A skeptic's view of the Iraq war 'bandwagon'

Reporter covered war for 15 years

says media should 'expose the lies'

Conversations

March 30, 2003|By JONATHAN PITTS | JONATHAN PITTS,Sun Staff

Chris Hedges was a war correspondent for 15 years, initially as a free-lancer and eventually for The New York Times. He started out by covering insurgencies in El Salvador, where he found, to his delight, that he was a "24-year-old kid [ticking off] the White House on a daily basis." After five years there, he went on to Guatemala, Nicaragua and Colombia, saw the first intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, covered the civil war in the Sudan and Yemen, witnessed the uprisings in Algeria and the Punjab, chronicled the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, and documented the Gulf War, the Kurdish rebellions in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq, and the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Hedges studied Christian ethics and the classics at Harvard. Today, he writes a column, "Public Lives," for The Times and lives with his family in rural New Jersey. His recent book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (Perseus Books), aims to square what Hedges calls the lies and mythology surrounding war with its gruesome, life- altering realities. He chatted this past week with The Sun.

In your years covering war, what view of war did you develop?

There is no just war. There is inevitable war, but it's never just. War always taints, perverts, corrupts -- not only those who bear the brunt of it, but those who carry it out. War is a poison. [Sometimes in history] you have to ingest that poison, as a cancer patient does to fight off disease. But if you don't understand what that poison is, it can kill you just as surely as the disease.

Myth is essential for getting nations to support war and getting individuals to fight it. The state wants to help create a narrative of war, one that bestows on it an order and a meaning it doesn't really possess.

It's hard for us to confront not only war, but ourselves. Those of us who have spent a lot of time in war have to confront our own capacity for evil, our own capacity to commit atrocities, the fact that human beings find a perverse thrill in the destruction not only of things but of other human beings. The god Mars gives those who leave war behind a generous cup from the River Lethe, to forget everything they saw.

What is the purpose of the press in wartime?

The goal of the press should be to report war as it is, and to expose the lies that are being told, and the way the information being handed to you is manipulated and distorted. Most press don't do it. Those that do are often ignored and reviled by not only the public, but by their own -- i.e., the press.

I.F. Stone is the great American example. Or Randolph Bourne, First World War. Or Edmund Morrell in World War I. Morrell, a British journalist, ended up in prison in 1917; Stone was blacklisted. He got out his newsletter, which eventually gained acclaim, but during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, he was very much marginal and isolated.

That's what happens with war. Everybody climbs on the bandwagon. The press is always part of the problem. It sees itself as part of the war effort: boosting morale, maintaining civilian support for the war, explaining the war, giving it that coherent, heroic narrative. Finding those hometown boys who give that food to the small children, who fight with bravery and courage, documenting the perfidious nature of the enemy.

How are the media faring now?

The coverage has been ... one giant commercial for the U.S. Army. When the military went back and looked at how they had handled the press during the Persian Gulf War, with the very heavy restrictions -- only about 180 reporters and photographers were allowed into the pool -- the military found it had placed so many controls on the press that it had trouble getting out the message it wanted to get out.

That's what they set out to rectify. It was not about creating broader, freer, better coverage. It was about getting more reporters into units to get the message the military wanted out, out.

We have to have embedded reporters, but if we rely on them exclusively and don't have good independent reporting, we're going to have a very distorted picture of what this war, any war, is like.

Look, these reporters are bonding with the units they're with. It's an inevitable consequence of being with an armed unit. They rely on the units for protection. They rely on them for places to sleep, for their food. They're from the same nation. They're fighting a hostile force that wants to kill them. They will also go where the military wants them to go and see what the military wants them to see. If things go horribly wrong, the military won't take them in. They had helicopters ready to take journalists into Basra to film and document the cheering crowds, and when there weren't any, the journalists didn't go.

The lie of war is almost always the lie of omission: the blunders by our own generals, the mistreatment of civilians, the mistreatment of prisoners, the horrors of wounds -- all of that is rarely seen by those who are not in combat.

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