War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
is a 2002 book by Chris Hedges. Hedges, an esteemed journalist and winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize, draws on his experiences covering war and terrorism around the globe as well as literature and other writings on war to discuss warfare as an addictive experience. He also examines the myths societies construct and perpetuate in order to justify warfare and continuous conflict. This work of non-fiction stresses the ways in which warfare is addictive to both those who engage in it and the people at home who only experience it vicariously.
Hedges begins by discussing the mythic nature of war, arguing that myth has always been an essential component of convincing citizens to support a conflict. He offers examples of wars that have lost their mythic backing, such as American perception of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and argues they were doomed to failure as soon as they lost their mythic status.
Hedges also notes that most ethnic wars are actually manufactured wars, where the conflict benefits groups—often criminal organizations—and is thus stoked through misinformation, propaganda, and the manipulation of xenophobia. In his experience as an embedded war reporter, war is addictive. He never misses the actual terror of fighting, but he misses the sense of unity and purpose.
Hedges then discusses the “plague of nationalism,” using countries like The United States, Argentina, and Israel as examples of the unifying power of nationalism when nations are in conflict. This sense of communal struggle against a common enemy can be leveraged to justify almost any behavior, no matter how awful it would be deemed in other contexts.
In the next chapter, Hedges discusses the humanizing power of art. Art, he argues, teaches us to respect and understand other cultures and people. It is easy to demonize and hate a group when you know nothing about them, but experiencing a work of art from their perspective forces would-be enemies to see them as fellow human beings. He notes that in conflicts like the Balkan wars, art was systematically censored or destroyed if it did not directly promote the nationalist cause.
Hedges then delves into the corrupting nature of the power that war confers on nations and individual soldiers, who suddenly find themselves with the power to mete out death—or to offer mercy. This power is invariably a corrupting force, and Hedges notes that the early stages of war are often marked by euphoria and celebration by communities that see only the glorious exercise of power. Hedges notes that the abandonment of individual responsibility is seductive, as an individuals are no longer responsible for anything, and can relax and let others make decisions.
After wars end, Hedges says there is often a wholesale attempt to rewrite history and destroy evidence of atrocities. As euphoria recedes and authorities are toppled, suddenly acts of war can be perceived as crimes, and many leaders and even common soldiers scramble to change perceptions and destroy documentation that demonstrate their guilt.
Hedges explores his own profession, offering a sobering perspective on the role the media plays in supporting the “cause” of war. This ties back to the mythical nature of war, and he uses the Gulf War of the 1990s as an example of the ways the media and notes that journalists—including himself—always believe the cause of their nation is justified. He argues that this belief is the same whether the cause is religious or secular in nature, and that reporters are part of the machinery that keeps nations going to war.
Hedges ends the book with a study of the effects that the “narcotic” of war has on individuals. He uses his own experience with soldiers and other journalists to underscore the addictive nature of war, describing the rush of adrenaline and euphoria that can accompany battles and the deep lows that follow after the mind and body “crash” after the excitement. This is very similar what a drug addict experiences—intense highs followed by dreadful lows that can, in the short term, only be cured by chasing another high. He notes the prevalence of drug use and addiction among soldiers and how it intensifies when they return home, seeking to replicate their experiences.
Hedges’ book is a singular work that studies war not from a military or tactical point of view
, but as a psychological phenomenon. His arguments that myth is essential to warfare and that manipulation of nationalist and ethnic identities to perpetuate it—and that individuals enjoy war in complex ways that may be difficult to explain—are innovative ways of pondering why civilizations spend so much blood and treasure fighting each other.