The crisis faced by combat veterans returning from
war is not simply a profound struggle with trauma and alienation.
It is often, for those who can slice through the suffering to self-awareness,
an existential crisis. War exposes the lies we tell ourselves about
ourselves. It rips open the hypocrisy of our religions and secular
institutions. Those who return from war have learned something which
is often incomprehensible to those who have stayed home. We are
not a virtuous nation. God and fate have not blessed us above others.
Victory is not assured. War is neither glorious nor noble. And we
carry within us the capacity for evil we ascribe to those we fight.
Those who return to speak this truth, such as members of Iraq
Veterans Against the War, are our contemporary prophets. But
like all prophets they are condemned and ignored for their courage.
They struggle, in a culture awash in lies, to tell what few have
the fortitude to digest. They know that what we are taught in school,
in worship, by the press, through the entertainment industry and
at home, that the melding of the state’s rhetoric with the
rhetoric of religion, is empty and false.
The words these prophets speak are painful. We, as a nation, prefer
to listen to those who speak from the patriotic script. We prefer
to hear ourselves exalted. If veterans speak of terrible wounds
visible and invisible, of lies told to make them kill, of evil committed
in our name, we fill our ears with wax. Not our boys, we
say, not them, bred in our homes, endowed with goodness and decency.
For if it is easy for them to murder, what about us? And so it is
simpler and more comfortable not to hear. We do not listen to the
angry words that cascade forth from their lips, wishing only that
they would calm down, be reasonable, get some help, and go away.
We, the deformed, brand our prophets as madmen. We cast them into
the desert. And this is why so many veterans are estranged and enraged.
This is why so many succumb to suicide or addictions.
War comes wrapped in patriotic slogans, calls for sacrifice, honor
and heroism and promises of glory. It comes wrapped in the claims
of divine providence. It is what a grateful nation asks of its children.
It is what is right and just. It is waged to make the nation and
the world a better place, to cleanse evil. War is touted as the
ultimate test of manhood, where the young can find out what they
are made of. War, from a distance, seems noble. It gives us comrades
and power and a chance to play a small bit in the great drama of
history. It promises to give us an identity as a warrior, a patriot,
as long as we go along with the myth, the one the war-makers need
to wage wars and the defense contractors need to increase their
But up close war is a soulless void. War is about barbarity, perversion
and pain, an unchecked orgy of death. Human decency and tenderness
are crushed. Those who make war work overtime to reduce love to
smut, and all human beings become objects, pawns to use or kill.
The noise, the stench, the fear, the scenes of eviscerated bodies
and bloated corpses, the cries of the wounded, all combine to spin
those in combat into another universe. In this moral void, naively
blessed by secular and religious institutions at home, the hypocrisy
of our social conventions, our strict adherence to moral precepts,
come unglued. War, for all its horror, has the power to strip away
the trivial and the banal, the empty chatter and foolish obsessions
that fill our days. It lets us see, although the cost is tremendous.
The Rev. William P. Mahedy,
who was a Catholic chaplain in Vietnam, tells of a soldier, a former
altar boy, in his book “Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journey
of Vietnam Vets,” who says to him: “Hey, Chaplain …
how come it’s a sin to hop into bed with a mama-san
but it’s okay to blow away gooks out in the bush?”
Hedges has been a war reporter for 19 years, most recently for the
New York Times. He is author of What
Every Person Should Know About War a book that offers a critical
lesson in the dangerous realities of war. He’s also author of War
is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. He writes a weekly column