Friday, March 11, 2005
These days, I’m finding it difficult to concentrate. My mind keeps jumping around: one minute, I’m sitting at my computer, next thing I know my attention has upped and wandered off out the door like a school kid playing hooky. Maybe it’s this teasing, almost-Spring weather. One day it’s bright and blue and there’s a sweetish, slightly rotten smell of thawing grass. Next day, it snows to the point of whiteout and the air is cold enough to make you weep. You feel your optimism expand and shrink like cracked old pavement as the mercury rises and falls.
But there’s something else going on. There’s something very strange about these times, which adds an uncanny undertow to everyday life. As I revolve through my appointed rounds: drink my tea, turn on the radio, meet with students, grade papers, stumble into bed, the nation is at war. Even as I pause to ask myself, “Earl Grey or Darjeeling?” lethal shots are being fired in my name. As I stuff my hands in my pockets to keep them warm while I fill up my car, someone elsewhere is being tortured.
Most of the time I just get on with things. The peremptory demands of everyday life, its relentless chores and small satisfactions, absorb all my energy and attention. It’s easy enough to skate along the giddy surface of the daily to-do list, focusing on my next project deadline.
But from time to time a news report punctures through the seamless façade and reveals that my comfortable, everyday life is the illusion, the exception. All round the globe, people are fighting in conflict after conflict: Darfur, Iraq, Northern Ireland. The lives of millions of people are dislocated by war every year: soldiers, civilians, refugees. At least 108 million people were killed in wars in the 20th century.
My grandfather was an air-raid warden in World War II. He was responsible for enforcing blackout orders in the neighbourhood, checking that no lights escaped from the houses to draw the bombers. He’d built an aviary at the bottom of his garden, full of birds. One awful night, a bomb dropped on the house down the street. My father and his parents were safe in their air raid shelter, but the little neighbour girl was killed. My grandfather never re-built his aviary. As I was reminded at my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, such memories of terror and loss shape the experiences of a whole generation.
Given the manifest horrors of war, why then do we fight? Chris Hedges, a former New York Times war correspondent, argues that war has the ghastly tendency to become its own justification. Based on his experiences reporting from bloody conflicts around the world, Hedges concludes that war exerts a seductive appeal over the hearts and minds of participants. War, he say, seems to offer people the chance to transcend the humdrum demands of everyday life, to become part of something larger and finer, a cause higher than mere individual survival. In wartime, we suspend critical analysis of our leaders’ acts, in the name of national unity. War reduces life’s moral complexity into a simple opposition between good and evil. We are purely good and the enemy embodies pure evil.
Chris Hedges’ reflections on war are controversial. He raises deep and troubling questions about human nature, questions it’s more comfortable to put aside. Next week, Hedges will be bringing these issues into our everyday life, when he visits South Bend. If you would like to hear his free public lecture, please join us on March 15th at 7 p.m. in the IUSB Student Activity Center.