Sunday, December 05, 2004

Chris Hedges: On Current Books About the Iraq War

Chris Hedges reviews Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War by Evan Wright and the Fall of Baghdad by Jon Lee Anderson.

"On War" by Chris Hedges
New York Review of Books


The vanquished know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief. They know the lies the victors often do not acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war narratives, filled with stories of courage and comradeship. They know the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral statesmen who make wars but do not know war. The vanquished know the essence of war—death. They grasp that war is necrophilia. They see that war is a state of almost pure sin with its goals of hatred and destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to nihilism, and is a turning away from the sanctity and preservation of life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure and seductiveness of violence, as well as the attraction of the godlike power that comes with the license to kill with impunity.

But the words of the vanquished come later, sometimes long after the war, when grown men and women unpack the suffering they endured as children, what it was like to see their mother or father killed or taken away, or what it was like to lose their homes, their community, their security, and be discarded as human refuse. But by then few listen. The truth about war comes out, but usually too late. We are assured by the war-makers that these stories have no bearing on the glorious violent enterprise the nation is about to inaugurate. And, lapping up the myth of war and its sense of empowerment, we prefer not to look.

The current books about the war in Iraq do not uncover the pathology of war. We see the war from the perspective of the troops who fight the war or the equally skewed perspective of the foreign reporters, holed up in hotels, hemmed in by drivers and translators and official minders. There are moments when war's face appears to these voyeurs and killers, perhaps from the back seat of a car where a small child, her brains oozing out of her head, lies dying, but mostly it remains hidden. And the books on the war in Iraq have to be viewed, through no fault of the reporters, as lacking the sweep and depth that will come one day, perhaps years from now, when a small Iraqi boy or girl reaches adulthood and unfolds for us the sad and tragic story of the invasion and bloody occupation of their nation.

War is presented primarily through the distorted prism of the occupiers. The embedded reporters, dependent on the military for food and transportation as well as security, have a natural and understandable tendency, one I have myself felt, to protect those who are protecting them. They are not allowed to report outside of the unit and are, in effect, captives. They have no relationships with the victims, essential to all balanced reporting of conflicts, but only with the Marines and soldiers who drive through desolate mud-walled towns and pump grenades and machine-gun bullets into houses, leaving scores of nameless dead and wounded in their wake. The reporters admire and laud these fighters for their physical courage. They feel protected as well by the jet fighters and heavy artillery and throaty rattle of machine guns. And the reporting, even among those who struggle to keep some distance, usually descends into a shameful cheerleading.

Those who cover war dine out on the myth about war and the myth about themselves as war correspondents. Yes, they say, it is horrible, and dirty and ugly; for many of them it is also glamorous and exciting and empowering. They look out from the windows of Humvees for a few seconds at Iraqi families, cowering in fear, and only rarely see the effects of the firepower. When they are forced to examine what bullets, grenades, and shells do to human bodies they turn away in disgust or resort to black humor to dehumanize the corpses. They cannot stay long, in any event, since they must leave the depressing scene behind for the next mission. The tragedy is replaced, as it is for us at home who watch it on television screens, by a light moment or another story. It becomes easier to forget that another human life has been ruined beyond repair, that what is unfolding is not only tragic for tens of thousands of Iraqis but for the United States.


The reason wars should always be covered from the perspective of the common soldier or Marine, as Wright does, is that these foot soldiers are largely pawns. Their lives, despite the protestations of the generals and politicians, mean little to the war planners. 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. Those who make war betray those who fight it. This is something most enlisted combat veterans soon understand. They have little love for officers, tolerating the good ones and hoping the bad ones are replaced or injured before they get them killed. Those on the bottom rung of the military pay the price for their commanders' vanity, ego, and thirst for recognition. These motives are hardly exclusive to the neocons and the ambitious generals in the Bush administration. They are a staple of war. Homer wrote about all of them in The Iliad as did Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead. Stupidity and callousness cause senseless death and wanton destruction. 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.


Those who carry out this killing will pay a terrible price. As the unit approaches Baghdad they become weary with the indiscriminate shooting of unarmed Iraqis, including families that drive too close to roadblocks. Wright notes that "...the enlisted Marines, tired of shooting unarmed civilians, fought to be allowed to use smoke grenades." Many of these young men will never sleep well for the rest of their lives. Most will harbor within themselves corrosive feelings of self-loathing and regret. They will struggle with an unbridgeable alienation when they return home, something Evans sees glimpses of in the final pages of the book.


These Marines have learned the awful truth about our civil religion. They have learned that our nation is not righteous. They have understood that there are no transcendent goals at the heart of our political process. The Sunday School God that blesses our nation above all others vanishes in war zones like Iraq. These young troops disdain the teachers, religious authorities, and government officials who feed them these lies. This is why so many combat veterans hate military shrinks and chaplains, whose task is largely to patch them up with the old clichés and ship them back to the battlefield. It is why they feel distance and anger with those at home who drink in the dark elixir of blind patriotism, and absorb mythology about themselves and war.

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."

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.


We are losing the war in Iraq. There has been a steady increase in the assaults carried out by the insurgents against coalition forces. The attacks over the past year have risen from about twenty a day to approximately 120. 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.

Entire Review Essay

More from Chris Hedges:

Chris Hedges and the Mythology of War

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