is the Rockford College graduation speech Chris Hedges tried to give
on May 17, 2003, before being drowned out by shouts and boos and fog
horns. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, he
is author of the highly recommended War
Is the Force That Gives Us Meaning.
want to speak to you today about war and empire.
Killing, or at least the worst of it, is over in Iraq. Although blood
will continue to spill -- theirs and ours -- be prepared for this.
For we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide,
will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power,
and security. But this will come later as our empire expands and in
all this we become pariahs, tyrants to others weaker than ourselves.
Isolation always impairs judgment and we are very isolated now.
We have forfeited the good will, the empathy the world felt for us
after 9-11. We have folded in on ourselves, we have severely weakened
the delicate international coalitions and alliances that are vital
in maintaining and promoting peace and we are part now of a dubious
troika in the war against terror with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon,
two leaders who do not shrink in Palestine or Chechnya from carrying
out acts of gratuitous and senseless acts of violence. We have become
the company we keep.
The censure and perhaps the rage of much of the world, certainly one-fifth
of the world's population which is Muslim, most of whom I'll remind
you are not Arab, is upon us. Look today at the 14 people killed last
night in several explosions in Casablanca. And this rage in a world
where almost 50 percent of the planet struggles on less than two dollars
a day will see us targeted. Terrorism will become a way of life, and
when we are attacked we will, like our allies Putin and Sharon, lash
out with greater fury. The circle of violence is a death spiral; no
one escapes. We are spinning at a speed that we may not be able to
hold. As we revel in our military prowess -- the sophistication of
our military hardware and technology, for this is what most of the
press coverage consisted of in Iraq -- we lose sight of the fact that
just because we have the capacity to wage war it does not give us
the right to wage war. This capacity has doomed empires in the past.
"Modern western civilization may perish," the theologian Reinhold
Niebuhr warned, "because it falsely worshiped technology as a final
The real injustices, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the
brutal and corrupt dictatorships we fund in the Middle East, will
mean that we will not rid the extremists who hate us with bombs. Indeed
we will swell their ranks. Once you master people by force you depend
on force for control. In your isolation you begin to make mistakes.
Fear engenders cruelty; cruelty, fear, insanity, and then paralysis.
In the center of Dante's circle the damned remained motionless. We
have blundered into a nation we know little about and are caught between
bitter rivalries and competing ethnic groups and leaders we do not
understand. We are trying to transplant a modern system of politics
invented in Europe characterized, among other things, by the division
of earth into independent secular states based on national citizenship
in a land where the belief in a secular civil government is an alien
creed. Iraq was a cesspool for the British when they occupied it in
1917; it will be a cesspool for us as well. The curfews, the armed
clashes with angry crowds that leave scores of Iraqi dead, the military
governor, the Christian Evangelical groups who are being allowed to
follow on the heels of our occupying troops to try and teach Muslims
Hedges stops speaking because of a disturbance in the audience.
Rockford College President Paul Pribbenow takes the microphone.
"My friends, one of the wonders of a liberal arts college is its ability
and its deeply held commitment to academic freedom and the decision
to listen to each other's opinions. (Crowd Cheers) If you wish to
protest the speaker's remarks, I ask that you do it in silence, as
some of you are doing in the back. That is perfectly appropriate but
he has the right to offer his opinion here and we would like him to
continue his remarks. (Fog Horn Blows, some cheer).
The occupation of the oil fields, the notion of the Kurds and the
Shiites will listen to the demands of a centralized government in
Baghdad, the same Kurds and Shiites who died by the tens of thousands
in defiance of Sadaam Hussein, a man who happily butchered all of
those who challenged him, and this ethnic rivalry has not gone away.
The looting of Baghdad, or let me say the looting of Baghdad with
the exception of the oil ministry and the interior ministry -- the
only two ministries we bothered protecting -- is self immolation.
As someone who knows Iraq, speaks Arabic, and spent seven years in
the Middle East, if the Iraqis believe rightly or wrongly that we
come only for oil and occupation, that will begin a long bloody war
of attrition; it is how they drove the British out and remember that,
when the Israelis invaded southern Lebanon in 1982, they were greeted
by the dispossessed Shiites as liberators. But within a few months,
when the Shiites saw that the Israelis had come not as liberators
but occupiers, they began to kill them. It was Israel who created
Hezbollah and was Hezbollah that pushed Israel out of Southern Lebanon.
As William Butler Yeats wrote in "Meditations in Times Of Civil War,"
"We had fed the heart on fantasies / the hearts grown brutal from
This is a war of liberation in Iraq, but it is a war now of liberation
by Iraqis from American occupation. And if you watch closely what
is happening in Iraq, if you can see it through the abysmal coverage,
you can see it in the lashing out of the terrorist death squads, the
murder of Shiite leaders in mosques, and the assassination of our
young soldiers in the streets. It is one that will soon be joined
by Islamic radicals and we are far less secure today than we were
before we bumbled into Iraq.
We will pay for this, but what saddens me most is that those who will
by and large pay the highest price are poor kids from Mississippi
or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance
and joined the army because it was all we offered them. For war in
the end is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old,
of soldiers by politicians, and of idealists by cynics. Read Antigone,
when the king imposes his will without listening to those he rules
or Thucydides' history. Read how Athens' expanding empire saw it become
a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. How the tyranny the Athenian
leadership imposed on others it finally imposed on itself.
This, Thucydides wrote, is what doomed Athenian democracy; Athens
destroyed itself. For the instrument of empire is war and war is a
poison, a poison which at times we must ingest just as a cancer patient
must ingest a poison to survive. But if we do not understand the poison
of war -- if we do not understand how deadly that poison is -- it
can kill us just as surely as the disease.
We have lost touch with the essence of war. Following our defeat in
Vietnam we became a better nation. We were humbled, even humiliated.
We asked questions about ourselves we had not asked before.
We were forced to see ourselves as others saw us and the sight was
not always a pretty one. We were forced to confront our own capacity
for a atrocity -- for evil -- and in this we understood not only war
but more about ourselves. But that humility is gone.
War, we have come to believe, is a spectator sport. The military and
the press -- remember in wartime the press is always part of the problem
-- have turned war into a vast video arcade came. Its very essence
-- death -- is hidden from public view.
There was no more candor in the Persian Gulf War or the War in Afghanistan
or the War in Iraq than there was in Vietnam. But in the age of live
feeds and satellite television, the state and the military have perfected
the appearance of candor.
Because we no longer understand war, we no longer understand that
it can all go horribly wrong. We no longer understand that war begins
by calling for the annihilation of others but ends if we do not know
when to make or maintain peace with self-annihilation. We flirt, given
the potency of modern weapons, with our own destruction.
The seduction of war is insidious because so much of what we are told
about it is true -- it does create a feeling of comradeship which
obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time
of our life, feel we belong.
War allows us to rise above our small stations in life; we find nobility
in a cause and feelings of selflessness and even bliss. And at a time
of soaring deficits and financial scandals and the very deterioration
of our domestic fabric, war is a fine diversion. War for those who
enter into combat has a dark beauty, filled with the monstrous and
the grotesque. The Bible calls it the lust of the eye and warns believers
against it. War gives us a distorted sense of self; it gives us meaning.
(A man in the audience says: "Can I say a few words here?" Hedges:
Yeah, when I finish.)
Once in war, the conflict obliterates the past and the future all
is one heady intoxicating present. You feel every heartbeat in war,
colors are brighter, your mind races ahead of itself. (Confusion,
microphone problems, etc.) We feel in wartime comradeship. (Boos)
We confuse this with friendship, with love. There are those who will
insist that the comradeship of war is love -- the exotic glow that
makes us in war feel as one people, one entity, is real, but this
is part of war's intoxication.
Think back on the days after the attacks on 9-11. Suddenly we no longer
felt alone; we connected with strangers, even with people we did not
like. We felt we belonged, that we were somehow wrapped in the embrace
of the nation, the community; in short, we no longer felt alienated.
As this feeling dissipated in the weeks after the attack, there was
a kind of nostalgia for its warm glow and wartime always brings with
it this comradeship, which is the opposite of friendship. Friends
are predetermined; friendship takes place between men and women who
possess an intellectual and emotional affinity for each other. But
comradeship -- that ecstatic bliss that comes with belonging to the
crowd in wartime -- is within our reach. We can all have comrades.
The danger of the external threat that comes when we have an enemy
does not create friendship; it creates comradeship. And those in wartime
are deceived about what they are undergoing. And this is why once
the threat is over, once war ends, comrades again become strangers
to us. This is why after war we fall into despair.
In friendship there is a deepening of our sense of self. We become,
through the friend, more aware of who we are and what we are about;
we find ourselves in the eyes of the friend. Friends probe and question
and challenge each other to make each of us more complete; with comradeship,
the kind that comes to us in patriotic fervor, there is a suppression
of self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-possession. Comrades lose
their identities in wartime for the collective rush of a common cause
-- a common purpose. In comradeship there are no demands on the self.
This is part of its appeal and one of the reasons we miss it and seek
to recreate it. Comradeship allows us to escape the demands on the
self that is part of friendship.
In wartime when we feel threatened, we no longer face death alone
but as a group, and this makes death easier to bear. We ennoble self-sacrifice
for the other, for the comrade; in short we begin to worship death.
And this is what the god of war demands of us.
Think finally of what it means to die for a friend. It is deliberate
and painful; there is no ecstasy. For friends, dying is hard and bitter.
The dialogue they have and cherish will perhaps never be recreated.
Friends do not, the way comrades do, love death and sacrifice. To
friends, the prospect of death is frightening. And this is why friendship
or, let me say love, is the most potent enemy of war. Thank you.
(Boos cheers, shouts, fog horns and the like)