Is A Force That
Gives Us Meaning
By David Swanson
24 October, 2007
you haven't already, you really should read Chris Hedges' book "War
Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." The portrait of war and wartime
propaganda and emotion is brilliant and deadly accurate. But the headline
is misleading. War does not give us lasting solid self-assured meaning.
War gives us a temporary high that is rooted in desperate self-deception.
Hedges' book carries on the cover a photo of people with candles and
U.S. flags, holding hands, eyes closed, mouths open. These people are
smoking crack, they're taking a two-week cruise of the Caribbean, they're
on stage at American Idol, they're kneeling in church, they're tapping
shoes in airport men's rooms. These people are escaping from their lives,
not building lives that mean something to them.
Hedges describes war as a
drug for those who participate, an adrenaline rush, a life and death
struggle of great danger, and a noble cause that unites participants
in the closest bonds of comradeship – at least until the day it's
over. Survivors of an attack can be brought together as well. Following
9-11, New Yorkers were remarkably friendly. And residents of an imperial
homeland can get a rush of nationalistic heebie jeebies watching bombs
explode in someone else's country via satellite. But none of it ever
amounts to meaning anything you might call "meaning" after
the thrill is gone, after the yellow ribbons have rotted or choked the
trees, after the lies have been exposed, after the veterans have been
moved off the park benches in the nice parts of town.
If it were true that the
occupation of Iraq gave Americans meaning, then 70 percent of Americans
wouldn't oppose it, wealthy kids and members of the Free Republic would
sign up to participate, the children of presidents and senators would
want in on the meaningful action, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
would be replaced by Post Meaning Fulfillment Syndrome. Just on the
level of friendship and social bonding, it is far easier in America
to find people who oppose the occupation of Iraq than people who support
it. When I wear a T-shirt that says "Impeach" I can walk past
a group of strangers and get applause. I've never seen a T-shirt that
said "Iraq War: Keep it Going."
The majority of Americans
who favor peace are a brotherhood and a sisterhood. Some of us have
experienced that fact in Crawford, Texas, and at peace events all over
the country. But the fact that we see so many familiar faces at these
events is an indication of how many people are missing out. Medical
studies have found that people who participate in mass protests are
happier than other people. No study has found the same for people who
participate in wars. I think this is because mass demonstrations for
peace and justice involve something more than solidarity and camaraderie.
They also involve the knowledge of working for the right end through
the right means. What gives a life meaning is the awareness that you
have dedicated your life to working to improve the world, not just at
the end of a strategic sadistic adventure, but in every bit of the work
you do. When you work for peace and justice, a little work does a little
good, and a lot does a lot of good. And, while even your utmost exertion
can fail, you know you will have done no harm, you will have set the
right example, and you will have refused to sit silently by as crimes
Peace and justice work breeds
and is suited to workaholics, but it works for everyone else as well.
It demands discipline, but discipline driven by free and independent
thought, not discipline subservient to someone else's commands. And
the opportunities for leadership and responsibility are there for the
taking. Start devoting a few hours a week to peace and justice activism
in your neck of the woods, and you will very quickly find yourself needed
and valued. In a few rare cases, you will also find yourself monetarily
rewarded, but probably not. For the most part, those making big bucks
in organizations claiming to stand for peace are actually working in
front groups for political parties, groups that entirely lack the solidarity
of the peace and justice family, groups that use veterans and military
families only somewhat less cruelly and cynically than do the warmakers.
Smaller monetary compensation can be found, however, and the other rewards
make up the difference. The brotherhood and sisterhood you feel as part
of a movement for peace and justice is far greater than any you can
know as a nationalist, because it includes the people of the world,
notably the people of Iraq.
Peace and justice activism,
when it is serious, involves sacrifice and risk. Soldiers who refuse
illegal orders risk prison. Citizens who engage in civil disobedience
risk jail. And, increasingly, ordinary exercising of the right to free
speech risks fines and other punishments. We also now collectively face
the risk of state-based and non-state-based attacks on us in response
to our government's policies. We face nuclear annihilation, global warming,
and the declaration of complete martial law. We face the increased use
of detention, torture, and murder. We face a growing difficulty and
danger in doing what we do for peace and freedom. And we face the possibility
of great glory and fame as our rewards. When Senator Chris Dodd stood
up in the Senate and began the work of blocking a bill to legalize unconstitutional
spying, he effectively put back the Fourth Amendment that we had lost,
he effectively became a founding father of our nation, and every citizen
who built the pressure to force him to act became a hero – some
of them widely recognized, others less so. But recognition develops
and shifts over time. We honor more the men who wrote our Constitution
than those who fought the war against England that preceded it.
Principally, though, I think
the peace movement has two central advantages over the war movement.
First, it has much better music: http://afterdowningstreet.org/songs
Second, it's co-ed, and the relationships between men and women tend
not to involve harassment, assault, or command rape.
Maybe it's time that we grew
up as a nation. Maybe it's time we joined hands, locked elbows, and
forced our Congress to impeach, not for oral sex, but to restore our
Bill of Rights. Maybe it's time we made proper use of the positive force
of nonviolent action. Maybe it's time we stopped pledging to flags,
praying to lords, saluting commanders, obeying authorities, and bowing
before our televisions. Maybe it's time we shut down the Washington
crime machine under the banner "No War, No Warming" –
Maybe it's time we took over
the country with a massive collective meaning-filled movement for peace
Bob Dylan said of individuals
what he could have said of us collectively: if we're not busy being
born, we're busy dying. Let's stop dying. Let's do it together. Let's
do it this year.
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