‘The story of the human race is war,” said Winston Churchill. “Except for brief and precarious interludes,
there has never been peace in the world, and before history began, murderous strife was universal and unending.” However disagreeable to modern sensibilities, this recognition of history as the story of hostilities between groups and tribes and later between nations and empires is rooted in reality.
As a species that has been hunter-gatherers for more than 200,000 years and whose brains have gone almost unchanged for 70,000 years, bloody tribalism seems to be an anthropological constant. The comforts of civilization have not vitiated the human impulse to compete and fight—often with stupendous brutality—in defense of only partially rational beliefs and ideas.
The outbreak of conflict among nations is therefore quite unremarkable, akin to the sun rising in the east. And yet, many today have convinced themselves that conquest and slaughter are aberrational. The notion that peace is the natural state of mankind has gained currency in recent years, owing in part to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, whose The Better Angels of Our Nature shows that we are living in the most peaceable age in the history of our species, marked by a conspicuous absence of war among great powers.
But this encouraging tendency is not proof of man’s evolutionary ascent into sunlit uplands. Rather, it’s the product of distinctive factors, foremost among them the global configuration of power and a liberal order underwritten by the strength and engagement of the United States. And it is anything but the historical norm.
Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine has already brought to an end our brief vacation from large-scale warfare. But the evidence is thin that we have come to recognize that the West must now rearm, militarily and intellectually. Instead, many across the West have carried on imagining that mankind is either getting ever more peaceable or (among more reactionary minds) that Russia does not pose a strategic threat to the United States or even to Europe. The Greatest Evil Is War, a new book by Chris Hedges, explicitly advances the latter argument.
Once a New York Times foreign correspondent, Hedges has long been an entrenched critic of American military action. In 2002, after al-Qaeda’s assault on American civil society, he published War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, an exercise in moral relativism that sought to exculpate jihadists in their battle against civilization. The Greatest Evil Is War is a straightforward brief against fighting, but not of the high-minded variety. The book is a moralistic stream of consciousness drawn from firsthand experience in war zones and his haunting encounters with combatants, veterans, and civilians caught up in the bloody business. All the people we encounter in its pages have been wounded by conflict, and they bear the physical or psychological scars to prove it.
The book opens with a dubious proposition: “Preemptive war, whether in Iraq or Ukraine, is a war crime.” (Preemptive wars may be frowned on by international law, but neither Iraq nor Ukraine meets the standard of preemption, no matter what might be said in Moscow.) Hedges argues that whereas the war in Iraq was launched “on the basis of lies and fabrications,” Putin’s war followed “the breaking of a series of agreements with Russia” that left the hard men in the Kremlin feeling justifiably “threatened, betrayed, and angry.”
But for Washington’s broken promises after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hedges suggests, the invasion would never have happened. Though he stops short of condoning Putin’s “special military operation,” what will provoke reflective readers is a manifest lack of moral outrage for Russia’s naked imperial enterprise. Meanwhile, we are treated to this kind of moral perversion: “What Russia is doing militarily in Ukraine … was more than matched by our savagery in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Vietnam.”
Hedges repeatedly claims that he has an “intimate understanding” of the instrument of war, and he goes to great lengths to convince us that, despite its “seductions,” he thoroughly disapproves of it. Against the German theorist Carl von Clausewitz, he says—without even an attempt at substantiation—that war is not “politics by other means.” Instead, we are told that war is “demonic,” and Hedges produces a blizzard of quotations by the likes of Ernst Jünger, Theodor Adorno, and Kurt Vonnegut to carry the point.
The presumption that war is “the greatest of evils,” for all its prima facie appeal, arises from the modern misapprehension that resorting to arms can always be safely or honorably avoided. This has been argued, in one form or another, by everyone from the radical writer Randolph Bourne to Mahatma Gandhi. But it fails to withstand scrutiny, as exemplified by Hedges’s attempt to indict U.S. policy for, as he puts it, “spawning the [ISIS] Caliphate.” This misconstrues the roots of the Islamic State, which lie not in the U.S. intervention in Syria (after the birth of the Caliphate) but in the Assad regime’s savage repression of the popular uprising that grew out of the wider Arab revolt. What’s more, it was only the belated advent of U.S. airpower that rolled back the jihadist enclave. Thus Hedges simultaneously offers an exculpatory reading of Bashar al-Assad in the nasty humanitarian catastrophe the dictator engineered and exploits it to impugn U.S. power.
For a short book, The Greatest Evil Is War is highly repetitive. Hedges suggests again and again that war armaments, and the military-industrial establishment that produces them, can be justified only by self-serving politicians, generals, and other “courtiers to power.” (On these grounds, he issues a less-than-surprising defense of Trump voters who had no other way to register their displeasure with the “dreams of empire.”) In reality, the research and development of high-tech weaponry during peacetime yields greater dividends to this establishment than the mundane manufacturing of war armaments. Hedges nonetheless posits that the fruits of the defense budget redound almost exclusively to “war profiteers.” The claim is made en passant, as if it’s an uncontroverted fact. Tell it to the Ukrainians.
The only systematic arguments and persuasive prescriptions in the entire book come courtesy of the author’s ideological foes, whom he invokes and insults but doesn’t bother to rebut. These “Dr. Strangeloves” are America’s “war party,” which lusts for “apocalyptic global war.” One encounters this level of nuance on nearly every page.
Of course, to defend the concept of just war is not to deny that even the most justified of wars cause very terrible evils. Nor is it to attach any sanctity to organized violence. However, wars are not the sole or supreme evil in what Churchill called “the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.” Were it so, it would be easier for someone such as Hedges to command the moral high ground. But as George Orwell observed in 1941: “The choice before human beings is not … between good and evil but between two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world: that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil.…Whichever you choose, you will not come out with clean hands.”
But Hedges’s failure to wrestle with such bedeviling issues is not his greatest vice. He has the temerity to hail President Barack Obama for blocking arms “sales” to Ukraine while Russian forces were seizing Crimea and fomenting civil strife in the Donbas. Notwithstanding this exercise of restraint, Hedges laments that the relentless assertion of U.S. hegemony “baited” Putin into invading Ukraine and flattening its towns and cities. Hedges, who had a show on the Kremlin-sponsored television network Russia Today (RT) America before it was taken off the air in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, cannot easily be acquitted of charges that he is a Kremlin fellow traveler.
In fact, he stands squarely in the tradition of prominent reactionaries (often disguised as “realists”), for whom the revival of the Cold War is not the result of Russia’s designs to restore its sphere of predominance from the Caspian to the Baltic Sea. The true culprit, from this vantage point, is the belligerency of the United States, culminating in NATO’s post–Cold War expansion, which ostensibly inflamed Russia’s security dilemmas. Unsurprisingly, the reader finds no such groveling on behalf of Ukraine’s security dilemmas. (Moscow’s flouting of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for the latter’s renunciation of nuclear weapons goes unmentioned.) From the perspective of supposed “anti-war” politics, only Russia’s interests deserve ungrudging respect.
Hedges concludes by calling for a “moratorium” on arms shipments to Ukraine, and he indicts the U.S. for scheming to “bog down Russian forces with Ukrainian corpses.” Of course, if the sight of Ukrainian corpses makes Hedges so queasy, perhaps he should consider how many fewer corpses there might have been if the U.S. had achieved deterrence before the struggle erupted in 2014. He might also consider how many more corpses there would have been in the absence of the lethal aid provided day and night by the West since last February.
What Hedges has forgotten, or perhaps never learned, is that some things are worth fighting for. Tragically, war is but one evil among many in this world. Moreover, war is the story of the human race, which is sufficient reason to recognize that it’s still interested in us, and probably always will be.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.