War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning is a short 2002 book by Chris Hedges. Its subject, as best I can summarize it in three words, is the philosophy of war. In its seven chapters, Hedges, a war reporter for 15 years and 2002 Pulitzer Prize recipient for his New York Times reporting on global terrorism, reflects on and analyzes the illusions and myths that mark the thoughts of people in the midst of war. The style of the book is both clear and complex, both gritty and intellectual, as Hedges moves from Bosnia and Afghanistan to Shakespeare and Plato in order to communicate both what war is like and why it is so. His chapter titles themselves describe the contents clearly, and each chapter encompasses a specific subject, so below I describe each.
We believe in the nobility and self-sacrifice demanded by war, especilly when we are blinded by the narcotic of war. We discover in the communal struggle, the shared sense of meaning and purpose, a cause. War fills our spiritual void. I do not miss war, but I miss what it brought. I can never say I was happy in the midst of the fighting in El Salvador, or Bosnia, or Kosovo, but I had a sense of purpose, of calling. And this is a quality war shares with love, for we are, in love, also able to choose fealty and self-sacrifice over security.
—Chris Hedges, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, chapter 7
The Myth of War
This first chapter begins by asserting that “the ethnic conflicts and insurgencies of our time, whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsis, are not religious wars.… They are manufactured wars,” engineered by gangsters who then profit through loot. And yet, he writes, mythic reality is essential to all war, for without it few are willing to fight. “Wars that lose their mythic status for the public, such as Korea or Vietnam, are doomed to failure, for war is exposed for what it is—organized murder.” Furthermore, governments, media, and even language itself are manipulated in war to perpetuate this myth. The chapter ends with the claim that has most interested the media in reporting about Hedges and his book: that war and war reporting are addictive. This is a theme he returns to throughout the book.
The main thrust of this chapter is that nations at war are home to a “triumphalism” that revels in “shared, unquestioned communal enterprise, however morally dubious.” Hedges uses Argentina, Israel, Yugoslavia, and the United States as examples.
The Destruction of Culture
Here Hedges argues that art and culture are humanizing, that they teach us to respect one another, and that they are thus also victims of war. He examines the war in the Balkans as an example of how factions each protray themselves as victims and censor art that suggests a common humanity.
This chapter notes again how war, especially in its beginning, is exciting, marked by “collective euphoria.” The power of life and death that soldiers have is seductive and corrupting. He also writes about the relationship between sex and war, about how male soldiers often see women as much more beautiful during war than they do afterwards, and about the corrupting power that soldiers have leads them to rape and worse.
The Hijacking and Recovery of Memory
The end of a war, Hedges writes, is a period during which “killers make frantic and often futile efforts to hide their crimes.” Memories of events are often replaced, both in individuals and in culture, by myths. Without an agreement on the truth, former enemies find it even harder to reconcile after a war ends.
Much of this chapter discusses the bias of media in a war. Starting with the first Gulf War as an example, Hedges argues that all reporters believe their country’s cause is just. “We all believe. When you stop believing you stop going to war.” This moral certainty, whether it stems from a religious or a secular source, “is a kind of fundamentalism,” and death, the central truth of war, is often ignored by those studying and reporting on it.
This chapter is about addiction and the psychology of war. The commitment to a cause, the “awful power and rush of battle,” make drugs, often another addiction of warriors, “war’s pale substitute.” War conquers tenderness, and love is the only source of meaning that can rival it.
I should add that while writing this writeup I continually had trouble paraphrasing and summarizing Hedges ideas, as his writing is among the best I’ve ever read and his knack for connecting seemingly unrelated concepts makes him hard to abbreviate. War is again a topic which much of the world cannot afford not to understand, and Hedges is brilliant at melding together history, philosophy, and psychology to make sense of this phenomenon.