We’ve reached the tenth anniversary of the launching of the Iraq war. It’s easy to look back on that time and blame the Bush administration, various politicians, and media pundits for selling the war to a credulous population still reeling from the attacks on September 11, 2001.
But according to Chris Hedges this would be a mistake. Mr. Hedges was a war correspondent for 15 years, and in his 2002 book War is a Force that Gives Life Meaning he tells how war brings a sense of purpose and comradeship to people. He noticed that at the end of a war, people felt a sense of deflation. Even those who were the victims of the violence felt this emptiness. Yes, life is safer when the war is over, but it seems flat and stale. There is an intoxication to war, an addictive adrenaline rush of living life fully.
Mr. Hedges shows how leaders bring about war to solidify their position or prop up a failing regime, but he also shows that it is wrong to think that citizens are blameless in the calculus of war and peace.
For most of human history, the force that gave life meaning was survival. Since the very beginning of life on this planet the meaning of life was to survive and to reproduce.
At a certain point religion emerged as a force that gave life meaning. People believed that the gods had arranged the world and everyone had their place and purpose.
When nation-states emerged five centuries ago, kings learned that there was nothing like war to solidify a people’s identification with the concept of “country.”
We saw it in this country after 9/11. Anyone too young to remember Pearl Harbor finally got a lesson in how an enemy attack can bring a country to an almost complete unity of purpose. I can remember thinking, sometime right after the attack, that this was blowback for the things the U.S. had done in the Middle East over the previous decades. But this thought was unsayable at the time. Bill Maher was kicked off television for a couple of years for daring to say that flying into a skyscraper was not the act of a coward.
Mr. Hedges writes about living in Argentina before the Falklands War in the early 1980s. The ruling junta was faltering, and there was widespread and open discontent with the regime amongst the educated classes. But as soon as the army invaded the Falkland Islands and claimed them for Argentina, all dissent ceased and the entire populace united behind the government. No one spoke against the junta, even in private, and Mr. Hedges felt that, as a foreigner, if he had said anything negative he would have been physically attacked.
The sense of victimhood and unity brought by 9/11 was exploited by the Bush administration to sell the Iraq war. My husband can clearly remember how CNN had the sound of war drums accompanying their news stories during the “march to war” ten years ago.
Obviously leaders of governments use their power to manipulate people into war, but we the people are manipulatable. Why? Because so many of our lives are empty of meaning and purpose. This emptiness is reflected in the large number of people taking anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications in this country.
The human race desperately needs a new vision, a sense of purpose that is constructive, not destructive like war. How about working together to build a sustainable global society of opportunity and equality for all?
As a coda, in this time of budget deficit hysteria, let’s not forget how much the Iraq war has contributed to the federal debt. The Bush administration estimated the cost at $50 billion (do you remember officials saying, “it will pay for itself with oil revenues,” and the firing of the person who estimated the cost at $100-200 billion?). In 2008 economist Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the true cost of the war would be $3 trillion when long-term care for veterans and interest on the debt were factored in. In 2010 he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post saying $3 trillion was looking optimistic.
Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies released a “Cost of War” study that raises the price tag to $6 trillion. Mother Jones has a graph that breaks down where the money goes.
The Bush administration and Republican-controlled Congress never included the costs of war in their budgets so all of this is going on the national credit card. Just remember this when you hear a Republican talk about fiscal responsibility.