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New book by a veteran war correspondent
How they justify their wars

Review by Chris Fagan | May 23, 2003 | Page 9

BOOKS: Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Public Affairs, 2002, 211 pages, $23.

ON THE eve of the U.S. war on Iraq, polls showed that only 47 percent of Americans supported a war without the backing of United Nations. Yet less than a week later, the U.S. launched exactly that kind of war, and polls leaped to 70 percent support.

Just how did the Bush gang win support for their war? This is one of the central questions that Chris Hedges takes up in his excellent book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. In this book, Hedges sets out to explain the mechanisms our rulers use to mobilize societies for war, as well as chronicle the devastating effects of war, both to the dead and those who survive.

Hedges worked as a war correspondent for more than 15 years, covering El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Nicaragua, the first Palestinian Intifada, wars in the Sudan and Yemen, the Gulf War of 1991 and the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.

He argues that the idea of a "just cause" is central to the war-makers' message. From Dubya's maladroit attempts to couch the conquest of Iraq as liberation to Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic invoking the myths of competing ethnic groups in the Balkan war, politicians and generals always want us to believe we are fighting for noble goals.

Hedges takes the "just cause" argument apart. "Well, the cause is...always a lie," Hedges said in an interview published last year on TomPaine.com. "If people understood, or individuals or societies understood in sensory way what war was, they'd never do it. War is organized industrial slaughter."

In many ways, it's this perspective that is the strength of War Is a Force--for Hedges is neither a pacifist nor a revolutionary. Hedges writes from the standpoint of a witness to the horror of war, but also someone who understands how the rulers of societies generate support for such a horrific enterprise.

Patriotism, he argues, is key to winning that support. In the introduction to War Is a Force, Hedges writes, "Patriotism, often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us. Never mind the murder and repression done in our name."

Much of the book is an investigation of the force of patriotism, bolstered with anecdotes from his experiences. "Cliches, coined by the state, become the only acceptable vocabulary..." Hedges writes. "Vocabulary shrinks so that the tyranny of nationalist rhetoric leaves people sputtering state-sanctioned slogans."

It's the combination of this and the exhilaration of patriotic "belonging" that gives the state the crucial support it needs--in other words, lies and coercion. This is true of the U.S. just as much as it was in Serbia or Argentina during their wars.

Hedges experience as a war correspondent also allows him to describe how things looks "on the ground"--something the blow-dried talking heads on TV news are utterly incapable of.

In a chapter titled "The Seduction of Battle and the Perversion of War," he describes the horrors carried out in the name of justice. "The reporters, diplomats, aid workers, and peacekeepers who travel into war zones, without the restraint of law and amid a sea of powerless people, often view themselves as entitled," he writes. "They excuse immoral behavior because of the belief that the work they carry out is for a greater good."

While War Is a Force doesn't present a detailed analysis of why this or that particular government wages wars, it succeeds in puncturing the lies and myths about war peddled by George W. Bush and his crowd.

As Hedges writes in the book's first paragraph, "The ethnic conflicts and insurgencies of our time, whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsis, are not religious wars. They are not clashes between cultures or civilizations, nor are they the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. They are manufactured wars, born out of the collapse of civil societies, perpetuated by fear, greed and paranoia, and they are run by gangsters."

This is certainly true, and a refreshing antidote to the racist "explanations" for these conflicts that are peddled by the mainstream press. War Is a Force is especially relevant today, as Bush promises a world of permanent war.

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