The Thrilling Fields

A New York Times reporter confesses that war turns him on.

In a dozen wars from the Falklands to Bosnia, Chris Hedges of the New York Times has proved a correspondent of unusual bravery, stubbornness, and independence. By going AWOL from the U.S. military’s press pool during the Gulf War, he became one of the few eyewitnesses to American-Iraqi gunfights. He was among the rare big-time reporters to cover the Kosovo War as a war and not a morality play. His remorseless chronicling of the criminality and thuggery of our allies in the Kosovo Liberation Army is one of the high points of post-Vietnam War journalism.

No one is in a better position than Hedges to pronounce on the revolting things war does to everyone caught up in it. This decidedly includes journalists. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning presents itself as a meditation but winds up being an autobiography of a particularly tormented kind. Hedges believes war breaks every genuinely human bond—every one, without exception. It’s not just that war “empowers killers and racists.” It’s the way people use each other. Frequent, mercenary and perverted sex becomes the norm, as the powerful claim a “god-like empowerment over other human lives.” (In Bosnia the Ukrainian peace-keeping contingent grew rich pimping local women to the hard-currency-bearing members of the international “humanitarian” community.) Even the idea that war produces friendships among platoon-mates is specious. What it produces is something the philosopher J. Glenn Gray calls “comradeship”—which rests on the suppression of self, not the blossoming of self that is the mark of true friendship.

What will provoke any reflective reader is that Hedges’ account of the horrors of war follows a confession of rare and frightening honesty: War turns him on. He describes it always as an “addiction” and a “seduction,” and he believes there are strong reasons—other than geopolitical ones—that so many people seek it. “Even with its destruction and carnage,” he writes, “[war] can give us what we long for in life.” It may be that most veterans keep silent about their combat experiences not because they fear revealing their sadness but because they fear revealing their exhilaration.

This part of Hedges’ book is a triumph. It is deep, and it is true. One shudders to consider the torment it cost him to follow such a line of thinking to its conclusion. But if war is the addiction, the blockheaded oversimplification, the hedonistic id-unleashing that Hedges says it is, then he owes us an explanation of why we should fight wars in the first place. For not only is Hedges not a pacifist—at times he sets the threshold for fighting wars very low. He believes, for instance, that “the search for a common narrative must, at times, be forced upon a society.” (By whom? Whose narrative?) Hedges championed NATO’s Kosovo invasion, which from start to finish appeared less concerned with providing protection to Kosovars than with providing “meaning” to the West’s postmodern elites. Without drawing clear political criteria for which wars civilized peoples ought to fight—that is, without some kind of “just war theory”—his book turns into a mere lament that wars get waged by people less sophisticated than he.

Hedges thinks nationalism causes many wars but leaves us in the dark about what he means by nationalism. In the Balkans, for instance, “the nationalist virus was the logical outcome of the destruction of the country’s education system that began in the 1950s under Tito’s rule.” (Nationalism bad.) But elsewhere he credits Tito’s Yugoslavia with having managed “to give its citizens a national identity.” (Nationalism good.) He fears that America has fallen into a nationalist war mentality since Sept. 11, 2001. This is a plausible thesis in the abstract. Hedges is right when he says elsewhere that “the isolated individual can never be adequately human. Many of war’s most fervent adherents are those atomized individuals who, before the war came, were profoundly alone and unloved.” America may be the atomized society par excellence. That is why certain thinkers, most recently Norman Mailer in the London Sunday Times, fear an American grab for meaning through war. But this syllogism, for all its prima facie appeal, never seems to be borne out in practice. The United States stubbornly refuses to go fascist, even in the midst of its “war on terrorism.”

Hedges’ only evidence that we’re gripped by war fever is that a right-wing group assembled a list of 115 anti-American remarks from college newspapers. “We embrace,” he says, “gross and overtly racist notions of Islam that paint all Muslims as having a tendency to violence, anger, antimodernism, and close-mindedness. Questioning of the nationalist line, or an attempt to address historical injustices committed by us against our foes, is branded unpatriotic, intellectual treason, just as it was in Argentina in 1982.” Whoa, dobbin! Leave aside for a moment the sloppy conflation of the Argentine torture state (which launched an invasion of the Falklands as a distraction) and the contemporary United States (which retaliated against Afghanistan after massive attacks launched from there). The reaction of Americans since Sept. 11 has been less to calumniate Islam than to study it. Has Hedges been in a bookstore lately, where the Islam-and-the-Middle-East section has metastasized from a 12-inch shelf into an entire wall? Meanwhile, we’re being led into war by a politically correct president whose Orwellian motto is “Islam Is Peace.”

Having spent his adult life among people who look at war as the meaning-deliverer of first resort, Hedges leaves the impression that he has forgotten how society operates in peacetime. For instance, he notes that the Croatian Ustashe leader Ante Pavelic banned non-Croatian words during World War II. But how, one wonders, is this different from the peacetime language-bullying of Jesse Jackson or the Parti Québécois? Similarly, Hedges laments that, in wartime, “The lines between real entertainment and political entertainment blur and finally vanish.” Has he never watched Crossfire?

Maybe explaining war is like explaining sex or LSD: You had to be there. Like many old combat hands, Hedges assumes anyone who hasn’t been there views war in a stupid, “mythic” way, as a combination of Sergeant York and a game of tag. His tone is often marked by an argument-foreclosing condescension. Toward the end of the book, he quotes an article found in the pocket of the World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle at his death in 1945:

To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France. We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference.

Hedges finds Pyle’s words moving, but his book invites us to distrust them. One suspects that Pyle is condescending to us, declaring his moral and intellectual superiority, trying to pass off as conscience what is little more than thrill-seeking. Is this moral reflection or moralistic preening? It’s tough to say in the case of Pyle. Or Hedges. Or any of us.