Writing High on War

In his unflinchingly honest book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges spoke of war as a drug—which he imbibed. He certainly looked happy in pictures of him taken during the wars in the former Yugoslavia that he covered for the Times, but that’s not the exact feeling he described. “I had a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning,” he explained to my friend and colleague Bob Abernethy in a June 2003 interview. “I had a sense of ennoblement. There is a rush in war. And it’s very hard, if not impossible, to re-create this feeling in anything else.”

War correspondents are well known for seeking that rush—although Anthony Shadid was wired differently. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist died a week ago after suffering an asthma attack while reporting on the conflict in Syria for the Times. (Yesterday two more journalists, an American working for The Sunday Times of London and a French photographer, died in shelling there by Syrian security forces.) Shadid did not like being called a “war” correspondent. “I don’t enjoy covering war,” he told an interviewer last year. But he did want to cover the Middle East, and he explained that when conflict becomes part of that story, “then I feel obligated to cover it.”

In one of the tributes following the tragedy, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post felt a need to point out that Shadid was “no adrenaline junkie.” The contrast with other battlefield scribes was implicit. Recounting times when Shadid (who died at 43) was shot and kidnapped while going after stories, Chandrasekaran added, “He did it because he wanted to know what was really happening. And that couldn’t be gleaned from a distance.”

Hedges’s book, on the other hand, is in part a chronicle of compulsion and exhilaration. His ultimate verdict on war has far less to do with glorification than with indictment, but as he described in the interview with Abernethy (adapted in a book that Bob and I did, The Life of Meaning):

In every conflict I’ve covered, you reach a point—and I think I reached this point certainly in El Salvador—where you feel that it’s better to live for one intoxicating, empowering moment than ever go back to the dull routine of ordinary life, and if your own death is the cost of that, then that’s a cost you’re willing to accept.

Almost inseparable from the addictiveness, in Hedges’s treatment, is the sense of meaning and purpose. He’s not just talking about war correspondents. He refers to the kind of meaning that soldiers find when they’re tested in battle, and that the civilian Serbs of Sarajevo found when they paraded in the streets at the outbreak of war against their ancient enemies, the Croats. On both sides in the Balkans, “people were ecstatic,” he recalled in the interview.

 A kind of euphoria often grips a country in wartime. And war is, of course, the very opposite of that. It is a bit like the beautiful nymph in the fairy tale that seduces you, and when you kiss it, it inhales the vapors of the underworld.

Just War = Good War?

Here’s where meaning drifts toward madness. And that is the fate of deadly force as portrayed also by some of the most compelling theological figures of the past few generations. Pope John Paul II, for example, was not known to wax meaningful about the ecstasies of war. He sounded more like a French existentialist when he spoke of war as “an adventure with no return,” and as always a “defeat for humanity.” John Paul’s was quite nearly a pacifist pontificate.

How far have these sentiments traveled from the classical Christian just-war theory? Not as far as they might seem.

St. Augustine, the architect of that intellectual tradition, believed that war could be morally justified under exceptional circumstances, but that doesn’t mean he believed in such a thing as a “good war,” as World War II has been called. Phillip Cary, a philosophy professor at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and an astute interpreter of Augustine, has thrown light on this fine distinction in his lectures and writings. Cary told me a few years ago that the post-9/11 rallying cry might be, “Fight in good conscience. The terrorists are the bad guys.” But he added that Augustine would say differently, “Fight in bad conscience. The terrorists are human beings and sinners just like you.”

It is a tragic and paradoxical place that war inhabits, in such a theological view—morally inescapable at times, but scarcely virtuous. …read more