Making meaning: Does war validate us?
A historian cited by war correspondent Chris Hedges in his new book has deduced that in the entire history of humankind, there have been just 29 years of global peace. Man, apparently, is more accustomed to the presence of armed strife (even as a distant evil), than to its absence.
That’s because we live for it, says Hedges, a self-confessed war junkie.
In War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Hedges explores the brutalities of war, noting the same refrains from conflict to conflict: the invention of national mythologies, the vilification of the enemy, the corruption that follows occupation, and the utter disregard for life. None of these evils, separately or combined, was enough to make Hedges reconsider his admiration.
For 15 years he was the eager puppy who followed war home… to El Salvador, to Iraq, to Yugoslavia. He lived vicarious epics of solidarity and survived personal encounters with death. He was sustained, he writes, by a certainty that, “I would rather die like this than go back to the routine of life. The chance to exist for an intense and overpowering moment, even if it meant certain oblivion, seemed worth it in the midst of war.”
Being a witness to brutality gave his life meaning.
If a man like Hedges, a graduate of Harvard Divinity school who considers the roots and ramifications of war aided with the writings of Catullus, Shakespeare, and Reinhold Niebuhr, is a slave to war’s charms–- how can we expect the rest of the world, with its very real grievances of famine, disenfranchisement, and blood feuds, to resist?
Indeed, how did we manage to squeeze 29 years of global peace out of a history defined by a quest for meaning?
War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, for all its pontification on the redemptive value of war, is still a book that chronicles lies, crimes, and loss. Hedges argues for the necessity of war, sometimes eloquently (war, like love, promotes self-sacrifice over security), and sometimes tastelessly (war is chemotherapy for man’s cancer). But his louder message is that war, being larger than we are, must pass over us. With it, that powerful sense of “meaning” passes– there is nothing so meaningless as a cold battlefield.
New York Times reporter Chris Hedges joins Roberta Culbertson of the Institute on Violence and Survival and Kate Hudgins, author of Psychodrama with Trauma Survivors for an open discussion with the audience on war as “a force rooted in death while championing life.” The forum is part of the 2003 Virginia Book Festival. UVA Bookstore, UVA. March 20, 10am. 924-3721.