Book Review

War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, Public Affairs Press, 210 pp., $23, What Every Person Should Know About War, by Chris Hedges, Free Press, 175 pp., $11

Ever wonder what real war is like? Or what happens to the human body during war – the psychological, emotional and physical repercussions of combat? Ever wonder how war can pervert our most human of characteristics, destroying the humanity of some, while strengthening the humanity of others?

Chris Hedges, who has written for The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, answers these questions and many others in his books War Is A Force That Give Us Meaning, and What Every Person Should Know About War.

In War Is A Force, Hedges takes us from one battlefield to another, from Bosnia to Iraq, to El Salvador, describing in brutal detail some of the most horrific scenes of human carnage imaginable. Hedges does more than describe the mounds of human remains found at some unmarked mass grave or tell the stories of the children and elderly, or other innocent victims who make up the bulk of the killed or wounded in any conflict; he reminds us that the trauma of war goes far deeper than the surface wounds.

Hedges also notes the failures of war crimes prosecutions. “Only rarely do some of the top leaders end up in jail. Usually those who pay the price … are the lowly gunmen who are tried and imprisoned to take the heat off of their commanders. Most of those who carry out war crimes, however, are never punished,” he writes.

Political leaders “rarely permit a society to ascribe any responsibility to the actual state organs that directed the killings.” Hedges calls this the “hijacking” of our memory; a memory that can only be restored once “history is recovered,” and “euphemisms” are discarded. Only then can we deal with what has actually happened, hold people accountable for their actions and recover our memory.

While Hedges spends very little time talking about the U.S. military, he soberly urges us to not “ignore real injustices that have led many of those arrayed against us to their rage and despair. … By accepting the facile cliché that the battle underway against terrorism is a battle against evil, by easily branding those who fight against us as barbarians, we, like them refuse to acknowledge our own culpability.”

Unlike War Is A Force, which describes the physical and emotional scars of war, What Every Person Should Know is more of a textbook, written in a simple question-and-answer format.

In the chapter “Weapons And Wounds,” Hedges asks, “What are the long-term effects of burns?” and answers, “If you live, you may be incapacitated for life. You may have severe scarring, and require skin graft or reconstructive surgery. Your resistance to disease may be lowered, and you may have chronic pain. You may also have to face the social stigma of burn scars.”

Even though Hedges intended the second book to be a straightforward and objective manual, with very few adjectives, he misses the mark. Whereas War Is A Force is a emotional tour de force, urging us to reconsider all of our perceptions of war, What Every Person Should Know informs without emotion, and therefore isn’t nearly as effective.

In the introduction to What Every Person Should Know, Hedges says he hopes the book gives us a “greater compassion for and insight toward those who return from war. The invisible wounds inflicted on survivors are potent. They can destroy lives, long after the conflict has ended, as effectively as artillery shells.” If Hedges had used his journalistic skill in What Every Person Should Know as he did in his first book, he may have reached the goal described in his introduction.

Nonetheless, What Every Person Should Know is worth reading. War Is A Force, on the other hand, is a must have for anyone interested in the realities of modern day combat.

– Tony Pecinovsky (