When did I ultimately and irrevocably lose my innocence?
That question occurred to me as I began to read Chris Hedges’ penetrating study on the reasons for and realities of war, and the answer came to me as I finished it.
“War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” (published by PublicAffairs in 2002) is the result of the author’s reporting, over a fifteen-year period, of wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, El Salvador, Iraq, Kuwait, and Sierra Leone. His thesis is that human beings crave war to justify their existence, and that, in war, our humanity is defined.
It is a cruel message, one that in my youth I would have vehemently rejected as an outrage had it been presented to me as directly as Hedges presents it in his succinct (185 pages), literate book.
He begins by contrasting the mythic and sensual perceptions of war. The former, he argues, is the perception of war as portrayed in most Hollywood productions, where honor and bravery are applauded and death and destruction are only shown in antiseptic visions. Enemy soldiers die quickly, without any showing of pain and without any appreciation of the unique lives they represent. Those who die on the protagonist’s side are depicted as heroes and/or martyrs, and their deaths are dramatized in almost poetic terms.
The mythic perception of war is just that: a myth. It is what we are taught to believe so as to accept the righteousness of any war the homeland fights, and so as to excuse, if not completely reject, the atrocities committed by “our side” in seeking victory over the “enemy.”
The sensory perception of war is far less glamorous; indeed, it is totally lacking in glamour. Rather, it is the reality of innocent lives destroyed, of death most foul, painful and often lingering, of surviving combatants crippled, often physically, always emotionally, and of all who are caught in a war’s wake, debilitated in their spirit and diminished in their sense of humanity and their ability to love.
Hedges spreads the blame, if that’s the right word, for the mythic perception of war, but he starts with nationalism, which, in his view, is dormant in the human condition except when one’s own country is at war. Once a nation goes to war, nationalism becomes a catalyst for the mythic perception. Citizens always view war through the lens of their country’s needs and interests. Thus do the ends justify the means in war. So was Hiroshima accepted and applauded in the United States, even as, surely, the reaction would have been much the opposite had the Japanese dropped an atomic bomb on Sacramento or Fresno.
He also argues that culture suffers greatly in times of war, as all the creative forces in a country at war are suddenly slanted to present the country’s justification for that war, as if peace had been defeated solely by the other side’s aggressiveness. Here, too, the mythic perception is emphasized.
Going deeper into the human psyche, Hedges argues that war has a seductive quality as it gradually perverts the human senses. Thus, body counts are presented as if they represent a score in the game, and things like “shock and awe” are portrayed in almost balletic images, suggesting a narcotic effect to the wonders of modern military science.
The ever-present depravity of war expresses a human need, according to Hedges. He uses Freud’s Thanatos (the death wish) to express that need. But he takes it one step beyond Freud, suggesting that this wish is most completely realized in the need to kill (and be killed?) that becomes all-consuming in war.
Memory is an early casualty in war. Memories of the immediate acts of violence are quickly suppressed (the fire bombings of Dresden and other German cities, barely reported at the time); memories of past atrocities are ultimately rejected (the Turks genocide of the Armenians, still denied almost 100 years later).
And, of course, the Cause, whatever it might be, is always established as the basis for the war’s legitimacy. Those causes, in the span of human history, are almost always insufficient when viewed in hindsight, assuming they were even honestly presented at the time. (Hedges opines, for example, that Gulf War I, the liberation of Kuwait, was really just a war to protect allied oil interests, rather than to liberate the oil-rich sultanate of that autocratic country.)
In the end, Hedges asserts, war (representing Thanatos) is embattled with Eros (the human love instinct that flows from the other side of human nature). Only through love, he finally concludes, can the impulse for war be conquered. Regrettably, the path of human history indicates it is a losing battle.
So, when did I lose my innocence? It wasn’t during the Viet Nam War, when I served as my base mortuary officer, counting the body bags as they returned from battle. It wasn’t when Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada, a completely non-threatening little country in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t even when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, as my country suffered the most offensive attack in my lifetime.
I lost my innocence – my naivete about human nature and about the thirst for Thanatos that compels us to wage war – and recognized war as an essential force in our existence, when we invaded Iraq in March of 2003. That decision, sold to the American people with a mix of the mythic perception of war, the nationalist appeal for victory, the subjugation of our cultural forces to the war-cry, the loss of all memory of the complicity of American foreign policy in creating the mess that Iraq had become, the perverse stimulation of the “shock and awe,” and the acceptance of the Cause, in the many forms it ultimately took, convinced me that Hedges is right.
War is a force that gives us meaning. That meaning is the perverse side of our nature. It is as endemic to our condition as is the need for love.
The continual conflict between these two forces is what makes us a species always at risk of our own destruction.