War is the Greatest Evil, An Interview with Chris Hedges

Hedges has written another book about the subject titled War is the Greatest Evil. In this new book, Hedges draws on his firsthand experience to tell us the story of the hidden costs of war and what it does to individuals, families, communities, and nations.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

Steve Skrovan: Welcome to the Ralph Nader Radio Hour. My name is Steve Skrovan, along with my co-host, David Feldman. Hello, David, how are you?

David Feldman: Very good. Hello.

Steve Skrovan: And of course, the man of the hour, Ralph Nader, is with us. Hello, Ralph.

Ralph Nader: Hello, everybody.

Steve Skrovan: All right, we have another great show for you today, and we’re going to start with one of my favorite guests who’s been on the show before. Many journalists and pundits cover war from a safe distance in a clean studio. Few have experienced the gritty reality of war like Chris Hedges. He spent nearly 20 years overseas as a correspondent for the New York Times getting to know war up close and personal. He wrote eloquently about it in his award-winning War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning where he states, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years.”

Today, the war in Ukraine is raging. Establishment news outlets offer of generals and State Department officials to tell us the partisan, political and strategic story of war that seems only to fuel that addiction and keep us rooting for “our team.” In contrast, Hedges has written another book about the subject titled War is the Greatest Evil. In this new book, Hedges draws on his firsthand experience to tell us the story of the hidden costs of war and what it does to individuals, families, communities, and nations. We look forward to talking to Chris about how we, as a society and as individuals, can possibly overcome this ultimately destructive addiction.


David Feldman: Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He is the host of The Chris Hedges Report, and he is a prolific author— his latest book is out now from Seven Stories Press, The Greatest Evil Is War. Welcome back to the Ralph Nader Radio Hour, Chris Hedges.

Chris Hedges: Thank you.

Ralph Nader: Welcome back indeed, Chris. I see this book of yours as a sequel–an update and expansion in terms of its impact of Marine General Smedley Butler’s book in the late 1930s called War is a Racket, which people are still reading. And he got the Congressional Medal of Honor twice. And he basically said he was a tool for Citibank, for the oil companies in the Caribbean, Central America, East Asia. It’s one of the greatest confessions. And he had some photographs at the end of the book on the grizzly effects of war, so he didn’t spare either words or visuals. And your book is an expansion of that theme.

And as I said to you earlier, before the program, Chris, and I want our listeners to know that there’s no way to paraphrase what Chris has written. So I’ve asked Chris to read two and a half pages at the beginning of his book, The Greatest Evil is War, and then we can discuss the book and its impact. And I have some interesting comparisons for you, listeners, to show that ultimately the problem is that the people of this country are not applying their value systems into the realm of politics and economics. Go ahead, Chris.

Chris Hedges: Thanks, Ralph. Preemptive war, whether in Iraq or Ukraine, is a war crime. It does not matter if the war is launched on the basis of lies and fabrications, as was the case in Iraq, or because of the breaking of a series of agreements with Russia, including the promise by Washington not to extend NATO beyond the borders of a unified Germany, not to deploy thousands of NATO troops in Central and Eastern Europe, and not to meddle in the internal affairs of nations on the Russia’s border, as well as the refusal to implement the Minsk peace agreement. The invasion of Ukraine would, I expect, never have happened if these promises had been kept. Russia has every right to feel threatened, betrayed, and angry. But to understand is not to condone. The invasion of Ukraine, under post-Nuremberg laws, is a criminal war of aggression.

I know the instrument of war. War is not politics by other means. It is demonic. I spent two decades as a war correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, where I covered the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. I carry within me the ghosts of dozens of those swallowed up in the violence, including my close friend, Reuters correspondent Kurt Schork, who was killed in an ambush in Sierra Leone with another friend, Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora.

I know the chaos and disorientation of war, the constant uncertainty and confusion. In a firefight you are only aware of what is happening a few feet around you. You desperately, and not always successfully, struggle to figure out where the firing is coming from to avoid being hit.

I have felt the helplessness and paralyzing fear, which, years later, descend on me like a freight train in the middle of the night, leaving me wrapped in coils of terror, my heart racing, my body dripping with sweat.

I have heard the wails of those convulsed by grief as they clutch the bodies of friends and family, including children. I hear them still. It does not matter the language—Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, Dinka, Serbo-Croatian, Albanian, Ukrainian, Russian—death cuts through the linguistic barriers.

I know what wounds look like—legs blown off, heads imploded into a bloody, pulpy mass, gaping holes in stomachs, pools of blood, cries of the dying, sometimes for their mothers. And the smell. The smell of death. The supreme sacrifice made for flies and maggots.

I was beaten by Iraqi and Saudi secret police. I was taken prisoner by the Contras in Nicaragua, who radioed back to their base in Honduras to see if they should kill me, and again in Basra after the first Gulf War in Iraq, never knowing if I would be executed, under constant guard and often without food, drinking out of mud puddles.

The primary lesson in war is that we as distinct individuals do not matter. We become numbers, fodder, objects. Life, once precious and sacred, becomes meaningless, sacrificed to the insatiable appetite of Mars. No one in wartime is exempt.

The landscape of war is hallucinogenic. Eugene Sledge calls it “the kaleidoscope of the unreal.” It defies comprehension. War, like the Holocaust, as Barbara Foley wrote, is “unknowable.” “Its full dimensions are inaccessible to the ideological framework that we have inherited from the liberal era.”

You have no concept of time in a firefight—a few minutes a few hours. War, in an instant, obliterates homes and communities, all that was once familiar, and leaves behind smoldering ruins and a trauma that you carry for the rest of your life. I have tasted enough of war, enough of my own fear, my body turned to jelly, to know that war is always evil, the purest expression of death, dressed up in patriotic cant about liberty and democracy and sold to the naïve as a ticket to glory, honor, and courage. It is a toxic and seductive elixir. “Those who survive, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “struggle afterwards to reinvent themselves and their universe, which, on some level, will never make sense again.”

Walt Whitman, who tended wounded soldiers in hospitals during the Civil War, wrote in a heading in his notebook: “The real war will never get in the books.” “Its interior history will not only never be written,” Whitman argues, “its practicality, minutiae of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested.”

Ralph Nader: Listeners, I just want to give you some comparisons here. This book came out Seven Stories Press, but they do use Random House as a distributor, so they can get into all the bookstores if there are orders and they can get into all the online vendors as well. A book that came out in 2012 and 2013 called American Sniper, which is a book by an expert sniper for the US military in Iraq, and was turned into a movie; ten years later, on Amazon, it ranks ahead of Chris Hedges’s book. This is just an example that bloodthirsty military action books sell far more than books that challenge the grizzly evil and crimes of war. It’s books of aggression, violence, military prowess that gained the bestseller list. You’ve analyzed the public attitudes on this and thought about it. Why do you think this is so? It’s so contrary to the survival instinct of human beings.

Chris Hedges: Because those books are a celebration of us as a people, as a nation. And challenging that self-exaltation, which books like mine do, is unpleasant because it forces us to ask questions about ourselves and our nation that are deeply troubling and uncomfortable. And people prefer the self-adulation, the self-adulatory myths. This is what every war movie that Hollywood makes – Saving Private Ryan, and doesn’t matter what it is–they prefer that self-adulation, because in the end, it’s really a celebration of us. I think that’s why.

Ralph Nader: Do you think it’s also that the warlike forces in our society have seized the symbols of patriotism. They’ve seized the flag; they’ve seized the anthems; they’ve seized the awards. There’s a Congressional Medal of Honor for soldiers involved in war. There’s not a Congressional Medal of Honor for the peacemakers/the conflict avoiders. And once they control that meaning of patriotism, it becomes an intimidating factor. And people who otherwise would step up and speak out are afraid to go against that symbol with all its holidays and all its marching bands, etcetera, for fear of being accused of unpatriotic behavior or worse, anything to that?

Chris Hedges: Yes, I think in any militaristic society that’s exactly what happens. So even Robert E. Lee, who was a traitor fighting for one of the worst causes that any war ever embraced, has full portrait in a Confederate uniform that’s hanging in the library in West Point. And not to mention the fact that there are all sorts of parts of West Point that are named after him. So it is a celebration of those Marshall qualities, which you’re right, are fused with the idea of patriotism. I mean, what is a patriot? A patriot, I would argue, was someone who works to make the country a better place, which would preclude a figure like Robert E. Lee. And probably all sorts of other military figures as well. Martin Luther King would be, in my mind, a patriot, but that’s a different definition of patriotism. So much of this hijacking of the iconography and symbols and language of the nation and the highest form of patriotism lies with the media and, of course, with the entertainment industry and it’s very hard to fight against.

Ralph Nader: Yeah, well, there are Veterans for Peace in Iraq. Veterans that are trying to do their bit, but it starts in the schools too. It starts right in the first grade.

Chris Hedges: Yes, right, exactly. That’s right.

Ralph Nader: This book is very hard to describe, listeners, because it has a diverse impact in its contents. It’s not just a one-note type book symbolized by its title, The Greatest Evil is War. We’re speaking with Chris Hedges. Chris, it is true historically, is it not, that militaristic societies eventually devour themselves like Sparta?

Chris Hedges: Well, or like the Athenian Empire or the Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire. Every empire ultimately devours itself. And historians like Arnold Toynbee argued that the prime reason that empires disembowel themselves is unchecked militarism. I studied classics. That was certainly true in Rome, the one million man army and the Praetorian Guard was auctioning off the position of emperor to the highest bidder; we’re not too far away from that ourselves. The Pentagon is totally out of control, hasn’t been audited for I think for a decade. Every year it gets more money, sometimes even unasked for, and it’s consuming, not only tremendous amounts of resources; technically it’s half of all discretionary spending. But when you add other programs, veteran affairs, nuclear and everything else, it’s much more than that. And of course, it’s prosecuting one military debacle after another going all the way back to Vietnam, and they’re never held accountable.

So that is traditionally how empires are one of the major factors. Depletion of natural resources, of course, is often another. But that unchecked militarism is cancerous to a civilization. And it overreaches in the end. So, as it decays, as we have decayed, it engages in more forms of military adventurism in an attempt to reclaim a lost hegemony and a lost glory and a lost power. And this was certainly true in Athens in the disastrous invasion of Sicily. I think their whole fleet was sunk. So we are following that very familiar trajectory. This is why Karl Liebknecht, a Socialist German leader in World War I, quite astutely called the German military the enemy from within. And I would argue that that’s an appropriate way to characterize the military industrial establishment in the United States.

Ralph Nader: It’s certainly drawn trillions of dollars over the years – trillions and trillions of dollars from the necessities of our domestic society, from the public works, the infrastructure, the schools, the public transit, the community health clinics, the public libraries, bridges, highways, soil conservation, the whole pollution-control investment. Now, climate disruption and foreseen pandemics, which we have starved the budgets of both the CDC and the World Health Organization. And I think a lot of our listeners may not know that the main reason we didn’t get universal health insurance under Lyndon Johnson and got Medicare and limited Medicaid was because of the money we were spending on the Vietnam War, which was a criminal war of aggression as well and never declared by the Congress.

What, Chris, would you like to highlight before we conclude? And we really would like another program more extensively because I know we’re going to get a tremendous reaction from our listeners. What points would you like to make briefly?

Chris Hedges: I would highlight the chapter of “The Pimps of War” because this is this coterie of groups and individuals, and I dealt with them all the way back when I covered the war in El Salvador for five years. Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan worked for Abrams in the State Department under the Reagan administration. And their job was really to attempt to discredit all of our reporting on the ground, because the Salvadoran death squads run out of three different military units run by the government were killing between 700 and a 1000 innocent, unarmed civilians a month. So the war industry has perpetuated these people. It doesn’t matter how many times they’re wrong – they’re wrong about Iraq, wrong about Libya, wrong about Afghanistan, and their think tanks—the Project for the new American Century, American Enterprise Institute, Foreign Policy Initiative, Institute for the Study of War, Atlantic Council, Brookings Institution—

it’s kind of like this mutant strain of an antibiotic resistant bacteria we can’t get rid of. And these people are on the airwaves. They were the people who sold us the war in Iraq, which alone should discredit anything they have to say about Ukraine. They are incredibly cavalier about the possibility of nuclear war, which they all acknowledge. Former CIA director Brennan the other day said there is now one in 25% chance of nuclear conflict that all of these people Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan, right-wing conservative William Kristol and others… and what’s interesting is that both parties are war parties.

Ralph Nader: What’s cruelly paradoxical is that you were an award-winning military correspondent and reporter on other subjects for the New York Times for over 20 years and you can’t get into the New York Times op-ed page. And your book, The Greatest Evil is War, wasn’t listed in the New York Times Book Review. On the other hand, the consummate admitted warmonger John Bolton, who was, for a limited amount of time, the security adviser on terrorism to Donald Trump, wrote a book which, said that obstruction of justice was a way of life in the Trump White House. Obstruction of justice is serious crime.

His book was reviewed in the New York Times. And he gets in op-eds in the New York Times and Washington Post. And he just admitted very recently that he’s advocated coup d’état. He advocated the bombing of North Korea, the toppling of Iranian regime by military means. A Yale Law graduate who doesn’t know about the constitutional restraints on wars that are not declared by the Congress, not to mention other international law illegalities. How do you explain that?

Chris Hedges: Well, having worked for the New York Times, it is a newspaper that will cater obsequiously to the centers of power and is extremely reticent about challenging those centers that may critique the excesses of power, but it will never critique the virtues of power. And so if a writer, such as myself, goes after the structural injustices and inequities, which include the rise of the military state, then you crossed a line they’re very hesitant to embrace because of the blowback. So there’s no blowback for being nice to John Bolton. There’s quite a bit of blowback for– I mean, you’re virtually banned from the Times. When I worked with the Times, they wouldn’t even put Chomsky’s name in the newspapers. It was not written on a wall. It wasn’t rule, but everybody knew, even if it was about linguistics. So there’s a very insidious form of censorship, but the war industry is a large advertiser, especially on the television networks. And so who you see talking about war is always former intelligence officials, Brennan, Clapper, former generals. And let’s not forget these people, although it’s not disclosed, are sitting on the boards of companies like Raytheon raking in lots of money. So they have a vast kind of personal interest in perpetuating war because they make money off of it as pointed out by (Smedley) Butler, in his speech “War is a Racket.”

Ralph Nader: Yeah, one of the only deviations from the blackout of Noam Chomsky by the New York Times was a recent lengthy interview by Ezra Klein of the New York Times on his podcast. He had Noam Chomsky on for an hour. Last question is how do you get people to impress upon their senators and representatives? Because the peace movement has got to begin turning Congress around. That’s where the appropriation funds and the neglect of saying there’s going to be no war without a declaration from Congress, comes from. How do you get them to focus on their senators and representatives? They’re back home now. They’re shaking hands. They’re going to events prior to the November election. This is a good time to get to them.

And we have a Congress Club with several hundred members who are supposed to be even more keen on impressing the many issues on this program on their two senators and representatives. How would you arouse them even more about focusing on those 535 members who represent and control the sovereign power delegated to them by the people, and who so often have turned the sovereign power against the very people themselves. Let’s say you were on the stump and you had one or two minutes to convey a motivational expression.

Chris Hedges: Well, the Democrats have to be held accountable because they are culpable. And I think we saw tremendous opposition to the Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, not particularly well covered, but they were there. And then to elect Kerry, who kind of out-Fallujahed George Bush. Remember saluting and he wouldn’t have withdrawn; everybody stopped standing up against the war industry because they thought electing Kerry would somehow make things better. However, democratic administrations are wholly in lockstep with the Republicans on militarism, and in some cases even worse, because they provide more cover. We’ve given $50 billion – I think is the amount now – to Ukraine. I mean, the whole State Department budget is only $60 billion. And not to mention, that’s about five times what we give to the EPA. So, we have to hold those who prosecute permanent war – Democrat or Republican— accountable. And I think that by surrendering to a Democratic administration in the idea that it’s “the least worst,” we weaken our power and our credibility.

Ralph Nader: Not to mention inadequate budgets to head off future pandemics and to deal with the present COVID-19 pandemic that Congress has sat on mostly the Republican opposition, I might add. So well listen, we’ve been talking with Chris Hedges, author of this concise, pulsating fact-based book, The Greatest Evil is War, Published by Seven Stories Press. Start discussions around in the neighborhood, listeners. Send copies to your library and schools. It’s a readable book. It’s not huge. It can be read in a few hours and it will never put anybody to drowsiness. What’s the best way to reach you?

Chris Hedges: chrishedges.substack.com.

Ralph Nader: That’s chrishedges.substack.com. And you also go around and you deliver speeches to various groups in the US and Canada, and they’re always very, very well attended. So keep doing what you’re doing, Chris, and to be continued.

Chris Hedges: Thanks, Ralph.

Ralph Nader: Thank you very much, Chris.

Chris Hedges: Thank you, Ralph.

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