Like a lynch mob fueled by a fear of the unknown and a willingness to see strangers as threats to be quickly dispatched, the herd impulse has, since 9/11, become mobilized on behalf of a war against shadows. Even beyond the violent and repressive reactions of the American government, the most unsettling consequence of the WTC attacks has been the nearly total collapse of the minds of most Americans.
For the duration of the war — which government officials tell us will go on forever! — men and women have rationed their intelligence and allowed what they would have heretofore regarded as their "fundamental principles" to be conscripted into the service of the state.
Americans who, five years ago, were so incensed at Bill Clinton’s perjured testimony that impeachment proceedings were brought, now exhibit a willingness to be lied to about matters of far greater concern than oval office shenanigans. As the Bush administration continues to pile lie upon lie, it is evident that most Americans are completely indifferent to the purposes for the attack upon Iraq. I suspect that, if Bush and his fellow war conspirators were to publicly announce that the Iraqi invasion was deigned for no other purpose than to put money into their pockets, most Americans — led by their electronic cheerleaders on talk-radio and cable television — would praise them for showing "ambition" and "leadership!"
America is becoming the Nazi Germany we feared in my childhood. For those who were not around during those years, you can get a flavor for the anti-tyrannical sentiments of the time by watching any number of movies depicting the Nazi police-state. The constant presence of police; the insistence upon showing "your papers" to whichever government underling demanded them; the awareness that neither your person nor home was immune from state searches or seizures; the disappearance of people into unknown prison camps; neighbors spying upon neighbors, and children betraying their parents to the state; and the domination of society by a military and bureaucratic arrogance, arbitrariness, and absolutism, were constantly chilling examples of the dangers of state power.
How did we manage to reverse our thinking? When did appeals to the lessons of history become treasonous? How did philosophic principles collapse into patriotic slogans? The answers to such questions underlie explanations for the much broader phenomenon of the collapse of Western civilization itself. This is a topic around which my articles revolve, and has been addressed by numerous historians, as well as Carl Jung, whose psychological explanations add a depth to the inquiry unmatched by others.
A preoccupation with war has long been symptomatic of the decline of societies that practice it. Wars are essentially conducted by governments against their own people — with "others" being held up as fear-objects around which to enlist the obedience and submission of their own citizenry. Any nation in wartime is telling us what George Bush, John Ashcroft, Tom Ridge, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, et al., are now telling us — if we will suspend our indifference to truth long enough to observe — namely, that society can only be held together by armed force, threats, imprisonment, and death. When coercion supplants cooperation; when the inviolability of the individual is sacrificed to some alleged collective security; and when violence is equated with "patriotism" and peace with "un-Americanism," the days of such a society are numbered.
For those who desire to understand the attraction that this violent, destructive system has for most of us, a new book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, offers one of the most powerful critiques of the war system since Randolph Bourne. Not content to moralize against war or to call it names, Hedges analyzes the topic from an historical, psychological, and institutional perspective, drawing upon literary and mythological works to illustrate his observations. At the same time, his book is quite critical of war, not the kind of read that flag-waving, "United We Stand" jingoists will find comforting.
Hedges has been a foreign correspondent for some fifteen years for such news organizations as the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. You may be more familiar with him as the recent commencement speaker at Rockford College, where he was hooted, heckled, and air-horned by war-lovers in the audience. Intellectual bankruptcy is another symptom of a dying culture, wherein discomforting ideas and criticisms can only be met with the kind of unfocused, thoughtless rage that is becoming increasingly evident in radio and television programming. For the herd-oriented, a new idea can only be countered not by clear thinking, but by blasts from an air-horn!
Hedges’ reporting has put him in the line of fire in El Salvador, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf War, and the Israeli-Palestinian abattoir. He has drawn upon such experiences, as well as his studies in history, Greek and Shakespearean literature, and religion, to present a view of the war system that must not be ignored if we choose to survive.
Hedges observes that "[s]tates at war silence their own authentic and humane culture" and, in so doing, "erode the moral fabric" of a society. He adds: "[w]ar breaks down long-established prohibitions against violence, destruction, and murder," and leads to a situation in which "the domination and brutality of the battlefield is carried into personal life." "War," he goes on, "fills our spiritual void," and helps to erase "unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation" in our lives. In words that reflect the disquieting climate in which we live, Hedges observes "a growing fusion between those in the state who wage war…and those who believe they understand and can act as agents for God."
I cannot exaggerate the importance of this book. It forces us, as do the writings of Jung, Krishnamurti, and others, to confront the "dark side" forces that reside within each of us no less than they did within tyrants and their supporters in other times and places. It also compels us to reconsider our thinking. The idea of creating systems designed to threaten, coerce, and kill, and to imbue such agencies with principled legitimacy, and not expect them to lead to wars, genocides, and other tyrannical practices, expresses an innocence we can no longer afford to indulge.
Hedges reminds us of the culture of war, which "is peddled by mythmakers" throughout society, including the modern media. You can observe such mythmaking as the media struggles to find evidence of "heroism" in a "war" that is more realistically described as a campaign of brutish bullying. A truckload of soldiers take a wrong turn on a road, are captured by Iraqi forces and later released, then brought back to America as "POW heroes;" the irresponsibility of single mothers leaving their infant children at home to go fight in a war; and the Hollywood-like staging of the "rescue" of Private Lynch, who is then brought back to America as a "heroine," are among the more apparent examples of the war system playing with smoke and mirrors in an effort to convince Boobus Americanus of the nobility of the cause.
While the institutionalized butchery of the war system makes it difficult for me to equate it with heroism, one does, on occasion, find individual acts of a heroic quality even in battle. My favorite candidate for this role is Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War who came upon the scene of what we now know as the "My Lai Massacre." After becoming aware that what he was observing was not the ordinary combat of warfare, but a calculated slaughter of Vietnamese civilians by troops led by Lt. Calley, Thompson set his helicopter down between the civilians and the American troops. He then ordered his own crew to turn their machine guns on the American soldiers and, if they persisted in the slaughter, to fire on them. Thompson then took the civilians to safety and reported the incident, which led to the prosecution of Calley.
I doubt that there will be any statues of Hugh Thompson erected anywhere soon, or that he will be leading any Memorial Day parades. His actions were too heroic, for he stood up to the very excesses of butchery that Hedges informs us destroys our sense of humanity and, with it, our civilization. I would much rather have Hugh Thompson as my neighbor than I would any of the myriad of retired generals who became television network fixtures in the mythmaking to which we have become accustomed these past many months.
Our very survival — both as individuals and as a civilization — depends upon a radical transformation of our thinking, one that compels us to confront those silent voices within us that can so easily erupt into bloodbaths. While most of us continue to focus on the "Nazi holocaust" as the epitome of statist butchery, we must recall that the 20th century was the "holocaust century." Some 200,000,000 of our fellow human beings were slaughtered in various wars and genocides, and tens of millions more were wounded, both physically and spiritually, in ways that never heal.
Because we fear the responsibility for our actions, we have allowed ourselves to develop the mentality of slaves. Contrary to the stirring sentiments of the Declaration of Independence, we now pledge "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor" not to one another for our mutual protection, but to the state, whose actions continue to exploit, despoil, and destroy us. The poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, declared: "I am waiting for the war to be fought which will make the world safe for anarchy." While I share his sentiment, it is nonetheless evident that wars only bring up from the depths of our dark side the kinds of moral flotsam and jetsam that have surfaced in Washington, D.C. In the process, they destroy those qualities of peace, liberty, spiritual centeredness, mutual respect, and sense of individual responsibility which, alone, make for the greatness of any civilization.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.