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Celebrating Slaughter: War and Collective Amnesia
Posted on Oct 5, 2009
By Chris Hedges
There are times—World War II and the Serb assault on Bosnia would be examples—when a population is pushed into a war. There are times when a nation must ingest the poison of violence to survive. But this violence always deforms and maims those who use it. My uncle, who drank himself to death in a trailer in Maine, fought for four years in the South Pacific during World War II. He and the soldiers in his unit never bothered taking Japanese prisoners.
The detritus of war, the old cannons and artillery pieces rolled out to stand near memorials, were curious and alluring objects in my childhood. But these displays angered my father, a Presbyterian minister who was in North Africa as an Army sergeant during World War II. The lifeless, clean and neat displays of weapons and puppets in uniforms were being used, he said, to purge the reality of war. These memorials sanctified violence. They turned the instruments of violence—the tanks, machine guns, rifles and airplanes—into an aesthetic of death.
These memorials, while they pay homage to those who made “the ultimate sacrifice,” dignify slaughter. They perpetuate the old lie of honor and glory. They set the ground for the next inferno. The myth of war manufactures a collective memory that ennobles the next war. The intimate, personal experience of violence turns those who return from war into internal exiles. They cannot compete against the power of the myth. This collective memory saturates the culture, but it is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Chris Hedges, whose column is published on Truthdig every Monday, spent two decades as a foreign reporter covering wars in Latin America, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. He has written nine books, including “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” (2009) and “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (2003).
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