As the title suggests, Hedges pushes us all to think about what psychological benefits we may gain from war when we blind ourselves to its reality. “The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living” (3).
This is especially true in the age of declining religious participation. As Hedges observes, “because we in modern society have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the state in times of war. The state and the institutions of the state become, for many, the center of worship in wartime” (146-147).
The seductive lure of violence is one he frankly acknowledges out of his own experience, but he presents it as more a product of human nature than individual failing. Sadly, like a drug that can never offer true satisfaction, “War never creates the security or the harmony we desire, especially the harmony we briefly attain during wartime” (22).
Hedges’s observations here resonate with those of 2014 ESR Willson Lecturer Rita Nakashima Brock, who addressed the topic of moral injury in war, and he indicts the state in the process:
The military histories – which tell little of war’s reality – crowd out the wrenching tales by the emotionally maimed. Each generation again responds to war as innocents. Each generation discovers its own disillusionment – often after a terrible price. The myth of war and the drug of war wait to be tasted. The mythical heroes of the past loom over us. Those who can tell us the truth are silenced or prefer to forget. The state needs the myth, as much as it needs its soldiers and its machines of war, to survive (173).
Despite his stark depiction of the corrosive effects of war, however, Hedges refuses to embrace pacifism as a viable option. “There are times,” he says, “when the force wielded by one immoral faction must be countered by a faction that, while never moral, is perhaps less immoral.” Hedges is right that “the poison of war does not free us from the ethics of responsibility,” but nonviolence need not mean inaction (16).
Deep pacifism, the active pacifism repeatedly revealed among Friends engaged in living out the Peace Testimony, does not offer an easy escape from moral quandaries - the opposite is true. Rather, it can take seriously and fully account for the negative impact of war on all involved. This pacifism may call those who answer it to a different path than taking up arms (or demanding that others do so). That does not mean there is not a profound weight and cost to taking that position or addressing its implications and consequences.
Perhaps Hedges states this best himself:
“Love may not always triumph, but it keeps us human. It offers the only chance to escape from the contagion of war. Perhaps it is the only antidote. And there are times when remaining human is the only victory possible” (168).
This review originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of ESR Reports.