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
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
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
May 26, 2008