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The Memory of Violence

A Half-Review and Commentary on Violence

This is Memorial Day, a day on which we are supposed to remember those who have fallen in our wars. But what kind of memory is this, and what are the effects of this memory? Are we going to remember what actually happened, or some sort of heroic myth?  And what is this memory -- and how we remember it -- going to do to us?  

Those are some of the issues in Chris Hedgesí excellent book (a best-seller written in 2002), War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, of which this is a half-review. (Why this is a "half-review" I will discuss below.) Hedges is a war correspondent, and the bookís title makes it sound as if he might actually be defending war, but this is emphatically not the case. On the other hand, while Hedges stresses all the horrible things about war, he says early on that heís not a pacifist.  But that doesn't seem to stop the force of his arguments that war is a blinding force; indeed, it seems to add to his credibility.  

Hedges' arguments do not merely concern violence in war, but the effects of such violence on ourselves and on our culture.  Today, violence is not just against other humans, but against animals and indeed all of nature.  He has an important message, probably deeper than even he understands.   

The Excitement and Myth of Violence

Violence is horrible, but it also excites. Many people remember the fascination that the September 11 attacks had: we sat in front of the TV, watching the same images of planes slamming into buildings, and buildings collapsing, all day. We couldnít get away, we couldnít think about anything else.

However, you can "overdo" violence. Obviously you can overdo it by actually being violent, but you can also "overdo" it by watching it and dwelling on it. Violence and images of violence have different effects on different people; some people are more sensitive than others. The effects creep up on you. You think to yourself: "Itís horrible, but I can watch it without being affected." But then you notice that you are affected.

The Godfather

The first time I can remember being disturbed by images of violence was when I saw The Godfather. Yes, the Vietnam war was terrible, but you mostly saw fairly sanitized images of that. Many of the killings in The Godfather seemed so senseless, and I had only marginal sympathy with any of the characters to begin with; and then came the ending, which was even more violent than the rest of the movie. I came out of the movie thinking, "this was really well acted, but I didnít like it." But other people seemed to like it, wanted to see it again, and looked forward to the sequel. And the sequels were popular too! This was really bizarre, and ever since then I have made a rule to stay away from violent movies. (I made an exception a couple of years ago and saw the 2000 movie Gladiator, again because I was curious to see how it depicted ancient Rome, and because it got good reviews as well produced and well acted. Mistake.)

The Violence of War

Part of me feels that it is my civic duty to be well informed. Shouldnít we be informed about violence?  So now I turn to Hedges' book -- at least, the part which I read.   

Hedges, as a war correspondent, can tell a lot of interesting war stories.  In one case there is a wounded, dying soldier who lies there bleeding, calling out for "mama." Another incident recounts soldiers taunting children to incite them to throw stones, and then when the stones are hurled, the soldiers turn to shoot and kill a number of them. He tells of one soldier in the former Yugoslavia in a battle situation who was going through a town when he heard a door open. He wheeled around and fired, only to find that he had killed a twelve-year-old girl.

Hedges emphasizes that this is typical of how war operates. Basically, war is stupid, bloody, messy, and meaningless. Its excitement and danger gives a sort of drug-like "high" that gives you an intense feeling of meaning -- thus the title of the book -- but like a drug high, it turns out to be all an illusion in the end, leaving death, suffering, and destruction all around, with psychologically burned-out survivors.

After I read the introduction and first chapter, I noticed that the book made me feel really uneasy.  It made me feel angry and depressed.  I had to admire the writing, the realism, and the logic -- but the feeling of uneasiness continued unabated.

Suddenly, about halfway through the book, it came to me: this was the same feeling that I had from watching The Godfather

In fact, it was also similar to another feeling -- what I felt from watching slaughterhouse videos, videos produced mostly by animal rights activists to document the horrible conditions food animals live and die in.  Most people wouldn't make the connection between this kind of slaughter and the slaughter of war, but to me (as a vegetarian) it was obvious.

And at this point, I put down the book and stopped reading.  (I did  skip ahead and read the final chapter to see if Hedges had any startling new conclusions.  He didn't; it was something about love and death and The Iliad.)  

So this is a half-review: I can confidently say that the first part of the book was good (and the last chapter). I donít think Hedges has anything more to tell us.  (If he does, will someone please let me know?)  I think I get the point, and I don't think I need to read the rest of the book.  

Slaughterhouse Videos

At this point I have to back up and explain that I am a vegetarian and what a "slaughterhouse video" is. In 1974, I first started experimenting with vegetarianism, but I went back and forth with eating meat.  Then in 1977 I read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. It has some pretty graphic stuff about factory farms, but Singer is different from Hedges because he provides some philosophical framing of the issue. Since it had taken me so long to become a vegetarian, even though the book was a bit disturbing I kept reading the book, and made myself finish. It seemed to "take," and Iíve been vegetarian (now vegan) ever since.

A few years later, with the zeal of the new convert, I ran into PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) which at that time was just forming. They would get together for meetings attended by just a handful of people (usually under a dozen), and as part of the meetings, weíd always see a slaughterhouse video. They had one which was their favorite for a while -- it was actually put out by the government and was demonstrating proper slaughter practices. At first I watched with interest (Iíd never seen the actual slaughter process previously), then with loyalty (thinking that it would make me a more committed vegetarian), but finally with disgust. Why am I watching this?  I mean, it's disgusting and horrible, and I'm not only vegetarian, but I'm an activist, trying to get others to be vegetarians.  What more do you want?

I felt myself going from outrage to becoming desensitized by the killing. But I didnít want to be desensitized. I basically wanted to feel horror at the killing of animals.  It's horrible, I wanted to be horrified. 

Not everyone would choose this.  Obviously anyone working in a slaughterhouse wouldn't want this.  Michael Pollan says about killing animals that it is a disturbing act, but that he got used to it surprisingly quickly. He, in effect, has chosen to be desensitized. You can imagine that if you were in a situation where you had to kill animals or eat meat to survive, you might deliberately do this. But I wasn't, so I stopped watching slaughterhouse videos.

PETA, however, shows these videos to this day. I was at a recent vegetarian event where a PETA spokesperson gave a pep talk to the "believers," and part of it was showing a slaughterhouse video, right there. A number of people walked out. PETA probably doesnít mind that: they probably imagine (correctly) that most of the people who are walking out are doing so because they are disgusted with the barbarity they are seeing. In short, whether you walk out or stay to see their slaughterhouse video, you at least agree that it really is barbaric.

The Distorting Effects of Desensitization

I have to say that there is a certain virtue in the "shock treatment" to get people to become vegetarian.  In a milder form (Singerís Animal Liberation), itís what made me a vegetarian. However, I am concerned about what repeated showings of this video is doing to vegetarians, especially vegetarian activists. I see in these showings the very same things that Hedges complains about concerning the Israelis and Palestinians, Serbs and Croats, over and over throughout history. It is the rehearsing of grievances in an inflammatory way designed to pump up people to do something about it.

One of the important points that Hedges makes in his book is that in a time of war, "atrocity stories" play an important role.  They prove the justness of our own cause, and the evil nature of the enemy.  It also pumps up the enthusiasm for our cause, and promotes a consensus of belief among the nation.  But these stories also tend to blind us to any details which might either disconfirm this overall picture, or lead us to a greater understanding of the underlying humanity of the opponent.  It also makes it difficult to raise issues which buck the overall consensus, even when this consensus may not directly bear on the justness of our cause.  The atrocity stories lend an urgency to the matter, which leads to our suppressing any normal doubts that one might be led to express.  During the Vietnam war, I heard stories told by supporters and opponents of the war about how the Americans (or the Communists) were bayoneting babies.  People were suspicious of you just because you had long hair -- or just because you didn't, it worked both ways. 

This same thing is happening in the animal rights movement.  The preoccupation with violence has the same effect on the animal rights movement as taking drugs. It pumps up the movement, it allows us to create our own myths, and it promotes uniformity of belief with the ranks.  

PETA wants to make you mad. If they make meat-eaters mad at them, that doesnít really matter. They want to make their supporters mad. They do this by flashing the atrocities on the screen, followed by statements like, "this is going on right now, thousands of animals every minute, day in and day out." There is the same adrenaline rush that soldiers get in war time, generating the same sort of lock-step mind-numbing synchronicity of belief, the insistence on moral purity, seeing issues in black and white, that now terrorizes the vegetarian movement.  

I donít think that PETA (and other, similar organizations who use similar methods) is even aware of this whole dynamic. Itís likely that they, like Michael Pollan, have desensitized themselves to the violence, though PETA and Michael Pollan do this in the service of  completely different ends.  There is the same downward spiral of verbal violence that you see in the Middle East enacted physically -- with different sides bombing targets or shooting rockets in the otherís backyards.

I have to ask: is this the way? I sort of envisioned the vegetarian movementís progress as a slow cultural mind-meld between vegetarians and meat-eaters. Vegetarians would point out that the food was pretty good, and besides, itís healthier and more environmental, and then perhaps gently point out that no animals have to die for you to eat this way. In short, I saw the ethical issue as a sweetener to close the "deal," rather than a verbal hammer to bludgeon meat-eaters into submission out of sheer horror. When I read Animal Liberation I already knew that vegetarianism was healthier and more environmental.

Some people can look at violence without being affected that much; but no matter what your tolerance, there is a limit. Sooner or later, you are going to become desensitized to this violence.  You are going to see meat-eaters and the meat industry as cruel.  There will be reaction in kind; meat-eaters are just going to see the brutality of slaughter as a propaganda device rather than as a reality. The vegetarian activists will simply see confirmation of the immorality and evil characteristic of meat-eating and meat-eaters generally, and so it goes -- anger will be the only thing that remains.

Typically people deny that this is affecting them.  Repeatedly seeing violence, you continue to think to yourself, "thatís awful," but don't think it has affected your judgment.  You have to come face to face with your own physical reaction before you realize that it has crept up on you and taken you over, like a demon which has snuck into your soul without noticing.

If all this emotional confrontation was going to lead to some blissful ending whereby a vegetarian world would result, Iíd put up with it. In fact, Iíd probably promote it. But it isnít. When you numb yourself this way by constantly feeding yourself the drug of violence -- even if itís other peopleís violence, of which you disapprove, that you see -- it affects your judgment.

A Few Cases in Point

Here are a few examples of distortion of reality.  Exhibit A here is PETAís campaign against Al Gore, "Too chicken to go vegetarian? Meat is the #1 cause of global warming."  

Sure, meat-eating is a very important factor in global warming.  But as Iíve said elsewhere, PETA's claim is just inaccurate: meat causes about 18% of all global warming emissions. Yes, itís the #1 cause, as long as you break all the other causes down into units which are each smaller than 18%. What the "#1 cause" is, is an artifact of how we break down the data.  PETA just doesn't understand this fairly simple point, and neither do their followers.  

Not only is their campaign inaccurate, but itís insensitive to the reality of the situation. Itís a fact that global warming threatens humanity with extinction. Al Gore -- regardless of his real motivations or possible "cowardice" -- is perceived as being one of the foremost people speaking out against this massive power structure which promotes global warming. No wonder that Glenn Beck, the notorious ultra-conservative commentator, was willing to interview PETAís representatives on this issue.  Beck understands what PETA doesn't: what people understand about PETA's campaign is not that it is a criticism of meat-eating, but that it is a criticism of environmentalists

And yet at the recent vegetarian festival that I went to, Sarah Kramer -- author of "How it All Vegan" and a popular and entertaining speaker -- repeated PETAís line and their attacks on Al Gore. It was loudly applauded.  No one has actually studied the issue: they are all just repeating something they heard somewhere.  

I might also cite PETA's "Iíd rather go naked than wear fur" campaign, which has a similar "intoxicating" effect on their own followers, the implications of which I think they are completely unaware.  I'm picking on PETA because they're so easy to take pokes at.  There are other groups that are just as oblivious to reality.  

Activist vegans generally have a blind spot about honey.  When someone suggests that it might be all right to moderate our disapproval of honey -- surely one of the most marginal of all "vegan" issues -- it was met with immediate, vehement, and repeated denial.  We have to have purity in the movement.  I have discussed the question of whether vegans can eat honey at some length.  Let's put it this way: when Michael Greger raised doubts about this question some time ago, a lot of people heatedly replied to Dr. Greger's suggestions who clearly had not even bothered to read what he had written.

And then there's the whole question of the McDonald's lawsuit over beef in the french fries.  In this case, some vegetarian groups attacked other vegetarian groups for "sleeping with the enemy."  This rather doubtful charge, and its casual acceptance or at least non-denial by so many activists, created bad feelings within the movement that may take years to repair. 

In all of these cases, you see the same basic problem: there is the insistence of total conformity to an ideal to the point of fanaticism.  There is basic failure to look at the realities of the situation, which are messy, complicated, and not straightforward at all.  It is our perception of violence that is fueling this.  The atrocity stories have created a feeling of urgency and the need for a uniformity of belief, the very thing which we see in societies which go to war.  

Sure, the situation is urgent.  Sure, these atrocities against animals are real.  But where are we going with this attitude? Can't they see that the same arguments that they are making against atrocities towards animals can and are being made against atrocities to humans in warfare -- with hardly any effect?  (Think: "Iraq."  Think: "Darfur.")  And can't they see that war is, uh, still a viable and growing profession?  We need something deeper and more subtle than just verbal bludgeoning of people with the facts of animal cruelty.  Even with human cruelty, it doesn't seem to be getting very far.

Get off the stuff, please, and wake up to whatís happening around you, what other people are thinking and doing.

The Justification For War

Now letís get back to Chris Hedges. One thing I like about him is that he is honest about the effects of war on himself, even though he himself is an agent of good, by reporting on the war and exposing war for what it really is. He tells the story of being at the airport when he left El Salvador. He was angered by a presumed slight on the part of an airline clerk and leapt over the counter to attack him, and they both left each other bleeding. Hedges wasnít actually perpetrating any atrocities in El Salvador, but just witnessing it had an effect on him anyway.

And so I return to my original question, given all this horror, what precisely is the justification for war? Why isnít Chris Hedges a pacfist? I want to know.

He gives two examples at the very beginning of a (presumably) justified war, a war with more net good than bad: the interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia, and Ulysses Grant saving the Union. Sorry, I donít agree in either case. You sign up for a unit, not a mission. If you volunteered, you might be sent to Bosnia, but you might have been sent to Iraq as well. The hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq now probably outweigh the people we saved by intervening in Bosnia the way we did.  

And saving the Union? Excuse me? Is the Union worth saving? Didnít the Civil War, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, actually delay the end of slavery? The situation of blacks in the south may have been worse in the 1880's than it was in the 1850's, and this bloodletting never really resolved our underlying racial issues. It wasnít until the 1960's that we had basic civil rights, and economic equality still eludes us, nearly 150 years later. With the mechanization of agriculture, slavery would have soon become uneconomical anyway. 

Any possible good we might have done in these wars has been more than undone by the First World War, Vietnam, Iraq, and our brutal exploitation of the environment and our encouragement to others to do the same.

You do not fight in this war or that war: you support a machine, the state, as it carries out its mission. Sure, the state's actions may have good effects every now and then, but as a whole, it is a brutal and self-perpetuating process. Suppose that I told you that during the Second World War in France, there was once a case where a soldier helps a crying little girl find her parents and that she lives to survive the war as a result. Does this one good action justify all the killing in the Second World War?  Suppose that I told you that the soldier was German?

The world is spiraling out of control. Environmental destruction, resource depletion, and global warming, are having an effect now.  Iím not sure if youíre keeping track of these things, but the price of a barrel of oil hit $130 recently, and the annual rate of inflation of oil has been about 100% for the past few weeks. Of course there will be a price correction at some point. The correction will come when we enter a full-blown economic downturn -- when itís too expensive for a lot of people to consume that much oil. Oil will go down in price when its rise has broken  the economy. 

And we havenít even hit peak oil yet! What are things going to be like then? We need to think about this before we get drawn into the next downward spiral of violence.

Nature and Humans

Tolstoy said -- "as long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields." Yet most people miss the connection here. Most pacifists are not vegetarians, and most vegetarians are not pacifists.

Violence against animals is like war; it is just part and parcel of the urge to power over nature instead of power over other people.  The same control that we have over humans in war time, the ability to destroy and burn, is the control that we seek to exert over nature. It is that "aphrodisiac" of violence which comes to play in exerting power over nature which makes meat so appealing to those who want it and eat it.  In terms of taste, texture, or nutritional value, plant foods have everything that animal foods have; but we donít see any primeval urge to eat tofu burgers. It has to be a dead animal or it just doesnít have the same excitement and "appeal." But when we see the reality of this mastery over nature, when we lose the mythic quality of the violence and have to stare the reality in the face, it is awful, if we havenít de-sensitized ourselves to it.

We ought to reflect on the reality of what we have lost, not the myth of what we have gained, on Memorial Day.

Keith Akers
May 26, 2008