Monday, August 21, 2006

Review: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.

Book: War is a force that gives us meaning
Author: Chris Hedges

I don't judge a book by the cover; I am however prone to judging a book by the title. An interesting or evocative title, and I'm sure to pick it up and start reading it. It is of course, usually a matter of chance whether the book lives up to the expectations I have placed on it. One book that I picked out because of the title; and that I have not been disappointed in has been Chris Hedges' "War is a Froce That Gives Us Meaning." Relying on classic literature, historical evidence and his own personal observations; Hedges gives an exhaustive view of the exhilaration and underneath that exhilaration, utter destruction that war causes.

Beyond the lucid writing style, the quality I most appreciated in this book was Hedges' honesty when it came to describing the hold war has on him.
As a journalist from the New York Times; Hedges has placed his life in danger numerous times; he has been ambushed in Central America, beaten by Saudi military police and shot at by Bosnian Serb snipers in Sarajevo. For Hedges' war became a drug which he consumed and at the same time, consumed him. For example, returning from covering the war in El Salvador, Hedges attacks an airline clerk, based on a perceived slight. As Hedges' writes, "war's sickness had become mine."

War, allows us to escape the triviality of our daily lives; it makes the world less complex and more a case of "us vs. them" "good vs. bad" in other words it gives our lives meaning. It is this meaning and exhilaration which prompts some people to risk their lives to report on war, and others to kill and still others to become supportive spectators.

Yet, this "meaning" comes at a great cost. The "force" Hedges writes about is the force Simon Weil says crushes the victims and intoxicates the perpetrators. Hedges looks at this force of war, by looking at the destruction of nationalism, culture, and memory amongst others.

Hedges starts out by looking at the psychological realities of war; sensory and mythic. Sensory is seeing war as it is; while mythic war gives events meaning they do not have. One factor that Hedges did not mention, and I wish he had, is that one person's sensory war is another person's mythic war. How one person sees reality, is not as another person sees reality.
Myths are much easier to digest. For example, during the conflicts in Rwanda and Bosnia, the prevailing myths were that these conflicts were civil wars, or the results of ancient hatreds. Yet, as Hedges notes, these wars were in actuality highly organized campaign of murder at the hands of politicians who wanted to maintain and expand their power.
Yet, for a long time in the West, we bought into these myths regarding Rwanda and Bosnia, in order to justify not intervening.
In this case, the myth of ancient hatreds served both sides; it served the purveyors of "Hutu Power" Rwanda and "Greater Serbia" Serbia; and also served those in the west who didn't want to intervene to stop the slaughter.
While the myth of war is used in cases when we do not want to intervene, it is also used in situations where we want to go to war. It allows us to paint our enemies with the same brush and not see them as human beings. Hedges is especially honest on the role the media plays in selling the myth of war. At the sametime, it also allows us to rally around symbols, it allows the US government to support forces such as the Contras in Central America, or murderers like Jonas Savimbi in Angola.

From the myth of war, Hedges looks at the plague of nationalism. In war time, nationalism completely devourers a society. One of the most interesting example Hedges gives is that of Argentina. The government of Argentina was responsible for killing 20,000 of its own citizens; during the aptly named "dirty war." Yet, when Argentina went to war against Great Britain over the Falkland Islands, the military junta which was reviled in the country, instantly became saviors. Now, instead of protesting the brutality of the government, the Argentines were rallying around the flag.
Those who reject nationalism are shunned. Such was the case of Slavica, from Serbia. During the war, Slavica's Bosniak friend send her two small children to live with Slavica in Serbia. The towns people reacted by spitting on and harassing Slavica and the children; the school did not want the children to attend classes; their windows were broken and graffiti was sprayed on the walls of the house. Even today, long after the war has ended, Slavica has become only a nominal member of the community.
There is also the story of Fadil Fejzic in Bosnia. During the war, the safe area of Gorazde was under constant bombardment by Serbian forces who shelled the city, cut off electricity, water and gas. The vast majority of people living in Goradze were Bosniak, but there were also some Serbs who either couldn't or didn't want to leave their hometowns. As the siege got worse, some of the Bosniaks in the safe area wanted to take their anger out on the remaining Serbs in Goradze, others protected them. Fadil Fejzic was a poor farmer who went out of his way to provide milk for an older Serb couple who lost two sons during the war, one in a car accident the other at the hands of the Bosniak police during an interrogation. They still speak fondly of Fejzic.

From discussing nationalism, the Hedges looks at the culture of destruction. As Hedges notes, it is after the destruction of their own culture that a state cross the borders and begin the exterminate the culture of the other. I found this chapter on the destruction of art and culture to be particularly fascinating, especially since so much of it was devoted to Yugoslavia. In Serbia, opposition writers lost their jobs, while those who sold the myth of Greater Serbia were lauded. Intellectual and artistic society became an mirror of Serbian nationalism. Many of the organizers of the genocide in Bosnia, such as Karadzic, saw themselves as intellectuals. In Croatia, Trudjman wrote nationalist pieces where he made callous comments about Jews and Serbs; and began dismissing Serbs from civil service jobs.
This destruction of culture is not without presence in our own culture as well. After September 11th a document called "Defending Civilization" was created by the group "American Council of Trustees and Alumni" asking for the removal of college professors and alumni whom the group thought did not respond to the attacks on 9/11 with the proper amount of patriotism. Although, you cannot compare the nationalism of (especially) Milosevic or Trudjman to the "Defending Civilization" paper; it does show that in times of nationalist fury, the arts and intellectual institutions are often the first to go.

The twin gods of nationalism and cultural destruction makes war much more palatable. It is joined by a third mode of destruction, the destruction of memory. Often after the events, the perpetrators will try to deny their guilt or the event itself. That is why even today the Turkish government has yet to acknowledge the genocide of the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish government in 1915. Yet, at the sametime, there are also those who are trying to keep the memory of the genocide and of the victims alive.
I wish Hedges had spent a little more time discussing the role memory plays in genocide denial, because all genocides; be it the Holocaust, Cambodian, Kurdish, Bosnian or Rwandan have had a degree of genocide denial and the destruction of memory is often the last step in a genocide campaign. By denying the suffering of the victims, one is putting themselves on the side of the perpetrators.

Hedges also looks not just at intellectual or mental destruction, but also physical or sexual destruction that is prevlant in war time. Whether it is soldiers from Lebanon, working for Israel, who kill Palestinian children for sport or war time rape the destruction overwhelms.

How can we rage against the destructive forces of nationalism, cultural destruction and denial? The key, according to Hedges is by seeing the love in others. It does not mean that we will never go to war, or even that we shouldn't go to war; but it allows us to embrace life, and as Hedges notes, love is eternal.


Bg anon said...

Sounds like a good and worthy book.

Shania, do you believe in censorship?

In the states what books are banned and how much is this enforced?

I too tend to judge a book by its title. If it sounds like its trying to sell something to me I'm a little allergic.

Shaina said...


In the states, most banned/challenged books are children's books and books for young adults. Although the Bible, books on reproductive/sexual health also have been challenged.

There is of course a difference between a challenge and a banning. Challenge is the attempt to remove the materials from the library; a ban is the actual removal.
I wasn't able to find any data on the number of challenged books vs. the number of books actually banned.

Here is a list of the most challenged books of the 1990s:

The reasons behind most of the challenged are usually sexual explicit materials and swearing:

Here is a list of specific books and why they were challenged:
For example, the Diary of Anne Frank was challenged because it was deemed "too depressing."

Institutions who are most likely to challenge a book are school libraries:

Indviduals most likely to challenge a book are far and way parents.

I don't have any data comparing challenges by institutions vs. challenges by individuals, but I suspect that the vast majority of challenges to books are made by parents.

After a challenge is made to remove the book from the school library for example; there might be a public forum, or school board meeting where both sides can state their cases. Usually the school board makes the decision whether to remove the book or not from the school library.
I'm pretty sure there have also been cases dealing with challenged books in the US courts as well. (Although I cannot think of a specific Court case right now)

On priciple, I don't believe in banning books. This stems from the fact that most of my favorite books are on the challenged/ frequently banned books. I never had any trouble accessing any of those books through my libraries; and I'm very glad that I was able to read those books. Books like "The Giver" "To Kill A Mockingbird" remain personal favorites after almost a decade from the time I first read them. Because of that, I would feel hypocritical for wanting to ban books.

That is not to say that there aren't books that I personally find morally reprehensible etc. For example, if I was in charge of buying books for a library, there is absolutely no way I would purchase crap like "The Protocals of the Elders of Zion" or how to make bomb books like "The Anarchist Cookbook." And I have never seen or heard about those two books being at any public libraries. (As I mentioned before, most banned books are children's books).

Besides the fact that some of my most loved books have been on the challenged list; I don't think banning books is very practical.
If a book is banned from the public library, than it is very easy to purchase it online.
Whoever wants to read the book is going to be able to read the books.

Secondly, by banning the materials because you find the materials objectionable, you may be helping those you do not intend to help. For example, the Finding Karadzic blog had an article about the US government shutting down some Karadzic fansites online (everyone has a fansite now ;). However, besides some Karadzic cheerleading going on, these websites also included possible info that might lead authorities to find Karadzic. So, in that case, by shutting down the Karadzic site, they probably made finding Karadzic that much harder.

In my opinion, a much more practical stance with sites/books of that nature would be to carefully expose their lies and misinformation.

Once one site is shut down, another one is sure to open. And I feel it would be better to disect their arguments/monitor them rather than just shutting them down.

That is not to say that I don't think there aren't situations where censorship is not only a possibility, it is required. One example, and granted, it is an extreme case, is the situation in Rwanda.

The Hutu power radio statio broadcasted not only racist messages but also names and addresses on Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus on the national radio. In that case I believe that we had a duty to shut down/over take that station to prevent the broadcasts of messages.

Shaina said...

ETA: links are in pdf format.

A direct link to info on book banning by type, institution etc can be found here:

Shaina said...

I don't remember any examples of books being banned at my school library, although I'm certain that some books have been challenged.

I do remember on occassion kids being exempt from reading certain books that their parents found objectionable. And other cases where parents had to sign permission slips to allow their kids to read a book for a class.
However, I don't remember any book banning. Although, I'm certain that the Harry Potter books have been frequently challenged.

And although the fact that most of my favorite books have been challenged is one reason I'm against banning books; I'd also feel that even if my favorite books were not challenged; I would still not support book banning. The banning of books can lead down a slippery slope.

Bg anon said...

Thanks for the reply. I think we agree, I dont like to ban either - although within reason.

I think I have a serious problem with the presumption on which banning is based - 'i am able to see how dangerous this book is but others who are not so intelligent may be taken in by it'. I cant stand arrogance. But still if the world started to go crazy buying some fascist book advocating them to liquidate their fellow man and I was in charge - well I'd have it banned in a matter of seconds.