Keywords: Chris Hedges; Christian right; fascism; Stephen Colbert; El Salvador; divinity; DRD4 gene; addiction to war; Bosnia; Eros and Thanatos; Freud; Michael Lerner; meaning; embedded journalists.
I’m getting psyched up to interview Chris Hedges (see photo) in the next few days. He’s a former war correspondent who five years ago wrote War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and now has published a new book, American Fascists, which depicts US right wing religious groups as fascists. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection between the two topics, but I do see a common unspoken thread: that both war and religion can be powerful sources of meaning — at least for people whose lives otherwise seem empty. I’m ambivalent about both books, which I have just re-read, but more favorable toward the first than the second one.
I met Chris Hedges very briefly, about a year ago in Berkeley when he gave a talk about war. He was staying in my hotel and appeared to be milder and more introverted than the flamboyant war correspondent one might have expected to meet. Then a couple of nights ago I saw him again, this time on Stephen Colbert’s satirical television show. Colbert, in his customary persona as a right-winger, playfully gave Hedges a hard time, but it seemed to me that one of his punches actually landed pretty hard: He said that Hedges sounds angry in the new book, which is true. In fact, his attack on right wing Christians is ferocious in comparison to his description of the fighters in wars. I think he pities people in war for being caught up in a delusion, but he has no compassion for the fascists he sees in America today. I think they are equally pitiable — and possibly equally dangerous too, for people caught up in a delusion may go to any length.
Still, his credentials are impeccable to speak on both subjects. The son of a liberal protestant minister, he holds a masters degree in divinity from Harvard, but instead of being ordained, he went off to war as a newspaper reporter. He writes well and he has a soul, though he seems rather cautious about disclosing his own spiritual orientation or even his own psychological needs. It was hard to imagine what drew him into the pursuit of violence.
He does describe his conversion experience, if I may call it that. It was in El Salvador when he wandered around where bullets were zinging past him, and for several minutes expected to be killed. Thereafter, other people would stay away from scenes of that kind, he says, but instead, he was “hooked.”
Although I can barely imagine getting addicted to war, his description of that experience was what I admired about the book, for its unusual honesty. (In choosing that word, I remember having heard it recently when Angelina Jolie described the shocking times when she used to cut herself. She explained it as “honest,” which I did not understand, but now I see that it must be related to the warrior’s quest for violence and a source of intensity and hence meaning.) People who are addicted to war normally deny it; the honest acknowledgment of that is worthy, though the experience itself is not.
My own explanation of the addiction is genetic. I will ask Hedges about that when I interview him. There are people with a variant gene who have a shortage of adrenaline and cortisol. They crave it and seek to stimulate themselves by undertaking dangerous activities. I don’t have any such gene and it’s hard for me to empathize with those who do.
But I certainly can empathize with anyone who wants a meaningful life. Everyone wants meaning, but perhaps not all to the same degree. Hedges says that there’s a mythology about war that imbues it with heroism because it portrays fighters as struggling nobly for a cause, sacrificing themselves for the sake of their people — often a nationalistic shared identity. You have to believe in that myth to become addicted to war, he says. When people stop believing in it, they stop going to war. He, however, spent 15 years covering wars, trying to recapture the excitement of El Salvador, though none of the later battles quite matched up to it. He didn’t say anything about a genetic predisposition, nor did he say that he had become habituated to battle over the years.
What I wonder is, what, exactly, is the myth that you have to believe in order to get satisfaction from warfare? I can piece together some of the elements, from clues Chris left along the way. For one thing, there has to be a cause that you believe in. And you have to believe that the two conflicting sides are not equally culpable. Your side is the good side. Everyone gets caught up in that polarization. War correspondents are hardly ever even-handed. Their reports are biased. Chris says that he still believes that the Serbs deserve 80 percent of the blame for the war in Bosnia. So in that regard, perhaps he’s still susceptible to craving war. I think it’s generally true that all sides in a conflict differ in their culpability. Still, even believing that, I don’t think I’m susceptible to being caught up in war madness.
He offers a brilliant description of the contrast between wartime and peacetime attitudes. As soon as the first person is killed, a huge transformation of mentality occurs that affects almost everyone. The lines are drawn. There can no longer be any tolerance of the enemy – even tolerance toward members of that group who have always been close friends. But then, when the war ends, people just switch back into the peace mode. Interpersonally they act as if they have forgotten what had just been going on, Nevertheless, there are terrible psychological wounds. Almost every combat soldier is a psychiatric casualty.
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is one of the most powerful anti-war books I have ever read. It is explicit in arguing that the myth of war is a lie. And yet, Hedges does not propose any alternative – sky diving, firefighting, vulcanology — and he says he thinks people will go on making war forever. There’s no cure for it. He personally got over it somehow (he doesn’t say quite how) but there’s no way to inoculate others against the madness.
He uses Freud’s Eros and Thanatos concepts to explain the attraction to death. He leaves us without any useful message. The only consolation that he provides is the message that love can surpass the power of war. But even here he is ambivalent, for he says that the first phases of a war are similar to love. I don’t understand that point.
He does insist on one important point: that the reason for war is that it gives meaning to people whose lives seem empty otherwise. I think that’s probably true for the instigators, the willing fighters. Surely most people do not get anything positive from war at all. They want to get away from it. That’s true even of war correspondents. He says that the press claimed to dislike being “embedded” during the Persian Gulf War, but they actually preferred it. Most of them did not want to go into dangerous places, and so they preferred the protection. The few who did as he did – escape from the pool and go out on their own – were scornful toward the journalists who wanted to remain safe.
What was he telling himself about the value of his work? How was he helping society by reporting the gruesome things he witnessed? What “cause” was he serving? How did he gain meaning from this work?
He doesn’t say so in his new book, American Fascists, but the reason people are so hooked on these extreme, harsh, fundamentalist religions is that it confers meaning to their lives. But he really hates these people. His is quite a different perspective from that of Michael Lerner, who argues that the spiritual left is not given a legitimate space within left-oriented politics and that the only place open to them is right wing Christianity. The left liberal politicians are simply driving people into the arms of the fundamentalists. I think that’s true, but I don’t think Chris Hedges sees it. He is one of the people doing the driving, in that he says there is no room for religious discourse in public. It must be confined to the private sphere. He told Stephen Colbert that he’s a Christian – presumably the kind of liberal Christian that I am and most Holy Trinity members are. In public he restricts himself to secular discourse. So do most of my left liberal friends.
The search for meaning – that’s a powerful motivation. But people can find it in all kinds of ways. For example, I was deeply engaged in some cult-like groups long ago. For others it may be an economic ideology (say, the fervor of peak oil theorists nowadays) or a political movement (most obviously, Marxism).
And meaning can come from other movements that actually offer correct, enlightening analysis of problems instead of violent or deviant ones. They may offer intense experiences or be rather ordinary, yet still be fulfilling to those with faith. The Quakers started off as and emotional movement and now are rather boring, but the whole time their social values have been benign. What Oprah is doing is certainly meaningful, and she can share it with millions of viewers. I get a vicarious boost from her altruism once in a while.
High-intensity meaningful work can remain meaningful for a long time, even while the intensity is diminishing, but then there may come a sense of dryness. St. John of the Cross and other Christian mystics had intense feelings, followed by long periods that he called “the dark night of the soul” when there was no evidence that he was doing anything pleasing to God. The mystics say those long dry periods are part of the process, part of growth, part of the formation of faith.
I understand what it is like to feel that a life pattern has become dull and that some new meaning must be sought. You can get it from an amazing variety of sources, and it’s not always possible to be sure whether those sources of aliveness are beneficial or monstrous. During the early phases of a war, the exaltation may seem real and valuable – evidence that one is serving a cause greater than oneself. But that may nevertheless be a lie. There is never any proof that one is not making a mistake, never any certainty that one is on the right road. Think of all the soldiers killed in warfare and all the Marxists who sacrificed for socialism, which turns out to have been a terrible social invention.
So I pray for faith – but not too much conviction, whatever my cause may be.