The recent war occasions familiar scenes and old debates. Soldiers return from overseas to the embrace of waiting family. The war's defenders celebrate these "just warriors," while critics continue to demand evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Yet war continually confounds the usual narratives. Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for the New York Times and author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, is now devoting much of his life to challenging conventional narratives of war and peace. He recently spoke to a large audience at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Hedges presents more than the usual narrative of death and suffering. War's losers give their lives, but winners also pay a heavy cost. Many are permanently altered by the brutality in which they participated. War expresses a deeply rooted capacity for violence, a capacity that can itself become addictive. Once the demons of war are unleashed, soldiers often ravage more than military foes. Even for soldiers who do not directly perpetrate massacres, participation in violence against vast numbers of women and children leaves enduring guilt. Nonetheless, soldiers return to a world ill-prepared to deal with their capacity for violence and/or deeply repressed guilt.
Nonetheless, Hedges is no pacifist. His book, completed before the invasion of Iraq, does argues that advanced democratic states cannot stand by while innocents are being slaughtered.
War, however, speaks to and grows out of existential insecurities. Whether historians adjudge the Bush administration guilty of manipulating evidence of Iraqi weapons, Hedges' analysis suggests that the rush to war is greased by long-standing anxieties. Modern wars affirm the virtue of the nation state. In a world in which God and an afterlife have a less secure and salient presence than they once did, nationalism has come to fill a void: Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including our own, is the passionate yearning for a nationalist cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone is able to deliver. It reduces and at times erases the anxiety of individual consciousness."
Both perpetrators and victims of modern warfare construct nationalistic narratives that Hedges labels myths. As Yugoslavia collapsed economically and politically, nationalistic warlords wiped out all record of cooperation among ethnic groups. All sides then portrayed themselves as innocent victims of aggression. Hedges shows that even history's clear victims seldom acknowledge let alone redress the role of collaborators in their midst or of any activities that might have evoked anger.
Violence and counter violence build on each other, but for Hedges the story is not unequivocally bleak. Human beings may have a fascination with death, but they also have a capacity for love. Hedges uses the term Eros to describe this love, but following one of his inspirations, Reinhold Niebuhr, I would prefer a more subtle distinction here.
Niebuhr contrasted Eros, or the possessive love often associated with modern romance and the nuclear family, with agape, a Greek term for complete self-giving love, as displayed by Jesus upon the Cross. Love in this sense translates into a capacity that can be evoked in us to appreciate the protean nature of our individual selves and our communities. Agape takes delight in the infinite particulars within our national and international communities. Agape cannot be fully realized within history, for distinctions must be made, standards enacted, and certain ways of life proscribed. Nonetheless, agape stands as a perpetual challenge, highlighting the limits and exclusions of any consensus and challenging us to do better.
The best one can ever say of any war is that it was a tragic necessity. The slightly less immoral triumphed over even more vicious opponents. Victors can never lay claim to the mantle of justice. If the number of wars are to be reduced, victors and victims of historic conflicts need to embark upon the political, never final process of building common memories.
Hedges was at his most provocative in suggesting that peace as we usually conceive it can be "boring." As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the Romans, "They made the world a desert and called it peace." Static conceptions of peace or consensus can deny newly emerging or poorly articulated needs and concerns. And in their steady and ritualistic repetition of common themes, they will be boring and eventually fail to grip many of us. Therefore, part of building common memories in the midst of or after conflict must be an acknowledgement that human memory itself is imperfect. If we convince ourselves that our collective and collaborative efforts to fashion common memories and new standards of international judgment are complete and all embracing, we may fail to reduce the frequency and intensity of war. The ultimate in human hubris may lie in the insistence that human consciousness is or ever can be fully adequate to the social or natural world on which it focuses
Since our best-intentioned recollections and efforts to build consensus can never be fully adequate to our pasts or our complex and evolving instincts, we are charged to build with humility. We need foundations capacious enough to enact common standards amidst an acknowledgment that we may never fully agree on all aspects of the historic record and must be open to future revisions as new injustices inevitably come to light.
And I would add to Hedges' remarks on the need for humility that much of modern thought needs to reconsider its hubristic understanding of death itself. I find it an interesting paradox that a society that treats all forms of unexpected death as an affront to its technological wizardry and its deep moral commitments is also among the world's most violent. Ancient Epicureans, who celebrated nature as a source of unexpected surprise and delight, counseled their believers not to seek death but to learn to accept it as part of the human condition. That acceptance, in turn, freed adherents from the need to squeeze all aspects of their social lives into narratives of final, transgenerational truth as compensation for the finitude of their existence.
Hedges warned us that following victory in the recent war, US triumphalism and a willingness to rule the world by force may well lay the seeds for more terrorism. When weaker nation states, already often drenched in their own fundamentalist currents, realize they cannot project their voices through conventional political and military means, they turn to the weapons of the weak, terrorism. Terrorism here will elicit further efforts to harass racial and ethnic minorities and crush dissent.
Yet Hedges himself is wary of apocalypticism. He concedes the speculative nature of his comments and he points to possible countermeasures and countercurrents. Proactive efforts by mainstream anti-war and civil liberties advocates to build coalitions with Muslim groups here and abroad may blunt or combat the worst trends in our political life.
I would add that in addition to building multi-ethnic coalitions on civil liberties, critics of the current war need to elaborate new conceptions of national security. Hedges is right that atrocities like those in the Balkans and Rwanda must be addressed. But when intervention is necessary, how much better if it is undertaken by a genuinely international coalition. All the horrors of war would not be avoided, but less impetus would be given to the destructive narratives and counter narratives of nationalism. And the efforts to build and maintain international coalitions are more likely to thrive to the extent that continual debate and revision is encouraged.
Hedges most important nessage is that the fight against the demons of war must be a fight for something. Agape is a continuing moral imperative. A broader and deeper politics within and between nations is its modern political manifestation and instrument.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. See Chris Hedges' May 17 commencement address at Rockford College, where he was heckled.