“PUNCHING HOLES IN THE MYTH” —
As the United States gets increasingly mired in guerrilla wars in the Middle East, New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges speaks on the fallacy of war and the realities of fighting “terrorism”
By BRIAN COVERT
Arcata, Humboldt County, CA — Veteran New York Times war correspondent and author Chris Hedges has spent his career interviewing people in battlefields around the globe. This time it was his turn to be grilled.
Hedges was the featured guest last Thursday on the live weekly radio program “Thursday Night Talk,” hosted by former public defender Jamie Flower, on KHSU-FM. The radio station is based on the campus of Humboldt State University here, and its programs are heard by an estimated 25,000 people in Humboldt and neighboring counties.
Besides having covered some of the world’s bloodiest war sites in recent years for the Times, Hedges has authored two books that aim to put to rest once and for all the myths and fantasies surrounding war: “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (2002) and “What Every Person Should Know About War” (2003).
Here is some of what Hedges had to say last Thursday evening:
—On his background as a New York Times war correspondent:
CHRIS HEDGES: I’ve spent most of my life as a war correspondent. I began covering the war in El Salvador, where I spent five years, and was also in Guatemala and Nicaragua. After covering the insurgencies in Central America, I took a sabbatical to study Arabic and then went to Jerusalem, where I covered the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada. I reported on the civil wars in the Sudan and Yemen; Algeria; Punjab; the collapse of the Communist regimes in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania; then went to the Gulf War, where I actually went into Kuwait with the US Marines; and then was in Basra after the war when the Shi’ites rebelled, until I was taken prisoner by the Iraqi Republican Guard; covered the Kurdish rebellion in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq war. In Bosnia, I was in Sarajevo for the last year of the war, and finally, Kosovo.
—On his first book, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”:
HEDGES: That’s really my main work. And that is an essay on the poison that war is, what it does to societies and individuals. And the second book that I did [“What Every Person Should Know About War”] was done in the buildup to the Iraqi conflict and then during the war – with several veterans, several combat veterans, including four West Point grads and a combat surgeon. And that was really to answer the kinds of questions that kids ask when they go into war but rarely find answers to.
JAMIE FLOWER: [Following your publishing of “A Gaza Diary” in Harper’s magazine in 2001], have you got an update for us on the Middle East conflict at this point and how it fits into the present situation with the occupation of Iraq?
HEDGES: Well, I think it fits in and it’s a very important feature [in] that as much as we speak about our concern for human rights, I think the Palestinians would like to see some evidence of that on the ground, and they haven’t – along with Saudis and Egyptians. I think to most Arabs and certainly Muslims – you know, the Muslim world constitutes one-fifth of the population, most of whom are not Arabs, by the way – our claims that we intervene on behalf of human rights ring pretty hollow. Because in fact, we back a series a despotic regimes that have very little respect for human rights and because in Iraq, while Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against Iran in the eight-year war and then eventually, of course, against his own people, against the Kurds, we considered Saddam a strategic ally. We gave him intelligence information and hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural credits. That’s not lost on the Iraqis. I think perhaps we in the United States aren’t as cognizant of the long history we have with tyrants like Saddam Hussein – and our refusal to really intervene in a meaningful to stop the campaigns of genocide that many of these tyrants, certainly Saddam Hussein himself, carried out.
FLOWER: Do you think that people know about, for instance, the US’s past relationships with Saddam Hussein and don’t care, don’t want to know? Or do you really think that the press situation in this country has gotten to the point where most people don’t know, and have never seen that famous photograph of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein back in ?
HEDGES: I don’t know that it’s people don’t care. I think the media has not done a particularly good job of perhaps spelling out the long relationship in a way that it’s graspable for the average viewer or the average reader. I think what is perhaps more dangerous is that we don’t understand how Iraqis and others view us – and why they view us the way they do. I wish there was more coverage of that.
There is a deep feeling in many parts of the Middle East that we have, for a long period of time, not honored our word – that there’s been a series of betrayals and a callous disregard for the suffering of the average man or woman in many of these countries.
I just give you as an example the end of the Persian Gulf War, when there was a real coalition to take back Kuwait, including Syrian, Egyptian, Saudi, Qatari soldiers that went in alongside US troops – with the promise that there would be, if you remember, the “New World Order”: that there would be a renewed interest in human rights issues and democracy within the Middle East, that we would work hard to create a situation where the Palestinians could live with some kind of dignity and independence. And all of this was, if not forgotten, ignored. That is something that many, many people in the Middle East remember with great bitterness.
—On not always believing the news media's version of war:
HEDGES: So often, information that’s handed out by the military to the media is, on purpose, incorrect – to deceive those we are fighting against. And this was true in the Persian Gulf War, when we wanted to create the illusion that we were going to make an amphibious landing – something which, in fact, did tie up large numbers of Iraqi troops on the Kuwaiti shoreline. And of course, we had no intention of doing that. But there was wide coverage of that as a very possible route into Kuwait and it was leaked to the press on purpose, in essence to deceive the enemy.
FLOWER: Do you feel that you have a free hand to report events, as you believe they occurred, with the New York Times?
HEDGES: I never had terrible problems with the Times. I didn’t cover this current war in Iraq, but in the Persian Gulf War, I was not part of the [authorized press] pool system and lived out there in the desert. And the paper backed me up on that. The paper was quite clear, among some reporters who protested – because the military, of course, was quite upset about this – that we work for the New York Times; we don’t work for the US military.
But I think that especially among the broadcast media, those lines have been blurred. I think the “embedded” reporting out of Iraq was really shameful. It was cheerleading, it was pictures of sort of whiz-bang explosions and firefights – but you really understand very, very little. So I think there’s been a real corrosion within the electronic media, certainly within the 20 years that I’ve been a foreign correspondent.
FLOWER: Do you have a reaction to the “embedding” of reporters in Florida recently at the FTAA demonstrations?
HEDGES: As a reporter, I don’t allow people to control my movements. I don’t get on press buses, I don’t embed. Once you do that, you give up your freedom.You are taken where they want you to be taken and you see what they want you to see. And at that point you become a mouthpiece; you stop being, often, a reporter. So I just think that when the ground rules are such that you lose your independence, you lose, in essence, your ability to do the job you should.
....I don’t do that kind of stuff. I don’t like it, I chafe under it, I’m not good at it. It’s just not what I do. ....I think reporters who cover the powerful – and one would look at the White House press corps – they rely for their bread and butter on having these officials give them tidbits of information. Whether these tidbits are true or not is something else. It’s all about access, and if they don’t have that access, if they’re shut out, they’re devastated. They can’t do their job. So I think that kind of toadyism is nothing new – certainly among the Washington press corps.
....I will say that if you write too many stories they don’t like – no matter what the administration – they’re going to shut you out. And you know [as a reporter] what those stories are. The question is whether you want to be an insider or an outsider. I think it’s very dangerous to become an insider. I think the system, in the end, corrupts you as a reporter. I think you should keep them at arm’s distance.
—On the “seduction” of war:
HEDGES: War preys on the young. It preys on idealists – or at least the warmakers do.
FLOWER: How does one counter that kind of deep psychological need to belong, which leads many young to go ahead and join up in an enterprise [such as the military] that they really don’t understand?
HEDGES: By punching holes in the myth. Which is certainly what I did in my first book and then tried to do on a much more visceral level in my second.
....We let the Army explain itself [in the second book]. We ripped back the curtain. We told you what it was like to be wounded and what the Army would do if your unit suffered from fatal irradiation sickness. ....On page 58, [we pose the question] “What will happen if I am exposed to nuclear radiation but do not die immediately?” The Office of the Surgeon General’s “Textbook of Military Medicine” states, and this is a quote: “Fatally irradiated soldiers should receive every possible palliative treatment, including narcotics, to prolong their utility and alleviate their physical and psychological distress. Depending on the amount of fatal radiation, such soldiers may have several weeks to live and to devote to the cause. Commanders and medical personnel should be familiar with estimating survival time based on onset of vomiting. Physicians should be prepared to give medications to alleviate diarrhea and to prevent infection and other sequel of radiation sickness, in order to allow the soldier to serve as long as possible. The soldier must be allowed to make the full contribution to the war effort. He will already have made the ultimate sacrifice. He deserves a chance to strike back and to do so while experiencing as little discomfort as possible.”
FLOWER: So basically, get all the use out of them you can before they die.
HEDGES: That’s it.
—On the reality of dying in war:
HEDGES: You know, most soldiers that I’ve seen die cry out for their mother. All that John Wayne stuff goes out the door after about 30 seconds of combat. Which is why John Wayne was jeered and booed by wounded Marines when he walked into a hospital ward in World War II. All that stuff is for the movies and TV. It’s not real.
CALLER (Don in Eureka): I wanted to ask the author if he can tell me what part arms dealers play in all these wars that he’s covered. And who are they? Why aren’t the major powers able to stop them?
HEDGES: That’s another really good point. It depends on the conflict, of course. In the former Yugoslavia, where I covered the war in Bosnia, the arms were produced locally because the Yugoslav arms industry was quite large. In places like Africa, a lot of the arms – for instance, with the rebels in Sierra Leone – were provided by Russian arms dealers, and Foday [Sankoh, rebel leader] and the rebels who controlled the diamond mines would essentially pay with gems.
But I think we shouldn’t forget that the biggest arms dealers are established states. I mean, we sell more arms than all of the other nations in the world combined. The French and the Russians are not far behind. And the Israelis – I think the Israelis are the third- or fourth-largest arms dealers on the planet.
....This is exactly what President Eisenhower [in 1961] warned us about: the danger of the military-industrial complex and the role that it could play in our democracy – and on the planet. When you flood a country with weapons, eventually those weapons are often used by one faction or another. There are companies, large transnational companies, that make huge profits overseeing these weapons utilized. That’s just a fact. It’s not something I’ve covered, so I can’t give you long details: I’ve been on the receiving end of it; I haven’t been on the other end, where they’re selling it.
CALLER (Saul in Eureka): I was just wondering what the possibility could be of a response of a [nuclear] attack on Washington where the military was left in charge.
HEDGES: ....This, I think, defines the era that we’re in. You had the Cold War: Those who possessed nuclear weapons had a very identifiable address. There was a way to strike back at those who could strike you. We now face a situation where those who would do us harm have no address. And it makes it much, much harder to know where to strike back. That’s why fighting the “war on terrorism” is not like fighting the Cold War. It’s another kind of war – much more similar to the insurgencies that I covered in Latin America. Those were, in essence, political wars. And the more isolated we [in the US] become, the more detested we become. The more we belittle and push away our allies, the more dangerous the situation we are in as a nation.
It is not like a conventional war. It’s another kind of war. And that’s what worries me, because I think that certainly since 9-11, we have folded in ourselves and built this sort of dubious troika against terror with ourselves and Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon – people who do not shirk from carrying out gratuitous and senseless acts of violence against innocents. And it concerns me.
CALLER SAUL: That’s actually the point of my question – the fact that there is no address or that the address is kind of scattered and that we have no specific point to direct our response at.
HEDGES: You know, this is primarily an intelligence war. Dropping iron fragmentation bombs all over the Middle East only fuels the conflict. And that’s how we have to look at it.
FLOWER: What do you think of the propaganda impact of calling this sort of “The enemy has no address, so we’re going to go wherever it is we want to” [type of strategy] – calling that any kind of a war in a meaningful, logical sense?
HEDGES: I think you raise a good point. ....I have a problem with the phrase “war on terror” as well. It isn’t a conventional war. Of course, by calling it a “war on terror,” we think of it in that way. And we should not. But what happens in wartime is that we think and speak in the cliches and aphorisms the state gives to us – and [those that] the media, especially broadcast media, on these 24-hour news cycles, pound into us minute after minute, hour after hour. And it becomes very hard to think outside the box, to even express whatever disquiet we feel because we’re sort of robbed of the vocabulary and the words by which to articulate these thoughts. And I think that a good way to begin in wartime to not fall into that lockstep, that kind of blind nationalism – which I think is a disease – is to begin to question the language by which they want us to speak. And questioning the phrase “war on terror,” as you just did, is a very good way to start.
CALLER SAUL: ....My own personal feeling is that if we don’t include what we call the “terrorists” into a dialogue, then we’re just going to be continuing to increase what we call “terrorism” onto the Western world. In other words, I think we need to start listening to what these people have to say and we need to start responding to what it is that they desire. I don’t think that they’re any less human than we are.
HEDGES: No, they’re not. And I think that the rage that they express is real and it comes from somewhere. And I have no problem with hunting down Osama bin Laden. But at the same time, failing to look at the roots of that rage and anger and alienation and hatred, and mitigating that which causes it, means that there will be no shortage of terrorists to replace those that we get rid of.
CALLER SAUL: And I think if we actually looked into our own heart, I think that most of us have actually felt that rage at some point or another.
HEDGES: It’s a very human phenomenon.
CALLER SAUL: Which gives us a point of reference to understand where it is that they’re coming from.
HEDGES: Exactly. They don’t come from another moral universe, as despicable as the crimes are – and they are despicable crimes....
CALLER SAUL: I’m not trying to defend what it is that they’re doing....
HEDGES: Right. Not at all. You’re right.
CALLER SAUL: But I think we actually do need to try and understand where it is and what it is – and where they’re coming from....
HEDGES: Because if we don’t do that, we’re not going to be able to stop it. The whole point is to stop it. And what is the most effective way?....
CALLER SAUL: We’re creating breeding grounds for the soldiers who are willing to [die for the cause]....
HEDGES: I could not agree with you more. I think at this point, that’s what we’re doing and that’s what concerns me.
CALLER (Len in Arcata): ....It’s kind of the age-old question – the question of whether war is ever justified....
HEDGES: I don’t think war is ever justified. I think sometimes war is inevitable. You know, I certainly understood why a Muslim in Sarajevo would pick up a gun to defend his city and his family – and himself – in the face of the Serbian campaign of genocide against Muslims in Bosnia, which is what was happening. The tragedy of war is that those who employ violence, even when they’re forced to, give rise to or put in power those who have a propensity and perhaps even a liking for violence. So that in the early months and years of the conflict in Bosnia, we saw the criminal class essentially organize the militias – become warlords, and ultimately war heroes. So while they were capable of barricading and holding off Serb forces for a while, they were also looting and killing and carrying out essentially criminal activity. I mean, there’s always a rise in criminal activity in wartime.
And nobody is free from the effects of war. Even if you are carrying out war for a supposedly just cause, the physical and emotional maiming that takes place in war – you’re not exempted from that. So war in the end, while I think it’s at times necessary as a last resort, it’s always tragic. There’s nothing glorious or great about war.
CALLER (Mary in Briceland): One of the things I found really interesting in the first book [“War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”] was how you deal with your own “addiction” for the excitement of war. And I wondered if you’d talk a little bit about how that’s going?
HEDGES: Well, I’ve spent almost 20 years of my life covering conflicts and realized, I think, in the war in Bosnia but certainly in the war in Kosovo, that if I didn’t stop, it was going to kill me. I mean, that’s what happens to addicts: The substance that you use kills you. I lost two close friends of mine in Sierra Leone – a guy I’d worked with for 10 years who I write about in the book, [Reuters correspondent] Kurt Schork. And then I couldn’t stay away, like most war correspondents. I ended up covering the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, and was caught in a very bad ambush in Netzarine in Gaza and a 19-year-old Palestinian kid was shot through the chest and killed about 15 feet away from me. And I realized I had to break free. I had to find a new way of living, a new identity. And it was hard; it was probably a two- or three-year process, because my cache as a reporter was caught up in this identification of me as war correspondent. I got off on the adrenalin high of it, [and] my comrades. You know, I gave up the relationships that I had had for two decades. And it was difficult, but also very healthy.
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(Brian O. Covert is an independent writer and co-producer of "Thursday Night Talk" on KHSU-FM.)