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War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning [Paperback]

Chris Hedges
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Jun 2003
As a veteran war correspondent, Chris Hedges has survived ambushes in Central America, imprisonment in Sudan, and a beating by Saudi military police. He has seen children murdered for sport in Gaza and petty thugs elevated into war heroes in the Balkans. Hedges, who is also a former divinity student, has seen war at its worst and knows too well that to those who pass through it, war can be exhilarating and even addictive: “It gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.”

Drawing on his own experience and on the literature of combat from Homer to Michael Herr, Hedges shows how war seduces not just those on the front lines but entire societies, corrupting politics, destroying culture, and perverting the most basic human desires. Mixing hard-nosed realism with profound moral and philosophical insight, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a work of terrible power and redemptive clarity whose truths have never been more necessary.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor Books; Reprint edition (1 Jun 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400034639
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400034635
  • Product Dimensions: 20.2 x 13.4 x 1.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 177,750 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

Chris Hedges is a cultural critic and author who was a foreign correspondent for nearly two decades for The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio. He reported from Latin American, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He was a member of the team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for The New York Times coverage of global terrorism, and he received the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. Hedges, who holds a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School, is the author of the bestsellers Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (with Joe Sacco), American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle and was a National Book Critics Circle finalist for his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. He is a Senior Fellow at The Nation Institute and writes an online column for the web site Truthdig. He has taught at Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University and the University of Toronto. He lives in Princeton, N.J. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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When our own nation is at war with any other, we detest them under the character of cruel, perfidious, unjust and violent: But always esteem ourselves and allies equitable, moderate, and merciful. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Should be required reading 5 Oct 2007
Format:Paperback
This book is a profound, thought-provoking and heart-rendingly honest exploration of war. Hedges does not hesitate to admit the lure of conflict, describing it as an 'addiction' which has affected him for much of his career. See this book through. If you ever spared a thought for anyone lost in conflict, or for those returning to 'normal' life after being caught up in a war, then take the time to read this.

Hedges explores the realities of conflict, of media reporting during a war, of divided communities and displaced ethic groups in societies that are torn apart. He manages to provide broad perspectives on many of these issues, whilst allowing individual's stories to be heard. Many of his illustrations are from the Balkans conflict, but he draws on his extensive experience as a reporter in the front line from dozens of conflicts around the globe.

Yes - much of this book is personal. But it is far from indulgent. This is an excellent piece of writing, and the personal experience is what gives it such credibility and gravity. His credentials are outstanding, and he deserves to be listened to. If you are in any doubt (especially after reading the other solitary review on this site), then just search for Hedges on Amazon's sister site in the USA (amazon.com) and see what over 100 reviewers have to say...
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars War Can be Fun, Sort of 24 Mar 2010
Format:Paperback
Could you enjoy war? Could you even be addicted to it, and never want it to end? In reality, the answer is yes, but our current ideologies about war (random episodes of senseless violence) make it hard to understand why. Not only does war have a special political and economic interest for many, it can even seem fun and exciting. A veteran war correspondent, Hedges makes us understand why.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Provocative, insightful and human 15 Mar 2008
Format:Paperback
I can't say that I 'enjoyed' this book because the subject matter is so tough, but I did find this book enormously provocative, thoughtful and insightful. It made me think about war in new and expanded ways becasue it asks big questions and explores big issues. These issues and questions are illustrated by stories that come from Hedges' personal experience and so this is a very connected, alive and embodied book. Each story adds something to the bigger theme and brings a question or idea into sharper focus at the same time as humanising it.

Some of the issues that I was struck by include: The addictive nature of war; the was the myths that are created to drive war and how those myths differ so enormously from the reality; how the parties engaged in war destroy their own cultures before trying to destroy those of the 'enemy'; the importance of a victim in sanctifying war; the way that memory is hijacked and distorted; the relationship between love and war.

Moreover, all that Hedges describes about war can also be applied to wars between individuals (i.e. toxic relationships) and even to the conflicts that happen between different parts of our own psyches.

I found this to be a profound book. It enlarged my understanding at a variety of different levels.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting 8 Mar 2004
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A writer to keep track of, he has good ideas and analyses, but this book is mainly a way for him to work things through, and since he hasn't finished working them through yet there are no actual conclusions drawn.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  149 reviews
178 of 181 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The insanity of war 31 July 2004
By S. Freeman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Chris Hedges has written a deeply thoughtful and thought provoking book on the insanity of war. Myths and identified are exploded. Realities are presented, at times, in graphic detail.

Yet the book is an odd duck in some ways. Despite references to and quotations from the classics of literature, it is not an academic work; but neither is it a journalistic work. It is largely introspective; and in this sense, reminds me of the work of Joan Didion.

The title offends me as it asserts a truth I wish to deny. Yet, as combat veteran, having looked closely at the dead--of my brothers and of those we killed--having stared into vacant eyes looking off to some unseen horizon, I cannot deny the truth he asserts: War is a Force that gives us meaning. Fortunately, it is not the ONLY force, and needs not be THE force, as he makes clear toward the end. Indeed, a subtitle could be "Love is THE force which gives us true meaning.

I find the reviews of some of Hedges' critics rather amusing, and strongly suspect they have never worn the uniform, much less served in combat. If they did, they would realize some of their criticisms are, well, stupid.

This book, for example, is not anti-patriotic, though neither is it "patriotic", at least not in any usual sense of the word. Hedges' argument is our loyalties should not lie, at least not exclusively, not decisively, with any nation or government. Our patriotism should not be blind, nor should it be a means of manipulation. Rather, it should be grounded in love and understanding. Though Hedges does not say this specifically, I think he would agree that true patriotism entails both love of country AND love of humanity. To view our "enemies" as the epitome of evil, to present them as fanatics with no respect for human life, is to lower ourselves to the level we ascribe to them. Such false beliefs are inherently self defeating.

Cucolo does not seem to understand, as some great Americans have, that war is a narcotic, that patriotism often is used and abused by those who, themselves, have an inadequate understanding of humanity, and, therefore, inadequate respect for human life, who will sacrifice a nation's best for empire or to salve their own demented egos.

Having stood much closer to war than Cucolo probably sits to the screen showing John Wayne movies, Hemingway understood this: "There is noting sweet and fitting in dying for your country. You will die like a dog for no good reason."

John Quincy Adams also understood what Cucolo apparently does not: "And say not thou, `My country right or wrong'; nor shed thy blood for an unhallowed cause."

Real patriotism, true patriotism is far more than flying a flag outside one's home.

As Hedges argues, we are conditioned to believe war is some great cause, possessing some noble meaning that transcends us, that gives us some noble purpose in life far greater than anything we are likely to accomplish on our own, living our lives of anonymous insignificance, of "quiet desperation". War gives us the opportunity for heroics, to have our names, or at least the cause in which we served, inscribed in the annals (or should I say anals?) of history.

War summons up the courage ordinary men fear they lack. That "red badge of courage" shouts we ARE courageous, if not heroes. What else can we say of men willing to leave hearth and home, to kiss their loved ones good-bye, "leaving on a jet plane", not knowing if they will return again, even if in a box, gift wrapped? What greater love is there, can there be than to lay down one's life for one's country? Certainly I understand this. Why else would I have marched off--as a volunteer--to fight in a war I actively opposed, and believed (then and now) to be an illegal, immoral, "unhallowed cause"?

In his last chapter, Hedges talks of how war is a false god. Life seems more "real" in combat. Things do get distilled down to very simple terms--life and death. Soldiers, especially those standing victorious on that day's battlefield, are as gods. As one of my brothers, imprisoned after the war because he had become too addicted to the violence of war, bringing that violence home where what he did in the Nam to great praise from his commanders was unacceptable, said: "We strode the earth as gods, dispensing life and death at will." And we did.

Hedges identifies three things that stand in contrast to the false meaning of life provided by war--meaning (purposefulness) of life, happiness and love.

To those whose souls are possessed by Thanatos--as Cucolo's may be--to talk of love is to talk of weakness: Love is the sentiment of weak women; war is what MEN do. They could not be more wrong as anyone who has served in combat knows. We LOVE our brothers, even if, as Hedges argues, it is not a complete love; for it is a love forged by a false god.

Major Michael O'Donnell, himself one of those "gentle heroes (we) left behind", clearly understood this as he wrote in his poem, "Vietnam":

"Be not ashamed to say
you loved them
though you may
or may not have always."

But anyone who has lain on a battlefield with bullets, mortars, rockets crashing around surely knows, we have never felt our love for our parents, our siblings, our girlfriends or wives--not before, nor since--so completely, so intensely as those moments when we faced death in battle.

Hedges has written a profound book, full of meaning and purpose, for anyone willing to open their minds to the possibility war is an inherently insane, inherently immoral narcotic. There are no winners in war, none, only savagery and inhumanity and destruction of the soul; and we need to know this without having to learn it first hand.
297 of 321 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Disturbing Book 13 Nov 2002
By "rned" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Everything about Chris Hedges's book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, is disturbing. The vivid eyewitness accounts of war crimes, the rambling disjointed highly personal style that mirrors the chaos of battle, the link between brutality and sexuality, the use of historical literature that obliterates the distance mankind has traveled from Troy to Kosovo, and his own deep addiction to the thrill of war as a long time war correspondent. Even the dust cover of the book was intended to be disturbing. The full color picture shows a multinational group of women and men with their arms raised and holding the hands of the person next to them. It is evening, but their faces, and the America flags they hold, are illuminated by candles. They are not angry. Indeed, they might be praying or singing, but clearly they rally to some significant and somber cause. In the background are the lighted skyscrapers of a large city. No doubt this city is New York and these people are responding to the events of September 11. This is one way the mythology of war constructs symbols of meaning and imbues us with its purpose. President George W. Bush's Afghanistan war had the broad support of the American people.
Hedges likens war to an addiction, the high of which is all-consuming. A sustained superbowl weekend of tribal bonding, adrenaline rushes, sex, and violence. A placed stalked by the losers of peacetime-petty thieves and thugs who understand domination as a matter of force and terror. War, Hedges concludes, forms a central part of the human condition. He notes that "the historian Will Durant calculated that there have only been twenty-nine years in all of human history during which a war was not underway somewhere." From a historical sweep humans have never stopped fighting. It is a very disturbing revelation.
But individuals, tribes, villages, city-states, empires, and nations have all witnessed both peace and war. And perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Hedges's narrative is trying to figure out why we ever stop fighting. For the only answer that he provides as to why we stop fighting is that we simply become bored by the slaughter. When killing becomes too routine it loses its luster and bogs down. And when it loses its luster, and we see it plainly, we are like a wife-beater who is temporarily sickened and ashamed. In the damaged faces of the innocents we can find no sustainable reasoning or meaning.
Hedges argues that Americans were temporarily sickened and ashamed by the Vietnam war. But now that our collective memory has faded and new generations have been raised on the elixir of paranoid patriotism, our willingness to wage war has been revitalized. The nation with more weapons of mass destruction than any other nation on earth-than any nation in the history of mankind-is primed by this force that gives us meaning. No doubt about it, those mothers and fathers on the cover of the book were New Yorkers. Our New Yorkers. We shall have our retribution. They kill us, we will kill them.
Hedges is a warrior, he is not a pacifist. Hedges is addicted to war and he knows it and he hates it. But he believes that somehow, some way, love is the answer. "To survive as a human being is possible only through love." Continuing, he somewhat clumsily argues, "It does not mean we will avoid war or death. It does not mean that we as distinct individuals will survive. But love, in its mystery, has its own power. It alone gives us meaning that endures." Hedges knows war much better than he knows love, but it is a start. Particularly a start for a nation that does not understand war.
207 of 231 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In Love With War 5 Oct 2002
By "krchicago" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Chris Hedges was a war correspondent for many years, covering the various wars and insurgencies in Central America, North Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. This book is not so much a memoir (although Hedges draws deeply on his own experience) as it is a meditation on the effects of war and of the nationalist myths that often provide a basis for war -- how easy it is to be caught up by the myth of the hero, of noble sacrifice, of the utter depravity (inhumanity) of the enemy (the Other), and how difficult it is to recover from the inevitable disillusionment when the terror of war, the collapse of morality and the essential humanity of the Other is revealed. Hedges is at his best in discussing the aftermath of war -- the collective forgetting as history and memory are erased, lest the survivors be forced to face what they have done. Yet it is only by recovering the truth, acknowledging guilt and seeking reconciliation that society can begin to heal and move forward.
Hedges' message is an important one as we rush headlong into war, particularly for all who demonize the "axis of evil" without acknowledging the role we have played in creating the despair and rage that have turned men and women into terrorists. As Hedges shows, it is difficult for non-combatants to resist the national myth, to penetrate behind the approved rhetoric, to waver from the absolute, unquestioning patriotism demanded by the state. But some must do so if we are to keep our moral compass and begin to heal the world (i.e., to address the despair felt by both sides).
Although the message is strong, there are a few weaknesses in this book. Hedges tends to over-generalize based on his experiences in the Balkans, characterizing all war as though it involved marauding packs of criminals (otherwise known as militias). The Persian Gulf War, while certainly displaying many of the mythic elements necessary to any war, was either about freedom for the Kuwaitis or about access to oil -- and was certainly about power -- but in any event does not seem to have involved the kind of wanton depredation on the civilian population common to the Balkans and (to a more limited extent) the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Although the book is short, it does get repetitive after a while, as Hedges hammers home his points about what war does to (and for) us. We also lose contact to some extent with Hedges' personal experience, as he comes to focus more on the experiences of others as the book progresses, and the book loses some of the immediacy it had at the beginning.
Overall, a very worthwhile (and quick) read for anyone concerned about our future as we rush into the war on terror.
41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Book Speaks What Usually Remains Unspoken 30 Dec 2002
By Benjamin Pawlik - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Growing up in the in the 60's and 70's, nearly everyone's father was a military veteran. It was easy to identify the veterans of actual combat because they, like my father, rarely spoke of their war experiences - as opposed to the non-combat veterans who endlessly gave us their own stories. When the combat veterans did speak, it was typically cryptic, often evasive, and obviously very disturbing for them to recount.
"The effectiveness of the myths peddled in war is powerful. We often doubt our own perceptions. We hide these doubts, like troubled believers, sure that no one else feels them. We feel guilty. The myths have determined no only how we should speak, but how we should think. ...we have trouble expressing our discomfort because the collective shout has made it hard to give words to our thoughts."
The author breaks this stifled silence of the veterans, and expresses the intoxication and horrors that all war brings to its participants. By truthful revelation of real war, the reader can more actively and intelligently examine his own feelings and actions in the face of the troubles we face today. Read this book. The topics and history contained within have been covered elsewhere many times, but the author eloquently pieces together the common threads among the wars of the 70's, 80's and 90's into a narrative that allows the reader to accept that each new war is not a just unique exercise in patriotism or battle against evil. War is just war, and assumes a life of its own regardless of its sometime noble origin.
120 of 133 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars �War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing..." 5 Sep 2002
By Richard Wells - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Chris Hedges in his memoir and cri de coeur, "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning," has given us a gift of experience, heartbreak, and wisdom that should be required reading for every young adult who may some day have to face a nation's jingoism and drive to war; and every adult who has ever thought war glorious, necessary, or worth the blood of a nation's youth. His curriculum vitae are impressive. He served as a correspondent in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Sudan, the Punjab, Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo covering foot soldiers and street fighters; and when he writes of the bloodshed, carnage, horror, and waste of war, he knows of what he writes.
In seven chapters Mr. Hedges takes us through a study of war that is somehow as thrilling as it is simultaneously repugnant, both scholarly and illustrative, his thesis is that war is an addiction that kills, if not the body, certainly the soul of every participant even as it gives a weird pleasure, or meaning to living.
Mr. Hedges is a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, and a student of the classics at Harvard in 1998-1999 as a Neiman Fellow, and he brings both a strong ethic and a classicist's knowledge of the great books to his memoir. He's also a hell of a writer.
This is easily a five star book. It has the power to change the way you think, and in that, the power to save lives. Five stars, and three cheers!
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