‘War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,’ by Chris Hedges, Book Review

Chris Hedges does not seem to a name widely known or appreciated in Evangelical circles. A foreign correspondent for fifteen years, Hedges has worked for NPR, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, he was part of a NYT team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting (for covering of global terrorism). Hedges also received the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. He’s described in Wikipedia as “an American journalist, author, war correspondent, and public intellectual specializing in American and Middle Eastern politics and societies.”

Having reported from more than 50 countries and innumerable war zones, Hedges records that

The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one that I ingested for many years. (p. 3)

Quoting from Shakespeare, Simone Weil, David Hume, W.H. Auden, Cicero and many more, Hedges builds his case that all wars are propelled by lies, misdeeds, destructive nationalism, and plagued by, what he terms, “the hijacking and recovery of memory.” Story after story, intimate and dark, personal and meaningful are woven through his philosophical attack on the foundational reasons that countries go to war.

Why a book like this? Why such an analysis? Jesus warned that there would be “wars and rumors of wars.” The famous historian Will Durant estimated that in all of human history there had only been 29 years during which a war was not taking place somewhere. After reading Hedges thoughts and stories it makes the heart hurt to know that so many people have been killed for so long. He notes on page 13

Look just at the 1990s: 2 million dead in Afganistan; 1.5 million dead in the Sudan; some 800,000 butchered in ninety days in Rwanda; a half-million dead in Angola; a quarter of a million dead in Bosnia; 200,000 dead in Guatemala; 150,000 dead in Liberia; a quarter of a million dead in Burundi; 75,000 dead in Algeria; and untold tens of thousands lost in the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the fighting in Colombia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, southeastern Turkey, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland, Kosova, and the Persian Gulf War (where perhaps as many as 35,000 Iraqi citizens were killed). In the wars of the twentieth century not less than 62 million civilians have perished, nearly 20 million more than the 43 million military personnel killed.

And this is nothing new. A news report from the 19th century (the November 18, 1822, in the London Observer) described the aftermath of war:

It is estimated that more than a million bushels of human and inhuman bones were imported last year from the continent of Europe into the port of Hull. The neighborhood of Leipzig, Austerlitz, Waterloo, and of all the places wehre, during the late bloody war, the principal battles were forth, have been swept alike of the bones of the hero and the horse which he rode. Thus collected from every quarter, they have been shipped to the port of Hull and thence forwarded to the Yorkshire bone grinders who have erected steam-engines and powerful machiner for the purpose of reducing them to a granularly state. In this condition they are sold to the farmers to manure their lands.

To put this in some kind of context, imagine there was no Arlington National Cemetery. Instead, the bones of the fallen were recovered from the fields of battle, shipped home, then ground to powder and added to cheap dog food.

Hedges also deals with how war affects the participants who live through it. In the chapter entitled, “The Seduction of Battle and the Perversion of War,” he writes of a Muslim soldier who fought in Sarajevo:

His unit, in one of the rare attempts to take back a few streets controlled by the Serbs, pushed across Serb lines. They did not get very far. The fighting was intense. As he moved down the street he heard a door swing open. He fired a burst from his AK-47 assault rifle. A twelve-year-old girl dropped dead. He saw in the body of the unknown girl lying prostrate in front of him the image of his own twelve-year-old daughter. He broke down. He had to be helped back to the city. He was lost for the rest of the war, shuttered inside his apartment, nervous, morose, and broken. This experience is far more typical of warfare than the Rambo heroics we are fed by the state and the entertainment industry. (p. 87)

It would have been easy for some conservatives to have dismissed Hedges book as a liberal anti-war screed. To do this even now, 10 years after publication, would be a mistake. Instead, it should be seen as a necessary balance to those for whom the rush to war seems to be a divine command.

Followers of Christ, in adherence to the Scripture, should always remember even though “There is a time for war,” that God “has no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” Neither should we. Jesus promise that “There will be wars and rumors of wars” was not intended as a statement of foreign policy.

You can order a selection of Hedges’ books below.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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