War is a force that gives us meaning

“As long as we think abstractly,” writes Chris Hedges in his fantastic and heart-wrenching book War is a force that gives us meaning, “...as long as we find in patriotism and the exuberance of war our fulfillment [...] we will never discover who we are.” Every sentence of Hedges’s book is like this: punch after punch to the gut. In fact, the whole time I was reading his short book about war I felt that not a single sentence is wasted, almost everything is quotable.

Hedges writes about how war is a myth; we have been told that killing people is easy and clean, that war is honorable, that there are good wars and bad wars, that war can make us better people. But Hedges is not only critical of war but also the drug that fuels it: he goes to great length to argue that patriotism is one of the root causes of all this evil. Chris writes:

The military histories—which tell little of war’s reality—crowd out the wrenching tales by the emotionally maimed. Each generation again responds to war as innocents. Each generation discovers its own disillusionment—often after a terrible price. The myth of war and the drug of war wait to be tasted. The mythical heroes of the past loom over us. Those who can tell us the truth are silenced or prefer to forget. The state needs the myth, as much as it needs its soldiers and its machines of war, to survive.

That one bit, “the state needs the myth,” is what I was thinking about yesterday whilst reading Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Independence Day speech, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? Douglass writes that whilst many see the banners, the singing, the celebrations, and “the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee,” he experiences something else altogether:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.