among men who are far from both their prewar personas and society back home. In the grotesque, men are able to confront "the horror, the horror."

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