Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

[Chris Hedges. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.]

There's a flavour of journalist whose names I know well because they are popular on the left, who write about things that I think are important and often (though not always) take angles that I have some sympathy for, but that I have read only rarely. This is because...well, I'm not really sure why. Something to do with posture and tone, I think. Often, they write about US foreign and national security policy, though not only those things. They are generally white men who tend towards the bombastic, if not always embodying it in quite as over the top a way as that term usually implies (and who for me are also emblematic of a certain kind of activist I've often encountered and regarded with ambivalence). I'm thinking of clever men who do good work like Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill. And another that for me belongs in that category -- someone whose name I am very familiar with, but whose writing I rarely actually read -- is Chris Hedges.

Much of the reporting through which he made his name was done in war zones. This is a book about war, so he knows of what he speaks in a way that many who opine about battle do not. It is a book about what war does to the people, to the narratives, to the social realities on both sides of a conflict. It is a book about how war can be both awful and seductive in its energy, its clarity, its intensity, written by someone who evidently both hates war and is drawn to it, who opposes much war but who is not uniformly anti-war, who sees a necessity for war in some cases but rues it nonetheless.

If there is one sobering truth that the left needs to take from this book, it is the harsh realities of polarized, violent conflict. It can be too easy both for those in the grip of an acute conflict and for those pontificating from bar stools and desk chairs to ignore the kinds of dynamics that Hedges writes about. And any of us who have been alive in North America over the last decade and a half have witnessed at least a version of how the drive to war warps public discourse, and how the state uses fear and patriotism to rewrite, even if temporarily, our sense of ourselves, and draw us into treating the horrific, the barbaric, the monstrous that is done in our names as normal, unremarkable, necessary. And I say that the left needs to take this as a lesson because it is very easy for us in this moment and in this space -- where challenging the socially embedded everyday violence of social relations through organizing ourselves in ways capable of mobilizing collective, confrontational, transformative action is the thing that movements need to be doing -- to forget that social conflict is complicated and the ways that it transforms us and our situations as it occurs is not uniformly or necessarily positive. I think responsible radicalism means trying to understand this, and to recognize that there may be moments where pulling back and de-escalating, or thinking about how we move the struggle forward in a different way, is absolutely necessary.

I think this is a crucial lesson and focus for reflection, regardless of what else it comes packaged with. And unfortunately it does come packaged with some things that trouble me. That is not to belittle the honesty and intensity with which Hedges writes. I admire his determination and ability in turning what are evidently some very difficult experiences into insight. But I think the book's limitations are not insignificant, and there are aspects of his politics that make me very wary.

There are, for instance, some case in which he has been pro-intervention -- notably, I think, in the former Yugoslavia in the '90s. I spent a fair bit of time on street corners leafletting against the particular intervention, so I obviously do not agree with him. Moreover, the fact that he supported it is wrapped up in the very weak and partial analysis of empire that informs the book. As seems to happen in many books where "war" is the primary focus of analysis, the experientially similar intensity of diversely located actors in diversely located wars becomes such a powerful pull that their very different historical and social situatedness falls easily away. In this book, the central example to which he returns again and again is the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, with its mobilization of long-latent ethnic hostility by right-wing, nationalist thugs on all sides. It is certainly an important example, and it is one that suits his argument well. And I'm not saying that the dynamics of conflict are completely dissimilar if you look at other places he draws examples from, such as revolutionary movements in Central American in the '80s, the Falklands war in Argentina, the first Iraq war, or the Palestinian resistance to colonization in Israel/Palestine. No doubt many of the things he identifies as general features of war are present in some form at least in all of these instances. But I am much less convinced that they mean the same thing or have the same implications in all instances. However, the fact that this book has a framework that provides such a historically and socially flat analysis of war means it is far easier to avoid asking questions about and taking responsibility for the specificities in these examples, which means that it is easy to draw all of them into conclusions that fit best in the Yugoslavian case but perhaps not so well in some of the others.

One use of examples that was particularly troubling was that of Palestine, despite the fact that he is well known as a supporter of the Palestinian cause. On the one hand, I think it can be an important thing to point out that it is inevitable in life-and-death struggles, as in colonization and resistance to it, there are no angels. Moralistic illusions about "good guys" and "bad guys" lead to poor political choices, even if they are animated by liberatory inclinations; we can't lose sight of the fact that oppressors and those who resist them are all complicated, flawed, contradictory human beings. We should not shy away from how realities of entrenched violent conflict can distort in unjust directions the narratives and practices even of those we support, and that should be present in how we make decisions about acting in the world. But we need to be politically responsible when we are making such points. In citing some examples of that sort from Palestine, he largely avoided talking about the larger context -- he talked about war, but not so much about empire/colonization as the context for resistance -- and he chose examples in a sufficiently arbitrary and anecdotal way that it risks reinforcing racist Western understandings of Arabs and of erasing the yearning for broad justice that I know does inform much of the Palestinian struggle.

There are other questionable things as well. For instance, while I appreciate the honesty of how he writes about both hating and being drawn towards war, I think that any reasonable attempt to understand that has to place much, much more emphasis on gender and masculinity than this book does. He certainly makes that connection, but gives it only a page or two of discussion. Similarly, he talks in one chapter about the ways in which the energy of war both shapes and is pervaded by sexuality, but again says little about the ways in which that is surely (if complicatedly) gendered, and he talks of things like "hedonism and perversion sprial[ing] out of control" (99) in the context of war in ways that are sufficiently vague such that he seems to be lumping the non-normative in with the oppressive and the anti-social in a way that I find very, very troubling.

What is most peculiar about the relative absence of attention to the specificity of different conflicts and to the relevance of power, oppression, and resistance to his analysis is that he actually admits at one point in the book that in many of the situations he discusses, the conflict does involve one group resisting oppression visited upon it by another group. I don't agree with his analysis of who is who in every instance (e.g. in the Yugoslavian example), but what is more surprising than any specific disagreement is that this is treated not as central to his analysis but as something to note on a single out-of-the-way page. How can it not be a central question to figure out how to reconcile the need to resist with the harm caused by the social dynamics of war and other sorts of highly polarized, violent, mass conflict? For citizens of the imperial democracies thinking about the states that act in our names through imposing violence on groups within and without, his advice to begin from our own complicity, to resolutely hold onto our compassion, and to never forget the complexity of the world, is quite reasonable. In fact, I think those points are crucial, even if there is much more that needs to be said as well. But not all polarized social conflict in the world fits that description, and not all people drawn into conflicts live in the same relation to them. In some places, resistance and struggle are necessary. What might it look like to recognize both that fact and the ways that highly polarized social conflict can foster harmful practices and dynamics?

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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