MAXWELL: War cloaks reality while creating myths
9/3/2006 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

While President Bush was reading The Stranger and “three Shakespeares,” I was reading Chris Hedges’ book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.
I bought Hedges’ book when it was first published in June 2003, but I did not read it then. Any notion of war was too depressing: The United States had launched “shock and awe” against Iraq three months earlier, and the giddy, patriotic fluff from embedded journalists was unwittingly presaging disaster.
After all, the “mission” had not been “accomplished,” even after Saddam Hussein’s statue had fallen. And that ticking sound that some of us heard beneath the euphoria was the time bomb of the gathering insurgency, the same one that we had predicted would sink us in a Vietnam-like quagmire.
Along with reading War Is a Force, I reread Eric Hoffer’s brilliant essay “Make-believe,” which can be found in Hoffer’s book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.
I read these two works because, being opposed to war except as a last resort, I sought a bit of wisdom about the futility and folly of war. I needed a break from images of the daily carnage.
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Hedges knows a lot about war and war-related death. He was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He covered the Balkans and the Middle East, including the first Gulf War, where he was captured by the Iraqis. He also covered Central America. He is a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School.
I will not try to paraphrase Hedges’ eloquence. I will quote him at length:
“I learned early on that war forms its own culture. The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug. … It is peddled by mythmakers – historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists and the state. … The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.
“And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war’s appeal.”
Hedges indicts his colleagues in the press for being co-conspirators in the celebration of war:
“It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the effort. The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining and promoting the cause. And some of the most important cheerleaders of the cause are the reporters. This is true in nearly every war. During the Gulf War, as in the weeks after the September attacks, communities gathered for vigils and worship services. The enterprise of the state became imbued with religious aura. We, even those in the press, spoke in the collective.”
Now, let us turn to Hoffer, migrant farm worker, longshoreman, self-educated philosopher and 1993 winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After the experience of Pearl Harbor, Hoffer thought a lot about the essence of war:
“Dying and killing seem easy when they are part of a ritual ceremonial, dramatic performance or game. There is need for some kind of make-believe in order to face death unflinchingly. To our real, naked selves there is not a thing on earth or in heaven worth dying for. It is only when we see ourselves as actors in a staged (and therefore unreal) performance that death loses its frightfulness and finality and becomes an act of make-believe and a theatrical gesture. It is one of the main tasks of a real leader to mask the grim reality of dying and killing by evoking in his followers the illusion that they are participating in a grandiose spectacle …
“The indispensability of play-acting in the grim business of dying and killing is particularly evident in the case of armies. Their uniforms, flags, emblems, parades, music and elaborate etiquette and ritual are designed to separate the soldier from his flesh-and-blood self and mask the overwhelming reality of life and death. We speak of the theater of war and of battle scenes.”
Those of us who listen closely to the speeches of Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, know that we are witnessing what Hoffer refers to as the “theatrical hocus-pocus and fireworks” of war rhetoric.
We are being sold on the virtues of “self-sacrifice,” “glory,” “heroism,” “patriotism,” “loyalty,” “staying the course” and “getting the job done” to make war’s culture of death and killing natural and acceptable.