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The vanquished know war.
December 2, 2004 5:49 PM   Subscribe

Chris Hedges on war. The long-time war correspondent explains why it will be years before we have any idea what's been going on in Iraq, and describes the gulf between here and there:
One of the Marines in the book returns to California and is invited to be the guest of honor in a gated community in Malibu, a place where he could never afford to live. The residents want to toast him as a war hero. "I'm not a hero," he tells the guests. "Guys like me are just a necessary part of things. To maintain this way of life in a fine community like this, you need psychos like us to go out and drop a bomb on somebody's house."
posted by languagehat (45 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, good read.
posted by crazy finger at 6:25 PM on December 2, 2004


We have lost sight of our democratic ideals. Thucydides wrote of Athens' expanding empire and how this empire led it to become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. The tyranny Athens imposed on others it finally imposed on itself.
It's a little unnerving how I keep hearing more and more comparisons of our role in current world events to the downfall of empires like rome, athens, and the ussr.

Even more unnerving is how they ring true.
posted by crunchywelch at 6:31 PM on December 2, 2004


The reality of war is so revolting and horrifying that if we did see war it would be hard for us to wage it.

Great link. Chris Hedges is one hell of a writer.

For the uninitiated, his recent book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, a sort of philosophical memoir of his own couple of decades spent reporting from war zones for The New York Times, is one of the most concise, insightful and moving books you'll ever find on the horrible realities of war. It'll tell you far more than a dozen thick inside-scooping Bob Woodward tomes ever could about the horror currently unfolding in Iraq. And what it means. And how awful the consequences will be.
posted by gompa at 6:43 PM on December 2, 2004


Thank You Languagehat.
This war will hopefully produce a Michael Herr before too long to tell it as it is.
posted by adamvasco at 7:06 PM on December 2, 2004


Thanks, languagehat.
posted by sciurus at 7:08 PM on December 2, 2004


As an American, I find it dismaying how many people I know essentially believe that our nation cannot screw up its future. For these people, "God Bless America" isn't a prayer any more. It's a statement of invulnerability.

These people believe whatever mistakes we may make today in Iraq, elsewhere or at home can't snowball or fester into something that ends up hurting America. Making it a less wonderful place to live and work and raise our children.

Recently I saw a list of school subjects in which the U.S. educational system was outperformed by other nations, like France, German, Japan and Sweden. World history ranked ahead of mathamatics, meaning our students understood it even less than the rest of the world.

Say, "The Roman Empire thought it was pretty hot too." They respond: "A bunch of Italians? Whaddaya expect?"
posted by sacre_bleu at 7:14 PM on December 2, 2004


Excellent stuff.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:49 PM on December 2, 2004


This article sits nicely alongside Riverbend's "Baghdad Burning" blog, which was FPP'd not long ago.

Particularly resonant for me was somebody's comment about Riverbend: "I think the reaction to her writing comes from shock that someone so articulate and insightful could despise us Americans and what we're doing there"

I may have misunderstood the point, but it sounds very much like what Chris Hedges describes: the contrast between the myths propagated at home vs the harsh realities of those whose lives are shattered in the name of those myths, and the dissonance that results when somebody earnestly believing the rhetoric is forced to confront another angle which does not seem quite so glorious, to say the least...
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:05 PM on December 2, 2004


It's a little unnerving how I keep hearing more and more comparisons of our role in current world events to the downfall of empires like rome, athens, and the ussr.

People have been using the word "Empire" for political purposes for a long time. For example French Enlightenment authors coined the term "Byzantine Empire" (the word Byzantine is a corruption of an obscure Greek word) as a way to historically discredit the "Byzantines" and tacked on the word "Empire" to make them look even more evil and repulsive. The "Byzantines" never saw themselves as an Empire, nor was the word ever used until later generations decided to paint them with a black mark that has stuck in popular western imagination.
posted by stbalbach at 8:07 PM on December 2, 2004


...tacked on the word "Empire" to make them look even more evil and repulsive.

Whereas the people currently running the show in the U.S.A. have gladly embraced the term.

Every Empire eventually falls.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 8:16 PM on December 2, 2004


Ubu, you explained my point better than I could.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:19 PM on December 2, 2004


It's a little unnerving how I keep hearing more and more comparisons of our role in current world events to the downfall of empires like rome, athens, and the ussr.

That *is* a really interesting meme.

With the usa running a record deficit (and debt?), what would the results be if demand for the USD$ plummeted, eg if countries started trading in Euros for oil, as Saddam is alleged to have been planning?

(atchafalaya - i just wasn't sure if you were speaking for yourself or for others, or if you were expressing amazement that somebody intelligent & articulate could *gasp* not be baking cakes for the occupiers...)
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:23 PM on December 2, 2004


LH, thank you for the excellent review. I'm particularly interested in reserving a copy of Generation Kill - which was previously unknown to me. Hedges compares it to Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, which i read last year and enjoyed (and recommend).
posted by naxosaxur at 8:28 PM on December 2, 2004


as Saddam is alleged to have been planning?

No planning, Iraq asked and GOT oil in Euro's under the OIL for Food program.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:32 PM on December 2, 2004


Wow, war is so superdifferent from what I read in the analog memory storage devices!
posted by Captaintripps at 8:32 PM on December 2, 2004


But these veterans will also miss war. They will miss it because at the height of the killing they can ignore the consequences. They will miss having comrades, whom they mistake for friends, comrades who at the time seem closer to them than their families. They will miss the brief, unfettered moment when they were killer gods and everyone around them fighting a common enemy, and facing death as a group, seemed fused into one body. "They like this part of war," Wright correctly writes of the comradeship, "being a small band out here alone in enemy territory, everyone focused on the common purpose of staying alive and killing, if necessary."

The end of war is cruel, for these comrades again become strangers. Those who return are forced to face their demons. They must fall back onto the difficult terrain of life on their own. Wartime comradeship is about the suppression of self-awareness, self-possession, and self-understanding. This is part of its allure, the reason people miss it and seek years later, often with the aid of alcohol, to recreate it. But outside of war the camaraderie does not return. These young men and women are sent home to a nation they see in a new light. They struggle with the awful memories and trauma and are shunted aside unless they are willing to read from the patriotic script handed to them by the mythmakers. Some do this, but most cannot.

Wright, because he reports from the perspective of the enlisted Marines, sees the bizarre subculture of the military. He watches the chaos of war, the way it never turns out as planned and how it opens up a Pandora's box that gives war a life and power beyond anyone's control. He notes the incompetence and callousness of many senior officers who send their men into minefields at night or up against superior forces to burnish their own reputations as warriors. He understands the way killing in war, which always includes murder, slowly eats away at soldiers and Marines.


He understands the way killing in war, which always includes murder, slowly eats away at soldiers and Marines.

Which was what I was trying to get at in this post about the psychological consequences of killing in war--a post which includes links to all 3 parts of the Killer Elite--Evan Wright's series of articles for Rolling Stone, which he turned into Generation Kill, reviewed by Chris Hedges in his NYRB piece linked here in languagehat's excellent post.
posted by y2karl at 8:36 PM on December 2, 2004


That's a fantastic piece. I am indebted to you, languagehat.
posted by The God Complex at 10:27 PM on December 2, 2004


Every Empire eventually falls.

So does every society of any sort. So does every human being. So what?
posted by shivohum at 11:41 PM on December 2, 2004


This is a great link, languagehat. Thank you.

This is the first thing I've read in a long time, that is able to end with a paragraph like the following, without coming across a highly partisan: (Emphases and ellipsis are mine)

We are losing the war in Iraq. [...] We are an isolated and reviled nation. We are tyrants to others weaker than ourselves. We have lost sight of our democratic ideals. Thucydides wrote of Athens' expanding empire and how this empire led it to become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. The tyranny Athens imposed on others it finally imposed on itself. If we do not confront our hubris and the lies told to justify the killing and mask the destruction carried out in our name in Iraq, if we do not grasp the moral corrosiveness of empire and occupation, if we continue to allow force and violence to be our primary form of communication, we will not so much defeat dictators like Saddam Hussein as become them.

I don't think anyone can seriously criticize this as "America hating."

sacre_bleu: Good point regarding Americans and historical knowledge. Most grade schools teach "social studies", which hardly counts as history, and most high schools still teach history as a list of facts rather than a process for understanding. By the time a student gets to college, history has become an "elective" for most students. There's no step in the educational process that seems to take responsibility for ensuring that American students have a solid grasp of history. It would be nice to assume that everyone has some basis by the time they reach university, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
posted by rdub at 11:42 PM on December 2, 2004


I wanted to blockquote the same passage rdub did, without bolding the final lines, which distracts, in my opinion at least, from the key point.

I wanted to contrast that with the apparently clear-cut victory of George Bush and his handlers in the recent election.

And I wanted to ask how this could happen.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:50 AM on December 3, 2004


What shivohum said. And besides, in what way does comparing the American so-called Empire to the USSR or the Roman Empire help our understanding of what's going on in the world today? It's a weak analogy and probably more harmful than helpful. How is a raven like a writing desk? Because Poe wrote on both.
posted by Panfilo at 1:31 AM on December 3, 2004


And I wanted to ask how this could happen.

It happens more often than the tone of your question might suggest. Hedges' books (War Is A Force... and What Every Person Should Know About War) have the whiff of cordite that accompanies any war correspondent, but I actually think that makes him better-placed to say that when a country's leadership embarks on war, it imposes something of the war correspondent's monomania on the populace.

It's easy to quote the 'War Is Peace' section from Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is actually quite a subtle piece of writing, usually skipped by people who read for the plot. But in 1918, Randolph Bourne talked of something very similar: that war is the health of the State:

Wartime brings the ideal of the State out into very clear relief, and reveals attitudes and tendencies that were hidden. In times of peace the sense of the State flags in a republic that is not militarized. For war is essentially the health of the State. The ideal of the State is that within its territory its power and influence should be universal. As the Church is the medium for the spiritual salvation of man, so the State is thought of as the medium for his political salvation. Its idealism is a rich blood flowing to all the members of the body politic. And it is precisely in war that the urgency for union seems greatest, and the necessity for universality seems most unquestioned. The State is the organization of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized. The more terrifying the occasion for defense, the closer will become the organization and the more coercive the influence upon each member of the herd. War sends the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest level of the herd, and to its most remote branches. All the activities of society are linked together as fast as possible to this central purpose of making a military offensive or a military defense, and the State becomes what in peacetimes it has vainly struggled to become - the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men's business and attitudes and opinions. The slack is taken up, the cross-currents fade out, and the nation moves lumberingly and slowly, but with ever accelerated speed and integration, toward the great end, toward the "peacefulness of being at war," of which L.P. Jacks has so unforgettably spoken.

It's funny. I saw the 'Fallujah Marlboro Man' photo and thought: that's fitting in ways that aren't immediately obvious. War is like nicotine, but its after-effects are like tar. War has consequences on the body politic that are only truly felt a while after. (I also heard that many US troops went to Iraq as non-smokers and are now chain-smokers. That'll lead to hundreds of personal tragedies.)

Every Empire eventually falls. / So does every society of any sort. So does every human being. So what?

Here's a hint: people still read Edward Gibbon. An empire falls like a thousand-foot statue: its consequences are felt for miles, and for years. (The Ottoman Empire fell nearly a century ago. Iraq is a consequence of its fall.)

And the American media made a lot of the fall of a much smaller statue.
posted by riviera at 3:08 AM on December 3, 2004


I love you, riviera, but you do me a disservice by assuming my question was anything but rhetorical.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:30 AM on December 3, 2004


...and overheated and maudlin at that. I deserve what I get, when I get all handkerchiefy, I admit.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:31 AM on December 3, 2004


I love Hedges' "anti-American commencement speech" (in InstaPundit's always bipartisan words) at Rockford College last year. The text is here
Hedges is a minister's son who graduated from Harvard Divinity School and thought he was going to become a minister as well. I guess he'll be soon accused of anti-Christian bias as well.

Good Hedges stuff here, and here

____

This war will hopefully produce a Michael Herr before too long to tell it as it is.

yeah, I like Kevin Sites a lot (the many, many ugly death threats he received in his blog are a testament to his good work and to red-white-blue America's modus operandi), but access changed dramatically since Herr's VietNam days. we talked extensively about embeds as (often unwilling) propaganda tools in the past here.
anyway: Hedges on The Gulf War Pool System
posted by matteo at 4:20 AM on December 3, 2004


you do me a disservice by assuming my question was anything but rhetorical.

Forgive me, it's Friday (and not even Korean-time Friday, which would be a blessing) and my weary-cynicism-ometer is broken from overuse, alas.

I should say that war can lead, and has led, to positive changes for the body politic. Votes for women, racial integration, etc. Sometimes. But it always surprised me that people showed their own surprise that much of the presidential election campaign was 'fighting Vietnam again'. All wars are, to some extent, worked over later on a political level, because they aren't properly worked through at the time.
posted by riviera at 4:28 AM on December 3, 2004


shivohum: what riviera said.

An empire falls like a thousand-foot statue: its consequences are felt for miles, and for years.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 5:11 AM on December 3, 2004


Greta links matteo! Thanks. I know where I'll spend a part of my day.

While I'm at it, thanks also to LH for the post and all the fine contributions to the thread.
posted by nofundy at 5:57 AM on December 3, 2004


Reading this (and it was an excellent post, thanks) makes me re-wonder (this is a point that has been raised many times before) whether the citizens of the United States would be as eager to wage war if it their country had ever been invaded, if they'd been forced to confront the ugly realities of war not on television or in magazines (if that) but in their own streets, first-hand. Europeans have come under a lot of fire in conservative circles since 9/11 (since WWII, really), but perhaps because the continent is still filled with people old enought to remember the horrors of WWII first-hand, they aren't as eager to re-create them.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:26 AM on December 3, 2004


ouch. I'm sorry about the bolding. My point was not that it was the main point, but rather that you could rarely get away with saying that sort of thing and still be taken seriously.
posted by rdub at 6:44 AM on December 3, 2004


Hedges gets it absolutely, flat out wrong here:

That being a good human being—that possessing not only physical courage but moral courage—is detrimental in a commander says much about the industrial slaughter that is war.

This is the antithesis of United States Military Officer training and doctrine. Ask anyone that is or has been a military officer, they will tell you that moral courage is a critical ingredient to being a good commander. He may be right that combat makes it difficult to be moral, but that is exactly the reason why it is emphasized so much in the training and selection of officers.
posted by forforf at 7:35 AM on December 3, 2004


Ask anyone that is or has been a military officer, they will tell you that moral courage is a critical ingredient to being a good commander.

Just as George Tenet said on another topic, It's a slam dunk!
posted by y2karl at 8:22 AM on December 3, 2004


Matteo - thanks for the links.
Sonner or later a great reporter will surface from this mess in Iraq and probably without the aid of the occupiers.
Embedded journalism gives a view but only from a narrow angle. There are brave people in there. Sooner or later their voices will be heard and the American people will force their voices to be heard. What us other nationals say
unfortunately does not count on this very uneven field.
posted by adamvasco at 8:40 AM on December 3, 2004


Wow, I went to bed after posting this expecting to be excoriated for adding yet another Iraq-related post to the front page and I find nothing but appreciation. You guys are getting soft. But of course Hedges is writing about Iraq not for its own sake but as the latest example of what war does to people, the theme of the book gompa links to (and which I heartily recommend -- it's not always comfortable reading, but it sure gives you a better idea of what lies behind the prose of war correspondents and the photos of soldiers and victims).

forforf: You're talking about theory and Hedges is talking about practice. My brother was in the 101st Airborne; he's proud of his service and of the US military, but he wouldn't disagree with a word Hedges says.

Incidentally, I'm reading an excellent book by Geoffrey Hosking called Russia: People and Empire, and I just ran across the following passage:
From the Russians' viewpoint this policy [of coopting and assimilating the Crimean Tatars' leadership] was wholly successful: there was no major Tatar uprising against their rule. But there was a heavy price to be paid -- by the Tatars: many of them emigrated to the Ottoman Empire... Gradually the Tatars became a minority in what had been their own realm. It transpired, then, that large numbers of Muslims would emigrate if they had the chance to do so rather than endure an alien Christian domination. This was to happen again later in the Caucasus, leaving a legacy of hatred and bitterness which was to render Russia's frontier in that region a source of potental weakness...

[In the Caucasus] small bands of lightly armed men could descend at any moment on a Russian outpost or convoy, exploiting surprise and mobility to inflict the maximum damage and loss of life... In the end only a systematic campaign of forest-felling, crop-burning, road-building and destruction of villages enabled the Russians to gain a permanent grip on the Caucasus range.

In a word, they were able to attain their ends only by genocide.
But that was long ago, and in another country.
posted by languagehat at 9:00 AM on December 3, 2004


Wow, I went to bed after posting this expecting to be excoriated for adding yet another Iraq-related post to the front page and I find nothing but appreciation.

Hey, thanks again for posting my link, languagehat !
posted by y2karl at 9:44 AM on December 3, 2004


Ask anyone that is or has been a military officer, they will tell you that moral courage is a critical ingredient to being a good commander.

Hedges seems to disagree:
Officers who put the safety of their men before the efficiency of the war machine are usually viewed as compromised. Wright, by writing about one conscientious officer, Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick, who at times defies orders that he believes will get his men killed needlessly, shows us the raw meat grinder at the core of the military, how it pushes aside all those who do not offer up the soldiers under their command to the god of war.

Physical courage is common on a battlefield. Moral courage is not. Those who defy the machine usually become its victim. And Lieutenant Fick, who we find in the epilogue has left the Marines to go back to school, wonders if he was a good officer or if his concern for his men colored his judgment.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:56 AM on December 3, 2004


Swank and Marchand's World War II study of US Army combatants on the beaches of Normandy found that after 60 days of continuous combat, 98% of the surviving soldiers had become psychiatric casualties. And the remaining 2% were identified as "aggressive psychopathic personalities." Thus it is not too far from the mark to observe that there is something about continuous, inescapable combat which will drive 98% of all men insane, and the other 2% were crazy when they got there...

One major modern revelation in the field of military psychology is the observation that this resistance to killing one's own species is also a key factor in human combat. Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall first observed this during his work as the official US historian of the European Theater of Operations in World War II. Based on his post-combat interviews, Marshall concluded in his landmark book, Men Against Fire, that only 15 to 20% of the individual riflemen in World War II fired their weapons at an exposed enemy soldier. Specialized weapons, such as a flame-thrower, usually were fired. Crew-served weapons, such as a machine gun, almost always were fired. And firing would increase greatly if a nearby leader demanded that the soldier fire. But, when left to their own devices, the great majority of individual combatants throughout history appear to have been unable or unwilling to kill.

Marshall's findings have been somewhat controversial. Faced with scholarly concern about a researcher's methodology and conclusions, the scientific method involves replicating the research. In Marshall's case, every available, parallel, scholarly study validates his basic findings. Ardant du Picq's surveys of French officers in the 1860s and his observations on ancient battles, Keegan and Holmes' numerous accounts of ineffectual firing throughout history, Richard Holmes' assessment of Argentine firing rates in the Falklands War, Paddy Griffith's data on the extraordinarily low killing rate among Napoleonic and American Civil War regiments, the British Army's laser reenactments of historical battles, the FBI's studies of nonfiring rates among law enforcement officers in the 1950s and 1960s, and countless other individual and anecdotal observations all confirm Marshall's fundamental conclusion that man is not, by nature, a killer.


Psychological Effects of Combat in Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict, Academic Press, 1999.
posted by y2karl at 10:21 AM on December 3, 2004


as y2karl points out - perhaps without meaning to - this is tired old hat.

why do so many people think it's a good read or insightful? just because it confirms what we already knew? do you give up all critical thought when someone says something you agree with?

imho, "duh!" would be a better response to this.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:42 AM on December 3, 2004


Thanks for the post. I had just surfed across a quote from Winston Churchill that I had not heard before: "Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events."
posted by vito90 at 12:06 PM on December 3, 2004


andrew cooke:
This is well written, and a lot of articles of similar opinion aren't.
posted by rdub at 12:47 PM on December 3, 2004


"...and beside, the wench is dead."

A lovely, and terrible, reference, Languagehat. Marlowe condensed much that was relevant to this discussion into that line.
posted by Haruspex at 1:45 PM on December 3, 2004


Welcome to MetaFilter, Haruspex, with a special abrazo for someone who recognizes a Marlowe reference!
posted by languagehat at 2:04 PM on December 3, 2004


Do I divinate correctly that Haruspex is a trope on Haruspice ?
posted by y2karl at 3:19 PM on December 3, 2004


Haruspex is both the English and Latin word for a priest who uses entrails for divination; haruspice is the French form (and I suspect the Italian one, though I don't have a dictionary at hand).
posted by languagehat at 4:55 PM on December 3, 2004


"aruspice", lose the "h", uomo con il cappello, and you're there
;)

anyway:

Sunday Papers
By Charles Simic

The butchery of the innocent
Never stops. That's about all
We can be ever sure of, love,
Even more sure than the roast
You are bringing out the oven.

It's Sunday. The congregation
Files slowly out of the church
Across the street. A good many
Carry Bibles in their hands.
It's the vague desire for truth
And the mighty fear of it
That makes them turn up
Despite the glorious spring weather.

In the hallway, the old mutt
Just now had the honesty
To growl at his own image in the mirror,
Before lumbering to the kitchen
Where the lamb roast sat
In your outstretched hands
Smelling of garlic and rosemary.

posted by matteo at 11:12 AM on December 4, 2004


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