Bill Long 10/20/04
War Be Not Proud
Chris Hedges was in Salem, OR tonight to deliver the annual Salem Peace lecture. He followed in the wake of of such luminaries from previous years as Daniel Ellsberg, William Sloane Coffin and Helen Caldecott but his experience differed markedly from theirs in that he had been a "war zone" journalist for the New York Times and othe papers for nearly two decades. What he saw on the front lines was mingled with his readings and reflections on classical literature (to which he devoted a year in 2001-02 upon return from covering wars), and the result was a lecture on war that was sober in tone, eloquent in composition and almost oracular in delivery.
Meeting Chris Hedges
Every person's present is a product of the past and thought about the past. Chris (born in 1953) grew up as the son of a Presbyterian minister in Syracuse, NY. He himself studied for the ministry at Harvard Divinity School in the late 1970s, serving briefly in a pastoral position before taking up the journalistic life. Social ethics at HDS (and in most divinity schools) in the late 1970s was strongly influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr (d. 1971). Nieburh's somber reflections on the nature of collective sin and the arrogance of nations no doubt sunk deeply into Chris' consciousness.
He covered wars in three major theaters from 1983-2001 (Latin America, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia) and so is thoroughly acquainted with the gods, and demons, of war. The death of a journalist friend in Sierra Leone in 2000 convinced him that he needed to escape also the intoxicating but deadly grip of Ares, and so he returned to the States. A friend suggested that he refract his experience in war with reading classical authors from Homer to Catullus, who had themselves thought deeply about the myth of war (its glory) and war's reality. He shared a 2002 Pulitzer prize in journalism and his 2002 book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, was a National Book Critics Circle Finalist for their Nonfiction Award. He taught at Princeton from 2002-03 and now he lectures around the country on war and peace.
If there was one overarching theme of his talk it was that the mythology of war and the reality of war have little in common. The mythology fuels desire; inspires longing for glory; creates heroes; unites a people. In the aftermath of 9/11, for example, the national sense of purpose and interprersonal connectedness was palpable. War is an addiction, the most potent narcotic ever invented by humans. It motivates people, draws them from their dull and humdrum lives, promises them glory and honor, and gives them a sense of purpose in living as well as adulation from the crowds.
But the reality of war is much different than the seductive myth of war. In fact it creates a society of comrades rather than friends, a rush towards death rather than life, an embrace of the pornography of killing rather than that of life-giving love. War suppresses rather than cultivates self-knowledge, and when war is removed all that is left is the hollow despair of those who have lost their intellectual and often their moral bearings.
These were the lessons he learned, and the lessons were illustrated through stories of people that Chris knew and friends that he lost to the god of war.
He delivered the talk with the authority of one who has learned his lessons at the feet of the war god. He communicated well war's seductiveness, its necrophilia, its deformity. Like Moses who had seen the face of God, Chris too has looked deeply into the face of something aw(e)ful and has lived to tell about it. I am looking forward to reading his book now that I have heard him.
But there is one point that doesn't fully add up. Chris talked about the need to embrace love (eros) instead of the rush to death (thanatos). What is the role of war, however, in shaping the deeper appreciation of love? His insistence of the contrast between comrades (which you get in war) and true friends was eloquent but not convincing, because the only friends he talked about were those whom he had made through the courtesy of the god of war. I think the relationship of death and love, of friendship and comradeship is more subtle than he indicated. As a matter of fact, I believe that it is through the grace of war, itself a contradiction in terms, that friendship for him was deepened, and it was through war's gift that his capacity for love was probably enhanced. I longed to hear reflections on the ironies and not simply the contrasts; how life comes out of death and love out of war.
You can't cover everything in one hour, however. That is possibly one of the reasons why he has the gift of a sixth decade of life.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long