The Myths of War



War itself is venal, dirty, confusing and perhaps the most potent narcotic invented by humankind. Modern industrial warfare means that most of those who are killed never see their attackers. There is nothing glorious or gallant about it. If we saw what wounds did to bodies, how killing is far more like butchering an animal than the clean and neat Hollywood deaths on the screen, it would turn our stomachs. If we saw how war turns young people into intoxicated killers, how it gives soldiers a license to destroy not only things but other human beings, and if we saw the perverse thrill such destruction brings, we would be horrified and frightened. If we understood that combat is often a constant battle with a consuming fear we have perhaps never known, a battle that we often lose, we would find the abstract words of war—glory, honor and patriotism—not only hollow but obscene. If we saw the deep psychological scars of slaughter, the way it maims and stunts those who participate in war for the rest of their lives, we would keep our children away. Indeed, it would be hard to wage war.

For war, when we confront it truthfully, exposes the darkness within all of us. This darkness shatters the illusions many of us hold not only about the human race but about ourselves. Few of us confront our own capacity for evil, but this is especially true in wartime. And even those who engage in combat are afterward given cups from the River Lethe to forget. And with each swallow they imbibe the myth of war. For the myth makes war palatable. It gives war a logic and sanctity it does not possess. It saves us from peering into the darkest recesses of our own hearts. And this is why we like it. It is why we clamor for myth. The myth is enjoyable, and the press, as is true in every nation that goes to war, is only too happy to oblige. They dish it up and we ask for more.

War as myth begins with blind patriotism, which is always thinly veiled self- glorification. We exalt ourselves, our goodness, our decency, our humanity, and in that self-exaltation we denigrate the other. The flip side of nationalism is racism—look at the jokes we tell about the French. It feels great. War as myth allows us to suspend judgment and personal morality for the contagion of the crowd. War means we do not face death alone. We face it as a group. And death is easier to bear because of this. We jettison all the moral precepts we have about the murder of innocent civilians, including children, and dismiss atrocities of war as the regrettable cost of battle. As I write this article, hundreds of thousands of innocent people, including children and the elderly, are trapped inside the city of Basra in southern Iraq—a city I know well—without clean drinking water. Many will die. But we seem, because we imbibe the myth of war, unconcerned with the suffering of others.

Yet, at the same time, we hold up our own victims. These crowds of silent dead—our soldiers who made “the supreme sacrifice” and our innocents who were killed in the crimes against humanity that took place on 9/11—are trotted out to sanctify the cause and our employment of indiscriminate violence. To question the cause is to defile the dead. Our dead count. Their dead do not. We endow our victims, like our cause, with righteousness. And this righteousness gives us the moral justification to commit murder. It is an old story. […]

The coverage of war by the press has one consistent and pernicious theme— the worship of our weapons and our military might. Retired officers, breathless reporters, somber news anchors, can barely hold back their excitement, which is perverse and—frankly, to those who do not delight in watching us obliterate other human beings—disgusting. We are folding in on ourselves, losing touch with the outside world, shredding our own humanity and turning war into entertainment and a way to empower ourselves as a nation and individuals. And none of us are untainted. It is the dirty thrill people used to get from watching a public execution. We are hangmen. And the excitement we feel is in direct proportion to the rage and anger we generate around the globe. We will pay for every bomb we drop on Iraq.

(“The Press and The Myths of War” by Chris Hedges, full text here)