I have read many accounts of the horrors of war, including first person narratives of the Holocaust and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” As part of my research on the war in Ukraine, I viewed footage of civilian bodies — dead and dismembered — including women and children, from artillery shells, bombs, and shrapnel; bloated and blackened bodies of fighters scattered in fields and on the sides of roads.
Yet, I never seem to become inured to it. I still wince and feel my stomach curdle, not knowing whether to weep for or rage at humanity.
The first six chapters of this book provide a detailed account of Hedges’ experiences as a war correspondent, from the Balkans to the Middle East to Africa. It is graphic and disturbing in that it’s a reminder of just what depths humans are capable of plumbing. I don’t know how Hedges functions on a daily basis with the things that he has witnessed. But he seems to recognize his role as a witness in the highest sense of the word and has not only reported his observations and experiences, but has attempted to make sense of them, not only for his own sake but to provide insight and ultimately a warning about the madness of war and the folly of unleashing its dark forces.
It is in the seventh chapter, “Eros and Thanatos,” where Hedges puts down his best reflections on the horrors of the previous six chapters worth of gratuitous death, destruction and moral-spiritual degradation.
I certainly agree with Hedges that humans seem to have a tendency toward self-destructiveness, both on a personal and collective level. He cites Freud’s concept of thanatos, the death drive, as an approximate description of humans’ drive for self-destruction. Hedges asserts that love is its antithesis. Love representing an empathetic and symbiotic connection with another — typically another human, but I think it’s safe to say that it could include animals, God in some iteration or the natural world, anything that is beyond oneself. Love is what is needed to balance out or heal the destructive drive that war brings out.
It was a bit disappointing, however, that Hedges pretty much stopped at Freud in terms of psychological thought on this. Freud’s disaffected student, Carl Jung, went much further in this area of exploration. Jung and those influenced by his thought have noted that these thanatos-related destructive behaviors, like addiction — whether to drugs, acquisitiveness or the intoxication of the power inherent in martial actions — are warped substitutes for humans’ spiritual drive for meaning and purpose that is often repressed in the modern world. Jung observed after decades of listening to patients in both the US and Europe that what they all seemed to have in common was a lack of meaning in their lives for which modern western culture — with its scientific materialism and social atomization — appeared deficient in terms of providing. Hedges touches on this deficiency and how war can consequently serve as a source of meaning and purpose that is missing in many people’s lives, but considering the title of his book, he doesn’t dive as deeply into it as would be expected.
Another area in which I have some trouble with Hedges is the assertion he makes, either implicitly or explicitly, that this destructiveness, which is most acutely reflected in war but also by drug addiction, consumerism, perverted or dehumanizing sexuality (also common in war settings), etc. has always been part of human history. It is a common fallacy repeated by many who write about war and the dark aspects of human nature or human habit.
However, there is solid anthropological evidence indicating that organized warfare only cropped up around 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, roughly coinciding with agricultural settlement and its attendant forms of social organization. That is not to say there was no violence but it mostly took the form of individual homicides.
What are the implications that throughout most of human history humans did not engage in war? It is a question that begs to be asked no less than the question that Hedges and so many others ask about why humans do engage in war. During the long period of no war, humans lived in small, relatively egalitarian groups. In other words, human beings did not evolve to live in large, centralized and hierarchical social structures. I would assert that they also did not evolve to believe that existence had no meaning and the universe — however narrow or broad they may have perceived it — to be nothing more than a vast machine. Humans during this period tended to be animists, to believe that all living things were infused with spirit or a sense of the sacred. This does not mean there was no killing: humans hunted animals for food and clothing and sometimes even killed other humans, but there were boundaries in place, underpinned by a sense of a connected or spiritual world view, to keep these behaviors from spiraling out of control. Humans were also dependent upon the tribe or band for survival and the threat of being expelled from the community was usually the equivalent of a death sentence. Therefore, there was a powerful incentive not to profoundly or repeatedly offend the social boundaries of that community.
Paradoxically, this may provide a partial explanation as to why humans find it so difficult to go against their group, even when that group has become ethically compromised and destructive.
Another psychologist-philosopher that has some insights on this is Dr. Robert Jay Lifton who has spent his career studying war crimes and those who commit them, from Communist Chinese brainwashing to Nazi doctors to Vietnam veterans. Lifton has described how relatively decent people can become war criminals due to immersion in institutions that socialize such behavior, creating what he calls the “rotten barrel.” He also describes the psychological phenomena of “doubling” — similar to what most would refer to as compartmentalizing but in an extreme manifestation. This was how doctors and others who committed or enabled atrocities at concentration camps during the day could go home and be family men at night, even at times being highly cultured individuals.
Hedges describes many of the symptoms of these phenomena throughout his book and his recognition of the seductive, even addictive aspects of war is important. But he could have drawn on more schools of thought on the subject and come up with an even more comprehensive analysis.
Suggested Further Read and Viewing:
1. Part III of PBS Special “The Wisdom of the Dream.” https://www.youtube.com/
2. The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions About War and Violence by Douglas P. Fry
3. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram.