Addicted to War: A Conversation with Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges used to be a war correspondent and was addicted to war. Now, he tells Metta Spencer, he is fighting against the Christian right.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer)

METTA SPENCER: I have only read two of your books. The one that blew me away was War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. It's the only book that I know that discusses the attraction to warfare -- that there can be an addiction or craving for it. You write about it as something people can get "hooked" on, as you say you did.

CHRIS HEDGES: Yeah. Soldiers call it a "combat high." It's essentially an adrenaline rush. It's possible to hate war, yet at the same time become attracted to those experiences. Even the colors are brighter. You're present in ways that you never were before. The twisted pathology of war often resembles a drug trip, with the rushes and the zombie-like state and the hallucinogenic landscapes. It has a very addictive quality. It's pretty common among people who get caught up in a war zone.

SPENCER: You mentioned having "caught" it in El Salvador. At a certain moment you were in great danger and then, whereas most people would stay away from such things, you were hooked.

HEDGES: For people who go back to war, that's a common reaction.

SPENCER: And yet you also say that there's always a psychiatric damage.

HEDGES: Of course. You are repeatedly exposed to trauma.

SPENCER: There is a genetic factor that explains much of the variation in attraction to arousing events such as war. A variant of a dopamine receptor gene, DRD4, seems to keep people low on adrenaline, cortisol, and the other stress factors, so they crave stimulation. I have known some war correspondents and other people such as physicians who go to war, and most of them have this inborn disposition to want arousal.

HEDGES: That may very well be true. Certainly many of the people who are long-time war correspondents are risk takers. Friends of mine raced motorcycles, for example. There's a commonality of behavior that preceded their entrance into a war zone. So that's entirely possible.

SPENCER: Some of my peace friends didn't like your book because they say that you don't propose any alternatives. I wonder whether you've thought about ways of creating pro-social kinds of arousal, such as firefighting and other heroic deeds that are useful?

HEDGES: I think most generations tend to learn the lesson of war the hard way. There is a deep attraction to the empowerment. Freud is right: societies either become locked in a collective embrace of Eros, as individuals do, or a collective embrace of Thanatos, the death instinct. They swing between the two. The notion that societies are naturally prone toward self-preservation is wrong. Self-annihilation can be deeply addictive, intoxicating, enticing. So I take a darker view of human nature --that war is probably always going to be with us. I think history bears me out.

SPENCER: That's what people are worried about - that your analysis doesn't suggest any alternative. Your counterposing of Eros and Thanatos intrigues me because I'm not sure they are necessarily opposed. My friends who have worked in war zones say that war is often sexually arousing. When their lives were in great jeopardy some of them had sex -- at the moment when they expected to be shot.

HEDGES: Well, I will tell you that at the moment I expected to be shot, it was not even remotely sexually arousing. It was terrifying.

SPENCER: And you never heard anybody else say such a thing?

HEDGES: No, it's horrifying. Living in that milieu has a sexually arousing element to it because human beings become objects - to either gratify, destroy, or both. And that is why brief, almost violent sexual liaisons in a war zone are common, and why loving, tender relationships are difficult. But you have to delineate between being surrounded by that kind of environment and actually being in combat. At the moment you think you're going to die, there's no sexual arousal.

SPENCER: Okay. What about entertainment as an alternative to the craving for thrills? I am interested in the motivation to watch action or horror movies. There is evidence that people who have, say, the DRD4 gene tend to enjoy thrilling films - up to a certain threshold. Then if they have an even more intense desire for arousal, nothing will satisfy them short of something very risky.

HEDGES: I don't think action films have anything to do with war. It's fantasy. It feeds the fascination with violence, but it's foreign to what you see and feel in battle. In a battlefield you can't actually see what's happening around you. Most of the time it's confusion. In low intensity conflicts you almost never see who's shooting at you. It feeds a kind of macabre fascination, but it doesn't replicate the experience of war.

SPENCER: You wrote that people must believe in the mythology of war to be attracted to it, and that when you stop believing in it, you stop going. Is that what you experienced? It seemed in your account of your own experience that you began on a high in El Salvador and that later wars were not as fulfilling or meaningful. Is that true?

HEDGES: Yes, but that's what junkies go through. You get addicted to the lifestyle. I think it was an addiction.

SPENCER: Did you say that you had to take an oath to stop going to war?

HEDGES: Not an oath, but I realized that I had to break my habit. It was killing me.

SPENCER: Did you have a depression after you stopped?

HEDGES: Yes. Depression, alienation, difficulty in adjustment, coping with post-traumatic stress disorder - all of those things were present and it took me two or three years to adjust.

SPENCER:. Ah. I have a war correspondent friend who went into a depression when she went home. I said, "Why don't you go sky diving?" She said, "I've just signed up for that." Does that make any sense to you?

HEDGES: I was never interested in doing that sort of stuff. I took tremendous risks but there had to be a reason behind it. I wasn't a thrill seeker as such. So for me that would not have been an effective therapy. I know what my behavior was but I don't have any idea what my genetic composition is.

SPENCER: You were a Christian when you went to war. How did you explain to your Christian self what you were doing?

HEDGES: I went off to fight fascism in an age when despotic military regimes ran the countries in Latin America. It was an effort to give a voice to the voiceless in places like El Salvador. I still feel that it was a worthwhile thing to do.

SPENCER: When you stopped going to war, did your theology change?

HEDGES: No. I am taking on the Christian right.

SPENCER: So what you are doing now in your present book was what you also thought you were doing during the El Salvador war?

HEDGES: I think it's about fighting repressive, authoritarian movements that seek to crush or inhibit the rights of others. I think that's consistent.

SPENCER: Let me ask you about Dave Grossman. It seems to me that your view of human nature is the opposite of his. Do you know his work?

HEDGES: Yes, I've read it.

SPENCER: He talks about how difficult it is to get people to overcome their inherent reluctance to kill.

HEDGES: Oh, but I never killed. That's the difference.

SPENCER: Would you have felt it impossible to kill?

HEDGES: It's not impossible to kill if you think someone is going to kill you.

SPENCER: Would you say your attitude was different from that of the soldiers? You were not there to kill but they were.

HEDGES: Oh, but I had bodyguards oftentimes in firefights who did kill so that I could escape. I was very thankful to have them. Often within a unit I was assigned two bodyguards, so that in a firefight they would set up suppressing fire so I could get out. That gives me a kind of moral complicity to the killing.

SPENCER: You didn't have any problem with that?

HEDGES: No. I was in combat and people were trying to kill me.

SPENCER: Grossman is a psychologist who had worked as a trainer for the US Army, trying to overcome the reluctance to kill by --

HEDGES: Right. I understand all that psychological breakdown to get people to kill - the natural reluctance to kill on the part of most people. And that's what the army does. It replicates a battle. It does operant conditioning the same way you train a dog, to get people to kill. But, as someone who never carried a weapon, I didn't go through that process.

SPENCER: Would you say that your belief about human nature is different from Grossman's?

HEDGES: No, because once you break that reluctance down it becomes deeply empowering to hold the ability to decide who lives and who dies. It has a dark allure. And it's pretty easy to break it down. That's what's so frightening. So no, I don't think that's contradictory.

SPENCER: He doesn't talk about the mythology of war -- but you do. You seem to say that the important thing in getting people willing to kill is that they must believe in this myth.

HEDGES: That entices them into war but Grossman is certainly correct that it also requires a kind of breaking down and reconditioning to get you to kill. I think his book is dead on. I think he's got it. I don't see that as contradictory to my writing. I know Grossman's work very, very well.

SPENCER: I never heard him talk about how, once you have broken the reluctance down, then there's a positive thrill.

HEDGES: No, I don't think he goes there. He talks about how easy it is to kill. I certainly go from that point and talk about what that experience does to you and how attractive it can be.

SPENCER: And you also say that once blood is shed, once the war starts, then it's almost impossible to stop.

HEDGES: It opens a Pandora's box to forces that you can't control, both internal and external.

SPENCER: So the only thing to do is prevention.

HEDGES: I'm a great believer in prevention.

SPENCER: How can we prevent war?

HEDGES: By making it the last resort.

SPENCER: Do you favor such things as training people in nonviolent resistance, or what?

HEDGES: In terms of national security?

SPENCER: In terms of whatever they feel they may have to fight for.

HEDGES: I'm basically nonviolent, but I think that there are moments -- and I lived in Sarajevo during the siege. If the Serbs had broken through, they would have slaughtered everyone in the city. Those who survived would have ended up in refugee or displacement camps or maybe rape camps. The city reluctantly got up and fought the Serbs back. All we had to do was look at Vukovar or Mostar and know what would happen to us. In a moment like that I understand the need to defend yourself. It's a natural human reaction. It doesn't save you from the poisonous effects of war. But when people feel that their families, neighbors, and community are about to be obliterated, they will fight back.

SPENCER: What got the Serbs going? Why were they up on the hill shooting?

HEDGES: Because they wanted to create a Greater Serbia - a Serbian Bosnia -- essentially an imperialist, ethnic, nationalist movement. The Serbs started the war. There were political miscalculations that led to war, but the Serbs were guilty of genocide.

SPENCER: Let's turn to your new book, American Fascists. You're very angry in that book. It seemed to me that you had less patience with Americans such as Pat Robertson and other right wing religious people than toward anyone caught up in wars that you covered.

HEDGES: Oh, really? They are both pretty angry books.

SPENCER: No, because you showed compassion for people who are defending themselves.

HEDGES: But I'm hard on what war does, even to people who defend themselves. The fact that the criminal class took over the defence of Sarajevo. The fact that they went off and blew the brains out of ethnic Serbs who still lived in the city. In that book there's a great deal of anger at war and the lies we tell ourselves about war.

SPENCER: In American Fascists you say you're unwilling to debate right wing Christians. I think I disagree with you. Do you know Michael Lerner's book, The Left Hand of God?

HEDGES: I haven't read it.

SPENCER: Lerner is a rabbi. He has a "network of spiritual progressives" -- people who are religious, but sort of left-liberal religious. Politically they are like you and me. But Lerner is open to debating the right. Indeed, he thinks that it's important to challenge the theology of people like Bush as irreligious.

HEDGES: That's what I do.

SPENCER: Yeah, but you don't believe that religious language belongs in political discourse. Or am I mistaken?

HEDGES: I don't believe that Christian hermeneutics is an acceptable part of political discourse. That would be correct.

SPENCER: Lerner argues that if you exclude liberal Christians from political discourse, you drive them out and they have no place to go except to right wing Christians, who welcome people who want to talk about spiritual issues in connection with their politics. I think that he has a point.

HEDGES: I don't look at the radical Christian right as a religious movement. I look at it as a mass movement that preaches intolerance, hatred, bigotry. It's at war with our open society and brands those who do not submit to this movement as Satanic. I don't have dialogues with people who think that I'm a force of Satan.

SPENCER: They say they're Christian.

HEDGES: Well, they're not. They're heretics.

SPENCER: But you don't think that people like yourself who are not heretics should speak about religious issues in connection with political matters?

HEDGES: I think that we should defend religious freedoms but I'm frightened of anyone who believes they have an absolute lock on the truth, which these people do.

SPENCER: I'm perfectly happy to have a conversation when someone wants to talk about their motivation for--

HEDGES: I have conversations with people who respect my dignity and acknowledge my struggle before God as valid. I do not have conversations with people who deny my right to be and who denounce my struggle before God as worthless. At that point it's not a dialogue; it's a fight for survival. All dialogue requires mutual respect and acceptance of other ways of being and believing. And they do not do this.

SPENCER: Maybe you'd like to talk about the relationship between your own spiritual growth and your political values. Your book really does not advance particular theological values.

HEDGES: The American Fascists book? Yes, I do. The first chapter is called "faith." There's a line that says "This was my faith." It's a pretty good definition of my faith today. I did that on purpose to lay out the fact that I'm not anti-religion, that I do come out of a deep tradition, as a seminary graduate and as the son of a minister.

SPENCER: Okay. Let me end by asking more about the approaches you consider most promising for preventing war.

HEDGES: By breaking the machines and the industrial complex that makes war easy and profitable. If you can disengage the economy from the military industrial complex, it will go far toward preventing unnecessary wars. In the end I think war is a tragic but inevitable part of the human condition. I think we must do everything in our power to prevent war - any kind of war. It requires attacks on many fronts: diplomatic, economic, social. But I've been in societies where people were faced with the real possibility of annihilation and I think there is a natural tendency to fight back.

SPENCER: You say that if people don't have the mythology of war, they won't fight.

HEDGES: It's hard to entice people into war if they really know what war is. That's why the war makers perpetuate that myth.

SPENCER: Creating a culture of peace sounds like breaking the mythology of war. Is that how you think of it?

HEDGES: To the extent that we can implode the myth, which I certainly attempted to do in War is a Force That Gives us Meaning - to the extent that we de-romanticize war and present it as it really is, people will have a more sober view of it. But unfortunately, our entertainment and our news industry don't do that. Chris Hedges wrote War is a Force that Gives us Meaning and American Fascists.

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2007

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2007, page 9. Some rights reserved.

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