[Marxism] Chris Hedges on war correspondence

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 2 08:08:02 MST 2004

NY Review of Books
Volume 51, Number 20 · December 16, 2004

On War
By Chris Hedges

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of 
American War
by Evan Wright
Putnam, 354 pp., $24.95

The Fall of Baghdad
by Jon Lee Anderson
Penguin, 389 pp., $24.95

The vanquished know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those 
who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the 
cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and 
chest-pounding grief. They know the lies the victors often do not 
acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war 
narratives, filled with stories of courage and comradeship. They know 
the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral 
statesmen who make wars but do not know war. The vanquished know the 
essence of war—death. They grasp that war is necrophilia. They see that 
war is a state of almost pure sin with its goals of hatred and 
destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to 
nihilism, and is a turning away from the sanctity and preservation of 
life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure 
and seductiveness of violence, as well as the attraction of the godlike 
power that comes with the license to kill with impunity.

But the words of the vanquished come later, sometimes long after the 
war, when grown men and women unpack the suffering they endured as 
children, what it was like to see their mother or father killed or taken 
away, or what it was like to lose their homes, their community, their 
security, and be discarded as human refuse. But by then few listen. The 
truth about war comes out, but usually too late. We are assured by the 
war-makers that these stories have no bearing on the glorious violent 
enterprise the nation is about to inaugurate. And, lapping up the myth 
of war and its sense of empowerment, we prefer not to look.

The current books about the war in Iraq do not uncover the pathology of 
war. We see the war from the perspective of the troops who fight the war 
or the equally skewed perspective of the foreign reporters, holed up in 
hotels, hemmed in by drivers and translators and official minders. There 
are moments when war's face appears to these voyeurs and killers, 
perhaps from the back seat of a car where a small child, her brains 
oozing out of her head, lies dying, but mostly it remains hidden. And 
the books on the war in Iraq have to be viewed, through no fault of the 
reporters, as lacking the sweep and depth that will come one day, 
perhaps years from now, when a small Iraqi boy or girl reaches adulthood 
and unfolds for us the sad and tragic story of the invasion and bloody 
occupation of their nation.

War is presented primarily through the distorted prism of the occupiers. 
The embedded reporters, dependent on the military for food and 
transportation as well as security, have a natural and understandable 
tendency, one I have myself felt, to protect those who are protecting 
them. They are not allowed to report outside of the unit and are, in 
effect, captives. They have no relationships with the victims, essential 
to all balanced reporting of conflicts, but only with the Marines and 
soldiers who drive through desolate mud-walled towns and pump grenades 
and machine-gun bullets into houses, leaving scores of nameless dead and 
wounded in their wake. The reporters admire and laud these fighters for 
their physical courage. They feel protected as well by the jet fighters 
and heavy artillery and throaty rattle of machine guns. And the 
reporting, even among those who struggle to keep some distance, usually 
descends into a shameful cheerleading.

Those who cover war dine out on the myth about war and the myth about 
themselves as war correspondents. Yes, they say, it is horrible, and 
dirty and ugly; for many of them it is also glamorous and exciting and 
empowering. They look out from the windows of Humvees for a few seconds 
at Iraqi families, cowering in fear, and only rarely see the effects of 
the firepower. When they are forced to examine what bullets, grenades, 
and shells do to human bodies they turn away in disgust or resort to 
black humor to dehumanize the corpses. They cannot stay long, in any 
event, since they must leave the depressing scene behind for the next 
mission. The tragedy is replaced, as it is for us at home who watch it 
on television screens, by a light moment or another story. It becomes 
easier to forget that another human life has been ruined beyond repair, 
that what is unfolding is not only tragic for tens of thousands of 
Iraqis but for the United States.

The other distorted prism into this war came to us, until the 
occupation, courtesy of the oily functionaries at the Iraqi Ministry of 
Information. The regime of Saddam Hussein controlled journalists as 
tightly as the US military does. The reporting from the bowels of the 
regime was often characterized by innuendo and inference. This reporting 
of the war, because reporters were so heavily circumscribed, turned 
their attention onto their own minor privations and the lives of their 
drivers, translators, and the narrow circles within the ruling elite 
that were permitted to speak with them.

There is uniformity about journalistic war memoirs reaching all the way 
back to Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, although I confess I enjoy reading them. 
But they violate every rule of serious reporting. It is an unwritten 
rule, for example, among foreign correspondents that no matter how good 
the quote, you do not interview taxi drivers, translators, or 
bartenders. You leave these interviews to the hacks who parachute into a 
war zone, ride nervously to the hotel, sit at the bar, go to the embassy 
or UN background briefing, and fly swiftly home. But in a world where it 
is impossible to do much more than get on the official bus for the 
official tour and go to the official briefing, taxi drivers and 
bartenders offer in places like Saddam Hussein's Iraq refresh-ing and 
candid perspectives when set against the absurdity of official prop- 
aganda. At a certain point, as Waugh realized, these experiences can 
only be written as farce.

full: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17630

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