Hedges and Gilligan Reviewed by Duane Cady

Cady, Duane (Hamline Univ., MN). “America at War: A Review of Chris Hedges; War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning; New York: Public Affairs, 2002; and James Gilligan; Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic; New York: Vintage Books, 1996.” CPP Newsletter Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2004).

Chris Hedges, long time war correspondent for the New York Times, has written a best seller about war. War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning is engaging, insightful, and informative on US military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and elsewhere. The book is also deeply flawed.

Hedges is trying to understand our cultural – and his own – fascination with war. He writes very well and has had amazing and harrowing experiences as he has traveled, war by war, in Central America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa. He manages to weave his classical education beautifully with his lived experience, giving a historical and literary context to his sense of our predicament.

The book is at its best when Hedges is exposing the myth of war, i.e., the heroic ideal that war is right, good, likely to solve problems, and that it’s worth the sacrifices it entails. He exposes the myth by showing war for what it is: organized murder, usually racist, manipulative, cruel, and dishonest. He ridicules the “plague of nationalism,” shows the inevitable destruction of wider culture, and rejects the causes offered as disingenuous.

Hedges’ thesis is that war remains a central part of human life because it fills a spiritual void that we don’t know how else to fill. He says, with Freud, that we are caught between love and death, between an instinct for life and an instinct for destruction, and that, failing to love, we find a sense of purpose, of calling, in sacrifice for others through war. The problem with this is that while rejecting the cultural glorifications of war, Hedges contributes to them in his opening pages when he tells us he’s not a pacifist, that war is sometimes necessary. With this he undercuts his own brilliant critique of war and opens the door to the “necessary” violence his own arguments ridicule.

The problem is that once one takes in the critique of war offered by Hedges one can no longer find credible his notion that the absurdity of war can fill our spiritual void and give us meaning. War doesn’t provide meaning for those who understand it. Hedges undercuts his own position.

A much more difficult – and more rewarding – read is in store for those who take up James Gilligan’s Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. Gilligan is a prison psychiatrist who spent years working with violent criminals in an effort to understand and change their behaviors. His interest is not in moralizing about violence but in preventing it.

Gilligan sees America as obsessed with revenge, what is euphemistically called retributive justice. It’s easier to condemn and punish violence than understand and prevent it, so we take the easy way. We may as well condemn cancer or a tornado.

Gilligan prefers a medical model: prevention is better than cure. He wants to know why the US murder rate is five to twenty times the rate in any other industrial society. Based on his work with violent criminals, he develops a germ theory of violence, namely, that violence is contagious, and he comes to the realization that violence is caused by shame, humiliation, disrespect and ridicule, and it is manifest when there are no nonviolent means to rid oneself of the shame and no emotional inhibitors (love, guilt, or fear).

Since prisons continue the humiliation and shame that led to the violence that landed criminals in prison, our current prison policies increase violence, as does legislation to “get tough on crime.” The only way to stop violence is to stop shaming. Guilt ethics, shame ethics, contribute to violence rather than address it or intervene in the cycle. The violence of violent criminals forces others to care for them. Folks who are cared for have no need to act out violently to gain care.

For Gilligan, crime is illegal individual violence while punishment (beyond what is necessary for restraint) is legal collective violence. Punishment is the mirror of crime, crime the mirror of punishment.

Not content with cursing the darkness, James Gilligan sheds light on our national epidemic of violence. His insights are grounded deeply in longstanding experience and success in helping violent criminals find their way to less violent lives despite the policies, practices, and politics of revenge common to our country. His is an important book that deserves a wide readership.

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