"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
There is no more implacable opponent of a drug than someone formerly addicted to it. For Chris Hedges, the drug was war. “War and conflict have marked most of my adult life,” he writes in “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” For 15 years, Hedges covered wars from El Salvador to the Sudan to Kosovo, mostly as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He saw men die yards away from him, witnessed the carnage left by death squads, observed the blood lust, the frenzy, the madness of war. And, he says, he fell in love with it. “I learned early on that war forms its own culture. The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years.”
War is intoxicating, Hedges writes, because its extremity offers meaning, elevates life above the trivial. “Many of us, restless and unfulfilled, see no supreme worth in our lives. We want more out of life. And war, at least, gives a sense that we can rise above our smallness and divisiveness.” But the drug ends up destroying its users, Hedges writes — not just physically but psychologically and spiritually.
During his five-year stint in El Salvador, Hedges was evacuated three times because of tips that death squads planned to kill him. “By the end I had a nervous tic in my face,” he writes. “Yet each time I came back. I accepted with a grim fatalism that I would be killed in El Salvador. I could not articulate why I should accept my own destruction and cannot now. When I finally did leave, my last act was, in a frenzy of rage and anguish, to leap over the KLM counter in the airport in Costa Rica because of a perceived slight by a hapless airline clerk. I beat him to the floor as his bewildered colleagues locked themselves in the room behind the counter … I carry a scar on my face from where he thrust his pen into my cheek. War’s sickness had become mine.”
And that wasn’t the end: Hedges went on covering war for another 10 years.
“War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” is a peculiar book: At once scattershot and obsessively single-minded, it contains brilliant observations and crude generalizations, sometimes in the same paragraph. But if there is overstatement and some fuzzy thinking here, the book succeeds in its primary goal: It reminds us that war is dreadful beyond all imagining, and demolishes the myths we and our leaders embrace about war. Hedges speaks with authority about war’s visceral, sexually tinged appeal, the sucking void of its necrophiliac horror rush, the way it corrodes everything that humans take pride in. He sheds a merciless light on subjects we inevitably romanticize. Modern war, he reminds us, is industrial slaughter. As one of the few reporters who broke away from the official reporter pool and actually covered the Gulf War, he knows whereof he speaks.
Like Goya’s “Disasters of War,” a series of etchings that remains one of the most shocking depictions of the savagery of war, Hedges’ book aims to cut off all escape; it is unqualified. Goya’s etchings bear dreadful, simple titles like “This always happens” or “Nobody knows why”: In similar fashion, Hedges simply refuses to indulge in any discourse that normalizes the unspeakable.
Drawing on his own experiences on the front lines, on the home front and in the burned-out aftermath of war; on works of literature from Catullus and Shakespeare to Philip Larkin and Ivo Andric; and on writings on war by Primo Levi, Ernie Pyle, Ryszard Kapuscinski and many others, Hedges opens a withering line of fire on every single aspect of war and every belief that justifies it. Hedges stares down as if from some great height upon the human race’s millennia-old lust for organized killing; in a staccato tone in which anger, weariness and compassion seem compressed, he warns us not to open that door.
Hedge’s pronouncements are so sweeping, his condemnation so total, that distinctions, gradations, the whole spectrum of moral and ideological judgment, tend to vanish. Yet this weakness is also the book’s strength. The arguments in “War Is a Force” are not all convincing, but its passion, its sometimes stammering urgency, is. Nothing reveals the power of the sun more than the blind eyes of someone who has stared into it.
“One of the most difficult realizations of war is how deeply we betray ourselves, how far we are from the image of gallantry and courage we desire,” Hedges writes, describing the terror one feels under fire as “an elephantine fear that grabs us like a massive bouncer who comes up from behind.” He believes that Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who runs away from battle and scoffs at honor and glory as empty words, may be a more representative soldier than Henry V, he of the lofty “once more into the breach, dear friends” exhortations. He relates a story about a time when suspicious guards in the Sudan aimed their guns at him and another reporter. Without thinking, he quickly stepped behind his colleague. “Better to have any bullets pass through him first … To this day I have not had the heart to tell him.”
Hedges is equally corrosive on wartime “romance.” The notion that love has anything to do with wartime’s lurid, half-desperate, flesh-driven couplings is a myth: “With power reduced to such a raw level and the currency of life and death cheap, eroticism races through all relationships. There is in these encounters a frenetic lust that seeks, on some level, to replicate or augment the drug of war. It is certainly not about love, indeed love itself in wartime is hard to sustain or establish.” Hedges points out that the ancient Greeks knew that love and war were lasciviously linked. The war god Ares, who was “impetuous, quarrelsome and often drunk” and who delighted only in slaughter, was hated by the other gods but loved by Aphrodite, goddess of love, with whom he had an illicit affair.
Even more subversively, Hedges debunks the myth of combat friendship. He argues that war produces comradeship — a worthy and noble thing, but not as deep, difficult or complex as friendship. He quotes the philosopher and veteran J. Glenn Gray, who acutely noted that “the essential difference between comradeship and friendship consists, it seems to me, in a heightened awareness of the self in friendship and in the suppression of self-awareness in comradeship.”
If soldiers delude themselves, their cheerleaders back home suffer from bad faith on a cosmic scale. Hedges doesn’t just expose the unpleasant truth behind the claims made by wartime leaders that their cause is holy and just, and that their opponents are inhuman and evil: He denies that there often is any cause at all except the basest criminal greed. “The ethnic conflicts and insurgencies of our time, whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsis, are not religious wars,” he writes. “They are not clashes between cultures or civilizations, nor are they the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. They are manufactured wars, born out of the collapse of civil societies, perpetuated by fear, greed and paranoia, and they are run by gangsters, who rise up from the bottom of their own societies and terrorize all, including those they purport to protect.” Because President Clinton accepted this “ancient hatreds” line — one popularized by Robert Kaplan in his book “Balkan Ghosts,” which is said to have had a profound influence on Clinton’s thinking — the U.S. failed to intervene until Slobodan Milosevic unleashed a whirlwind that claimed 250,000 lives and damaged millions more.
Not surprisingly, Hedges trains a particularly evil eye on patriotism. He recounts how the brutal and incompetent military junta in Argentina was on the verge of collapse, attacked by all sectors of society, before it invaded the Falkland Islands. The junta “instantly became the saviors of the country … Reality was replaced with a wild and self-serving fiction, a legitimization of the worst prejudices of the masses and paranoia of the outside world … Friends of mine, who a few days earlier had excoriated the dictatorship, now bragged about the prowess of Argentine commanders … Overweening pride and a sense of national solidarity swept through the city like an electric current. It was as if I had woken up, like one of Kafka’s characters, and found myself transformed into a huge bug. I would come to feel this way in every nation at war, including the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11.”
Hedges is not a pacifist: He accepts that war is sometimes necessary, “just as a person with cancer accepts chemotherapy to live.” He welcomed NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. But he is so aware of its horrors, so skeptical about its justifications and so appalled by its promoters, that he cannot bring himself to defend any given war — and certainly not the current “war on terrorism.”
Hedges does not make clear exactly what he believes the United States should do in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. But he is harshly critical both of America’s resurgent patriotism and the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” He regards both phenomena as dangerous because they are politically and morally myopic, and open the door to a retrograde, triumphalist view of war that he says Vietnam had temporarily purged from the American psyche.
Hedges argues that the American reaction to the terror attacks is dangerous because patriotic outrage, and the myth of American innocence that it rests on, prevents us from understanding the nature of the threat we face, the appropriate response and, in a deeper sense, our own responsibility. He dismisses the notion that America is innocent with a few terse sentences: “We often become as deaf and dumb as those we condemn. We too have our terrorists. The Contras in Nicaragua carried out, with funding from Washington, some of the most egregious human rights violations in Central America, yet were lauded as ‘freedom fighters.’ Jonas Savimbi, the rebel leader the United States backed in Angola’s civil war, murdered and tortured with a barbarity that far outstripped the Taliban. The rebellion Savimbi began in 1975 resulted in more than 500,000 dead. President Ronald Reagan called Savimbi the Abraham Lincoln of Angola.”
The list goes on: our own “genocidal campaign against Native Americans”; our support for Israel, ignoring the “profound injustice the creation of the state of Israel meant for Palestinians”; the oil-driven Gulf War; and Vietnam, where Robert McNamara “defined the bombing raids that would ultimately leave hundreds of thousands of civilians north of Saigon dead as a means of communication to the Communist regime in Hanoi.”
Hedges is not, of course, arguing that American complicity in the terrorizing of foreign nationals on a far greater scale than that visited on us, our longtime support for repressive regimes or our misguided imperialist or anti-Communist adventures means that we deserved to be attacked, or that we have no right to defend ourselves. Rather, he is arguing that the primitive, tribal response to the attacks is grossly inadequate and in fact dangerous, both to our nation’s security and to the minds and souls of Americans who abandon humility and critical thought to worship at the idol of the Good War and the Nation.
“As long as we think abstractly, as long as we find in the patriotism and the exuberance of war our fulfillment, we will never understand those who do battle against us, or how we are perceived by them, or finally those who do battle for us and how we should respond to it all. We will never discover who we are. We will fail to confront the capacity we all have for violence. And we will court our own extermination,” Hedges writes. “By accepting the facile clichi that the battle under way against terrorism is a battle against evil, by easily branding those who fight us as the barbarians, we, like them, refuse to acknowledge our own culpability. We ignore real injustices that have led many of those arrayed against us to their rage and despair.”
As previously noted, one of the flaws of “War Is a Force” is that Hedges, in his Cassandra-like haste to warn us, tends to level all distinctions — between wars, between the causes of wars, between types of patriotism. Like Shakespeare’s Thersites, the nihilistic Greek in “Troilus and Cressida” whom he quotes and who could stand as the spokesman for his book, Hedges is an absolutist; anything that praises war, points to war, invokes war, is tainted. His extreme assessment of the patriotic fervor that seized the United States after the Sept. 11 terror attacks is a case in point: Even those who agree that there were disturbing and excessive elements to it might not say that it made them feel like they had turned into Gregor Samsa. And, of course, Hedges’ comparison of America’s post-Sept. 11 reaction with Argentina’s after the junta invaded the Falklands ignores the fact that despite its historic sins, America, unlike Argentina, was the victim — not the aggressor.
For Hedges, however, even nations that find themselves victims must avoid draining the intoxicating cup of war. That does not mean never going to war: It means doing so with extreme misgivings, with humility, and, Hedges says, with “repentance.” It is telling that Hedges uses that word, with its Christian associations: In the spiritual climax of the book, Hedges celebrates love as the only force that can provide a meaning stronger than war. Hedges is no poet, but his aim is higher than the merely political. His bleak, faith-tinged affirmation of human solidarity even in the midst of hell recalls the work of the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz.
At a personal level, Hedges’ call for humility in the face of those who would unleash the dogs of war is incontrovertible: It carries the haunted moral authority of someone who has seen too much and lived too long. But it is obviously more problematic when applied to national policy. What, specifically, does it mean to pursue a campaign against al-Qaida “with repentance”?
Hedges doesn’t say. But he seems to mean two things. First, an overly ambitious and open-ended response — a “war” on terror, as opposed to a battle or campaign — will create far more problems than it solves. Second, those who embrace war without understanding what it is risk losing their humanity. “I wrote this book not to dissuade us from war but to understand it,” Hedges writes. “It is especially important that we, who wield such massive force across the globe, see within ourselves the seeds of our own obliteration. We must guard against the myth of war and the drug of war that can, together, render us as blind and callous as some of those we battle.”
Translated into a policy prescription, what Hedges has in mind seems to be not quietism but a carefully calibrated response, perhaps along the lines of an international police action and/or selected U.S. military strikes, along with proactive steps to address underlying injustices that inspire Muslim terrorists and that we are party to, such as our blank-check support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As for America’s recently promoted public enemy No. 1, Iraq, Hedges says nothing about it, but it seems unlikely that he would sign off on the Bush administration’s war plans. The self-interested realpolitik motivations behind the Bush administration’s thirst for a war, and the probability that a war would hatch hundreds of new Osamas, would presumably outweigh the clear moral benefit of ridding the world of Saddam Hussein — especially since there is no compelling evidence that Saddam poses an immediate danger.
There is nothing particularly controversial about this position: It represents the view of many Americans across the political spectrum who want to track down and destroy al-Qaida, who hold no brief for bloody Saddam but have grave doubts about the wisdom of a unilateral, unprovoked American invasion of a sovereign state, particularly one in the heart of the Arab world. Hedges’ second, more personal point, however, is much trickier.
That Hedges would see war through the brutal lens of the particularly vicious conflicts he has covered — wars that give war a bad name — is not surprising. But perhaps as a result of his own experiences, Hedges seems not to have fully grasped the implications of our new age of what Michael Ignatieff calls “virtual war” — war that involves little or no risk, because one side enjoys total technological superiority. Such a war, as Ignatieff points out, becomes a spectacle, and one that does not even fully engage the passions of the citizens who are observing it. Kosovo was the paradigmatic example of a virtual war: NATO fought it not for national survival (only wars for survival, Ignatieff says, turn into “wars between peoples, with the mutual demonization which follows”) but for principle, and the allied side lost not a single combat casualty. Not surprisingly, it was barely perceived by the public as being a war at all.
So far the “war on terror,” whatever it is, bears much more resemblance to the virtual Kosovo war, the mostly virtual war in Afghanistan, or the semi-virtual Gulf War in which the U.S. took only a few dozen casualties while killing tens of thousands of Iraqis, than it does to real wars like Vietnam or World War II. Because America’s actual survival is not threatened, because the enemy we are fighting is invisible and stateless, because our armed forces are volunteers and because we are assured of victory in any orthodox military confrontation, the “war on terror” is not really a war at all. This has made it much easier to sell to the American people (although the Iraq war, if it comes, will be seen as being potentially an actual war and so may not be quite so easy to sell), but it also means that it is not something that we are deeply emotionally engaged with.
This throws something of a monkey wrench into at least part of Hedges’ thesis. There are two reasons that Hedges does not want us to embrace war too easily: because of what we will do to those we target, and because of what we will do to ourselves. The current situation bears out the first fear, but not the second — at least not in the way that Hedges thinks.
In “Virtual War,” Ignatieff raises the disturbing possibility that America’s absolute military superiority might lead us to an unrestrained use of force. “Fortunately — at least for those who advocate caution in the use of military force — modern democratic elites are increasingly reluctant to go to war,” he writes. “Precision violence is now at the disposal of a risk-averse culture, unconvinced by the language of military sacrifice, skeptical about the costs of foreign adventures and determined to keep out of harm’s way.” And this aversion to risk is coupled with a national policy that denies that we have the right to do what we want just because we can. Ignatieff notes that “we do [not] believe ourselves to be entitled to use military power to change a regime by force. So our tanks did not go to Baghdad and our forces did not enter Belgrade.”
“Virtual War” was written in 2000. What a difference two years and a terror attack make. Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz are now in charge and 3,000 Americans lie dead. America’s leaders now do believe themselves to be entitled to change a regime by force, and they stand ready to do just that. And Congress — sort of — agrees with them.
The situation we now find ourselves in seems to be Hedges’ (and Ignatieff’s) worst nightmare: The nation is being herded docilely toward war. But where the situation differs from Hedges’ fears is that there is no drug. No one is high on the war on terror. There is some free-floating anxiety and anger — emotions exquisitely played upon by Bush and his team, who used them in combination with their brilliant Iraq gambit (all the benefits of war, none of the cost) to ensure they gained political control in the recent elections. But that’s about it. Despite the best efforts of patriotism-peddling Fox News, after the initial shock of the attack nickel bags of aggression, nationalism, purity, resentment and self-righteousness have not found that many buyers on the streets of America.
Hedges would surely welcome this development, if he thought it was true. Yet as Ignatieff warns us, in some ways, the public’s increasing distance from wars that are carried out in its name is a disturbing development. The bloodstained Serb militiaman performing ethnic cleansing, the Kosovo Liberation Army killer exacting his revenge, and the chanting tribes behind them, are not pretty to look at. But the American citizen watching half-interestedly from his couch as a high-tech pilot and three technicians pushing buttons on computers pulverize 1,000 invisible enemies may not be a giant leap up on the moral scale. The raw passions Hedges decries may be primal, they may tend toward fascism, but at least they bespeak a genuine awareness that war exists.
Hedges fears that the American people are more like the chanting tribal hordes and less like the virtual couch potato. It isn’t yet clear whether he’s right. The truth will not be known until the chips are down in Iraq, and if there is an invasion the American public may well prove to be some spectacularly banal combination of the two — a nation of half-awake fascists. But if in the end the American people maintain a relatively cool, detached temperament, and America’s leaders in the “war on terror” follow their example, one would have to agree with Hedges that that is a good thing. Outrage is an honorable and understandable emotion after one has been dealt a savage blow, but as every boxer knows, it takes a cool head to win. Storming angrily in throwing wild roundhouses is a good way to end up flat on your back and unconscious. The fact is, the war against terror is and should be a cold, not a hot, one.
Which is why it’s past time to stop beating the dead horse of those leftists — whose total number is probably in the thousands — who did not express sufficient outrage after the Sept. 11 attacks. Yes, the immediate leap to a coldblooded geopolitical analysis betrays a lack of compassion and human empathy for the victims, and a reflexive dogmatism. Hedges would have done better to have acknowledged this, and to have acknowledged that the outpouring of patriotism that followed Sept. 11 was both understandable and in large part a positive thing. But Hedges’ main point is incontrovertible. The state of reified and permanent outrage that conservative pundits define as the watermark of a “real American,” and that the Bush administration has whipped up for its various purposes, represents a far greater danger to the nation than the lack of fellow-feeling evinced by a handful of leftists (most of whom supported some self-defensive action by the U.S. in any case).
As Gen. Wesley Clark, the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe — no poster child for the traitorous elites on the coasts — wrote in his blurb on the back of Hedges’ book, “Hedges provides a somber and timely warning to those — in any society — who would evoke the emotions of war for the pursuit of political gain.”
As the “war on terror” continues on its apparently endless and potentially catastrophic course, America would do well to heed Hedges’ and Clark’s warning.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)