A longtime New York Times war correspondent talks about the glorification of death. Chris Hedges covered conflicts in places such as El Salvador, the Balkans, and the Persian Gulf. He shared a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of global terrorism.
This conversation was excerpted from Chris Hedges’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
Tell me about how you’ve made your living for the last 20 years.
Most of my adult life has been spent as a war correspondent. I started in El Salvador where I spent five years covering the civil war there as well as in Nicaragua and Guatemala. After a sabbatical to study Arabic, I went to Jerusalem, covered the first Intifada or Palestinian uprising as well as the cancellation of the elections in Algeria and the rise of the Algerian insurgency, and the civil war in the Sudan.
I went on to cover the Persian Gulf War. It was after the war at the Shiite uprising in Basra, and I was taken prisoner for eight days by the Iraqi Republican Guard. I became the Middle East bureau chief out of Cairo for “The New York Times” and spent a lot of time with the Kurds in Northern Iraq, and a lot of time with the Shiites in southern Iraq during the insurgency.
I covered the civil war in Yemen and then to Sarajevo in 1995 and covered the end of the war in Bosnia and the war in Kosovo. So most of my life has been spent abroad as a war correspondent.
What is it like to be in combat?
Once you are in combat and often a few seconds after you enter it, it is nothing like you expect it will be. But more importantly, you realize that you are not the person that you thought you were. It is a constant second-by-second, minute-by-minute battle against your own fear and that overpowering urge for self-protection, which in combat sometimes only puts you in a more precarious situation.
For instance when you are mortared, mortars spray out in a kind of conal shape, and your natural tendency is to get up and run which is very dangerous. You have to lie down because even with a mortar impact coming relatively close to you, if you are very close to the ground or hopefully in a ditch or behind a tree, that spray, that circular spray of shrapnel may not hit you. If you got up and ran, it would.
It’s a constant kind of struggle and there are times in combat when you lose and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. There are always moments when fear overtakes you and you can’t function. Images that are pedaled so often in media, in movies, and in novels of heroics, such as running out to save a wounded comrade, feel very different when you’re in combat.
It’s very confusing. You don’t know what’s happening around you and it’s a constant kind of struggle to figure out where the shots are coming from, where a zone of safety is that you can get to, how should you react. You are aware of a very, very tiny area in your immediate vicinity and you’re not really aware of what’s happening anywhere else.
I think that Tolstoy in War and Peace managed to write about this quite effectively, this notion that you may be engaged in a grand battle that has perhaps even historic significance, but you yourself know almost nothing even though you’re in the midst of it.
And thirdly I think that in combat, you know what you’re witnessing. Modern combat is organized industrial slaughter with extremely powerful weapons that have the ability to descend on you from a great distance. In modern combat, we often never see our attackers, even when we are using relatively unsophisticated weapons such as automatic assault rifles.
Although I spent five years covering the war in El Salvador, it was very rare that I ever saw who was shooting at me. Once you get into a situation like the War in Iraq or the Persian Gulf War or in Bosnia where you’re using very large weapons—tanks, 155 howitzers—these weapons have the capacity to fire from several miles away and that is the predominating fact of modern warfare. It is largely and almost completely impersonal.
Those who fire at you cannot see you and you cannot see your attackers and the caliber and size of the weapons means that large numbers people have the capacity to die in an instant without ever seeing where that firing is coming from. That is the reality of the modern battlefield. This has become even more true since modern industrial warfare was invented in the First World War.
There has become more of a need for the myth of individual heroics: what the army calls it the “Army of One” in their commercials. As though “the lie” of an individual or the role of an individual on a battlefield has become more pronounced. By “the lie”, I mean that an individual can somehow really change the course of a battle. That’s less and less true. Technology rules battlefields.
What is the reality of being in combat?
The reality of combat is nothing like the image I think many of us carry into combat. First of all, there’s the factor of fear, which is overpowering in situations where violent death is all around you.
Fear is something which you have a constant second-by-second, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour battle to control. You always have moments in which fear takes control and in which you fail, in which your instincts towards self-preservation make you crumble.
And anybody, including soldiers who tell you otherwise and come out of combat are not telling you the truth. Although we see very graphic images of violence presented to us by the entertainment industry, we taste a bit of war’s exhilaration and its perverse thrill without tasting that fear.
That’s something that changes the whole experience markedly. We learn that we’re not the people we thought we were. We have images, all of us, of heroics, of being able to do noble deeds under duress and we find that fear is so pervasive that often times carrying out basic functions is very difficult.
What does a combat situation feel like?
One of the interesting feelings is humiliation because you lose complete control and there is a terrible panic. Now it has to be a controlled panic because panic, running, doing something instinctual can often make your situation more dangerous.
For instance, if you are caught in a mortar attack your instinct is to run. This is the worst thing to do. And a small piece of flying shrapnel can kill you. I saw a lieutenant get killed in El Salvador and he got a piece of shrapnel the size of a dime up through the bottom of his chin. You couldn’t – when we looked at his body we couldn’t even see a mark on his body.
This is why they use operant conditioning to train soldiers. It’s the same psychological sort of techniques you use to train a dog. It’s this constant repetitive exercise coupled with a kind of simulation of the experience so that you can act instinctually almost against your own instincts.
Tell me about the role of technology in war.
Modern warfare is largely impersonal. We live now in a situation where hundreds or thousands of people can die in an instant and never see their attackers. This was true even in the war in Bosnia, where you had the Serb gunners on the heights above Sarievo pounding the city with 90 millimeter tank rounds, Katyusha rockets, 155 howitzers.
We have a funny situation where as the modern battlefield has developed, let’s say since World War I when modern industrial warfare was created, there is less and less opportunity for the individual to make a difference. Modern war is, by and large, impersonal, and this was true even during the war in El Salvador, where we didn’t have large weapons. It was very rare, although I was there for five years, that I ever saw anyone who was shooting at me, even though these were wars fought primarily with assault weapons.
Now we’re in a situation, and certainly when we look at wars like the wars in Iraq, where it is predominately these incredibly powerful weapons and missiles that carry out the killing. As there’s been a rise in the predominance of technology on the battlefield there’s also been a correlating rise in the myth of individual heroics, just at a time in human history when these individual heroics have less and less place on the battlefield. So you have commercials by the U.S. Army talking about an “Army of One”. When you’ve been through an experience of combat in modern industrial warfare you realize how patently ridiculous and absurd that is.
How does fear enter into the equation when you’re in combat?
It’s a constant battle against fear. There are always times when fear wins. Courage is not a state. Courage is an act. And I think one of the reasons that those who carry out what we would define as courageous acts are often very reticent to speak about it afterwards is because they’re not completely sure they could do it again.
One has to remember that the landscape of war has a narcotic effect on those that are caught up in it. I mean, indeed, I think war is probably the most potent narcotic invented by humankind. And Michael Herr got it right in Dispatches. War is like a drug trip. You have the adrenaline highs. You have, because of a loss of sleep and the almost incomprehensible images that are pounded into your brain, you can become almost zombie-like.
You’ve seen soldiers almost switch on to autopilot because of a combination of exhaustion and stress, so that when you do acts in combat it’s not at the same level of consciousness that you have when you’re not in combat. Because of that landscape of the grotesque, because of that heightened fear, because of that rush of adrenaline, because of that utter exhaustion. War can be an almost out of body experience.
Tell me about the psychological effect of combat on the soldiers or on you. How did it affect you?
Well, I suffered from, and probably still suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I think people who spend as much time as I have around organized violence bear the scars of that violence and probably will bear them for the rest of their lives. It’s not something you escape.
How does it affect you? At its height it makes you very paranoid, very jumpy. I remember leaving Sarajevo at the height of the siege to go to Paris where I would be able to get a good night’s sleep and try and recharge my batteries for returning. And as I would walk down the street in Paris it’s as if I saw everything around me from the end of a long tunnel. I couldn’t relate. I couldn’t wait to get back to the world at war because I couldn’t function any longer in a world not at war.
I needed to be with those comrades who understood the trauma and emotional mutilation that I was undergoing. Somehow I needed that drug in order to function. It’s, of course, a very self-destructive drug. But a very real one. And I think it’s why you see war correspondents or soldiers clamor to get back into situations that. If they were healthy, they would not want to go back.
Hedges' First Combat Experience
This conversation was excerpted from Chris Hedges’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
Tell us about the distinction between what war is really like and what it is depicted as. Tell us about your first experience, going into combat. What was that like?
Well the first time that I was in an ambush where people were being shot was in a Salvadoran town of Suchitoto. This was a government outpost in a small town of mud and wattle huts off the main road.
We drove up, there was a bridge, and then you crossed the bridge and went down a long stretch of asphalt surrounded by high grass, which was one of the most dangerous spots in the country at the time. The photographers stopped at the bridge to get high, which was something as a print reporter who could scramble to safety I couldn’t do, but which the photographers found as a necessary balm to their nerves, and went down the road with the odd shot being fired in front of or behind us until we got into the town.
Then, we hooked up with a group of Salvadoran rebels who were accustomed to the follies of the press and moved up to this garrison which was completely surrounded in the center of Suchitoto. As we rounded a corner several bursts of automatic weapons fire rent the air and the rebels I was with began to fire back. Bullets hit the wall.
There was a rebel who was very badly wounded, and who started crying out for his mother, which was not uncommon with kids who were badly wounded. I remember his cries at first sort of haunted me and then I wished he would be quiet.
As I dove into the dirt to take cover, it obliterated in an instant that mythic perception of war that I had, I realized that war would always control me, that I would never control it. I felt humiliated, because I felt powerless and weak. I realized I was not the person I thought I was in the sense that I thought that I would react with courage and resolve instead of shaking in utter terror, praying.
I prayed, I said God, if you get me out of here I will never do this again. And what happened when I got out? Like most war correspondents I considered it a great cosmic joke and drank away my fear and excitement in a bar in downtown San Salvador that night.
This is part of the allure of war: those of us who can control our fear go back and seek out that kind of a situation again and again and again. Winston Churchill said in his book, The River War, there is nothing quite as exhilarating as being shot at without success. And it’s a high, it’s a rush, and you flirt with it. It’s a dangerous, frightening game, but one you can become addicted to.
The longer you spend in war, the more deformed you become, and the harder it is to return to a society not at war, until finally death itself comes as a kind of release. You know, there’s no shortage of war correspondents, and I think of my friend Kurt Schork who was killed in Sierra Leone with another friend of mine, Miguel Gilmoreno. And Kurt, like another friend, Elizabeth Neuffer from “The Boston Globe” who died in Iraq after the war, they knew they had to stop, but they kept going back to seek one more hit until it finally killed them.
And I did the same. After leaving Kosovo, I found myself back in Gaza and got caught in a very bad ambush in Gaza where there was a young Palestinian kid killed about 15 feet away from me. I realized I had to break free, I had to let go. None of this would or could or should come back. I was lucky to get out alive.
Kurt did not. Kurt was killed in Sierra Leone in May of 2000 in an ambush, and that was a devastating blow for me. I had worked with Kurt for ten years starting in Iraq. He was literate and funny. The brave are often funny. He and I passed books back and forth to try to make sense of the mayhem all around us, and his loss will forever be a hole that will never be filled.
In some way because Kurt was who he is, there are parts of my existence which I will never be able to articulate to anyone ever again. It wasn’t just that Kurt was there, other people were there too. It’s that Kurt was one of the rare people who actually tried to, actually thought about it and understood it and tried to dissect it.
For three or four days after his death I couldn’t even drive a car. I was completely wiped out, and I went finally to Sarajevo where his ashes are buried along with victims of the war and went to his grave and recited a poem Catullus wrote to honor his own dead brother who died in Troy.
Is it important for information about people like Kurt to be heard? Did he maybe not die in vain?
The question of whether Kurt died in vain is not is one I never asked. The fact is he died. And he died because he could not resist the pull of the very dark forces, the forces of war that called for his own extinction.
I admire, respect, and maybe even love war correspondents. They are the people who I lived with for almost twenty years of my life. But I also know how messed up they are. And how messed up I was. And I respect what they do and the courage and it takes and their integrity. On the other hand, it’s painful to see that self-destructive urge engulf them.
For those of us who leaped from war to war to war – and I was in Kosovo with people I’d covered the war with in EL Salvador with– it was finally that self-destructive urge that was predominant and had taken over lives, and it almost killed me. I broke free from it, and I can only view the loss of friends like Kurt as tragic.
I can’t justify it as being worthwhile or not having been in vain. Deaths that are not in vain are precisely the kind of clichs and rhetoric that disgust me when we talk about war. War is tragic, only tragic. The deaths of comrades and friends in war is a tragedy.
You talked about the essence of war – is death what war is all about?
Yes, war is necrophilia. That’s all it is. It’s about the worship of death. We ennoble self-sacrifice for the other, for our comrade. It’s called death. It’s an illusion that somehow those comrades are bound to us in any real way. Think what it means to die for a friend.
When you are at war, you have the illusion that your comrades, those who are around you, are one entity, an illusion that is not real, and that is made a mockery of once the war ends, of course, because these comrades immediately become, again, strangers to us. And there is a suppression of self-awareness, self-expression among comrades, that is in the end the very opposite of friendship.
Friendship is about heightened self-awareness. We see ourselves through the eyes of a friend. We understand that inner core of being through a friend. And the loss of a friend means that dialogue that we have made never be recreated with another. When we think about what it means to die for a friend, that dying is painful and there.
Friends do not the way comrades do love death and sacrifice. And that’s why friendship or love is the great enemy of war. The failure that we make is to confuse this comradeship with friendship. It is the opposite of friendship. And when you see veterans gathered together, they’re not trying to recreate the suffering and horror of war, which they hate, perhaps in a way that only those who have been to war can hate.
But they are trying to recreate is that comradeship, but they can’t. The attempts to recreate it, usually through alcohol, end up pathetic and sad. And what they’re trying to recreate is that sense of inclusiveness, that sense of belonging and sense of unity, in lives that since the war have probably been very solitary. And that is part of war’s great draw, the comradeship of the crowd. Once we are embraced by the crowd, once we have sacrificed all for the god of war, we become in the service of death, not life, and that ultimately is what war demands of us.
We’re talking about mostly people who are very young.
Everyone is susceptible to the comradeship of war. Nobody’s immune.
Are the young more susceptible or do you think it doesn’t make any difference?
The great dividing line is between those who have children and those who do not. It becomes very hard to engage in killing or to see the death of innocence and especially children after you’re a parent. But that sense of comradeship is pervasive throughout a society in wartime.
So that in Sarajevo, you know, I sat with the war – after the war with friends who did not wish back the suffering, and of course I knew them when they were living in unheated apartments and didn’t have water to bathe or drink. But they also looked at me with a kind of despair because these were, perhaps, the fullest moments of their lives. And they wished it back, and I did too.
What they wished back wasn’t real. It was part of the illusion of war. And it was an illusion that had filled up the void of an empty and sterile and futile present. They were all aware of the mockery of war, the mockery of their idealism. And the nationalist leaders who had gotten them into the mess in the first place had grown rich off of their suffering and were still in power.
They were no longer lionized by actors and politicians who would come and visit Sarajevo during the cease-fires. But it was a moment, on some level they will spend the rest of their lives longing to recreate. Part of the enticement and power of war, is that it can create these kinds of feelings within human communities. That probably finally cannot be replicated any other way.
Portrayals of War in Film and Literature
This conversation was excerpted from Chris Hedges’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
We don’t hear enough about war from the perspective of the victims. And the only way to understand war is to understand it through the eyes of the victims. That’s where the portrayals of war have really failed us. We see it through the eyes of the combatants, primarily. We very rarely are given images or stories that show us war as it should be shown and as it is from those who bear the brunt of war.
I can think of a few examples. The Italian novelist Elsa Morantes’ “History: A Novel.” Or a really great French film by Ren Clment, Jeux interdits or Forbidden Games, which was filmed a few years in the early ‘50’s, right after the end of World War II. There’s only one image of combat. It’s at the beginning where German planes strafe a column of French refugees and kill the parents of a little girl. The rest of the movie is about this little girl living orphaned now in a village. Trying to cope with the idea that her parents are buried under the ground. And with another little boy, against the backdrop of war, she buries things. They create cemeteries.
This is an insight into the way war brutalizes individuals, societies, and children. The fact is that when you see images of violence it has a pornographic quality that it enticing. Even war movies that are meant to denounce war, such as Platoon, for instance. In Swofford’s memoir of the first Persian Gulf War called Jar Head, he writes about how he and other soldiers would rent these movies with cases of beer and watch them over and over and over. For soldiers all of it was war porn.
But I think that’s true not just for soldiers. It’s like trying to make movies against pornography and showing erotic love scenes. You can’t do it. Even those attempts to make anti-war films, for instance, All Quiet On the Western Front, I think people see it and feel, “I would like to be tested like that,” or “I should be tested like that”. “I would like that kind of comradery even though war is horrible”. That’s very difficult to fight.
We were talking earlier about The Iliad. What does The Iliad have to tell us about war, and what place do you think it has in literature?
For me, The Iliad and The Odyssey are two of the great books on war because I think they have to be read together.
When I was taken prisoner in Iraq, I had three books in my pocket. One was Joseph Conrad’s Outcast to the Islands, another was Anthony and Cleopatra and the third was The Iliad. The Iliad could have been written in Bosnia.
In Bosnia you had vain, selfish, insensitive warlords who were quite willing to sacrifice their own for personal gain and personal pride. And that is the story of The Iliad. The Iliad understands the pettiness, narrowness, and almost maniacal obsession of those who command, and how they are quite willing to see their own slaughtered for what, in the end, are absolutely absurd reasons.
Achilles is, in my reading of The Iliad, a distorted and deformed figure. He is attacked by Agamemnon, by Nestor, and by others because as they say, he actually likes war. There’s a realization that as glorious a warrior as he is, these are qualities that have no place in a civil society.
There is no society finally for Achilles to return to because the very qualities that find him exhaulted on the battlefield are completely out of place off the battlefield. That’s the story of The Odyssey. The Odyssey is Odysseus’ 10 year attempt at recovery, to curb his warrior’s heart. It’s a long and difficult struggle.
There’s a wonderful scene in The Odyssey where Odysseus descends to the underworld and meets Achilles. Achilles said, I’d rather be a serf pounding out clods of dirt on some farm above than here in the house of death. I think The Iliad, because of its understanding of the motives of war and brutality–and they’re very graphic descriptions of the slaughter of death– coupled with The Odyssey, which is an attempt by Odysseus to re-integrate himself into civil society, for me as, as companion pieces, are a searing indictment of war, the culture of war, and what it does to individuals and societies.
Is it a searing, realistic indictment?
It’s a searing indictment because the writer, Homer, or writers under the name of Homer, understood what war was. And, you know, they knew what they were writing about. They understood the warrior caste. They understood comradeship and the danger of comradeship. They understood the capriciousness of fate. They understood the indifference of the gods.
The characters in The Iliad and The Odyssey live in a morally neutral universe. The gods switch sides with amazing rapidity in the war, sometimes choosing favorites on the battlefield and then suddenly abandoning them. I think that gives us a much, much more realistic vision of the deadly neutrality of nature, especially in wartime.
Is there a different moral code for war?
Yeah. War results in the destruction of the moral code. In war everything is turned upside down. Decency, sobriety, and honesty no longer pay. Those who give themselves up to the lust of war triumph in war. When we see flashes of human nobility or let’s say human morality, whether it’s with Hector and Andromache or with the King Priam coming to beg for the body of Hector in Achilles’ tent, we’re reminded of the perverse world that war is.
The essence of war is death. Everything in a wartime culture calls us to sacrifice on the altar for the god of war. We begin by sacrificing others. But when we stay long enough in war we end up by sacrificing ourselves. Within the text of The Iliad, very clear.
What do you think of Wilfred Owen?
Wilfred Owen is probably the greatest war poet because he very early on understood the hypocrisy of the hierarchy, of the military hierarchy, the brutality of the war itself and the utter futility and waste of it, and wrote about it. I don’t think there’s any poet, certainly in World War I, that comes close to him.
Do you think poetry has any particular relevance to war?
Any time human beings find themselves in moments or periods of extreme depravation or suffering they turn away from the trivia that dominates our airwaves and our lives.
For those who can articulate something beneath the surface glitter that most of us ingest day and night; poetry, great music, art, great literature, all of those artists who struggle in a profound way with the human condition, suddenly have something to say to us as we struggle Job-like with whatever horrors we’re undergoing.
Poetry has always been a part of war. In every war that I’ve covered, soldiers write poetry. I was with a battalion of Marines in the Persian Gulf War and a lance corporal had written a poem about making a phone call to his mother and hearing his mother cry on the other end of the phone. And it was maudlin and sentimental. I think it was Oscar Wilde that said all bad poetry is sincere. But it really struck home with these kids. And almost everyone in his battalion had memorized the poem. I think that’s typical in wartime.
But we should very, be very clear that, there are usually two types of artistic endeavor in wartime: at the inception of a war most artists, including poets, are more than happy to lend themselves to the war effort. Even great minds like Freud and Thomas Mond, remember, supported the folly of the First World War. There is within artists and within poets a kind of conversion during the war process. Some of them never really convert.
Kipling, of course, lent his jingoistic talents – it’s a little unfair, I mean, I actually like Kipling – to the war effort and to the glory of the empire, until, of course, his son, who he secured a commission for, was killed. And then Kipling couldn’t write much at all after that. It shattered his conception of empire, military life, and glory.
There’s a kind of learning process. Poets, writers, and artists are just as susceptible to the euphoric intoxication of war as the rest of us. And I think they are perhaps more willing and predisposed to lend their talents to the war effort because they live more on the margins of society.
So that you have great painters like Nevinson. People who painted the abstract star burst, shells they fire at night to light up a battlefield, beautiful geometric shapes. Finally at the end of the war Nevinson’s great painting, Paths of Glory, which is not abstract at all but very realistic and shows two British soldiers with their bodies tangled up in barbed wire outside a trench.
It is a painting, of course, that was immediately censored by the British government. Nevinson hung it in a show with a brown wrapper over the painting and wrote censored across it. Artists and writers who are willing to lend their talents to the war effort are highly prized because they are some of the most creative minds in our society, and they know how to manipulate public perceptions.
But when they turn on the war, they are often very, very swiftly silenced. I think that when you look at poets, you know, there often is a kind of progression. Poets like Rubert Brooks, who wrote a poem about being buried in a little corner of England, a poem I detest, are disseminated widely. Those who struggle to portray combat as it really is are kept from public view.
As presented by the press, war seems very ordered. What is the actual experience of combat like?
Well, our images of war are completely choreographed, of course, and sanitized, immensely sanitized. They bear no relationship at all to the reality of war. I mean, to the point of lunacy. The notion that somehow watching Saving Private Ryan or anything else has anything to do with actual combat is silly.
The power of the entertainment industry is such that we actually sit around and I pick Saving Private Ryan and have discussions about World War II or a combat based upon Hollywood’s image of it. I don’t know if it’s possible finally to replicate the experience of war.
I know it is possible to give us a much clearer and truer picture of combat but it would be so unpalatable and so disgusting that we would turn our eyes away in horror. The war makers very desperately don’t want us to see those images because it would be very hard to get young men to go to war and very hard to get nations to support a war if we understood the reality of combat.
Is one of the roles that poets can play to try and communicate the real essence of war?
Well, if you take Wilfred Owen, for instance, poets can communicate the essence of war. I often wonder if it’s only to those who’ve been there. That if you haven’t been there, what they write about somehow becomes an abstraction. I mean, after all, you know, if you look at Dulce et Decorum Est, probably the greatest anti-war poem ever written, the images that he describes of sitting in the back of the wagons with their froth corrupted lungs, et cetera, are graphic.
In the end they’re a long way from actually seeing those bodies in the backs of the wagons. I think somehow to drive home the force and horror of war means to carry back those images from the battlefield.
I find with poets like Owen, that there is a tremendous honesty and power in what they write. It gives words to an experience that I’ve had and that I understand. But I wonder, for those who’ve not been through the crucible that war is, whether those words can strike as deeply.
The Press and the Myth of War
This conversation was excerpted from Chris Hedges’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
Does war have effects other than those anticipated? Is war a clean or a messy thing?
War is not clean. War is very messy. War is never as tidy as the images of war make it out to be. In fact, war is just pure chaos. The noise itself is deafening, almost unbearable, overloading your senses, along with everything else. You are assaulted in a way that you are completely knocked off balance emotionally, psychologically, and often physically.
War is always about betrayal. Betrayal of the young by the old. Betrayal of idealists by cynics, and ultimately betrayal of soldiers by politicians. Because when those young men who have fought in a war come home they are discarded, left to struggle alone with the demons of war.
This was driven home to me within my own family. My father and most of my uncles fought in World War II. My father came back after the war, and hated the military and hated war. He became a Presbyterian minister.
One of my uncles, who fought in the South Pacific and was wounded in the war, never recovered physically or emotionally. He couldn’t hold down a job. Couldn’t hold down a marriage. He was an alcoholic and eventually drank himself to death in a trailer.
Now, the case of my uncle who fought “in the good war”, part of the greatest generation, was not an anomaly. There were, no doubt, thousands, tens of thousands of families like mine who had to carry this crucible of war in our home, out of sight of the public.
These are the kinds of images that don’t propel young men into war, nor do they propel a nation into war. So they are very carefully blocked away from us. We see it with veterans of the Persian Gulf War who suffer from Gulf War Syndrome or suffer from the effects of depleted uranium or from the trauma of being in war.
I read a psychological study that said that being in sustained combat is the psychological equivalent of being in a car crash in which your best friend is killed. These are very, very heavy things to bear.
When we see the distress that is unleashed in those who return, we turn away because the myth is so much more enjoyable than the reality. We got off on the myth. I mean, the myth was peddled for us during the war in Iraq by the cable news networks where the coverage of the war existed in essence in a celebration of our incredibly powerful weapons systems and by extension our own power.
We don’t want to see and we don’t want to hear. We turn our backs on those who come back from war and bear witness on war and I think this has been true for generations and generations and the reason for this is because it’s so difficult to see, so difficult to look at, so difficult to ingest and it’s so much more enjoyable to ingest the bands playing, the flags waving, and the hero charging up over the hill, which is a lie. It’s just not true.
Let’s go specifically to the war in Iraq. Do you think the press has told us the truth about what’s going on there and about the effects of what we’re doing?
In wartime the press is always part of the problem and has always been part of the problem since the Crimean War when the modern war correspondent was invented. That has not changed and probably will never change.
In wartime the press sees its role as an institution which should boost the morale of the soldiers that it’s covering and the morale of the nation that is waging the war. It looks for those pieces on the battlefield that they can fit together to create a coherent, mythic narrative of war.
That hometown hero, the perfidiousness of our enemies who are always uncivilized and barbarous. Those whom our gallant soldiers have saved. Images that show our soldiers as able to express and show compassion and caring, and images that portray those arrayed against us as unfeeling and brutal.
And every report, with occasional exceptions, is designed to reinforce this mythic narrative about us and about our war. The press hungers and begs for heroes and creates them because they know that’s what their viewers and their readers want.
Norman Schwarzkopf, who hated the press, had total antipathy to what we did, was a surly, relatively unpleasant human being at least as far as we were concerned, yet the press fawned at his feet. The press fell all over themselves to spend a half-hour in the great man’s helicopter. It could have been anyone. It didn’t need to be Schwarzkopf, but we needed to lionize our Agamemnon.
In the same way in the Iraqi war, we create a story which turns out to be completely false about Jessica Lynch. At a time when we were bogged down in a way that we had not expected, we needed that image.I don’t blame the handlers at the Pentagon completely. I blame the press. The press accepted that story without any kind of scrutiny because it’s what they thirsted for and ultimately what we thirsted for. That is the role of the press in wartime.
Now, when a public’s perception of the war changes, as it did in Vietnam, the press has the ability or the freedom to change its coverage from a mythic to a sensory mode of reporting. By that I mean, they can go out and report the war as it is without trying to package it in this mythic narrative that is always part of a mythic perception of war.
But the public’s perception of war has to change first before the press is given license to do that. When the public waves the flag, the press waves the flag. And when the public stops waving the flag, then the press stops waving the flag. The press is a reactive institution.
Those few within the press who have the courage to go out and write and report against the common perception find themselves very isolated, under tremendous attack and often silenced. I mean, one thinks of Edmund Morel, the great crusading journalist in Britain during World War I or people like I.F. Stone.
Do you think that the Pentagon and the American government have become sophisticated in controlling the press?
Well, the American government, especially the Pentagon, has figured out how to manipulate and control the press, which is done through the control of images. They control which images reach us.
You had a situation which began in the Persian Gulf War with General Schwarzkopf in a room full of reporters, whom were often asking rather inane questions, who was staring straight into the camera and in essence speaking directly to the nation and the viewer. This was unprecedented. He wasn’t briefing the press, he was briefing us.
We were shown video clips of missiles that always hit their target, which of course gave it a kind of game-like quality, number one, because it was all sanitized and clean and filmed from a distance, usually filmed from the cockpit of a plane. It also communicated blind faith in our own technology. This is very dangerous, because like the doomed empires of the late 19th Century, we have come to believe that our technology makes us invulnerable.
Remember at the end of the 19th century everybody would march off to fight in the Sudan or the Boers or wherever and say “we have the gun, we have the gun, the Gatling gun”. Everybody stumbled into World War I without understanding that once the opposing side also gets their hands on that technology, even a cruder version of that technology, we are no longer invulnerable.
One of the difficulties within the American public’s perception of the war in Iraq now is that euphoria of invincibility and invulnerability is being chipped away in the streets of Baghdad as soldier after soldier is wounded or killed by roadside bombs or rocket propelled grenades.
Do sophisticated weapon systems really ensure that you can win a war?
Well, sophisticated weapon systems are very effective for taking control of an area or a country. But they’re almost useless when you try and maintain a country under occupation. That’s what we’re finding out. When it’s your job to patrol a city block, all the cruise missiles in the world just are not of much use.
In a war of attrition or in an insurgency, especially when those insurgents are willing to sacrifice their lives and you are very reticent about sacrificing the lives of your troops, and you live in a hostile environment, everyone becomes an enemy. The enemy, of course, is elusive, difficult to find. The bomb goes off, your best buddy is wounded and you don’t know where to strike back.
We saw this in Vietnam. It produces what Robert J. Lifton correctly calls an atrocity-producing situation.
There’s a kind of psychological transference where you are angry and frustrated and of course have at your disposal tremendous firepower and there’s a need to lash back at anything or anyone around you. All of which includes the environment and the populace, and both are perceived, and probably quite correctly, as hostile.
It’s not a long step to gunning down women in a rice paddy in revenge for the wounding or death of a comrade. That’s certainly what we’ve seen in the West Bank and Gaza with Israeli troops and it’s what we’re seeing in Iraq. We are living in an atrocity-producing situation where everything outside of our Humvee or our little armed unit is viewed as hostile and therefore worthy of being obliterated.
Of course, that only fuels and insurgency. Insurgencies are built on martyrdom.I saw insurgencies in the war in El Salvador. The best recruiting weapon the FMLN rebels had in El Salvador were the death squads, who when I arrived in El Salvador were killing 800 and 1000 people a month.
The best recruiting weapon the Iraqi insurgents have are the U.S. military, who use phenomenally powerful weapons. Anti-tank weapons to blow up apartments, 50 caliber machine guns to fire at people who are hiding along the roadside and shooting at them with assault rifles.
When you unleash that kind of firepower, especially in civilian areas, the “collateral damage” they call it, but, I mean, let’s be frank, the murder of innocents is pronounced. And whatever ambivalence people may have towards the insurgents, this will be overtaken by an anger at the callousness and brutality of those heavily armed units that are traveling around their country uninvited.
Once you fall into a colonial occupation, which is essentially what we have now in Iraq and the West Bank and Gaza, you fall into that long war of attrition. Occupiers or colonial powers who would like the benefits of occupation but don’t want to pay the price in terms of blood are at a distinct disadvantage.
When I used to go to Algeria, I’d go through the airport and the top of the airport said “Algeria, land of a million martyrs”. This was, of course, coming from the war of independence against the French. When you have a populace that is so desperate and angry that they’re willing to sacrifice in those numbers against a country like ours, you’re ultimately doomed.
In the 1990s, 1.2 million people were killed in the Sudan, and half a million were killed in Angola. Are we in the US insulated from the realities of war around the world?
There are roughly three dozen wars going on around the world at any one time, which, true we never see, but we never see war at all anyway. Images of war are very carefully sanitized, and war as it is is very carefully hidden from public view. We don’t see war.
We have the technological capacity to show us young men whose legs have been blown off by an antitank mine bleeding to death in the sand. We could do it, but we really never will. We won’t even allow the press to cover the return of bodies in coffins to Dover Air Force base from the Iraq war.
I understand that images of mutilated young Americans would be deeply disturbing to the families and therefore should not be shown, but the arrival of flag-draped coffins is something else. The only people who ever see war are the people who are in war. Otherwise war is packaged, and conveyed to us the same way that other poisons like liquor or tobacco are packaged and conveyed to us an unrealistic fashion.
How War Isolates Societies and Hijacks Language
This conversation was excerpted from Chris Hedges’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
What was your reaction when we invaded Iraq? How do you feel now?
I always opposed the invasion of Iraq. I was in a funny situation because I’d covered the first Persian Gulf War and I felt that in the aggressive act by Iraq, i.e. the occupation of Kuwait and control of Kuwaiti oil fields, was something that the international community could not let stand.
The first Bush administration did a tremendous job in building a real coalition under the auspices of the United Nations to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait. They didn’t do much fighting but we had Arab troops there: Syrian troops, Egyptian troops, Qatari troops, Saudi troops. It was pretty amazing.
But they bungled the peace. I know having covered Iraq, I doubted Saddam would have left unless there was clear coercive pressure on him to leave. The current war in Iraq is different. I know what war does to societies and individuals. I know what war will do to us.
And I’m not a pacifist. The notion that we could sit around Sarievo when it was under siege, upwards of 2000 shells a day, constant sniper fire, four to five dead a day, two dozen wounded a day, and have serious discussions about pacifism would evoke gales of laughter among my Bosnian friends.
I know how far human beings can go for their own self-preservation. The natural reaction is to employ violence to protect themselves, their families, their communities. I understand that. But that doesn’t free those who engage in that violence even for “just cause” from the very pernicious effects of violence.
So that war must always be a last and final resort because it is like ingesting a poison. Just as a cancer patient must ingest a poison to fight off a disease, there are times when as individuals and societies we have to ingest a poison to fight off war. But if we don’t understand what that poison is and how dangerous it is, it can kill us just as surely as the disease.
In the case of the current war in Iraq, there was never a credible case made for a serious threat. Nobody ever laid down hard, concrete evidence that the Iraqis had these weapons or were preparing to use them against our allies, our interests or our nation. And that is the only way to go to war.
It turns out that the reason that evidence was not presented is because it didn’t exist. It’s important to remember that those countries that share our values, those countries in Europe that are democratic, did not support us. And as powerful as we are, we cannot afford to be alone, especially as we enter an age where those allied against us are about to get their hands on very crude versions of the apocalyptic weapons we possess.
It is extremely dangerous for us to fold in on ourselves. Isolation always impairs judgment. We are very isolated now. When I look at Thucydides, when you read his History, he writes that Athens’ expanding empire was destroyed because Athens became a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. Essentially Athenian democracy was destroyed from within.
Having seen us build alliances, not with our natural allies, but with people like Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, it’s very clear that we are becoming the company we keep. And that is extremely dangerous. So my fear is that in that kind of isolation and willful blindness, we are unable to perceive how others see us.
Certainly 1/5 of the world’s population, most of whom are Muslims, most of whom are not Arab, possess a great deal of anger and antipathy for us.
Iraq has become, you know, the shooting gallery of choice for every disenchanted, angry young Muslim kid in the Middle East. Al Qaeda was not in Iraq before we got there but I’m sure they’re all over the place now. There’s been a self-fulfilling prophecy to this.
And the possibility of catastrophic domestic terrorism on American soil is very real. Indeed having covered Al Qaeda for a year after 9-11, there was not an Intelligence Chief I interviewed who thinks that it wasn’t inevitable.
We are facing a threat unlike anything we have every faced because it is only a matter of time before these people get their hands on dirty bombs or chemical or biological weapons. We cannot afford to be alone, not only because it’s going to require a response in concert with the world community, but because the more we’re alone, the less we’re able to judge how we’re perceived, and therefore how we should act.
When a country is getting ready to go to war, what happens to dissent? What is your experience with this in the lead-up to the present conflict in Iraq?
When a country prepares for war and goes into war. There is a kind of collective euphoria or madness that takes over the population. I first saw this in Argentina where I was living when the military junta invaded the Falklands.
In the lead up to the war, and it came as a complete surprise, the junta was on the verge of collapse. This was a military government that had been responsible for “disappearing” 30,000 of its own citizens, tremendous corruption driving the economy into the ground and shortly before the invasion I was in a huge demonstration that shut down the center of Buenos Aires.
All of my Argentine friends spoke about human rights, democracy, putting those who had carried out the Dirty War on trial. The moment the invasion was announced, it was as if I woke up in a metamorphosis, I was a giant bug. Any hint that the Argentine military was not glorious and heroic or that the invasion and occupation of the Falkland Islands was not justified was to court physical violence. And it was a lesson I never forgot.
It happened in every wartime society that I have lived in, including, of course, my own country following 9-11. What happens is, through war, we feel empowered, we feel noble. We feel great. Blind patriotism or nationalism is ultimately about self-exaltation and that emotional state is one we don’t want questioned.
Those who raise voices of dissent are not challenging simply an idea, they’re challenging an emotional state that we don’t want challenged because it feels great. The thing about war is that we are invited to suspend individual conscience, maybe even consciousness for the contagion of crowd, for the war effort. And if we’re willing to do that, we’re embraced in this great crusade.
We look around us and all of those people who we were not able to connect with before the war have suddenly become our comrades. There’s a sense of equality, a sense of common purpose. We face death together as a group. We do not long face death alone and that makes death a lot easier to bear.
All of these feeling of inclusiveness which are part of war’s illusion of comradeship are so heady and intoxicating and free us from the alienation that I think many of us struggle with in depths of our being in modern society and for that reason, it becomes very hard to resist the pull. It’s why intellectuals are so often willing to put their formidable services to very pernicious causes. It’s why Heidegger at the University of Hiedelberg would begin his lectures with a Nazi salute.
In some ways intellectuals are more susceptible to this because they are more on the outside and those who have the courage to stand up and take a moral stance, one thinks of Oscar Romero, for instance, in El Salvador, the archbishop who was assassinated, are often not the great intellectuals of a society or even the great social critics, but those people who have a kind of strength of will and moral certitude and probity that allows them to be very lonely individuals, reviled and to say things that in the moment of war are almost tantamount to suicide.
Dissent in wartime is not simply an attempt to present another view but an attempt to burst that emotional bubble that people will do anything to protect. When I gave a commencement address at Rockford College in Illinois and shortly after President Bush had landed on the aircraft carrier and talked about mission accomplished, etc., my criticisms of the war were met with an emotional response.
People stood and wept as they sang “God Bless America”. My microphone was cut twice; I was jeered and hooted and people let off foghorn blasts and what was happening was, yes, they didn’t like what I said but more importantly they didn’t want that euphoric feeling of victory, of self-indulgence, of self-exaltation questioned or challenged and that’s where the anger came from.
It was an angry crowd, those few hundred people who were arrayed against me. And out of that crowd, two or three men climbed onto the stage to try and keep me, to stop me from speaking. So that I had to be taken out of the ceremony by campus security before it was finished because it was too unsafe for me to remain. And I think that is an example of what grips a country. I’m not in any way blaming or singling out those who were at that address because I think it’s pervasive within every society in wartime and very, very difficult and even dangerous to confront.
In any kind of war situation, you mentioned the role of nationalism and the role of victimhood. Can you talk about how those emotions are manipulated?
Once you’re in a war you have pity only for your own. We almost become incapable of having pity for the other. Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power points out correctly that in war, mythic narrative is so vital and fundamental to pushing a nation into war, it begins with the murder of innocence, with people who have no other real connection to us other than that they come from our tribe, our ethnic group, our nation.
I think those who were killed in the World Trade Center are held up by those who want to prosecute war effectively as the sacrificial dead, as martyrs. There is an attempt made to say that somehow questioning the war effort is sacrilege to the memory of the innocent dead. Let’s be clear they were innocent dead. This was a crime against humanity that was committed against us and against those people.
But this is true in every conflict. Those innocents, or the memory of the innocents are very effectively used by the war makers to make the questioning of the war effort a kind of heresy, a kind of sacrilege. It becomes a struggle on the part of those who speak out against war to make it clear that dissent is not a way of dishonoring soldiers, dishonoring those who have been killed, or the wounded.
The emotional turmoil that is created by the war itself, and the emotional pitch that is created by the war makers often quite effectively manages to silence dissenters precisely on those grounds, that somehow what they are doing is criticizing something holy, something sacred, something that no good member of your society has a right to criticize.
You talked about the hijacking of language.
In wartime the first thing that is hijacked is language, and one never comes out of covering a conflict without realizing that corruption of language is what always leads to war, that we turn others linguistically into objects before we turn them quite literally into objects, i.e., corpses.
What happens in warfare is that the state and the media, and this is what happened in the Iraq war with the 24-hour cable channels, gives us the language in order to articulate the experience we are undergoing. “The war on terror”. You know, “Countdown with Iraq”, “Showdown with Iraq”, all of these clichs and aphorisms, seep their way into our language, so that even when we have a kind of disquiet about what’s going on, we’re trapped because it’s those clichs and aphorisms we use in order to try to explain our experience.
You cannot have a war on terror. Terror is a tactic that is employed by groups that often don’t have conventional forces and behind them, and has been with us since before the Roman Empire. Terror is never going to go away. Terror has been part of the human landscape, used by forces under oppression, or forces weaker than the powers they assault for millenniums and will be.
This kind of a phrase is ingested into our vocabulary and never questioned. It makes it very hard for us to think outside of the box. We are robbed of the words by which we can express alternative points of view. And that’s what war does. And you can never have peace until those metaphors and aphorisms that are handed to you by the state are demolished. Otherwise you just speak past each other.
We see that in Bosnia. If you go to Bosnian schools, the history lessons that are taught to Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian children are not only completely different but are at variance with each group pinning the blame on the other, historically and in the present. And they have no common narrative by which they can communicate. Therefore they can never have peace. It means that what you have in Bosnia is not peace, but the absence of war.
And this is the strength of the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa. There, the killers of the South African regime were given an amnesty, but they had to give detailed confessions of the crimes they committed. What it gave black and white South Africans is a new way of speaking, beyond the clichs and aphorisms, by which they could go forward, by which they would not be trapped by their enmity and hatred.
And you learn that that hijacking of language in wartime is absolutely key to the propagation of the war, and very pernicious to the health and inquiry and self-criticism that’s fundamental to creating a peacetime society.
Do you see the same patterns repeated in Iraq? This is characterized as a crusade. Is a crusade any different from a jihad?
In wartime everybody starts speaking the same way. They call us infidels, we call them barbarians. There’s a kind of mirror quality to the languages and attitudes in war and that’s certainly been true since 9/11 in the United States.
I was in New York during 9/11, and a few days later, looking at all the cars going down the street with the flags I thought, oh my god, we’ve all become the Serbs. You know, this kind of patriotic and nationalistic response was one that was deeply familiar to me, that I had seen everywhere around the world.
And it frightened me because I recognized that we were all drinking that same dark elixir in gulps that I had seen destroy other societies such as the Serbian society.
Human Nature and War
This conversation was excerpted from Chris Hedges’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
Do you think war is part of our nature?
If you look at human history, war has been part of the human landscape from the beginning. Various people like Will and Ariel Durant have had tried to figure out how many years in human history there has not been a war on somewhere, and I think they came up with 36 years or something like that.
I’m not interested in dealing with the world of my own creation, I am interested in dealing with the world as it is, and war is part of our landscape, and always has been, and probably always will be. The difference between wars in modernity and wars of the past is that we are about to face those that seek our destruction and who have the capability to wreak destruction on us in ways that we have not seen before.
There was a sort of mutual terror that kept the Soviet Union from launching missiles on us, and us on them. But Al Qaeda and these radical Islamic groups have no address. It’s not like Iraq, there’s no place to go.
That means the nature of war will change dramatically for the next generation, that what my children face will be a kind of fear and instability that those of us, when we grew up, were largely spared.
Now, also looking at human history, we’ve been immensely privileged. Most people have not been able to live in a zone of opulence and safety such as we have had. But I think that is changing and it will change our democracy, because fear and the spectre of an outside threat is one that those who rule governments use to create greater and greater degrees of power.
I worry that if we suffer domestic terrorism, especially of a catastrophic nature, we will see those who would like to take away our liberties be given license to do so. We’ve seen this in Israel, and we will see any kind of reasoned opposition and thoughtful analysis of what we’re doing abroad with other nations and the kind of violence we’re employing criticized, silenced not so much by the state, though that will happen, but by fear itself.
Israel is a good example. The Israeli Left, under the weight of 200 suicide bombings, has collapsed. Let’s face it, we live a much more coddled existence than the Israelis. If we feel threatened, we will scream for vengeance. We will embrace those on the extreme end of our political spectrum who promise a greater and greater degree of violence to protect us.
Unfortunately, having spent almost twenty years of my life outside the United States and many of those years in the Middle East, I can tell you that dropping iron fragmentation bombs all over the place only fuels the very elements we should be attempting to demolish. And again this instinctive reaction of fear, which you see on a battlefield, is one that puts us only in more danger from those forces in our society who do not understand what is arrayed against us and how to fight it.
We’re now at a point where the United States has a military that’s far superior and far better funded than anything else in the world. How do you feel about this and what do you think the implications are?
Societies that define themselves by or whose great achievement is military prowess are societies that often culturally, intellectually, politically are hollow on the inside. One thinks of Sparta.
It is possible at once to have and build a great military power, one looks at the end of the Roman Empire, and actually destroy yourselves from within. The corruption and destruction of political life with the death of the Republic in Rome, culminated with the rise of a great military machine, the greatest the world had ever seen. The greatest entertainment industry the world had ever seen. The political discourse was replaced with the spectacle, with the arena.
It’s always dangerous to draw analogies with ancient Rome. This was a culture that embraced slavery and infanticide and subjugation of women, but nevertheless, there are parallels that we can learn from. Having a powerful military and diverting public attention from political life with this huge entertainment industry that we have created, is one that will ultimately impoverish us and weaken us.
What happened in Rome . . . well, you ended up with Neros and Caligulas. Clown-like figures who would be ludicrous if they weren’t so brutal and deadly. We are undergoing a very similar kind of process, where the prejudice against real intellectual activity and real civil discourse and the blind faith in hard military power to the exclusion of all other power will probably end up weakening us and hurting us more than any external threat, in part because we become so isolated and insulated from the rest of the world that we don’t understand how those outside our gates react and think and therefore don’t know how to respond.
So we carry out a series of blunders. We occupy countries and think we’re going to be greeted as liberators and in fact are greeted as enemies. That failure of cultural empathy is very much a failure of learning, of education, of understanding. When we’re distracted, as we are distracted in modern society, that kind of knowledge which is essential for our security is harder and harder to gain and disseminate.
Unconventional warfare and the role of civilians
This conversation was excerpted from Chris Hedges’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
When people think of war, they think of things like the conflict in Iraq. But we’ve talked also about other conflicts, like conflict in the Sudan.
Most wars are not the conventional kind of wars that we saw in Iraq or that we saw in the Persian Gulf War. Most wars are ethnic conflicts fought between gangs or warlords, child militias, often drugged out. Irregular, poorly controlled gangs of thugs who have at their disposal a plethora of automatic, deadly automatic weapons that they can carry around by the trunk-full.
That does characterize most of the wars that we see across the globe at the beginning of this century and probably end of the last century. The problem is that these weapons are so accessible and have been so widely produced and disseminated that anyone can get their hands on them. This has certainly served to fuel violence, especially ethnic or tribal violence, in places where the nation state is weak or has broken down.
You have to point responsibility towards the arms makers for this. If countries are flooded with weapons and there are periods of political turmoil, it is almost inevitable that fringe groups are going to organize and use those weapons to carry out the agenda that they have, which is usually looting and robbery. Ethnic warfare is a business.
How do you control these arms manufacturers? There’s not much scrutiny given to them or to the role that they play in creating and furthering conflicts. Most people fail to understand that we, as a country, are the largest arms exporters on the face of the earth. We export two or three times more weapons than all the other countries combined.
And flooding countries that lack stability with weapons like this is a major cause of the prolonged conflicts that countries like the Sudan have been suffering from. There is no control. We saw, for instance, in Sierra Leone the rebel movement control the diamond mines and use diamonds as currency to buy weapons from Russian arms exporters who would fly in C130s and unload this stuff by the case.
As a country, we gave Savimbi in Angola 500 million dollars. This was a man who did not respect any international norms. He mutilated and dismembered his opponents and bombed Red Cross hospitals.
There are many powerful institutions and forces at work behind the scenes, beyond public scrutiny that bear a great deal of responsibility for the horrific bloodletting that has been going on and continues to go on in various parts of the globe that we very rarely focus on or acknowledge.
What is the role of a civilian in modern war?
Civilians in modern war serve as either victims or adjuncts of the war effort. That’s basically it. They will man the factories. They will dig the trenches.
Take the war in Bosnia. A large number of civilians, usually from opposing ethnic groups, were press ganged into going out and building defenses. Civilians become like cattle in wartime. Bounced around, abused, used, even by their own side.
For instance, in the war in the Balkans, none of the ethnic groups liked the fact that there were people from their ethnic groups living as minorities in territory controlled by opposing ethnic groups. There was a kind of collusion in the ethnic cleansing. Because all of those nationalist leaders wanted ethnically pure states.
The result was a war by all sides, even those sides purportedly protected your interest to drive you from your home. Civilians are pawns, seen as a kind of collateral in wartime. In the case of ethnic warfare, they are often the ones who are attacked and killed, not because they mount any kind of a threat, but because they come from another ethnic group and this is an attempt to create an ethnically pure state.
The ethnic wars of the 20th century were primarily wars against civilians. There’s little fighting between the combatants. Most of the activity resulted in Serbs going into the Drino Valley and driving the Muslims from their homes and dumping their bodies in the Drino.
In your years as a correspondent–was the civilian population completely involved in the wars you covered?
Ever since World War I civilians have borne the brunt of the suffering. Certainly in World War II they did. It was primarily a war against civilians, despite all the big battles. A disproportionate number of civilians were killed, especially on the eastern front.
Modern warfare has sort of incorporated genocidal qualities into it that we did not see in World War I. In other periods of human history this is certainly been part of warfare. Every time a Greek city state rose up against Phillip in Macedonia or Alexander he would go down and sort of level all the cities and, and sow the fields with salt, as we saw with Carthage. So it’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s certainly a phenomenon that has characterized war since the end of World War II.
In the case of Carthage, the armies fought and that was the penalty. But in modern warfare it sounds like civilians are paying. Is that correct?
No. It tended to be a punitive. The similarity would be that when a Greek city state or a state in the ancient world rose up, and then was conquered, the civilian populace paid the price. Civilian life was often destroyed, towns were destroyed. There was a punitive quality to the campaign, but that’s not unlike the punitive quality we have in modern war.
When I was in southern Iraq after the war with the Shiite rebels during the uprising, there was no clean water. All the water purification plants had been destroyed. I can remember standing in the rain over a mud puddle and drinking this water the color of coffee, which was turning my own guts inside out, and seeing a young woman with her two small children drinking out of the same puddle.
I knew what that water had done to me and knew very well what that water would do to these kids. And I stood over them and recited in English, not a language anyone around me understood, W. H. Auden’s “Epitaph on a Tyrant”.
Perfection of a kind was what he was after
and the poetry he invented was easy to understand.
He knew human folly like the back of his hand
and was greatly interested in armies and fleets.
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laugher.
And when he cried, the little children died in the streets.
How do you see the future?
I’m not very hopeful. I think we’re barreling towards self-annihilation at a furious pace.You could look at just the environmental degradation and come away with a pretty sober and frightening picture of the future.
But coupled with the propensity to unilaterally carry out acts of violence or wars for very dubious interests is only making the world a less stable place, and making us, as a nation, more of a target.
The damage that has been done to multilateral institutions, such as the UN or NATO, has not only furthered our own isolation, which is dangerous, but left us bereft of the kinds of allies and friends that we desperately need at a time like this.
Because we are about to face attacks, which employ weapons that hitherto have not been used against us, very crude versions of apocalyptic weapons, we are entering into a time unlike any other time that we’ve seen as a country. Given the way we have responded so far, I worry that an acceleration of that kind of response will only lead us further down the road to our own self destruction.