There Is No Cat

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Tuesday, July 1, 2003

If you're gonna fight then you're just dying to get killed

Stuart Hughes asks on his blog why reporters go to war.

Why do journalists leave their husbands and wives, their partners and young children and get on planes time and time again, not knowing what lies ahead and whether they'll get back safely?

I don't fully subscribe to this notion that it's all about bearing witness to the truth. There are untold stories all around, not just in hostile environments. So why do we do it, why?

We do it because we mistakenly believe, as Kaveh said, that "war is great." We kid ourselves that it is only in dangerous places that we can feel truly alive.

Except that war isn't great. It's shit and our friends get killed.

Reading this made me think of an interview I heard on the radio some months ago with Chris Hedges, former war correspondent for The New York Times. After fifteen years as a war junkie, Hedges came home and decided to report on wars no more. He'd seen enough.

He wrote a book called War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which I gather explores the very question Stuart asked on his blog. I haven't read it yet, but I fully intend to.

Searching for information about Hedges, I came across an interview he gave to Democracy Now about a bad experience he'd had very recently. He was invited to give the graduation speech at Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois. He was not well received. In fact, he was booed off the stage, his microphone was cut off, and the college president cut his remarks short.

[A]s I looked out on the crowd, that is exactly what my book is about. It is about the suspension of individual conscience, and probably consciousness, for the contagion of the crowd for that euphoria that comes with patriotism. The tragedy is that - and I've seen it in conflict after conflict or society after society that plunges into war - with that kind of rabid nationalism comes racism and intolerance and a dehumanization of the other. And it's an emotional response. People find a kind of ecstasy, a kind of belonging, a kind of obliteration of their alienation in that patriotic fervor that always does come in war time.

As I gave my talk and I looked out on the crowd, I was essentially witnessing things that I had witnessed in the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina or in squares in Belgrade or anywhere else. Crowds, especially crowds that become hunting packs are very frightening. People chanted the kind of cliches and aphorisms and jingoes that are handed to you by the state. "God Bless America" or people were chanting "send him to France" - this kind of stuff and that kind of contagion leads ultimately to tyranny, it's very dangerous and it has to be stopped. I've seen it in effect and take over countries. But of course, it breaks my heart when I see it in my country.

The local rag, the Rockford Register-Star, reported the incident with the headline "Speaker disrupts RC graduation". The article under that head is a model of biased reporting.

Not that I'm surprised. I lived just outside Rockford for four years as a teenager. It was a very strange place, very conservative, very right-wing. I remember in the mid-1970s when all these yellow bumper stickers started to appear all over the place saying "I Found It". Nobody would tell you what "it" meant for months, but it turned out to be an early manifestation of born-again Christianity.

In 1978, our local Congressman, John Anderson, was challenged by a local fundamentalist minister. Anderson saw him off, but when I thought about it years later, I recognized it as an early manifestation of the political strategy of the religious right. The father of one of my best friends was the challenger's media advisor, and made all of his television commercials. It was a dirty, dirty race, and prefigured much of what's happened in politics since then.

Clearly, Hedges hit a nerve with the good burghers of Rockford. An editorial in the Register-Star described the reactions:

Overcome, a Rockford College graduate from Capron left in tears. Another graduate threw his cap and gown at the stage before leaving. A 66-year-old Boone County man, the father of a graduate, said it hurt to hear his country criticized.

The author went on:

Where did Rockford lose its tolerance? Where was the danger in hearing what Hedges had to say?

We hope the protest reflects emotions that are still raw on the war and that it is not a sign of growing intolerance of unpopular or unorthodox ideas. That's not Rockford.

Personally, I'm not so sure. It sounds like the Rockford I remember. The thing that scares me is that I don't think this sort of reaction is unique to Rockford. I gather that the speech has garnered a lot of attention from the right-wing press, but since I don't read them, I wasn't aware of it until now.

Re-read what Hedges said in the Democracy Now interview. It really scares me what's happening here. That's why I broke down and gave money to Howard Dean for his campaign tonight.

Hedges has a new book out, What Every Person Should Know About War, that purports to explain what war is like, without the rose-tinted glasses and mythology that tends to build up the glory of the experience. I was paging through it at the bookstore this weekend. Definitely looks like another worthwhile read.

Posted at 1:48 AM


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