As foreign correspondent for THE NEW YORK TIMES, Chris Hedges covered the Balkans, the Middle East (including the First Gulf War) and Central America. In 2002, he was a member of the team of reporters that won the Pulitzer Prize for THE NEW YORK TIMES’ coverage of global terrorism, and he went on to write the column, “Public Lives.” In this episode of NOW with Bill Moyers, he discussed his then-new book, WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING, and the human effects of war from the prospective of a journalist who has received death threats in San Salvador, been to jail in Iraq and overcome an “addiction” to war.
Next, there hasn’t been much accord among the children of God. But if human history is replete with people committing atrocities against one another in the name of God, is our democracy strong enough to remedy these tendencies? Bill Moyers hosts a roundtable discussion about 21st-Century faith.
And first, Bill talks to Lew Rockwell, a libertarian, free-market conservative and president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, an organization he founded to advocate and promote the philosophy that the solution to our fiscal and social woes begins with smaller government. Mr. Rockwell comes to NOW to discuss the long-term economic effects of war. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. If you’re thinking about money, bills, the job and your pension and not just the war you belong to the largest party in America, the party of angst. The economy’s sputtering, the DOW is down, oil prices and health costs are soaring. And over eight million people are unemployed.
The other day the Wall Street Journal ran a page one story on a worker who had sent out over 700 resumes without landing a job. What’s clear is that all the talk about tax breaks stimulating the economy is only stimulating fear about deficits. Even the White House now estimates the budget deficit will hit a record $304 billion this year. And that’s without figuring in a war, whose cost the government refuses to reveal.
With me now to talk about all this is Lew Rockwell. Mr. Rockwell is a libertarian free market conservative and President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. That’s the organization he founded to advocate and promote the philosophy that the solution to our fiscal and social woes begins with smaller government.
Mr. Rockwell has been a congressional aid, a book editor, a magazine editor, and is now the editor of his own web site. Welcome to NOW.
ROCKWELL: Bill, great to be with you.
MOYERS: Business pundits and the government have been saying for 20 months that this is not really a recession, it’s just kind of stumbling a bit. (LAUGHTER) The economy is stumbling a bit. Is it a recession?
ROCKWELL: You know, I remember back when Alfred Kahn, very funny economist, who worked for Jimmy Carter. And he referred to depression and was taken to the woodshed by Carter over this. And when he talked to the reporters afterwards he said, “I’m never gonna say that word again. I’m only gonna say the word banana. But, you know, we’re in a banana.” (LAUGHTER) So…
MOYERS: So are we in a banana?
ROCKWELL: Sure, we’re in a banana.
MOYERS: We’re in a bunch of bananas.
ROCKWELL: We’re in very serious recession. And it’s true…
MOYERS: And what does that mean?
ROCKWELL: Well, it means that the economy is shrinking. If we look at the government’s own statistics, and you have to subtract the increase in government spending, which is bad for the economy, not good.
We’re getting poorer as an economy. That’s what a recession means. For us regular people it means we’re getting poorer. And we’re gonna continue to get poorer. And I think we can all feel it. Even aside from the statistics we all feel the fear for retirements and our savings. We’re worried about our jobs. We see businesses closing.
We’re getting poorer. And if the Bush administration set out to do everything possible to make the recession longer and deeper and maybe turn it into a depression they’d be doing exactly what they’re doing now.
MOYERS: What’s keeping you awake at night?
ROCKWELL: Well, first of all, you mentioned the $304 billion deficit figure, but that’s actually a fib. Because what we always need to pay attention to is how much the national debt is going up by, which is always much more significant than the official deficit. Because the government spends money so-called off budget. And it doesn’t count in the official budget deficit.
So if we look at the actual deficit that’s going on right now it’s over $400 billion. That is the difference between income and outgo for the federal government. And again that’s without the war and the economy is heading downhill. So I think it’s very, very worrisome. Who knows what the deficit could actually be in the next fiscal year, $600 billion, $700 billion.
MOYERS: Yeah, one of my associates just handed me this story from the New York Times. The budget President Bush submitted last month should have come with a warning they’re back, deficits are reemerging as a major problem. Goldman Sachs recently raised its estimate of the federal budget deficit to $375 billion. You’re saying it could be more than that.
ROCKWELL: Oh sure. It could be — it’s already a lot more than that. And these figures are all available at the treasury, although they don’t have a nice chart to make it easy on you. But these figures are all available. It’s already more than $400 billion, the actual deficit.
I mean, just take the example of foreign aid that Bush has promised to Turkey if they come along with him on the war. That money would come out of the exchange stabilization fund as a loan. But that would not count in the official budget deficit even though it’s a debt of the federal government. So it’s again the national — the increase in the national debt and it’s very, very worrisome.
MOYERS: What does this mean to ordinary people? I mean, the words like deficits and recession come and go among economists and newspaper headline writers. But what does it mean to ordinary working people?
ROCKWELL: Well, it means trouble. Because, I mean, sometimes Republicans and the Democrats for that matter like to pretend that there’s some way to fund the government other than the two ways of taxation and inflation. Those are the only two ways they can postpone it through borrowing.
But all those have negative economic effects. And when we have deficits this size first of all it means that everybody’s worried that these are gonna be monetized.
MOYERS: Which means?
ROCKWELL: That the federal reserve will in effect print money to pay them. And that has all kinds of bad effects besides rising prices. It’s what brings on the business cycle for example. That’s what the fed did in the 1990’s, the reason that we now are in the longest deepest recession since the Cold War.
MOYERS: You worked in Washington four years as a congressional aid. Do you think everyone in Washington is in denial over the shipwreck that’s coming on this issue of deficits? Or is there a conspiracy to look the other way when the emperor passes with no clothes on?
ROCKWELL: Well, there’s both of that. But I also think the fact that, you know, these are not necessarily bad for the government. It’s bad for the people. But I think the government in these things has a very different interest. Usually in fact the opposite of what the people’s interest is.
So however they can expand government spending, and they switch between the various methods of borrowing, taxing and inflating, depending on the political climate, they are benefited. They in the interest groups who receive the dough.
MOYERS: Is this however, what free market libertarian conservatives have been wanting to put the government so much in debt that it can’t possibly raise more money to support more government spending? I mean, the conservative activist Grover Norquist was here where you’re sitting not long ago. And he says he wants to shrink the government until it can be drowned in the bathtub. And the best way to do that is just to strangle the source of money.
ROCKWELL: You know, I think this is a Republican fib as great a guy as Grover Norquist is. Because of course the government keeps growing. President Bush has expanded the federal budget by 30 percent. I mean, this is the biggest spending administration since Mr. Johnson. And it may be…
MOYERS: You wrote somewhere that Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush have a lot in common, they like to spend money.
ROCKWELL: Yeah, they do.
If we look at the facts and not the rhetoric, Republicans expand the government much more than Democrats do. If you look at the Reagan administration, the Nixon administration, both Bush administrations, there all big government operation. The smallest government guy in recent times, Jimmy Carter. Even Clinton was a smaller government guy than George Bush.
MOYERS: You advocate low taxes. Do you support Bush’s tax cut?
ROCKWELL: Well, you know, I’m all for tax cuts. I think taxes, I mean, the shorthand for taxes is wealth destruction. So certainly the fewer taxes we have the better. On the other hand the government spending has to be paid for somehow. So if he’s expanding the government at the rate that he is, at a huge rate, to talk about tax cuts it seems to me is, you know, is irresponsible. Probably the most destructive way to fund the federal government is through inflation through the federal reserve.
So actually I hate to say taxes are better than that, but yes taxes are less economically destructive than inflation. So for him to be — I think it’s highly irresponsible. I think it’s a trick to fool people. After all his previous so-`called tax cuts have yet to come into effect. They don’t even come into effect until next year. And my prediction is they won’t come into effect. They’ll be some sort of, you know, war emergency and they won’t be able to bring them into effect.
MOYERS: There is some talk in Washington that the huge expenditures on a war against Iraq would actually boost the economy by circulating all that spending on defense. What about that?
ROCKWELL: Well, I mean, I know that’s the claim. The French economist in the nineteenth century Frederic Bastiat talked about the broken window fallacy. A boy tosses a rock through a baker’s window and everybody’s very sad for the poor baker. And then the guy in the — maybe an economist in the crowd say, oh, don’t worry, you know, this is gonna be great. It’s gonna be money for the glazier, then he’ll buy a new suit and everything, you know, will multiply and we’ll be all better off.
But that, you know, first of all leaving aside property rights and morality questions it ignores what that money would have been spent on otherwise. So to take vast sums out of the private productive economy and spend it on things that are anti-productive, weapons of mass destruction and so forth, that have no economic purpose far from being a help it’s a disaster.
I mean, you can think of the U.S. military as that little boy with the rock.
MOYERS: But didn’t World War II actually pull the country out of the depression? Didn’t the spending on that vast military effort stimulate the economy, give people jobs and enable us to get over the depression in a way that FDR’s New Deal programs never did?
ROCKWELL: Well, sure, the New Deal didn’t work. And really we didn’t get out of the depression until probably 1948 or 1949. What the war did do was help the unemployment statistics by killing a lot of the unemployed. I mean, it did do that.
In fact he, you know, he drafted 20 percent of the workforce at one point or another into the military. So when you had — when you started out with a 12 percent unemployment rate, yes, I mean there was much less unemployment. But the vast expenditures on non-productive goods, the erection of a command to control economy, not that dissimilar from the Soviet economy. Price and wage controls. No, that was not economically good. It was economically bad.
MOYERS: What do you think this war will do to the economy?
ROCKWELL: Well, it’s very bad for the economy. It’s a vast transfer of wealth from the productive economy into the government sector into what after all is a socialist enterprise, the U.S. military. And therefore economically disastrous.
So you have all kinds of money taken out of productive private savings and investment to build bombs and missiles that it’s economically dangerous. And then it of course like every single war in our history it empowers the government to suppress dissent, to abolish civil liberties, to grow. That’s one of the reasons governments love a war. Because it does enable them to grow and to brand anybody who disagrees with them as unpatriotic.
MOYERS: But the fact that it’s a socialist institution, the military, doesn’t make it a disposable institution. I mean, you wouldn’t want to live in a country that didn’t have a strong military to defend you would you?
ROCKWELL: No. Of course you have to have soldiers, and you have to — you want defense absolutely. Whether this particular arrangement in this vast centralized, you know, the biggest — of course the biggest military empire in the history of the world, the U.S. I mean, far surpassing, I mean, our budget is bigger than the next 27 countries.
MOYERS: Do you feel safer because of that?
ROCKWELL: No, I don’t feel safe at all. I mean, none of it is spent on defense, for example. It’s all spent on offense. And there’s very little defense. It’s all, you know, involved in running other people’s lives, running other people’s countries.
MOYERS: You opposed the war in Vietnam.
MOYERS: And you oppose this war.
ROCKWELL: Well, I oppose any war that’s not absolutely necessary, and absolutely moral and defensive. So that, for example, killing — we don’t know how many — three, four thousand people in Afghanistan to go after the Taliban, who are after all, the descendents of the exact same guys that Ronald Reagan was funding during as Mujaheddin, when they went up against the Soviet Union, yeah. No, I don’t think that’s good.
And I don’t think there’s, you know, any proof that they had anything to do with 9/11. I think it was just striking out. And I think it’s very unfortunate. I think it’s just killing.
MOYERS: This morning I heard a chilling report on National Public Radio about how Saddam Hussein tortures people. I mean, he’s clearly a demonic man himself. Couldn’t you concede that Bush really does believe he’s on a moral mission to rid the world of a monster?
ROCKWELL: I’m sure Saddam Hussein is not a good guy, after all he’s a politician. But it is the most liberal regime in the Arab world in many senses. You can get a drink in Baghdad. Unlike in Saudi Arabia. Women don’t have to wear any particular kind of clothing. Christianity is tolerated.
There are high officials of the Iraqi government who are Christians, unlike in any Arab government that we’re pals with. So you can — there was a very interesting story on Morning Edition the other day about a gun…
MOYERS: NPR, right?
ROCKWELL: Yeah, a gun shop in Baghdad. And how there was a run on everybody buying guns. And the fact that you can buy a gun in downtown Baghdad, which of course you can’t do in Manhattan is, you know, also an unusual peek into this regime. I mean, we only know what the government is telling us.
MOYERS: But doesn’t Saddam Hussein who is obviously himself a megalomaniac, doesn’t a Saddam Hussein armed with biological and chemical weapons potentially nuclear weapons, doesn’t that scare the hell out of you?
ROCKWELL: Yeah. I mean, I don’t like the fact that George Bush has all those things too. And of course we know there’s only one government in the world that’s ever dropped atomic bombs on civilians and it’s not Iraq. So, you know, there are a lot of governments that are run by bad guys. I mean, look at the people who are in Rwanda and killed millions of people by machete. I mean, hard to conceive of anything much worse than that.
So, yes, I don’t like the idea of any government like this having those kinds of weapons. But, you know, is it really the job of the U.S. government to run the world? I mean, a lot of my…
MOYERS: Well, what would a libertarian actually say about what the President should do about Saddam Hussein?
ROCKWELL: I think read a book. Think about helping the American people. Think about taking the burden off us. Think about what he could do to lessen this recession that Mr. Greenspan has brought on us. That is by cutting government, not expanding government. Cutting the military, cutting the welfare budget. Cutting the regulations. He’s of course vastly increased regulations on business.
MOYERS: But, do you really believe there’s nothing the government can do to improve our lot but to get out of the way?
ROCKWELL: Yeah, that’s about it. Certainly, that’s true in the economy. I mean, now that we’re in this recession that’s all it could do. And certainly, that’s what Mr. Bush ought to be doing. That is, cutting spending, cutting taxes, cutting regulations, get the heck out of the way.
MOYERS: But what about such things as unemployment benefits, all those eight million people, that guy who wrote the 700 letters and can’t find a job? I mean, don’t we have some — doesn’t the moral imperative in all of us, collectively, want to try to help people like that while they’re in distress?
ROCKWELL: You know, this illustrates the basic fallacy at the heart of the welfare state. That it seeks to — that it subsidizes what it seeks to prevent, or pretends to cure. So, it subsidizes unemployment.
I remember when Mr. Bush, Sr., when he was running for re-election, and there was concerns about the unemployment rate, and so he passed a vast expansion of unemployment benefits, and gee, just amazingly enough, the unemployment rate went way up when people could get more money for a longer period of time staying unemployed.
So, if the government is subsidizing unemployment, no I do not think that’s a good thing. I think it’s very socially destructive.
MOYERS: Well, I obviously, as you know, disagree with so much of what you’re saying, although I learn from people with whom I disagree more than I learn from people with whom I agree. I just cannot imagine what kind of society it would be if it is every man for himself.
ROCKWELL: Well, but it’s not. I mean, that’s, you know, that’s the what the market brings about, social cooperation. We work together in company.
MOYERS: Didn’t bring it to the 30’s…
ROCKWELL: The 30’s was of course a terrible time, brought about as a result of Federal Reserve inflations during the 1920’s, and then the rotten Hoover Administration, which actually was the first part of the New Deal. So, we had again, exactly like in the 90’s, we had a boom during the 20’s, artificially generated by the Federal Reserve.
And yes, it caused immense human suffering. And again, the Roosevelt Administration, and the Hoover Administration, did everything wrong. It’s almost — it was not their intention — but it was almost as if they set out to lengthen and prolong the Depression. And again, that we have Herbert Hoover Bush doing exactly the same thing now.
MOYERS: You are consistently against the warfare state and the welfare state, right?
ROCKWELL: Yes, sir.
MOYERS: But in this discussion, you’ve been so critical of the Republicans that… am I to assume you’re going to enroll as a Democrat next year?
ROCKWELL: Well, you know, there’s a professor at Harvard, Jeffrey Frankel, who’s…
MOYERS: Yeah, I know Jeffrey.
ROCKWELL: …written a paper arguing that the two parties have switched positions ideologically, and that the Republican Party is, despite rhetoric, is today the party of big government, and the Democrats are the party of lesser government. It’s very interesting.
I was raised a Republican. I suppose it bothers me more because they use some of the rhetoric that I believe in to cover up the opposite of what I believe in. So, it’s, you know, we’ll have to see. I mean, it’s possible. If the Democrats are smart, they would indeed come out on a more pro-peace, smaller government side, and that of course is the history of the Democratic Party in the 19th century. It was the good party.
And the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln was a party of militarism, of aggressive war, of inflation, of big business, big government partnership, of suppression of civil liberties and all the other things we’re all too familiar with.
MOYERS: There are people who would disagree with you that in the 1950’s, the Democratic Party, which upheld slavery and segregation in the South was the good party.
ROCKWELL: Well, I think, you know, I’m not saying that any political party is all good. Obviously, there were bad things about the Democrats. And I wish George Washington hadn’t owned slaves either. We’ve had this unfortunate business in our country for a very long time.
MOYERS: But with all due respect, you didn’t answer my question. Are you going to enroll as a Democrat?
ROCKWELL: Well, no, because I must say I’m non-partisan. I don’t like any of the parties. So, I also don’t think politics, electoral politics is our salvation. I don’t.
MOYERS: Well, where do people go, who want to be — who are morally and politically agents?
ROCKWELL: Well, I think, you know, if people want to be in politics, you know, that’s their own business. It’s just for me, it’s not the right thing, and I think that we have to educate ourselves, and educate others about our own history, our real history, about what’s actually going on these days, about real economics, and the principles of liberty. And I think that is: if we have any salvation, it’s through that, and certainly in secular terms.
MOYERS: If people want to know more about your ideas and your work, what can they do?
ROCKWELL: Well, they can look at the Mises Institute web site. And that’s M-I-S-E-S.org. And I have my own daily news site, too. It’s lewrockwell.com. L-E-W, Rockwell.com.
MOYERS: Thank you very much, Lew Rockwell.
ROCKWELL: Oh, pleasure.
MOYERS: In his State of the Union address last month, President Bush said of America, “We go forward with confidence, because this call of history has come to the right country. May he guide us now.”
That intersection of religion and politics, policies built on the conviction that faith imparts, can be perilous.
This is especially true when the complexities of the world are reduced to black and white, as when Bush said at West Point last June, “We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.”
In his view of the divine plan, President Bush betrays an alarming conviction that God is on his administration’s side in any dispute.
But our President, to his credit, has also reminded us that God is not a Christian monopoly by affirming America’s idea of religious tolerance.
BUSH: George Washington said that America gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. This was our policy at our nation’s founding; this is our policy today.
MOYERS: Over and again Mr. Bush reminds us the war on Muslim extremists is not a holy war against Islam.
BUSH: Our war against terror is a war against individuals whose hearts are full of hate. We do not fight a religion.
MOYERS: But some of the President’s most prominent followers have been saying quite the opposite.
FALWELL: Muslim countries…
ROBERTSON: You read the Koran…
GRAHAM: Great muftis…
MOYERS: Take the Reverend Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, featured on this local news program.
GRAHAM: The God of Islam is not the same God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It’s a different god, and I believe it is a very evil and very wicked religion.
MOYERS: Cable television even became an unlikely forum for debating scripture.
NOVAK: I’m going to read you from Joshua 10:25-26. “Joshua said to his men: Be strong and courageous, for the Lord is going to do this to all your enemies. With that Joshua plunged his sword into each of the five kings, killing them. He then hanged them on five trees until evening.” Now if you were a Muslim who didn’t know any more about the Bible than you know about the Koran, wouldn’t you think that Christianity and Judaism were hateful and wicked religions based on that scripture?
FALWELL: The fact is, Christianity has a record for loving, for caring.
MOYERS: And politicians have a record for invoking God.
ASHCROFT: America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal.
TRENT LOTT: It’s the elected officials’ right to invoke God’s blessing.
GEORGE W. BUSH: May God bless.
MOYERS: We heard from them again last summer when a federal court said the words ‘under God’ had to come out of the pledge of allegiance…
Congress came out singing in one voice…
MOYERS: Amen, said the White House.
FLEISCHER: The President’s reaction was that this ruling is ridiculous.
MOYERS: Tom DeLay, the majority leader of the House, sees it the same way. Listen to what someone in the audience caught on tape last year when DeLay announced that God has chosen him to promote a biblical world view.
DELAY: Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world – only Christianity.
MOYERS: It’s an old story: one person’s prophet is another’s evildoer. As we heard from Jerry Falwell on 60 MINUTES:
FALWELL: I think Mohammed was a terrorist. He-I’ve read enough of the history of his life written by both Muslims and non-Muslims, that he was a violent man, a man of war…
MOYERS: President Bush keeps trying.
BUSH: We welcome all faiths in America: Christian faiths, Jewish faith, Muslim faith. We welcome faith.
MOYERS: The President has even commissioned a television campaign to assure Muslims around the world that they are not the targets.
HAMMUDA: I believe American people in general respect the Islamic faith. Hello, my name is Abdul Hammuda. I am the owner of the Tiger Lebanese Bakery located here in Toledo, Ohio.
MUHAMMED: My name is Farooq Muhammed. I’m a paramedic for the fire department of New York. I have co-workers who are Jewish, who are Christian, Catholic.
ISMAIL: My name is Rawia Ismail. I’m a school teacher in a public school in the United States of America.
MOYERS: But it’s going to be a tough sell. Remember what Jerry Falwell said on 60 MINUTES about Mohammed? Thousands of miles away in India, Muslims who heard about Falwell’s remarks rioted in the streets. At least five people died.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW, Bill Moyers wanted to know what’s in his body. What he found was dioxins, DDT, pesticides.
DOCTOR: You have 31 different PCB’s of this whole family of similar chemicals.
ANNOUNCER: It’s a problem all Americans face. Next week on NOW.
And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online at pbs.org.
Join the debate about the economic cost of war. Read NOW’s coverage of America and Iraq. Find out about the fine line of reporting on war. Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
MOYERS: Some weeks ago we discussed on NOW the Pentagon’s plan to attack Iraq with ‘shock and awe.’ That’s the strategy first reported by CBS News of unleashing 3,000 precision bombs and cruise missiles in the first 48 hours after President Bush gives the order.
Now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has come forward with more details on how the strategy is expected to work. “The best way to get a short war”, he says, “is to have such a shock on the system, that the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on, that the end was inevitable.”
The General was admirably candid. Quote: “We need to condition people that this is war. People get the idea this is going to be antiseptic. Well, it’s not going to be. People are going to die.”
I read those words just after finishing this book, WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING. Its author, Chris Hedges, knows about war, knows about people dying from close up experience. As a foreign correspondent for the NEW YORK TIMES, Chris Hedges covered the Balkans, the Middle East, including the first Gulf War where he was captured by the Iraqis, and Central America.
Last year he was a member of the team of reporters that won the Pulitzer Prize for the NEW YORK TIMES coverage of global terrorism. Chris Hedges now writes the column, “Public Lives.” He’s also, by the way, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to NOW.
HEDGES: Thank you.
MOYERS: When you hear the General describe an attack of 3,000 missiles on Iraq, what comes through your mind?
HEDGES: Well not images of shock and awe. Images of large numbers of civilian dead. Destroyed buildings. Panic in the corridors of hospitals. Families that can’t reach parts of a city that have been devastated and are desperate for news of their loved ones. All of the images of war that I’ve seen for most of the past two decades come to mind.
MOYERS: I heard a description of ‘shock and awe’ again on National Public Radio yesterday and then they came on with a report, a first-hand report from Kurds in Northern Iraq of how they had been tortured by Saddam Hussein. Cruelly, brutally, creatively tortured. Is there any kinship between what happens to civilians in a war like we’re about to launch and what happens to them under the regime of a Saddam Hussein? And is there any moral relativism there?
HEDGES: Well, I don’t think you can justify unleashing 3,000 precision-guided missiles in 48 hours because Saddam Hussein is a torturer, which he is. And I covered that whole withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from Northern Iraq. I was not only in the subterranean bowels of the Secret Police Headquarters where we found not only documentation but videotapes of executions. Horrible torture centers. People being— you know where the meat hooks were still sort of fastened into the ceiling of soundproofed rooms.
And then these mass graves. We were digging up as many as a thousand, 1,500 people. But that does not give you a moral justification to carry out what is, quite candidly, indiscriminate attack against civilians. That’s what’s going to happen when you drop this number of high explosive devices in an urban area.
MOYERS: Does the inevitability of civilian casualties make this war illegitimate?
HEDGES: Well, I think the war is illegitimate not because civilians will die. Civilians die in every conflict. It’s illegitimate because the administration has not, to my mind, provided any evidence of any credible threat. And we can’t go to war just because we think somebody might do something eventually.
There has to be hard intelligence. There has to be a real threat if we’re going to ask our young men and women to die.
Because once you unleash the “dogs of war” and I know this from every war I’ve ever covered, war has a force of its own. It’s not surgical. We talk about taking out Saddam Hussein. Once you use the blunt instrument of war, it has all sorts of consequences when you use violence on that scale that you can’t anticipate. I’m not opposed to the use of force. But force is always has to be a last resort because those who wield force become tainted or contaminated by it. And one of the things that most frightens me about the moment our nation is in now, is that we’ve lost touch with the notion of what war is.
At the end of the Vietnam War, we became a better country in our defeat. We asked questions about ourselves that we had not asked before. We were humbled, maybe even humiliated. We were forced to step outside of ourselves and look at us as others saw us. And it wasn’t a pretty sight.
But we became a better country for it. A much better country. Gradually war’s good name if we can, between quotes, can say was resurrected. Certainly during the Reagan Era. Granada, Panama. Culminating with the Persian Gulf War, where a war — the very essence of war was hidden from us. And the essence of war is death. War is necrophilia. That’s what it is.
MOYERS: Tell me, having covered the first Gulf War, what the men and women who are about to go into Iraq are going to experience.
HEDGES: Well, the ones who are up on the front line are — especially as they prepare to go into battle — are going to have to come face-to-face with the myth of war. The myth of heroism, the myth of patriotism. The myth of glory. All those myths that have the ability to arouse us when we’re not in mortal danger.
And they’re going to have to confront their own mortality. And at that moment some people will be crying, some people will be vomiting. People will not speak much. Everyone will realize that from here on out, at least until the fighting ends, it will be a constant minute-by-minute battle with fear. And that sometimes fear wins. And anybody who tells you differently has never been in a war.
MOYERS: And yet you say in your book that the first Gulf War, that we made war fun.
HEDGES: For those who weren’t there. You know the — I was with the U.S. Marine Corps and they hated CNN. They hated that flag-waving jingoism that dominated the coverage on, or dominated so much of the coverage…all those abstract terms that create the excitement back home become obscene to those who are in combat.
MOYERS: You say also in the book that the first Gulf War made war more fashionable again.
MOYERS: What do you mean by that?
HEDGES: Well, it was, you know, so much of commercial news has now become an extension of the entertainment industry. And the war became entertainment. The Army had no more candor than they did in Vietnam. But what they perfected was the appearance of candor. Live press conferences. And well-packaged video clips of Sidewinder missiles hitting planes or going down chimneys. You know, this kind of stuff.
It’s— and the fact that they covered up death. Not only the death of our own. But the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis who were killed. They were nameless, faceless phantoms. When we the victims, if you watch the news reports carefully, were our young men who were out in the desert having to sort of bathe out of a bucket and eat MRE’s.
So it was completely mythic, or mendacious narrative that was presented to us. And I was a little delayed getting back to New York because I was a prisoner with the Iraqi Republican Guard. But I remember landing into New York and even then the mood was that we’d just won the Super Bowl.
And it frightened me and it disgusted me. And it wasn’t because I didn’t believe that we shouldn’t have gone into Kuwait. I believe we had no choice. But I certainly understood that we, as a nation, had completely lost touch with what war is. And when we lose touch with what war is, when we believe that our technology makes us invulnerable. That we can wage war and others can die and we won’t — then eventually, if history is any guide, we are going to stumble into a horrific swamp.
MOYERS: I read your book last night. One of the most chilling and haunting scenes in here is when, I think you were in El Salvador, and a young man was near you, calling out, “mama.”
HEDGES: It’s not uncommon when soldiers die that they call out for their mother. And that always seems to me to cut through the absurd posturing of soldiering.
MOYERS: Three times when you were in El Salvador you were threatened with death. You received death threats. The Embassy got you out.
HEDGES: That’s right.
MOYERS: You went back.
HEDGES: Yes. Because I believe that it was better to live for one intense and overpowering moment, even if it meant my own death, rather than go back to the routine of life.
MOYERS: You’re right, you know. War is an addiction, as you say. Let me read you this: “during a lull I dashed…” this is you.
MOYERS: Read this for me.
HEDGES: “During a lull I dashed across an empty square and found shelter behind a house. My heart was racing. Adrenaline coursed through my bloodstream. I was safe. I made it back to the capital. And like most war correspondents, I soon considered the experience a great cosmic joke. I drank away the fear and excitement in a seedy bar in downtown San Salvador. Most people, after such an experience, would learn to stay away. I was hooked. ”
MOYERS: You were hooked on?
HEDGES: War. On the most powerful narcotic invented by humankind is war.
MOYERS: What is the narcotic? What is it that’s the poisonous allure?
HEDGES: Well the Bible calls it, “The lust of the eye.” And warns believers against it. It’s that great landscape of the grotesque. It’s that power to destroy.
I mean one of the most chilling things you learn in war is that human beings like to destroy. Not only other things but other human beings. And when unit discipline would break down or there was no unit discipline to begin with, you would go into a town and people’s eyes were glazed over. They sputtered gibberish.
Houses were burning. They had that power to revoke the charter. That divine-like power, to revoke the charter of another human being’s place on this planet. And they used it.
MOYERS: I would have thought that being captured and held by the Iraqis as you were, would have cured you of your addiction. But yet it didn’t.
MOYERS: So I still don’t understand it. I have to be honest. I mean I just don’t understand why you keep putting yourself back into that which you hate.
HEDGES: Well, because the experience itself, that adrenaline-driven rush of war. That sense that you know we have a vital mission that, as journalists, that we ennoble ourselves. I mean I think one of the things I tried very hard to do in the book was show the dark side of what we do.
I mean I admire the courage and the integrity of many of the men and women I worked with, but I do think there is a very dark side to what we do. And it becomes very hard to live outside of a war zone. It’s why this small — my comrades, these groups of war correspondents and photographers — would leap from war-to-war.
It’s no accident that I was covering the war in Kosovo with people I had covered the war with in El Salvador two decades earlier. You go out of Sarajevo and be in a hotel in Paris and would be pacing the halls because you couldn’t adjust. When you stepped outside war it’s literally as if you sort of see the world around you from the end of a long tunnel.
And I often would feel that I was physically here but I was really sort of four paces behind. You’re incredibly disconnected from the world around you. And if you spend long enough in war, it’s finally the only place that you can feel at home. And that’s, of course, a sickness. But I had it.
MOYERS: But doesn’t it also create a sense of camaraderie among men who are fighting it. What happens then?
HEDGES: Comradeship is something that’s attainable. Everyone can attain in wartime. Once you have that external threat. I mean I think we felt this a little bit after 9-11. We no longer faced death alone. We faced death as a group.
And for that reason it becomes easier to bear.
MOYERS: How do you explain the phenomenon that while we venerate and mourn our own dead from say 9-11, we’re curiously indifferent about those we’re about to kill.
HEDGES: Because we dehumanize the Other. We fail to recognize the divinity of all human life. We— our own victims are the only victims that hold worth. The victims of the Other are sort of the regrettable cost of war. There is such a moral dichotomy in war. Such a frightening dichotomy that the world becomes a tableau of black and white, good and evil.
You see this in the rhetoric of the Bush Administration. They are the barbarians. I mean we begin to mirror them. You know for them we’re the infidels and we call them the barbarians.
MOYERS: It happened in the Johnson Administration too. The President spoke of bringing the coonskin home.
HEDGES: Right. But that’s because war is the same disease. And that’s the point of the book is that it doesn’t matter if I’m an Argentine or El Salvador or the occupied territories or Iraq. It’s all the same sickness.
MOYERS: The world is sick too, this is a savage world, as we keep being reminded…
You do think that United States faces a threat? A threat from whatever we want to call it? That produced 9/11? You think we are at danger?
HEDGES: Yes. But not from Iraq.
MOYERS: So how do we, taking into account the moral issues that you raise…
MOYERS: How do we protect ourselves, defend our security, do the right thing and yet not be taken by surprise again?
HEDGES: By having the courage to be vulnerable. By not folding in on ourselves. By not becoming like those who are arrayed against us. By not using their rhetoric and not adopting their worldview.
What we did after 9/11 was glorify ourselves, denigrate the others. We’re certainly, now at this moment, denigrating the French and the Germans who, after all, are our allies. And we created this global troika with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon.
One fifth of the world’s population, most of whom are not Arabs, look at us through the prism of Chechnya and Palestine. And yes, we certainly have to hunt down Osama bin Laden. I would like to see those who carried out 9/11, in so far as it is possible, go on trial for the crimes against humanity that they committed. But we must also begin to address the roots of that legitimate rage and anger that is against us.
It has to be a twofold battle. We are not going to stop terrorism through violence. You see that in Israel. In some ways, the best friend Hamas has is Ariel Sharon, because every time the Israelis send warplanes to bomb a refugee camp or tanks into Ramallah, it weakens and destroys that moderate center within the Palestinian community.
And essentially creates two apocalyptic visions. One on the extreme right wing of Israeli politics. And certainly one on the extreme wing of the Palestinian community. And when these apocalyptic visionaries move to the center of society, then the world becomes exceedingly dangerous. And that’s what I fear. And that’s what— and, but that requires us not to resort, which is a natural kind of reaction, a kind of almost knee-jerk reaction, to the use of force when force is used against us.
MOYERS: So is it enough in this kind of world just to be good?
HEDGES: Well, nobody’s good. I mean we’re all sinners and God loves us anyway. That’s the whole point. And we live in a fallen world and it’s never between the choice is never between good and evil.
The choice… or moral and immoral, as Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us. The choice is always between immoral and more immoral. And I don’t think…
MOYERS: I don’t think Americans feel immoral about what happened to them on 9/11. Or…
HEDGES: Well, nor should they.
MOYERS: Nor when listening to the report of Saddam Hussein’s torture of his own people. That I don’t think they feel the same way as they think he feels.
HEDGES: Well, he’s a tyrant. And you know we… 9/11 is not the issue. The issue is once we unleash force of that magnitude. And I think theologians like Niebuhr would argue that we must do so and ask for forgiveness.
That we, you know, when you make a choice in the world, and of course one always has to, one has to remember that there are consequences for that choice that create injustice and tragedy for others. And that’s what is important to always remember and be aware of.
I think you go back and read Abraham Lincoln and he was very aware of this. And that’s what made him a great leader. And in many ways a great moral philosopher.
MOYERS: Can people who plan wars, presidents and generals, afford to be influenced by people like you who abhor war? Who anguish over war?
HEDGES: Well, I think any soldier that’s been through combat hates war in the way that only somebody who’s seen war can. It’s those that lose touch with war and find it euphoric that frighten me.
MOYERS: But doesn’t power exercised with ruthlessness always win?
HEDGES: Power exercised with ruthlessness always is able to crush the gentle and the compassionate. But I don’t believe it always wins. Thucydides wrote about the war with Sparta that, yes, raw Spartan militarism in the short-term could conquer Athens. But that beauty, art, knowledge, philosophy, would long outlive Sparta and Spartan militarism.
And he consoled himself with that. I think in the short-term, yes, violence and force can win. But in the long-term, it leaves nothing but hollowness, emptiness. It does nothing to enrich our lives or propel us forward as human beings.
MOYERS: What would you like most as — what would you most like us to be thinking about this weekend as it looks as if war is about to happen?
HEDGES: That this isn’t just about the destruction of Iraq and the death of Iraqis. It’s about self-destruction.
MOYERS: How so? What’s happening to us?
HEDGES: Our whole civil society is being torn apart. Once again, as is true in every war, the media parrots back the clichés and jingos of the state. Imbibes and promotes the myth. In wartime, the press is always part of the problem.
And that we are about to engage in that ecstatic, exciting, narcotic that is war. And that if we don’t get a grasp on the poison that war is, then that poison can ultimately kill us just as surely as the disease.
MOYERS: What have you learned as a journalist covering war that we ought to know on the eve of this attack on Iraq?
HEDGES: That everybody or every generation seems to have— seems not to listen to those who went through it before and bore witness to it. But falls again for the myth. And has to learn it through a tragedy inflicted upon their young.
That war is always about betrayal. It’s about betrayal of soldiers by politicians. And it’s about betrayal of the young by the old.
MOYERS: I believe that George W. Bush tonight as you and I talk is convinced he’s about to do good. A necessary act that he thinks is making a moral claim on the world. Do you believe that?
HEDGES: I believe that he feels that. But I think anybody who believes that they understand the will of God and can act as an agent for God is dangerous.
MOYERS: If the NEW YORK TIMES asked you to go cover the war in the next month, would you go?
HEDGES: No. No, I’m finished.
MOYERS: The book is WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING, by Chris Hedges. Thank you for being with us.
MOYERS: There was a news report in Washington this week about how Democrats and Republicans in Congress conspired to close down the investigation of an alleged abuse of power by a leading member of the House. Now we’ll never know the truth of the matter.
The story reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago with a constitutional scholar who said the most important function of one political party is to keep the other party honest. “No party investigates itself,” he said, “so the public safety depends on each party shining the spotlight of scrutiny on the shenanigans of the other.”
Once upon a time, this happened quite often. Both parties could be counted on to mock the deceit, hypocrisy, and pretensions of the opposition, while they cloaked their own vices in the warm pieties of patriotism and altruism. They also challenged one another’s belief systems with the two-fisted ferocity of street brawlers. Such spirited partisanship wasn’t a pretty sight for children, but it offered choices, got the public’s attention, and aroused a robust and sometimes ribald participation in democracy. Politics mattered.
Things have changed. Republicans still love a good brawl – they could appreciate the movie THE GANGS OF NEW YORK. Because they will claw, scratch, jam their knee to your groin and land an uppercut to the jaw after the bell has rung — and if they don’t finish the job their partisan press will do it for them: Rush Limbaugh and the Darth Vaders of talk radio; the pamphleteers at the WALL STREET JOURNAL, FOX NEWS, and a host of publications aided by big business.
But where are the Democrats? As the Republicans were coming back from the wilderness – lean, mean and hungry – Democrats were busy assimilating their opponents’ belief system.
In no small part because they coveted the same corporate money, Democrats practically walked away from the politics of struggle, leaving millions of working people with no one to fight for them. We see the consequences all around us in what a friend of mine calls “a suffocating consensus”. Even as poverty spreads, inequality grows, and our quality of life diminishes, Democrats have become the doves of class warfare.
Then there’s the other war that’s about to happen. Whether you are for or against it, invading Iraq is a reckless diversion of resources and a huge distraction from what ails us. But Democrats signed a blank check over to the President last fall because their leaders wanted ‘to move on to more important things,’ namely the mid-term elections, which they lost anyway.
Now Democrats in Congress are so deeply divided and impotent that Ralph Nader is thinking of running again. Maybe third parties will eventually invigorate politics.
But what I wouldn’t give for a revival of that old-time religion, when both major parties locked horns with the devil — that is, with each other. An Irishman once asked, “Is this a private fight or can anyone get in it?” Well, Democrats could answer that by crawling back in the ring, and duking it out. Who knows? They might even save the Republicans from themselves.
That’s it for NOW. I’m Bill Moyers. Thanks for watching. Good night.
This transcript was entered on April 7, 2015.