Today I received an e-mail message about a funeral for a soldier in Texas. The sender who forwarded it wrote that his "faith in America had been restored" when he read this account by the deceased's wife:
When we turned off the highway, suddenly there were teenage boys along both sides of the street about every 20 feet or so, all holding large American flags on long flag poles, and again with their hands on their hearts ... Hundreds of young people, standing silently on the side of the road with flags. At one point we passed an elementary school, and all the children were outside, shoulder to shoulder holding flags ... kindergartners, handicapped, teachers, staff, everyone. Some held signs of love and support. Then came teenage girls and younger boys, all holding flags. Then Adults. Then families. All standing silently on the side of the road (e-mail title SOLDIER'S FUNERAL -- TEXAS).
In War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges, a war correspondent, has a lot to say about the meaning of war. He argues that war has continued throughout the ages because it does something for us. Many human beings the world over live in a state of spiritual emptiness. Their lives lack meaning and purpose. And because of this emptiness which they long to fill, they accept the myth that war is something grand and noble with a cause to uphold that is worth dying for. Without this myth, nobody would join the military to do "the important work of defending our great country." Without the myth, the government couldn't get Congress to appropriate the funds to back wars, or mount a campaign in the media to gain the support of people at home. Without the myth, no children would stand along the road waving flags. In this essay we will explore this myth, what it is, what feeds it and nourishes it, what happens to art, culture, and dissent during war and to soldiers engaged in warfare.
Briefly, the myth in our country (although Hedges shows that the war myth exists in all countries, no matter what side they are on) is this: Our own country represents all that is good and decent and honorable. Our freedom and our way of life must be defended at all costs. America is the greatest country on earth, and we fight on the side of God and the angels. If threatened by an enemy, we have every right to kill the "other," and if we are injured or die, our sacrifice is an honor and a privilege because it was for a just and noble cause. Our soldiers are brave, courageous heroes. The enemy's soldiers are cowardly, evil, and barbaric. They are not human beings. Our enemies hate our way of life and pervert our stand for morality in order to justify their own cruelty. We must save the world from tyranny and advance the cause of freedom, security, and democracy. Hedges points out that this myth is very powerful: "It allows us to believe we have achieved our place in human society because of a long chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept the sad reality that we stumble along a dimly lit corridor of disasters" (p. 23). The tendency to believe in the myth cuts across cultures. Research by Victoroff (2005) showed, for example, that "far from being outcasts, terrorists are often regarded by their in-group as heroic freedom fighters" (p. 13).
President George W. Bush uses this myth in all his rhetoric about war. For example, on September 20, 2001, when he declared the War on Terrorism, he gave a speech called "Freedom at War with Fear" in which he said, "I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people. The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." A transcript of the speech shows there was much applause after this statement.
The myth also allows us to set aside the moral precepts we have observed all of our lives and accept "a new artificial reality" in which maiming and killing other people is simply "the regrettable cost of war" (p. 35). We develop a sense of meaning and purpose. Going to war is so exciting and seems so meaningful. But the reality on the battlefield is quite different. Soldiers fight to survive and to help their comrades survive. Hedges quotes a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who said, " ... none of these boys is fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap the politicians feed the public. They are fighting for each other, just for each other" (cited in Hedges, p. 38). Thus, for the soldiers, the myth is usually nullified in combat.
As the myth takes hold in the public consciousness, nationalism awakens and becomes a tool for warlords. Anyone who doesn't agree that going to war is the right thing to do is deemed unpatriotic. Hedges describes the collective fervor for war as a "passionate yearning for a nationalist cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone is able to deliver" (p. 41). Social psychologists Louis and Taylor (2002) discuss the effect of "norms" and the need for conformity on individuals, and possibly this explains not only the great waves of nationalism but the suicide bombers as well: "Social identity researchers conceive that individuals conform to group norms not primarily because of conscious decision making, but because the norms define the situationally appropriate behavior ... imagine how powerful group norms are with respect to subjective judgments such as attitudes, beliefs, values and ideology ... ordinary people are certain to be affected by group norms when it comes to perceptions about who is responsible for their 'ills' or what forms of action are called for in reaction."
Shortly after the 9/11 attack on the Word Trade Center, Congress approved the President's right to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks" (cited in Hedges, 2002, p. 5). Only one senator objected. That was California democrat Barbara J. Lee who argued that our safety does not lie with the military and urged that we not "become the evil we deplore" (cited in Hedges, 2002, p. 5). Congress gave overwhelming support to going to war. The media did not dissent. And flags flew all over the country. As Hedges points out, "War usually starts with a collective euphoria" (p. 84).
Those few people who did dissent were silenced in various ways. Everybody knows what he or she is supposed to say and what he or she should not say, and woe to the person who doesn't stay with the script. For example, in "The Censors: New Patterns in Opinion Control," an article in Columbia Journalism Review, several instances of silencing are described. Ted Koppel, for instance, made a program in which he read aloud "the names of 721 U.S. military members killed up to that point in Iraq." Sinclair Broadcast Group ordered its eight ABC affiliates not to air the program. When Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines expressed her group's distaste for the war in Iraq (she said she was "ashamed"), Cumulus Media stopped all its country stations from playing Dixie Chicks music: "At a Cumulus-sponsored war rally in Shreveport, Louisiana, a bulldozer symbolically demolishes a pile of Dixie Chicks CDs. Many of the 1,225 radio stations owned by Clear Channel Communications also banned the Dixie Chicks" (Cooper 58). When Roxanne Walker, a liberal on a talk show at WMYI in Greenville argued that the war in Iraq was not justified, she got fired. When Charles Goyette, the host on a drive-time talk show, welcomed critics to speak out against the war, his contract was not renewed (Cooper 59). And Disney refused to distribute Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. People get intoxicated with nationalism, national pride, and the excitement of a war about to start. They forget about the "petty concerns of daily life" (p. 54) and feel transformed. By the time the war is over, the myth will seem to have been punctured, but Hedges points out that it's never really gone: "It lies dormant, festering in the society, nurtured by boys' adventure stories of heroism in service to the nation, the monuments we erect to the fallen, and carefully scripted remembrances ... " (p. 61).
Hedges points out that culture has to be repressed during wartime. Culture is what "allows us to question and examine ourselves and our society." When we no longer do that or tolerate others who do, our moral fabric is eroded, replaced "with a warped version of reality" (p. 63). During wartime, art is pushed out and replaced with "flags, patriotic songs, sentimental dedications ...…