YES! editor Sarah Ruth van Gelder asked Chris Hedges to draw on his years spent in war zones to reflect on the experiences of young Americans now fighting in Iraq.
CHRIS HEDGES: Iraq is a particularly bad situation for combat soldiers and Marines because it is classic insurgency warfare. It's very similar to what soldiers and Marines experienced in Vietnam, what Israeli soldiers experience in Gaza and on the West Bank, and what the French experienced in Algeria.
You have an elusive enemy. You're not fighting a set organized force, the way we were, for example, in the first Persian Gulf War. So you very rarely see your attacker, and this builds up a great deal of frustration. This frustration is compounded by the fact that you live in an environment where you are almost universally despised. Everyone becomes the enemy. And after your unit suffers—after, for instance, somebody in your unit is killed by a sniper who melts back into the slums where the shot was fired from—it becomes easy to carry out acts of revenge against people who are essentially innocent, but who you view as culpable in some way for the death of your comrades.
Robert J. Lifton, who did a lot of studies on the Vietnam War, called these “atrocity-producing situations.” It became very easy in Vietnam to shoot down a woman in a rice field as revenge for a comrade who may have stepped on a mine a few hours before.
War always creates trauma. But in counter-insurgency wars, you are constantly on edge. Going down to a corner store to buy a Coca-Cola creates tremendous amounts of anxiety because somebody could come up behind you and put a gun to the back of your head and kill you.
That's what we're seeing in Iraq. The psycho?logical cost—the emotional cost—that we're inflicting on our soldiers and Marines is devastating.
One of the disturbing things about this war is that, because they are so short on numbers, they are treating people for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and then sending them back into combat situations.
So I'm worried about what we're going to see over the long term as these young men and women are re-integrated into the society.
SARAH: We tend to think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a medical or psychological condition. But your book suggests that there are also issues of morality and identity involved.
CHRIS: I think you raise a good point. Morality does play deeply into that sense of trauma, because when you're in a combat situation (and I think you have to go there to understand), your reactions have to be instantaneous. If you hear a sound behind a door, you don't have time to ask questions, so often you shoot first and ask questions later. And this we have seen in Iraq, where soldiers and Marines at road blocks have fired on cars filled with children and families that they initially feared were hostile.
When you are in a combat situation like that, you realize how easy it is to commit murder, how easy it is to commit atrocity, because you are so deathly afraid—and with good reason. But the consequences are devastating, because what you have done is to shed innocent blood, and often the blood of children. So you bring back not only the trauma of the violence, but that deep darkness that you must carry within you for the rest of your life—that you have been responsible for the death of innocents.
So it isn't just an issue of trauma; it is, as well, an issue of morality. This is a horrible burden to inflict, especially on a young life. It's why war should always be waged as a last resort, because the costs are so tremendous, not only to families who lose loved ones and will spend the rest of their lives grieving, but for those who return and for the rest of their lives bear these emotional and psychological burdens.
People cope with that in different ways. Some of course deny it. Some, even combat veterans, will try to perpetuate the mythology of glory and honor and heroism and patriotism. Others, who have more courage and more honesty will confront what they did by trying to live a life of atonement, by seeking a kind of redemption for the acts they carried out. I think that leads them to a much healthier response, and hopefully sets many on the road to recovery. I think we saw this with the conflict in Vietnam, although not exclusively with Vietnam, because my father and all my uncles fought in World War II—the supposedly “good” war—and they hated war when they came back.
SARAH: What do well-publicized incidents, such as those at Abu Ghraib, contribute to the burden of the people returning from war, who may feel associated with acts that they did not participate in and would not have condoned?
CHRIS: Abu Ghraib is the natural consequence of war and has happened in every single war that has ever been fought. What you are doing in war is turning human beings into objects either to provide gratification or to be destroyed, or both. And almost no one is immune from that—the contagion of the crowd sees to that.
In wartime, perversion and hedonism spiral out of control. The comradeship of soldiering seeks to turn the very act of love into something akin to defecation. This is because the great “that which cannot be subsumed into communal life” is love. So much of the psychosis of war involves an active effort to destroy feelings of tenderness and compassionate love.
In a wartime society, the moral order is flipped upside down; prostitution, rape, and abuse all rise as the levels of violence rises. That happened in every conflict I was in. In Serbia, for instance, as the violence proliferated you also had a proliferation of pornography and snuff films. It always goes hand in hand, because what you are destroying is the humanity of the other; you are turning the other into an object, which is precisely what torture or pornography does.
So what we saw in Abu Ghraib was a window into the kind of perversion that is always the case in war. This flies in the face of the image that we are given of war by the entertainment industry, or even quasi-historians like Stephen Ambrose who want to ennoble war.
War is not a noble enterprise. I'm not a pacifist; I think there are times when war is a sad inevitability. But it is certainly not noble.
SARAH: Given the burdens that these young people in Iraq will be coming back with, what can help them work through their traumas and heal?
CHRIS: Well, they need therapy. They need to learn that it's not them; that there's nothing wrong with them, but there was something wrong with the world that they were thrust into. That's a hard hurdle. They tend to blame themselves. They feel disconnected from a society that has not undergone that experience, so they tend to self-medicate, either through alcohol or drugs. Unpacking their experience and their trauma is something that requires professional help over the long term. We certainly learned this with Vietnam. I hope and pray that help is there, because if not, their lives may well be shattered.
I had an uncle who fought in the South Pacific in World War II until 1944, when he was badly wounded. He came back to the small town where he grew up an emotional and a physical basket-case, and he never adjusted. He essentially drank himself to death in his trailer.
I think that the burden that my family carried was one that probably tens of thousands of families were carrying after the war. But those burdens were hidden from public view—they were never discussed. In many ways the victim (who was my uncle) was blamed for his own distress. And that's the kind of pattern that we don't want to repeat.
SARAH: How can the larger community be supportive? Whether or not it's true, I think a lot of people blamed those who had opposed the Vietnam War for increasing the trauma of returning veterans.
CHRIS: One of the frustrating things for those of us who have spent so much time in war zones is to come back and see how those who are guiltiest—those who pushed the country into war, who told the lies that perpetuated the war—are never held accountable. And those who suffer the most, those who endure the trauma and have to live with the memories for the rest of their lives, are blamed unjustly.
I think that part of the tragedy of Vietnam is that we blame the wrong people for the war. It's not the fault of the 19-year-old kids who were sent there. It's the fault of the politicians who sent them. And years after the war, people who should be culpable—the Henry Kissingers, the Robert McNamaras—are our elder statesmen writing big thick tomes about diplomacy or their years of government service.
I grew up in a farm town where almost everyone went to the service, including almost all my relatives. They're good, decent, hard-working people who believe what they're told—who believe in patriotism, who believe in the country, who believe in the goodness of the state. When they get into a situation like Vietnam or Iraq, they suddenly realize how they have been manipulated and used. When they come back and try to speak out about that, the message is so painful and unpalatable to those who prefer the myth that many people not only don't want to hear them, but shunt them aside.
So on the one hand, I think we need to listen closely to what they say, and on the other hand, we need to remember who is ultimately accountable for these wars; it's not the kids that are over there, it's the people who sent them.
SARAH: In this fall's election, it seemed to me we were still fighting over how to interpret the experience of Vietnam.
CHRIS: My problem with the way the election was run is that we pandered to the lie and not the truth.
If you read what John Kerry said immediately after the war, he understood what Vietnam was about. But the election became about war as glorious enterprise—war as reporting for duty, war as noble, war as a test of manhood and courage. And while physical courage is often on very impressive display in war, you almost never see moral courage, which is very different, because it requires standing up to the crowd—often opposing those around you—and in that opposition being shunted aside. So I think that the problem with revisiting the Vietnam experience is that we've forgotten all the lessons of Vietnam.
SARAH: Like the returning veterans, you've also had the experience of transitioning between areas of horrific violence and danger, back into relative peacetime society. What has that been like for you?
CHRIS: It's very hard.
I was a war correspondent for almost 20 years, and it probably took me two or three years to adjust to living in a world not at war. I felt very, very alienated. Very alone. Very misunderstood. Fortunately, I have a great marriage and a woman who loves me very much, and I think it's essentially through that relationship that I was able to be healed. I think that how we always are healed finally is through love. And love is a powerful force. It's palpable and it's real. And I think that those who carry these demons and are left alone, probably don't recover.
SARAH: In your book, you say, “Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including ours, is the passionate yearning for a nationalist cause that exalts us ... the kind that war alone is able to deliver.” That yearning suggest that we're always going to be either at war or on the brink of war. Do you see any forces can temper that tendency?
CHRIS: The only force that is powerful enough to subvert the force of war is love. Love is never organized. Love is always individual love. Love is a force that is built between two human beings. In wartime, everything is done to subvert that force.
I don't know that there's an organized force that can stand up to the allure of war, which gives us a sense of empowerment—allows us to be part of a cause, to ennoble ourselves, to rise above our small stations in life.
The need to find meaning like that, I think, is an indication of the huge deficit of our emotional life. In conflict after conflict, those who are able to remain sane, who were never able to hate the perfidious enemy (who, in places like the Balkans, were often their neighbors), were those who had good relationships, those who were in love.
I think particularly, in the war in Bosnia, of a Serb woman and her husband who took in two Muslim children and cared for them during the conflict, although they were ridiculed for it by everyone else in the town.
In the grand scheme of things, those small acts of resistance end up being more powerful than we suspect at the time, if nothing else, because they remind us what moral behavior is. When you live in the midst of war, when incredibly powerful weapons are being deployed to kill you, these acts often appear futile, even absurd. Ultimately, I think they are not.
SARAH: Many of the people who read YES! opposed the war—we were out on the street demonstrating, trying to persuade our government not to take us to war. I think many of us feel powerless and frustrated, and a great deal of grief about what has happened in Iraq.
CHRIS: First, remember that the opposition to the Vietnam War took 10 years to build. It's a long, slow process.
Second, we can't be saved by what we can accomplish, because if we did, we'd fall into despair. I had a great theology professor who used to tell me that, for intellectuals, faith is an embarrassment. Focus on what you do this day: don't give in to cynicism, because then you are defeated. To get up and carry out an act that may seem not only insignificant but absurd gives you a sense of worth and meaning, and allows you to participate in an act (however small) of resistance.
When I covered the war in Kosovo, the Serbs would go into villages and gun down innocent people, families—line them up against the wall and kill them. Then they would block the roads into the village so that we reporters couldn't get in. We would have to walk in, often for hours and hours, chronicle what happened, at great danger to ourselves, and then get the news out and publish it.
That didn't stop the Serbs from getting up the next morning and killing again. But we found that our activity sustained us, because it was an act of resistance. It made it harder for the Serb forces to deny that the killing had taken place. It chronicled yet one more atrocity against innocent civilians, innocent Kosovar Albanians.
I think the cumulative effect of taking a moral stance, over time, is slow and hard and frustrating. If you go back and read Martin Luther King's autobiography, you see what kind of despair he faced in the early years of the Civil Rights movement.
Sustain yourself through community and try not to become too focused on what you can accomplish, because it may very well be that, by the time we're gone, the world will be a worse place. But we have to validate our own existence, our own morality, our own life. And that comes by taking a stance, by standing up and remaining human. And there are times when remaining human is the only resistance possible.