Chris Hedges -- compassion, not war, gives meaning

September 29, 2002|By Peter Temes | By Peter Temes,Special to the Sun

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges. Public Affairs. 192 pages. $23.

Veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges puts on his philosopher's cap in this slim new volume. After two decades of reporting from Israel, Iraq and Bosnia, Hedges has some lessons to share about war's very nature.

These lessons range from the banal (governments lie) to haunting ("The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians has left each side embracing death.").

But it is the title of this book that holds the most promise for originality and insight. What, we must wonder, is the meaning that war gives us? Is it the seriousness that we all felt in the public squares of America during the end game of the Gulf War? The collective vulnerability we felt after Sept. 11th? The black-and-white solidarity of the Second World War? Perhaps the up-against-the-wall bravado of Vietnam protesters?

In the end, Hedges does not say. Instead, he shares with his readers the spiritual suffering of fighters and their victims, the rupturing of families and communities that he has witnessed in war, and the general meaninglessness of war as human endeavor. He tells us that governments sell the myth of war's glory to the ordinary people who must then go and fight the inglorious battles of neighbor against neighbor. And that war itself "dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it." True enough, and worth repeating, particularly to those of age for combat who might not have heard these truths before, or often enough.

Hedges himself surely had heard them often, his own experience aside. He is a well-schooled and well-read man. Captured by Iraqi soldiers after the Gulf War, they steal his warm jacket in the cold night; Shakespeare and Homer spill from his pockets.

During the NATO bombing of Kosovo, many friends and colleagues are killed while Hedges himself serves as a fellow at Harvard, distraught for being so far from the horror he had accepted as his daily work for so many years. He spends his fellowship year studying Latin, and finds some solace in the poems of Catullus, who writes of love and loss in Rome's ancient wars. At the very end of this book, Hedges unties the knot of his title just a bit, with the love poems of Catullus in mind.

"[L]ove, in its mystery, has its own power," he writes. "It alone gives us meaning that endures. It alone allows us to embrace and cherish life." So war gives us meaning, but it is meaning that does not last. We must turn to love, instead, to sustain the wisdom that war lets us glimpse -- the wisdom of compassion, and the wisdom of community.

In the end, this book about war becomes a book about the soul. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is not a call to protest. Nor is it a call to take up arms. But, Hedges tells us, "this book is not a call for inaction. It is a call for repentance."

Peter Temes is president of the Antioch New England Graduate School. He is completing a book called Just War Theory to be published in December by Ivan Dee.

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