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War Is Sin

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Posted on Jun 1, 2009
AP photo / Khalid Mohammed

By Chris Hedges

The crisis faced by combat veterans returning from war is not simply a profound struggle with trauma and alienation. It is often, for those who can slice through the suffering to self-awareness, an existential crisis. War exposes the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. It rips open the hypocrisy of our religions and secular institutions. Those who return from war have learned something which is often incomprehensible to those who have stayed home. We are not a virtuous nation. God and fate have not blessed us above others. Victory is not assured. War is neither glorious nor noble. And we carry within us the capacity for evil we ascribe to those we fight.

Those who return to speak this truth, such as members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, are our contemporary prophets. But like all prophets they are condemned and ignored for their courage. They struggle, in a culture awash in lies, to tell what few have the fortitude to digest. They know that what we are taught in school, in worship, by the press, through the entertainment industry and at home, that the melding of the state’s rhetoric with the rhetoric of religion, is empty and false.

The words these prophets speak are painful. We, as a nation, prefer to listen to those who speak from the patriotic script. We prefer to hear ourselves exalted. If veterans speak of terrible wounds visible and invisible, of lies told to make them kill, of evil committed in our name, we fill our ears with wax. Not our boys, we say, not them, bred in our homes, endowed with goodness and decency. For if it is easy for them to murder, what about us? And so it is simpler and more comfortable not to hear. We do not listen to the angry words that cascade forth from their lips, wishing only that they would calm down, be reasonable, get some help, and go away. We, the deformed, brand our prophets as madmen. We cast them into the desert. And this is why so many veterans are estranged and enraged. This is why so many succumb to suicide or addictions.

War comes wrapped in patriotic slogans, calls for sacrifice, honor and heroism and promises of glory. It comes wrapped in the claims of divine providence. It is what a grateful nation asks of its children. It is what is right and just. It is waged to make the nation and the world a better place, to cleanse evil. War is touted as the ultimate test of manhood, where the young can find out what they are made of. War, from a distance, seems noble. It gives us comrades and power and a chance to play a small bit in the great drama of history. It promises to give us an identity as a warrior, a patriot, as long as we go along with the myth, the one the war-makers need to wage wars and the defense contractors need to increase their profits.

But up close war is a soulless void. War is about barbarity, perversion and pain, an unchecked orgy of death. Human decency and tenderness are crushed. Those who make war work overtime to reduce love to smut, and all human beings become objects, pawns to use or kill. The noise, the stench, the fear, the scenes of eviscerated bodies and bloated corpses, the cries of the wounded, all combine to spin those in combat into another universe. In this moral void, naively blessed by secular and religious institutions at home, the hypocrisy of our social conventions, our strict adherence to moral precepts, come unglued. War, for all its horror, has the power to strip away the trivial and the banal, the empty chatter and foolish obsessions that fill our days. It lets us see, although the cost is tremendous.


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The Rev. William P. Mahedy, who was a Catholic chaplain in Vietnam, tells of a soldier, a former altar boy, in his book “Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journey of Vietnam Vets,” who says to him: “Hey, Chaplain ... how come it’s a sin to hop into bed with a mama-san but it’s okay to blow away gooks out in the bush?”

“Consider the question that he and I were forced to confront on that day in a jungle clearing,” Mahedy writes. “How is it that a Christian can, with a clear conscience, spend a year in a war zone killing people and yet place his soul in jeopardy by spending a few minutes with a prostitute? If the New Testament prohibitions of sexual misconduct are to be stringently interpreted, why, then, are Jesus’ injunctions against violence not binding in the same way? In other words, what does the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ really mean?”

Military chaplains, a majority of whom are evangelical Christians, defend the life of the unborn, tout America as a Christian nation and eagerly bless the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as holy crusades. The hollowness of their morality, the staggering disconnect between the values they claim to promote, is ripped open in war.

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By mal mildew, June 1, 2009 at 12:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This isn’t a “column”. It is one of the great speeches in history, spoken in a nearly empty hall.

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By exoevolution, June 1, 2009 at 12:27 pm Link to this comment

Chris your words are spoken from the soul of TRUTH.

WAR is the endless result of EMPIRE, the American 60+ year quest for EMPIRE is destroying us ALL, the Corporations & the Corporate “owned” politicians are blinded by the GREED & POWER of EMPIRES deadly embrace. TRILLIONS for WAR, crumbs for the PEOPLE, while the corporate, congressional, military fools keep digging deeper & deeper into oblivion & darkness, while the Cheney’s, Gingrich’s, Limbaugh’s & the other SHILLS for EMPIRE & the SUPREMACY of the WEALTHY keep “telling & selling” their LIES, only countless LIES can keep EMPIRE alive!

TRUTH is the only thing that can kill the very idea of EMPIRE & the hideousness, the soullessness, the evil of WAR!

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By samosamo, June 1, 2009 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment

Since when has this country vilified sin when it did not serve a purpose as promoting illegal wars or to coax the ‘stay at home’ moralists to jump on the band wagon?

Just another attribute of this country’s demise from within so often warned of in past years; OR the enemy will come to you/us draped in the flag, singing hymns, praising god and dressed in a customed taylored 3 piece vested suit.

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By Fadel Abdallah, June 1, 2009 at 11:58 am Link to this comment

By Thomas Mc, June 1 at 10:52 am #

“War isn’t just sin, it’s Satan incarnate.”
I like the way you put it, Thomas Mc! However, it takes more than Satan proper to conduct an evil war. So the political leaders who plan for wars and give orders to start them and fuel them, the military-industrial complex that actually fight the wars and make war’s weapons of mass destruction, and the misguided citizens with herd-mentality who stand silent or cheer war-mongers are all Satan’s cohorts and partners in the evils of wars. All have blood on their hands, and this is more so in countries that always brag about democracy.

Based on this, when countries that have tyrants,  dictators, or absolute monarchies on the helm, you might not fault the helpless citizens who are forced to participate in their rulers evil schemes. But when in a so-called democracy, like America and Israel, evil wars are carried on against the will of the people or even a significant minority among them, then every tax-payer citizen has blood on his / her hands.

It’s easy at the theoretical level to blame wars on an invisible Satan, however, Satan would not exist if he or she did not have large numbers of cohorts to carry on his/her snares!

In the case of America and Israel and the other so-called super powers wars are going to continue to be a way of life as long as there are departments of military-industrial complexes that receive the lion’s share of the nation’s treasury. When enlightened nations eliminate institutions such as the Pentagon or its equivalent, then we might reach a point when the prospects and incentives for wars are drastically reduced. Unless this happens, I am sorry to report to you that I and you have blood on our hands for the evil wars our country keeps fighting!

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By johannes, June 1, 2009 at 11:45 am Link to this comment

The Truth could be als follows.

Under while the media and journals are feeding you with news from all around the world.

And that the power brokers in your country are making war and unrest all over the planet.

In the same time they are taking over your country,
they make some poppit president, and than are starting to take over slowly but sure, the governement and the country.

And than a lot of things starting to fall in place,
the concentration camps, the millions of coffins, the
special armed forces for the interieur.


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By Anarcissie, June 1, 2009 at 11:09 am Link to this comment

‘Hedges, and truthdig, have redeemed themselves with this article.  War must be placed as an evil in a mpral and spiritual ideology of earthpeople to eradicate it, and this is occurring historically.  The problem now is primarily the Western tradition, which gets more bloodthirsty as its power declines.’

I can’t say as I see that.  There have been plenty of non-Western slaughters in recent years.  The West does egg them on, but there are a lot of volunteers out there.  I’m afraid we’re dealing with the basic instincts of a rather nasty hunting primate here.  Calming them down is going to be non-trivial.

‘As Anarcissie hss pointed out, it is not accidental that Western literature begins with Iliad, a bloodthirsty war justified by an absurd pretext….’

If you’re going to have wars, it’s as good as any other.  At least there are barbarian princes and a beautiful woman involved, and thousands of years later some of us can write, “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” instead of publish dreary articles about rising oil prices, falling dollars, and the vagaries of rule by moral dwarfs.

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By Southern Gal, June 1, 2009 at 10:24 am Link to this comment

War should always be the last resort. I don’t understand why people who consider themselves to be good Christians embrace the wars that we institute against other countries and in which we slaughter innocent children and civilians for oil and other resources and to make the military industrial complex more powerful and rich. We used to have a sign on the edge of our town that said “Blessed are the Peacemakers”. It has now been taken down and yet another gas station erected on the site. I watched the Memorial Day celebration in our town square and onlookers seemed to be caught in genuine emotion regarding honoring our troops and soldiers. Flags and ribbons were everywhere. I had to think that those soldiers would be better honored by our standing firm against the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, by making our government honor the Geneva Conventions and by giving our returning troops the care and assistance that they need to return to civilian life rather than making them fight for the physical and mental help that they have been promised.

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By Ron Kovic, June 1, 2009 at 10:08 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A brilliant essay!

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By thebeerdoctor, June 1, 2009 at 10:03 am Link to this comment

re: Virginia777

Thank you for pointing out the unceasing propaganda war waged by the government guided media; an unceasing war indeed, on every front imaginable.

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By Virginia777, June 1, 2009 at 9:54 am Link to this comment

This piece should be mandatory reading for the publisher of Newsweek, who put an inflammatory picture of Iran’s president on their recent war-mongering cover.

Also for the producers of Saturday Night Live, who Iran-bashed in a recent skit.

and etc. and etc. and etc.!

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By thebeerdoctor, June 1, 2009 at 9:54 am Link to this comment

It has all been said. War has been with us since time began to be counted. And violence by its very nature does not want to be peaceful…
But this IS a new century. Is it not time to recognize this crap for what it is and stop feeding it? Stop participating in the lies. But do try an become the change you want within yourself. Don’t go thinking and dreaming it is somewhere else. Peace on earth begins with me.
We are all on our own with everything.

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By musings, June 1, 2009 at 9:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Round the head of the anointed king keeps death his court.” This line comes from Richard II by Shakespeare and it is commonly known as the Hollow Crown speech.

War is butchery. And pitched battles today are almost nonexistent. Dresden, Leningrad and the London blitz should teach us that civilians are always in the line of fire.

Of course young soldiers experience cognitive dissonance. Very few of them have even killed an animal in cold blood. However my husband tells me that his Air Force initiation/boot camp involved a few days in the desert with a rabbit he had to kill and eat. 

I am a woman, so I am much more familiar with blood. I have had a miscarriage so the idea of an abortion does not affect me quite as it does the men. I have cut up chickens, and I have even taken a big slab of beef and broken it down. I look at my body and I see that in all basic ways I am an animal like any other.

And yet I look on death as failure. I look on the death of even my elderly parents as a kind of failure of the ideal. Apparently, religions are based on denying this failure, and patriotism is based on collectively dealing death to others in the pretense that it makes us safer.

But the crown is hollow. It is still hollow and always will be.

Don’t make war.

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By Fadel Abdallah, June 1, 2009 at 9:05 am Link to this comment

Addendum to a previously posted comment!

In a previous comment I wrote:

“However, there is only one war that is legitimate and even sacred and that is a war by the natives of a land against a foreign aggressor and occupier.”

After a second thought I should have said it this way: “However, there is only one situation when and where resistance fighting is legitimate and even sacred and that’s a fight of putting a resistance by the natives of a land against a foreign aggressor and occupier. And in this case there should not be a regularly instituted army to do the fighting, but a resistance movement of freedom fighters of all of those who love their homeland and are physically capable to defend it within their own borders!”

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By Folktruther, June 1, 2009 at 8:55 am Link to this comment

Hedges, and truthdig, have redeemed themselves with this article.  War must be placed as an evil in a mpral and spiritual ideology of earthpeople to eradicate it, and this is occurring historically.  The problem now is primarily the Western tradition, which gets more bloodthirsty as its power declines.

As Anarcissie hss pointed out, it is not accidental that Western literature begins with Iliad, a bloodthirsty war justified by an absurd pretext. And Western history runs through Rome, itself based on war to get slaves and loot.  Western history is the predatory imperialism of the White man, justifying massacres of women and childern as our TD marine does: on the absurd pretext that they are attacking us. 

We have to transform our spiritual and religious tradition which has been hijacked by power to promote its exploitave and bloodthirsty polices.  And disgorge the powerful who engage in these military adventures.  Gibbon says of a Roman emperor:

  “Trajan was ambitious of fame; and as long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.”

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By godistwaddle, June 1, 2009 at 8:51 am Link to this comment

Be pretty rich for a nation conceived in genocide, birthed in slavery, and fattened on exploitation, greed, and anti-Humanism to be sinless.  The U.S. has been the most violent, brutal nation in the world since 1845.  We’re exceptional all right—exceptionally criminal.

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By hark, June 1, 2009 at 8:37 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

USMC SAM - The people of Iraq did not attack us.  Nor did the people of Afghanistan.  But they have died by the tens of thousands over the last eight years, as we’ve “hunted down” the few people who did attack us.  Proves the point, doesn’t it?  War is sin.  There are no good guys.  Only bad guys.  Calling it “collateral damage” doesn’t make us good guys.

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By Fadel Abdallah, June 1, 2009 at 8:34 am Link to this comment

Instead of just “war is sin” I would say that “war is the ultimate sin” and it’s the “state-sanctioned terrorism.” This applies to all American wars of aggression in many parts of the world.

However, there is only one war that is legitimate and even sacred and that is a war by the natives of a land against a foreign aggressor and occupier.

Civil wars among the inhabitants of the same land are even more evil than wars among nations; for this type of war is an expression of failure of reason and compromise and the prevailing of selfishness and narrow self-interest.

As a proof of the corrupting and dehumanizing aspects of war, kindly read the article linked below:
Torture Photos: US Soldiers Raped, Sodomized Iraqi Prisoners
By Tom Eley

“In an interview with the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph published Wednesday, former US General Antonio Taguba said that photographs the Obama administration is seeking to suppress show images of US soldiers raping and sodomizing Iraqi prisoners. Taguba, who conducted the military inquiry of prisoner abuse at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 after some photos of US soldiers torturing prisoners became public, said that among the photos are images of soldiers raping a female prisoner, raping a male detainee, and committing “sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and phosphorescent tube,” according to the Telegraph…”

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By Thomas Mc, June 1, 2009 at 7:52 am Link to this comment

War isn’t just sin, it’s Satan incarnate.

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By Anarcissie, June 1, 2009 at 7:22 am Link to this comment

<b>ardee: <b>
‘USMC SAM, June 1 at 8:10 am #

I think your analysis superficial….’

I think Sam has it down to the essence.  To wit: “We are good, the others are bad, therefore we can kill as many of them as we like.”  Since most of the others think the same way, everybody’s on the same page.  And, let’s face it, war, for most people, is highly entertaining and deeply meaningful, at least until it’s too late to get out of it.  It’s no accident that Western literature starts off with a long poem about war, or that a president who starts a war gets an immediate 95% approval rating.  In fact, tribes of chimpanzees have been discovered who wage war.  It’s an old game.

We would have to have a profoundly different sort of social to get rid of war.  We would have to despise great heroes instead of worship them.  We would have to get rid of the state instead of constantly call upon it to service our needs and desires.  We would have to look in the mirror with our eyes open and figure out what to do about our love of violence and power and crime.  We would have to defy God and Nature, who made us as we are.

I don’t see much of that happening, but you never know.

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By Jim Yell, June 1, 2009 at 7:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The ugly truth about War is it is as old as humanity and those who can not put up a strong defense are destroyed or forced to embrace the aggressor. How do you think we got our country and for that matter how did the American Indians get there lands when occupied by others.

There is a deep mark of larceny in the human genome. I am not saying we shouldn’t try to be better. I think it dangerous to ignore what happens from open borders and inadequate military, but a military with no responsibilites to the people it protects, to the laws that define who the people are is merely a device like a gun, which can cause irreparable harm to society, to our society.

We watched two none military men (yes, one made a weak pretence of being in the Natl. Guard)for 8 years spit on our laws, bully our elected officials and pad our institutions with appointees that were hostile to the majority of the citizens rights or interest.

We were forced into a war by threats, lies, manipulation against Iraq a not very admirable society, being always led by bullies and gangsters, but who we knew and the dynamic duo should have known was the only Islamic country not involved in 9/11. The same two protected the Saudi’s who in fact have paid for and orchestrated the radical groups who did do the 9/11. How was this protecting us from terror?

We would be at risk if we had no competent military, but we will be at even greater risk if these crimes done in the name of the country and our military are not repudiated and punished. Why are the traitors of the last 8 years still walking free and talking about what a wonderful thing they did and we haven’t even mentioned here the total F’up of the economy from years of corporate bribery and manipulation of the country.

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By elisalouisa, June 1, 2009 at 7:10 am Link to this comment

Than you Chris Hedges for “War is Sin.” With all due respect to our people in the Armed Forces I submit:

I too was for Obama in the very beginning. I believed him when he spoke the magic word “change.” However, when the Wall Street boys were for him I started wondering.  Now I see Obama knew that getting to Washington on a Peace train was the only way to get there. Politicans from Illinois know the game, promise the voters anything but listen to the lobbyists who have the money to foot the campaign bill and other items. . .

The immorality?: War as usual. Wall street gets the money and Main street pays the bill through the blood of our loved ones.

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By Cathy, June 1, 2009 at 7:00 am Link to this comment

DarthMiffy: Once again, Chris Hedges nails it. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it. Never swallowed the God pill, which helped. But the anger…in the end, my salvation was working on Compassion. Study history…and wonder if we as humans can evolve beyond this need for, this LOVE for war.


I have never gone to war or seen it up close, but all of my sentiments are in this article.  For the last two years during Lent I have attended a Prayer for Peace service.  But it is not just prayers that are said but also to give the stark reality of the tragedy and uselessness of war—it is stark, it is heartbreaking.  And, sadly, the turnout is not large enough.  And obviously the priest is preaching to the choir.  None of us would describe our feelings about war any different than in this excellent article. 

Thomas O. Anderson, I tend to agree with you about Obama.  I feel betrayed.  When it comes to war and killing Obama is no better than McCain would have been.  I think it’s going to get much worse—Iran, North Korea?  What is it that we are doing in Afghanistan again?  Why are we there?  We killed over 125 civilians in another drone attack a couple of weeks ago, many babies.  What is tragic is that the Army is starting beginning to meet—and will probably exceed—its recruitment goals because of economic conditions.  I look at the slick ads for the different branches of the Army and I feel sick.  What they are selling does not jibe with reality.  But families are up against a wall and feel they have no choice but to send mothers and fathers, sons and daughters into the military and hope for the best.

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By Tim Kelly, June 1, 2009 at 6:04 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why is it that some people need to go to war to learn this?

“The pioneers of a warless world are the youth who refuse military service.” —Albert Einstein

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By ardee, June 1, 2009 at 5:23 am Link to this comment

USMC SAM, June 1 at 8:10 am #

I think your analysis superficial, and your failure to understand that there are no “good guys” only bad guys and innocent victims leads directly to a continuation of violence and war.

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By Thomas O. Anderson, June 1, 2009 at 5:22 am Link to this comment

“War is always about betrayal.” And nothing more epitomizes this murderous double-crossing than our new black Judas in the White House - the war pimp who rode to DC on a Peace Train.

“It is about betrayal of the young by the old, of cynics by idealists, and of soldiers and Marines by politicians.”

I pray our youth won’t get fooled by the gullible Pete Seegers and Bruce Springsteins, who both proudly shilled for our new executive baby killer.

I pray we’re no longer taken in by slickly named think tanks, like the Center for American Progress, who support our imperial transgressions.

And most of all, I pray that the Oath Keepers prevail in our military, so the illegal orders of a Bush or an Obama will fall on deaf, but wise ears.

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By USMC SAM, June 1, 2009 at 5:10 am Link to this comment

I wish someone would tell the bad guys not to attack us, and don’t kill the innocent, women, or children. But as long as they do, people like me will be glad to hunt them down. Sincerely, a war monger.

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By johannes, June 1, 2009 at 4:49 am Link to this comment

Modern war is to make lots of money!!!!

second the media is making all the time new fog banks, its the scenario to follow, under while

The Tamils in Sri Lanka are butchered
The Thibetan people are drowned a live by millions of Han Chinees who come to live in Thibet.
In Darfur the killing go’s on as usually.
People are starving every day from hunger and thirst.

In the USA people are loosing their homes and jobs, and with that their dignety.

Well its all in the money making scenario’s, they give nothing for the live of normal citizen.


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By DarthMiffy, June 1, 2009 at 4:36 am Link to this comment

Once again, Chris Hedges nails it. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it. Never swallowed the God pill, which helped. But the anger…in the end, my salvation was working on Compassion. Study history…and wonder if we as humans can evolve beyond this need for, this LOVE for war.

Cheers, mate!

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