In most of Chris Hedges’ new book, The greatest evil is war, there is not much to think about. Hedges did not write a philosophical treatise or a heady analysis of battlefield strategy. Nor does it offer a new way of evaluating war, as Samuel Moyn did in Human, who argued that making war more humane only prolongs it. Hedges refuses to reside in the abstract, instead creating a book about war that is meant to be experienced viscerally.
Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent and author who has covered conflicts in the Middle East, Bosnia and Central America, wants us to feel what he felt and see what he saw in those combat zones – and he’s seen more than enough of that throughout his career. His book is nothing less than a punch.
According to prior publicity, Hedges was reluctant to write another book about the war, but relented after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Rightly, he launches his mighty jeremiad by drawing a parallel between Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine and the US invasion of Iraq. He does this for two reasons. Obviously, he is emphasizing the hypocrisy of the American political-media establishment which was so quick to condemn Putin – the “new hitler– for invading a sovereign nation after that same media establishment enthusiastically supported the US war against Sadaam Hussein. Both were and are wars of aggression, after all.
“Pre-emptive war, whether in Iraq or Ukraine, is a war crime,” says Hedges in the very first sentence of the book. “Drag Putin to the International Criminal Court and put him on trial. But make sure George Bush is in the cell next to him.
Comparisons like this won’t sit well with many. But Hedges draws parallels between these wars and others that have historically been portrayed as “good versus evil” because he wants to blur those distinctions. “There are no good wars,” he insists. While acknowledging that sometimes we have to fight, like in World War II, he reminds us that the suffering of those involved – physical, spiritual, moral – is almost never justified.
The examples Hedges offers of such suffering can be hard to digest. But they are key to his argument that the American media should attempt to portray the reality of war instead of offering the romantic “myth” of wartime heroism that we are usually shown. This myth, says Hedges, needs to be erased so that Americans can make informed decisions about whether to support these wars.
In a chapter titled “Shadows of War” – extracted in its entirety from The progressivefrom the October/November issue—Hedges presents the central thesis of the book. He writes: “The effects of war are what the state and the press, the servant of the warmakers, strive to keep hidden. If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be harder to embrace the myth of war.
Put simply, Hedges argues that destroying this “myth” would mean fewer wars. And to do that, his book aims to present the reality of war in chapters that examine PTSD and hurt feelings; what it’s like to kill another human being; war profit; military brainwashing; kill children; grieving families; the story of a paraplegic veteran; and an interview with a Holocaust survivor. Saving Private Ryan it’s not. The book is a total repudiation of war as a noble or glorious enterprise.
Hedges refuses to reside in the abstract, instead creating a book about war that is meant to be experienced viscerally.
The most disturbing chapter is simply titled “Corpses,” and it tells the story of Jessica Goodell, a Marine sent to Iraq to “process” dead soldiers — many of whom died by suicide, and many with bodies so mutilated by IEDs that few remained. except for the “vaporized flesh” she had to pick up in body bags. His story will haunt you for days.
I wrote earlier than The greatest evil is war is meant to be lived viscerally and not intellectually. It’s true to the end. In “Permanent War,” the final and most important chapter of the book, Hedges places the American war in a larger context and explains why our wars have become endless. His analysis here is the same as that expounded by many leading war critics of our time, such as Noam Chomsky, Andrew Bacevich, Glenn Greenwald and the late Michael Hastings.
After World War II, America saw the birth of a massive national security state – the “military-industrial complex”, as Eisenhower called him– ostensibly justified by the threat of the Soviet Union. To fund this new state, crucial resources have been diverted from infrastructure, education, healthcare, and clean energy research and development. During this time, writes Hedges, America went from a country that mainly produced things to a country that mainly consumed things.
Hedges observes how these two factors – a gargantuan military and a new American philosophy that promised endless consumption without responsibility – have thrown us into the predicament in which we find ourselves. As Andrew Bacevich told me in a 2010 interview, this is “the heart of the dilemma”. America must now constantly build weapons and wage wars to secure the resources necessary to maintain its unlimited consumption.
But permanent war and endless consumption are not sustainable, of course. Not only are they destroying our planet (the Ministry of Defense is the only the greatest institutional consumer of oil in the world), but, as Hedges points out, they are destroying our liberal traditions and our democratic institutions. “Permanent war,” he argues, “depreciates culture as nationalist cant. It degrades and corrupts education and the media and destroys the economy. No doubt we see that vindicated.
In a brief but chilling coda, Hedges says witnessing so many wars nearly broke him, and admits no one can truly convey what it’s like to be in combat. “It is impossible to depict war,” he concludes.
Maybe. But The greatest evil is war is the rawest, most angry, most graphic and most revolting war story I have ever read. And it’s as close to breaking the “myth of war” as any performance – or attempt at performance – that I’m aware of.
Editor’s Note: You can read an excerpt from The greatest evil is war in the October/November 2022 issue of The Progressive.