Monday, November 22, 2004

War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

This book is awesome. It has several messages, all of which seem important to me, though the message on 'nationalism as a disease' seems the most important to me. This may be because nationalism feeds off of racism - one of my hotbutton issues, or maybe because it's just a heck of a lot easier to explain than what the author, Chris Hedges, means by the 'myth' of war.

Here are the author's messages:

1) The 'myth' of war needs to be stomped out.

2) Nationalism needs to be stomped out.

3) The media need to be held to account, and failing that, we must all recognize the role the media always has and continues to have in promoting war.

First, check out this post I wrote a few months ago covering the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which aired on C-SPAN. The panel titled 'The Seduction of War' is where I first heard about Chris Hedges' book. You should definitely watch it.

I'll try to briefly address each of the aforementioned points:

1) The 'myth' of war
The notion of war and all the excitement that comes with it is based upon a series of very powerful lies about the very nature of war, and the many conflict-specific lies that get brought along for the ride to drum up public support for war. All of these self-told lies are the 'myth' of war that Hedges refers to.

Hedges argues, for instance, that wars are not inevitable conflicts between cultures or religions or civilizations. Instead, they are manufactured by a relative few who know how to prey upon the fear and paranoia of the population. The conflict in the Balkans, where 250,000 human beings were killed, was not the result of Croats and Muslims and Serbs who just couldn't stand each other and so had to kill each other. It took Milosevic and his compliant media 'four years of hate propaganda' before one Serb got violent, sparking the conflict. If Milosevic was not allowed to manufacture the conflict by the decent citizens of his country, there would have been no war. But instead, his people slowly bought into the myth - that all the hate he said existed did actually exist, and that war was inevitable, and war to purge the evil on the other side was righteous and good.

Compare Milosevic's hate speech to that of the cadre of right-wing extremist talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Michael Savage. Outgoing Democratic Party leader Tom Daschle has been subject to death threats from crazies who get all pumped up by listening to the likes of these talk show hosts. Were these hosts not denounced by at least half of the country, they would be able to build a movement similar to Milosevic's. Think about what it might be like to be gay in this country right now. Savage was fired after telling a caller to 'get AIDS and die', but he is still prominent on many radio stations. Coulter and Limbaugh are not far behind in the severity of their hateful rhetoric.

The myth of war allows us, as citizens, to ignore the obvious motives of our leaders for those which reflect most positively on us as a country. The first Gulf War was fought not to protect Kuwait from Saddam's regime, who we supported through the 1980's, but to maintain our control of the Kuwaiti oil fields. That our leaders are paragons of virtue is a myth, and taht goes for both Republicans and Democrats. To want to believe that our leaders are good people seems natural, but to actually believe it, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is blind ignorance, at best.

2) Nationalism defines nationalism as follows:

nationalism -
1: love of country and willingness to sacrifice for it [syn: patriotism]
2: the doctrine that your national culture and interests are superior to any other [ant: multiculturalism, internationalism]

The first one sounds cool; the second one does not. Nationalism naturally feeds off of racism. Thinking of ourselves as superior beings, as Americans, to the rest of the humans on earth is not just nonsensical - it's dangerous. It helps us to believe that we actually have the right to kill non-Americans because they're inferior to us. They're so inferior, in fact, they're not really human. They're monsters. They become what is known in anti-war slang as 'The Other' - the nameless, faceless, non-human, and absolutely evil enemy. This makes killing easier for our troops, and allows the public to use twisted logic to absolve themselves of the guilt they would otherwise experience for approving of the killing of human beings, including innocent human beings, including children.

3) The Media as accomplices
Hedges doesn't expand on this much other than to say, in no uncertain terms, that the media wants, helps build the case for, sanitizes, and ultimately glorifies war.

Now, just a few passages from the book to give you a taste (italicized intro's mine):

On the media propagating the 'myth':
The chief institutions that disseminate the myth are the press and the state. The press has been culpable since the telegraph made possible the modern war correspondent. And starting with the Crimean War, when the first dispatches were fed by newly minted war correspondents in real time, nearly every reporter has seen his or her mission as sustaining civilian and army morale. The advent of photography and film did little to alter the incentive to boost morale, for the lie in war is almost always the lie of omission. The blunders and senselsess slaughter by our generals, the excution of prisoners and innocents, and the horror of wounds are rarely disclosed, at least during a mythic war, to the public. Only when the myth is punctured, as it eventually was in Vietnam, does the press begin to report in a sensory rather than a mythic manner. But even then it is reacting to a public that has changed its perception of war. The press usually does not lead.

On the disease that is Nationalism:
Patriotism, often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us. Never mind the murder and repression done in our name by bloody surrogates from the Shah of Iran to the Congolese dictator Joseph Desire Mobutu, who received form Washington well over a billion dollars in civilian and military aid during the three decades of his rule. And European states -- especially France -- gave Mobutu even more as he bled dry one of the richest countries in Afica. We define ourselves. All other definitions do not count.

On the drug that is war:
...There is a part of me -- maybe it is a part of many of us -- that decided at certain moments that I would rather die like this than go back to the routine of life. The chance to exist for an intense and overpowering moment, even if it meant certain oblivion, seemed worth it in the midst of war -- and very stupid once the war ended.

Now that is some powerful sh*t. An intense and overpowering moment.

Here, Hedges is saying 'look, I've been there, and we are not always rational human beings, and we do not always act in the interests of our own self-preservation'. This is important to recognize because it means fanatical leaders, like George Bush, can act in unexpected ways - irrational ways - and they may take us all down at the same time. This is not difficult to imagine when you hear someone like former Secretary of War Robert McNamara declare, in Fog of War, that 'we got lucky' (to get out of the Cuban Missile Crisis without global thermonuclear war).

It is also not difficult to imagine once you consider that Bush and his neocon allies actually believe that World War IV may have started with our invasion of Iraq, and this will be a battle of civilizations - of Christianity vs. Islam - and that this war will bring about Rapture, and Rapture, for true believers like George W. Bush, is a very good thing, rendering sterile any notion of actually 'winning' such a war. The winners are predermined in Bush's head - they are the true believers, and they'll be swept up into heaven and saved at the appropriate time, regardless of who 'wins' World War IV down on earth.

In this next account, Hedges speaks of an incident in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip:

Barefoot boys, clutching ragged soccer balls and kites made out of scraps of paper, squatted a few feet away under scrub trees. Men, in flowing white or gray galabias -- homespun robes -- smoked cigarettes outside their doorways. They fingered prayer beads and spoke in hushed tones as they boiled tea or coffee on sooty coals in small iron braziers in the shade of the eaves. Two emaciated donkeys, their ribs outlines on their flanks, were tethered to wooden carts with rubber wheels.

It was still. The camp waited, as if holding its breath. And then, out of the dry furnace air a disembodied voice crackled over a louspeaker from the Israeli side of the camp's perimiter fence.

"Come on, dogs," the voice boomed in Arabic. "Where are all the dogs of Khan Younis? Come! Come!"

I stoop up and walked outside the hut. The invective spewed out in a bitter torrent. "Son of a bitch!" "Son of a whore!" "Your mother's cunt!"

The boys darted in small packs up the sloping dunes to the electric fence that separates the camp from the Jewish settlement abutting it. They lobbed rocks towards a jeep, mounted with a loudspeaker and protected by bulletproof armor plates and metal grating, that sat parked on the top of a hill known as Gani Tal. The soldier inside the jeep ridiculed and derided them. Three ambulances -- which had pulled up in anticipation of what was to come -- lined the road below the dunes.

There was the boom of a percussion grenade. The boys, most no more than ten or eleven years old, scattered, running clumsily through the heavy sand. They descended out of sight behind the dune in front of me. There were no sounds of gunfire. The soldiers shot with silencers. The bullets from the M-16 rifles, unseen by me, tumbled end-over-end through their slight bodies. I would see the destruction, the way their stomachs were ripped out, the gaping holes in their limbs and torsos, later in the hospital.

I had seen children shot in other conflicts I have covered -- death squads gunned them down in El Salvador and Guetamala, mothers with infants were lined up and massacred in Algeria, and Serb snipers put children in their sights and watched them crumple onto the pavement in Sarajevo -- but I had never watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.

And with that nice little ditty, we have the lone dissenting vote in the House of Representatives, Barabara J. Lee, on the vote of Friday, September 14, 2001 - to authorize force in getting back at the terrorists. She had this to say: we act, let us not become the evil we deplore.


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