Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ex-War Correspondent Chris Hedges on "What Every Person Should Know Aout War"

(This interview originally appeared in the New york Press on August 19, 2003)

Chris Hedges is probably one of the angriest people I have ever interviewed. He had a polished veneer, but the anger kept on popping out. A short ball of a man, he now seems to be obsessed with religious issues in his writing. I found him and his rage rather chilling. Here is our interview:

What Every Person Should Know About War
By Chris Hedges
Free Press, 192 pages, $11

War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning
By Chris Hedges
Anchor Books, 224 pages, $12.95

Chris Hedges knows war. He knows how nationalist hysteria suffocates reason, and he knows what bullet-ridden carcasses look like after baking in the sun for a week. As a journalist, Hedges was targeted by Salvadoran death squads in the mid-1980s. During the first Gulf War, he refused to join the U.S. military’s press-pool system, coming up with some of the war’s best independent reporting. For his troubles, he was beaten up by Saudi military police and held hostage by the Iraqi army during the Shiite uprising in Southern Iraq. He’s also covered conflicts in the Balkans, Africa and the Occupied Territories in Israel.

His newly released What Every Person Should Know About War is an attempt to pass along some of his knowledge to young people considering martial careers; it is a frank and grim account of what it means to be a soldier. Using government reports and first-person accounts of war, Hedges explores how raw recruits are turned into killing professionals. The book crisply addresses such questions as "What are my chances of being wounded?" "What does it feel like to kill someone?" and "What will happen to my body when I die?"

War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, published last year and just released in paperback, is Hedge’s personal exploration of the insanity of war, based on history and literature as well as his own long experience. It too is a dark book, slicing open the extreme patriotism that both sparks and fuels bloody conflicts. In War Is a Force, Hedges examines his own past addiction to the adrenaline-lined "poison chalice" that is life in a war zone.

Violence has not made Hedges into a pacifist. He believes in the possibility of just wars, but has said he won’t return to the battlefield. He currently writes the "Public Lives" column for the New York Times and resides in the bucolic town of Lambertville, NJ, near the Pennsylvania border. He spoke with Dylan Foley for the New York Press at a bookstore in Brooklyn.

Where did What Every Person Should Know come from?

I was frustrated sitting on the sidelines watching the war with Iraq, with the myth and the lie of the war. I wanted to do something and it was a way for me to cope with what I saw going on around me.

Both [War Is a Force and What Every Person Should Know] are trying to demythologize war. I think that they are for two different audiences. The people who are going to buy the second book are probably not going to buy the first. If you’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about war, the concepts of the first book are not difficult.

I certainly didn’t make any money on What Every Person Should Know, nor did I expect to make any money on it. I spent more than my advance on the research, then I argued the price down. They wanted to sell it for $15 and I wanted to get it down to $11, because I wanted the kids on minimum wage to be able to afford it.

Was the target audience for What Every Person Should Know the "Army of One" generation?

Exactly. It was written in a way that is very accessible. Combat veterans worked on the book with me. We wanted to ask the right questions, the questions that kids ask when they go into the military and face combat. We wanted the tone to be one that wouldn’t denigrate or insult the profession of soldiering.

There were 20 of us working on the project. We had huge discussions on how we would frame the questions. It was really heartening. I had some Columbia students and three full-time researchers. We took over a whole corner of [NYU’s] Bobst Library. Sometimes we had six or seven people working from morning until night. We spent a lot of time agonizing over what should be included. We were really scrupulous about the facts. We did not want this book to be assailable. The footnotes are a quarter of the book.

We used some interesting military reports. The military is pretty good about studying itself. They’ve not only studied what combat does to you physically, but also psychologically. They know how to create better killers through technology and through psychological training of recruits. Most of the documents are military sources.

One of the documents comes from the U.S. Surgeon General on how to deal with soldiers who have been fatally exposed to nuclear weapons. What does the army plan to do with them?

You pump them up with drugs. For the last two weeks of their lives, instead of going home to their mothers, they can fight for the cause.

What is the antidote to war hysteria?

Unfortunately, after covering many conflicts where war fever is gripping the country, I don’t know what the antidote is. People are rendered deaf and dumb. They don’t see or hear, except for an often irrational explanation of events to sustain the myth. You are hopeless to fight it [and] when it is over, you almost have an historical amnesia. People forget what they watched. The way to implode the myth is through a great deal of death and suffering. It seems tragic that that is what it takes to wake us up.

I look at Iraq and I draw less from my time in the Middle East and more from my time in Central America. I look at the insurgency in El Salvador and how it formed and operated. You build an insurgent movement through trial and error. Error usually means death.

The thing that surprised me was how quick the armed opposition in Iraq has come into being. I believe that we are seeing the creation of a whole new animal that is seeing its way around Iraq. We are not watching the Baathists [but] a new guerrilla movement that has elements of the Baathists and Saddam’s fedayeen, with a new leadership… You have an absolutely untenable situation in Iraq, where these poor kids who don’t speak the language are facing these mobs. They don’t know what they are chanting or why. It’s very frustrating.

When you live in an environment, which you see as hostile, as was the case in Vietnam, this is what [psychiatrist] Robert J. Lifton calls an "atrocity-producing situation." You are fighting an elusive enemy that you cannot find. In frustration, after running into booby traps or ambushes, you begin to perceive and lash out at everyone as the enemy. Shooting down an old woman collecting water by the river becomes a form of revenge, and that is very dangerous. That happened in Israel, and we see that happening in Iraq.

What is the composition of today’s Army?

There are two armies–there are the Rangers, the 101st Airborne–these elite combat units. Then there is the rest of the Army. Most of the Army is not joining because they want to kill people. It is important to remember that a lot of these kids are disadvantaged, a high percentage are minorities, a lot don’t have good educations. They look to the Army as a way to give themselves a place in society that has been denied to them.

What did you think of the recent Iraq War coverage?

I think the embedding process was a wonderful tool for disseminating the propaganda that the military wanted to disseminate, but a disaster for reporting… It was an extension of the pool system from the first Gulf War.

There were 600 embedded reporters, but they were completely circumscribed. They had no logistics of their own; they couldn’t travel to a place unless the military took them there. They didn’t see anything the military didn’t want them to see. They also had an emotional bond with the soldiers. There is a quid pro quo–they protect you, you want to protect them. I’ve been guilty of that. It is understandable, but it doesn’t make good reporting. You need good, independent reporters to offset this.

In War Is a Force, you address your own experiences witnessing combat and atrocities from Central America to Iraq, but you never explain how you went from being a seminarian to becoming a war correspondent. Why not?

I tried never to bring myself into the book. I only brought myself into the book to either establish my credentials on what I was talking about or as a negative, to show how I suffered from the addiction and despair. I, too, was deformed by war. I did not want to write a book that in any way ennobled the profession of being a war correspondent or myself. There are many memoirs where the subtext is, "I am a brave, smart, glamorous guy." There is a very dark side to what we do. To make the book honest, I had to be very hard on myself and those of us who do this job.

What propelled me into this work was a sense of idealism. I grew up reading books on the Holocaust and the Spanish Civil War. I wanted that epic battle against fascism to define my life. I didn’t just become a reporter–I went to Latin America because Latin America was convulsed by these heinous military dictatorships. I wanted to be like Orwell, like my heroes who went off to conflicts and made a difference.

Why did you keep at it?

It became harder to do as time went on. When you spend that much time in war, it is very hard to exist outside wartime society. It is how you identify yourself, and it is the cache you have with your news organization. It was a heady way to live. It was also lonely and self-destructive. There is a kind of despair when a conflict is up.

I really didn’t stop being a war correspondent until the fall of 1999. I got caught in a really bad Israeli ambush in the Gaza Strip. A kid got killed 50 feet in front of me. I had to stop, because I was next. Like a moth to a flame, I went back one more time.

In your 15 years as a correspondent, you’ve witnessed numerous atrocities. How do you deal with these horrors now?

I think it is a life crucible. You bear it. As we get older, it is harder to bear. You begin to deconstruct it in ways that you couldn’t when you were in the midst of it. I deal with it by taking the tragedy and the horror and writing about it. It gives it a purpose that makes it easier to cope with.

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