Book Review: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning

War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges

This book’s title, if it was not immediately obvious, is highly ironic since the author (as might be expected) looks to love to provide meaning and views war in this book from a distinctly negative view.  That said, though, this book is far more complicated and nuanced than one might expect and that pacifist readers might appreciate.  Indeed, the author’s view of warfare is close to my own, in that the author concedes it is necessary that there be war in a fallen world like our own although he thinks it should be mourned and not celebrated and looks at nationalism as a force for conflict in our present world [1].  A great deal of the author’s ambivalence comes from the fact that he was (?) a New York Times reporter who had been a pool reporter during the Gulf War as well as many other conflicts in which he considers himself to have glorified the combat or at least not done enough to put it in it’s honest perspective, which he feels guilty for.  This guilt, as well as his own guilt at being a bit of an adrenaline junkie, is clearly in evidence here as he looks at a few angles of what makes war such a dangerous narcotic.

The author begins with an introduction, where he looks at ravaged places like Bosnia (where the author spent a good deal of time as a war correspondent) before beginning the book with a look at the myth of war as noble and romantic (1).  After this the author looks at the plague of nationalism by which identities are made in negative spaces based on small grounds (2).  The author spends some time criticizing war for its role in the destruction of culture (3) and looks at the way that the seduction of battle serves as part of the perversion that war represents (4).  After this the author takes a frightening look at how memory is hijacked and recovered in the environment of warfare (5) and some of the causes for warfare’s appeal in the way it triggers the same systems of the mind that are culpable in addictions (6).  The book then closes with a moving but sad look at the competition between eros and thanatos (7) and the way that war is ultimately destructive to all that mankind should love, closing with a plea for love and peace.

Can warfare be engaged in successfully when it is lamented and not celebrated?  Can one fight reluctantly and grimly and fight well enough to succeed at one’s task?  Or is it necessary in order to be successful at war to view it with some sense of pleasure and some sort of romantic delusions?  After all, in a world where evil runs rampant like our own it is necessary to fight in order to live, given that we are surrounded by enemies.  Yet I do believe it is possible that war can be undertaken seriously and rationally without being celebrated or viewed romantically.  To be sure, such a view must have a heavy cost on the pleasure that we find in life, but so too it takes a heavy cost to have one’s delusions of the romance of war shattered by cruelty or remorse or to suffer war as a victim faced with the degradation that violence offers without having possessed the strength to resist it.  This work offers some thoughtful commentary that rises above the usual antiwar polemics or the finger-wagging one gets from those who hate war but who fail to look at life and warfare through realistic eyes.  If this book’s title is ironic, it at least points to the fact that people look to war and conflict to provide meaning, which is one of the factors that makes it so lamentably common.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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