Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges once found a helicopter seductive. His attraction to the plane was not the result of a great love for airborne vessels but rather because it could kill him.
When stationed as a war correspondent in El Salvador from 1983 to 1988, Hedges said he was drawn into the world of war, which became difficult to escape. He had been evacuated three times by the U.S. Embassy after they heard death squads were trying to kill him, but Hedges continued to go back. During the talk he gave last night at Ithaca College, he told the story of the day in El Salvador when he was hiding from Hewey helicopters, pinned against a wall to avoid being killed. As he looked up at the machines trying to kill him, instead of finding them fearful or grotesque, he found them seductive.
The appeal of war was a dominant theme of his talk, titled “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning” and based on the book he wrote with the same title. The book received the 2003 Overseas Press Club award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
Hedges works are based around the experiences he had during 15 years as a war correspondent, often stationed in perilous, violence-ridden regions of the world, including Sarajevo, the Sudan and the Middle East.
“I have watched young men bleed to death on lonely Central American dirt roads and cobblestone squares in Sarajevo,” he said. “I have looked into the eyes of mothers, kneeing over the lifeless and mutilated bodies of their children. I have stood in warehouses with rows of corpses, including children, and breathed death into my lungs.”
His presentation was introduced shortly after 7 pm by the University provost, Peter Bardaglio, who spoke briefly about Hedges educational and professional background. Before he became a journalist, Hedges received an English degree from Colgate University and then received a master of divinity from Harvard University. His parents were social activists and early opponents of the Vietnam War.
“Chris learned early how unpopular it can be to take a moral stand,” Bardaglio said.
Bardaglio also said that Hedges’ unique background and position on war make him an appropriate contrast to the President of the United States.
“Unlike most of us, including George W. Bush, Chris has seen war firsthand,” he said. “It is more than a little ironic that Chris Hedges takes the podium two hours before George Bush gives the State of the Union address.”
Hedges is not only a critic of war but also of the press coverage of combat. Hedges said that the journalism with regard to armed conflict lacks truth and is geared towards comforting civilians.
“The current exposure of the war in Iraq does not expose the pathologies of war,” he said. “As the war has soured and gone bad, cable news shows show us Brad, Jen, Robert Blake and Michael Jackson. War for now is presented briefly through the distorted prism of the occupiers.”
One of the reasons for the diluted media coverage of war is, according to Hedges, due to the fact that reporters are embedded with the soldiers and depend on them for security and food.
“There is a tendency to protect those who are protecting them,” he said. “[The reporters] are, in effect, captives.”
Hedges stated that this prism through which the American public receives war coverage propagates false impressions.
“The reporters admire and laud these fighters for their physical courage, but it usually descends into shameful cheerleading,” he said. “Those who cover the war dine out on the war myth.”
By media coverage not showing the carnage and atrocities of war, journalists allows people to continue supporting it Hedges said.
“The press know that the invasion and occupation has been a catastrophe, they know there are not weapons of mass destruction, they know the war is not about bringing democracy to Iraq,” he said. “The press knows all this, but the press has lost its outrage that drives great reporters to expose lies.”
From this criticism of the press and their performance in keeping the American public informed, Hedges moved on to discuss war itself and the illusions people hold about it.
“We falsely believe that because we have the capacity to wage war, we have the right,” he said. “We live on images and slogans that perpetuate fantasies of our own invulnerability, goodness and mite.”
Hedges said that America is partially responsible for the manner in which the 9/11 attacks were executed.
“The attacks on the World Trade Center illustrate that those who oppose us have been schooled well in modern warfare,” he said. “The dramatic explosions, the fireballs, the victims plummeting to their deaths, the collapse of the towers in Manhattan were straight out of Hollywood. They have mastered the language we have taught them. We leave the same calling cards.”
Hedges then went on to examine the core of what war is.
“The essence of war-death, is always hidden from public view. War is the pornography of violence. It has a dark beauty,” he said. “War allows us to engage in lusts and passions that are hidden in the deepest interior of our fantasy lives, and to yield the power of divine ability, to end someone’s tenure on the earth.”
War also has the power to inject meaning into people’s lives.
“It gives us a distorted sense of self and allows us to rise above the small stations of life,” he said. “Those who have the least meaning in their lives are all susceptible to wars appeal.”
The ability of war to provide people purpose leads it to wield an addictive power.
“War is addictive; it is the most potent narcotic invented by the human mind,” he said. “You would rather die [in it] than go back to dull routine.”
However, once they have spent an extensive amount of time in combat, Hedges said soldiers can become desensitized to violence, thereby heightening the level of war atrocities.
“There becomes a boredom with routine death, and I have seen bodies crucified on the sides of barns,” he said.
Hedges described war as, among other things, self-destructive and insidious. Like Freud, Hedges believes that war is part of the innate human impulse to annihilate and thus war itself can never be annihilated.
“War is necrophilia,” he said. “Love is the most potent enemy of war. Love may not always triumph, but it keeps us human. It is perhaps the only antidote.”
The lecture was sponsored by the Office of the Provost at Ithaca College.
Archived article by Bekah Grant
Sun Staff Writer