#215: WAR-II. Reading about what people get up to in Chris Hedges’s book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Anchor Books, 2002) is like watching a five year old play with a gun. Anti-war literature, as I’ve written before, is often conventional and simple-minded; Hedges is anything but. Rather than pattering with denunciation, the chapter titles alone here give an almost Dantesque map of how we get to the insanity of war: “The Myth of War,” “The Plague of Nationalism,” “The Destruction of Culture,” “The Seduction of Battle and the Perversion of War” “The Hijacking and Recovering of Memory,” “The Cause,” and, finally, “Eros and Thanatos,” built up from Freud’s theory about the battle and antagonism between the will to love and the will to do violence. The book’s essence is simple, but Hedges never settles for simple: he explores, he draws on his long experience as a war correspondent, and on examples from history and literature. (“Never let a learned soul loose on controversy,” a teacher said to me once, “You’re likely to get buried in a supply of unwelcome truths.”) He understands the addiction; he understands the courage of individuals; he understands and demonstrates the terrifying truths of persuasion, agreement and corruption. He has, learned soul, an apt supply of quotes; for the innocent caught in the crossfire, he quotes Macduff’s wife: “I have done no harm. But I remember now / I am in this earthly world—where to do harm / Is often laudable, to do good sometime / Accounted dangerous folly.” In the final chapter, he gives beautiful praise to the power of love (“Love alone fuses happiness and meaning. Love alone can fight the impulse that lures us toward self-destruction.”) but even there will not let us off the hook; he describes the impulse of soldiers’ affections for mascots, animal and human, and writes: : “But it is not only love, though the soldiers insist it feels like love. These animals, as well as the young waifs who collect around military units, are total dependents. They pay homage to the absolute power above them. Indeed, it may be that at times they please or they die.” Perhaps the most telling detail in the writing, assuring us that, in the face of this dire material, Hedges never caves in to cynicism or despair, is the recurrent iteration of names of people he has known, whose fates he has witnessed in the maelstroms; memory is what he has to offer them, as most, if not all of them, are dead. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a long, coruscating look at the insanity we always return to, like a dog to its vomit. Near the end of the book he writes, from 2002 and apropos of the war on terror, “The question is whether America now courts death.” Twenty years later, jury’s still out.
I was prompted by reading Alice Oswald’s beautiful verse work Nobody, her riff on Homer’s Odyssey, to backtrack to her book Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad (Norton, 2011). Whereas Nobody, true to its title, themes the sea’s deliquescing of identity—people act, with nary a name in sight—Memorial, in contrast, begins with simply a list of two hundred names, and proceeds to mine from Homer’s text (the British edition titles it “An Excavation” rather than “A Version”) the manner of each person’s death. Oswald’s renderings, in terse, contemporary English, capture the extraordinary variety and vividness of the individual deaths; this is the obverse of the Indian Mahabharata, where people die in vast, cataclysmic, anonymous tides. Oswald gives the little, telling portraits: “HARPALION not quite ready for life / Not quite solid always shifting from foot to foot / With his eyes sliding everywhere in fear / Followed his father to war / He never came back to that house / Three stories high on the River Parthenios / It was horrible the death howl / Of the father finding him gone.” And she gives us the flood, the endless invention, of Homer’s metaphors for death: “Like hawkwings cut through a sheet of starlings / Like wing-scissors open and close / Through a billow of jackdaws.” After the list of names, “The first to die was PROTESILAUS,” and Oswald builds from there “Like the blue flower of the sea / Being bruised by the wind / Like when the rain-wind / Bullies the warm wind / Battering the great soft sunlit clouds / Deep scoops of wind / Work the sea into a wave / And foam follows wandering gusts / A thousand feet high.” There have never been so many, so varied kinds of darknesses, death like a brain-killing blindness. And it ends with one final wisp of an image, a moment for each of the names cited and their lives:
Like when god throws a star
And everyone looks up
To see that whip of sparks
And then it’s gone
I was reminded, reading what Hedges writes of love, of lines from Margaret Atwood’s poem “War Photo 2”:
Why is the tree dying?
It is dying for lack of truth.
Who has blocked the wells of truth?
Those with the guns.
What if they kill all those with no guns?
Then they will kill one another.
When will there be compassion?
When the dead tree flowers.
When will the dead tree flower?
When you take my hand.
But of course Atwood isn’t going to let you off the hook either. The next lines are “This is the kind of thing / that goes on only in poetry.”